Tuesday, 21 October 2014

"Animal Culture" exhibit at the Great British Bioscience Festival

"Animal Culture: Nature's second inheritance system" is one of the engaging and exciting displays that will be on offer at the Great British Bioscience Festival on 14-16 November at the Museum Gardens in London's Bethnal Green, showcasing the best of British bioscience by BBSRC researchers.

The Animal Cultures team consists of Prof. Andy Whiten of the School of Psychology and Neuroscience as well as researchers from the University of Exeter, Newcastle University and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and Edinburgh Zoo.
The research behind the exhibit revealed cultural processes of varying complexity in primates, birds and fish (e.g. "The scope of culture in chimpanzees, humans and ancestral apes". Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, DOI:  10.1098/rstb.2010.0334; and further reading). Observational and experimental studies have identified cultural differences across different wild populations and have shown migrating individuals conforming to local group habits. Controlled experiments seeded foraging techniques in animal groups and mapped the spread of these techniques, creating local traditions. The team's discoveries highlight a potent ‘second inheritance system’ in animals that complements genetics. This illuminates human cultural evolution, and has implications in areas as varied as child development, robotics, welfare and conservation.

This free festival is accessible for all and will be the culmination of a yearlong programme of activities marking BBSRC's 20th anniversary – bringing together exciting exhibits from world-leading bioscience research groups.

The research is highlighted in the Leverhulme Trust Annual Review 2013.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Innovators from Physics scoop lucrative start-up support

PhD research students Alexander Ward and Jack Barraclough, and postdoctoral researcher Dr Clifford Hicks, of the School of Physics and Astronomy, were recently awarded third place in the Converge Challenge 2014 for their company Razorbill Instruments. Converge Challenge is a national competition aimed at encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship amongst academics.

The technology behind the company, and for which they won the award, is a nanopositioner – a device which can move with minute detail, especially useful in the manufacturing of microchips, and in physics and biomedical research. As a prize for third place the partnership received a cash sum, as well as a range of business support from leading legal, financial and branding companies, to the tune of over £13,000.

Razorbill Instruments was one of 111 entrants from across Scotland to apply for the competition, undergoing a rigorous selection process including business plans, a number of pitches, and a Dragon’s Den style Q&A with a panel of judges. Alexander has also received a fellowship from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which will allow him to work on a prototype of the product. [press release]

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

EGU "Outstanding Young Scientist" award to DEES biogeoscientist

Dr James Rae of the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences has been awarded the European Geosciences Union (EGU) "Outstanding Young Scientist" in the Biogeosciences (BG) Division as part of their announcement of 35 recipients of next year’s Union Medals and Awards, Division Medals, and Division Outstanding Young Scientists Awards.

The individuals, from both European and non-European countries, are honoured for their important contributions to the Earth, planetary and space sciences.

James' research focuses on reconstructing past climate change and its causes, with particular interests in the cause of recent glacial-interglacial cycles, and climate changes over the Cenozoic. To study these questions, James uses geochemical measurements on fossils, sediments, water and ice, with a special focus on the boron isotope proxy for pH. Recent research highlights include new estimates of tropical ocean temperatures over the last 5 million years (DOI: 10.1038/ngeo2194), and a new mechanism for the end of the last ice age (DOI: 10.1002/2013PA002570).

The recipients will receive their prizes at the EGU 2015 General Assembly, which will take place in Vienna on 12–17 April  2015.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities

The world’s first national graduate school for the arts and humanities launched in Scotland
  • £16.8 million funding for collaborative venture to train the next generation of research leaders 
  • First cohort of students begin 
  • Bespoke research projects sought in partnership with business and industry 
  • Competition for 50+ AHRC-funded studentships now open
Doctoral researchers in Scotland are set to benefit from a unique £16.8 million initiative that was launched on 1 October to help train the next generation of professionals working in the arts and humanities.

The Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities (SGSAH), of which St Andrews is pleased to be part, is the world’s first national arts and humanities graduate school, servicing 1,500 arts and humanities PhD students in universities across Scotland. It includes 16 higher education institutions plus a wide range of supporters and partners in the creative, cultural, arts and heritage sectors.

SGSAH has launched a competition to offer 50+ PhD studentships, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), at one of eight Scottish Universities, including St Andrews. The AHRC are committed to providing up to 200 studentships over the next 4 years. It is also seeking bids from universities to work with public, private or third sector organisations to design bespoke doctoral research projects. The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) is providing matched funding for these projects.

Professor Dee Heddon, the Dean of the Graduate School and Professor of Theatre Studies at the University of Glasgow, which is hosting the new development, said: “We are delighted to welcome our first cohort of students to the Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities. We bring together distinctively diverse provisions, internationally renowned expertise and unique and extensive resources to support the very best doctoral training for our students. Through this they will develop and use their skills, knowledge and experience across a wide range of specialisms to benefit culture, society and the economy in Scotland and beyond.”

Laurence Howells, Chief Executive of the Scottish Funding Council, said: “The establishment of a Graduate School for Arts & Humanities in Scotland is a welcome and highly significant development, not least because it is supported by over 30 organisations from across the country.

“SFC’s investment of £1.8 million will help to give aspiring research leaders opportunities that simply were not there before including the new Applied Research Collaborative Studentships. Crucially, it will help to direct all their talents and potential to the growth of the creative industries within the Scottish economy. I’m delighted to see the first students being welcomed to the Graduate School and I wish them every possible success.”

Professor Rick Rylance, CEO of ARHC, said: “The creation of the Scottish Graduate School for the Arts and Humanities is a fine achievement and creates an exciting and imaginative environment for postgraduate research in Scotland. Through our Doctoral Training Partnership scheme we invited universities to work more closely together, drawing in partner organisations and sharing resources to offer students enhanced doctoral training.

“We are delighted that the AHRC’s funding in Scotland supports this vision. We will follow the progress of this new national Graduate School for the arts and humanities with eager interest.”

Friday, 3 October 2014

Interior designing birds

Researchers from  the the School of Biology have produced the first experimental evidence that birds actively select nest-building materials that camouflage their nests.

Dr Ida Bailey, Felicity Muth, Drs Kate Morgan and Susan Healy wallpapered male zebra finches’ (Taeniopygia guttata) cages in different colours and then filmed them choosing the colour of material with which to build their nests. Given two different coloured paper strips from which to choose, the zebra finches largely chose strips that were a colour-match to the paper covering the walls of their cage.

These findings confirm that birds choose to camouflage their nests by matching the colour of material they use to the nests' background, rather than happening to build camouflaged nests as a simple consequence of the materials that are available.

Research article DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1642/AUK-14-77.1 [Press release]

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The search for Alien life

Working alongside colleagues at NASA, University of Washington and UNAM, Mexico, Dr Mark Claire of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, has discovered that signs previously thought to confirm the presence of life on alien planets, might not be as definitive proof as thought.

Whilst searching for life on other planets, astronomers rely on finding gases – such as oxygen, ozone or methane – in the planet’s atmosphere, as these are thought to be significant signs of the existence of life.

However, the research published this week in The Astrophysical Journal, proves that the existence of one of these alone is not enough to predict the presence of organic life. The research strengthens the belief that the existence of detectable levels of oxygen, ozone and methane together would be a convincing sign of life on another planet. [full article: doi:10.1088/0004-637X/792/2/90] [press release]

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

A boring billion years of Earth evolution

Research led by Profs Peter Cawood and Chris Hawkesworth of the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences has shown that Earth’s middle age (from 1.7 to 0.75 billion years ago) was characterised by relative environmental stability with little crust-building activity, no major fluctuations in atmospheric composition and few substantial changes in the fossil record. In contrast more volatile events such as major ice ages and changes in oxygen levels occurred before and after.

The study suggests that gradual cooling of the Earth's crust over time may have been the cause of this middle age stability. Prof. Cawood is quoted: "Before 1.7 billion years ago, the Earth's crust would have been substantially hotter, meaning that continental plate movement may have been governed by different rules to those that operate today; 0.75 billion years ago, the crust reached a point where it had cooled sufficiently to allow modern-day plate tectonics to start working, in particular allowing subduction zones (where one plate of the crust moves under another) to form. This increase in activity could have kick-started a myriad of changes including supercontinent break-up and changes to levels of key elements in the atmosphere and seas, which in turn may have induced evolutionary changes in the life forms present."

The research was presented at Goldschmidt 2014 in Sacramento, California, USA. [Abstract]

“Earth's middle age”, Cawood, P. A. & Hawkesworth, C., 2014, Geology; doi: 10.1130/G35402.1 [Article]

In August, Earth's middle age research has sparked inspiration of a poetic nature for national science week: Geology Sonnet 4