Thursday, 17 April 2014

Bird-brain DIY: Birds learn from experience when building nests

It is typically assumed that it is a bird’s genes that cause it to choose the materials with which it builds its nest. To test this assumption, Dr Susan Healy and others from the School of Biology investigated whether learning plays a role in these decisions, specifically with regard to whether birds learn the physical properties of the materials they use in nest building.

A nest built with
more flexible string
In their experiments, zebra finches were given lengths of string that were either relatively stiff or relatively flexible. Once the birds had had some experience of building with their allocated string type, the researchers gave them a choice of both types of string. They observed that those zebra finches that had experienced building with the more flexible sort of string preferred to build with the stiffer string, whereas those birds that had experienced only the stiffer string were less choosy. We also saw that the birds that built nests using the stiffer string required many fewer (about 400) pieces to construct a typical zebra finch nest than did the birds that built a nest with the more flexible string (about 700 pieces). This indicates two things: (1) the stiffer string was the more effective nest building material and, (2) the birds readily learned to avoid the poorer building material.
A nest built with
more stiff string

If birds’ nest-material decisions had been entirely based on their genes, then their prior building experience should not have affected their decisions. That it did shows that learning about what materials work best is important in the decisions made by nest-building birds, much as it is important to people deciding what materials or tools to use for craft or DIY projects. In the wild this ability might allow birds to choose the most suitable material available, allowing them to respond flexibly to the habitat in which they are nesting.

The study, Physical cognition: birds learn the structural efficacy of nest material, is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society - B.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Congratulations to IPMI Graduate Student Award winner

Congratulation to Adrian Gomez Suarez of the School of Chemistry for being selected the winner of the International Precious Metals Institute (IPMI) Graduate Student Award. The award recognizes and encourages outstanding work by a graduate student in precious metals research. Mr Gomez Suarez recounts, "My PhD project is focused on the synthesis, characterisation and reactivity of gold complexes bearing N-heterocyclic carbene (NHC) ligands. During the past decade gold complexes have been shown to be highly active catalysts for a wide variety of organic transformations. The development and study of NHC-gold complexes is therefore of great importance to a wide range of researchers in the chemistry community. Our studies have contributed to a better understanding of the chemistry of gold-NHC complexes in general, and led to significant further developments in the chemistry of dinuclear gold species. Several of the gold complexes developed as result of our studies are now commercially available."

The award will be presented in Orland, Florida, in June. 

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Novel microscope for biological imaging

A new form of ‘light sheet imaging’, has been developed by an interdisciplinary team led by Professor Kishan Dholakia and Dr Tom Vettenburg of the School of Physics. A light sheet microscope creates 3D images of cells by seeing how a sample lights up slice-by-slice when moved through a sheet of light. This sheet would ideally be as thin as a razor’s edge to be able to probe the inner workings of all cells, yet gentle as light to avoid cell damage. The St Andrews group achieved this by exploiting a beam of light that moves on a peculiarly curved trajectory. The beam is known as the Airy beam after the British astronomer Sir George Airy consists of multiple parallel sheets of light, achieving high resolution without being thin. Using this method, the light is used more efficiently to see the inner details of hundreds of cells with clarity.

It is hoped that the development will lead to improved understanding of biological development, cancer, and diseases such as Alzheimer, Parkinson, and Huntington that affect the human brain.
Partners are sought for the commercialization of the technology.

The work was funded by a UK EPSRC Programme Grant and carried out with St Andrews colleagues Dr Heather Dalgarno and Jonathan Nylk (School of Physics & Astronomy), Dr David Ferrier and Clara Coll-Lladó (Scottish Oceans Institute), Dr Tomáš Cižmár (School of Medicine), and Professor Frank Gunn-Moore (School of Biology).
Nature Methods, "Light-sheet microscopy using an Airy beam", doi:10.1038/nmeth.2922

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Calling all young entrepeneurs

The Scottish Institute for Enterprise (SIE) helps students in Scotland discover their entrepreneurial talent and start up their own ventures. Their mission is to help create new student businesses and social enterprises and to increase the number of students who consider entrepreneurship a real option during and after their studies through a number of activities and events.

If you are a student or recent graduate and have a great idea, check out some of their events:
  • The national Fresh Ideas Competition is for those who might have an idea but haven't taken steps toward making it a reality. 
  • The summer Bootcamp programme is another entry-point for students who know they want to start their own venture but haven't taken the first steps. 

Or if you have already established a new venture or social enterprise:
SIE also holds various competitions. A recent winner from the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences is:
David Townsend for the Young Innovators Challenge for the Renewables category in 2013, who has started a geothermal energy company, Town Rock Energy Ltd.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry 2013

Congratulations to Professor Douglas Dunn, Emeritus Professor of English, who was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry 2013 in recognition of his lifetime contribution to literature. Prof. Dunn accepted the medal personally from Her Majesty the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

Awarded for excellence, the Gold Medal for Poetry was created by George V in 1933, following a suggestion from then poet laureate John Masefield. In winning the award, Professor Dunn joins the ranks of distinguished past winners such as W. H. Auden (1936), John Betjeman (1960), Philip Larkin (1965), Ted Hughes (1974) and Norman MacCaig (1985). [BBC news] [press photo]

Friday, 21 March 2014

Royal Society of Edinburgh Prizes - St Andrews honoured

The Royal Society of Edinburgh has announced their Prize Winners for 2014 and the University of St Andrews is honoured to have received four! Sincere congratulations are in order to Professor Andrew Whiten FRSE FBA, Dr Katie Stevenson, Dr Per Ola Kristensson and Dr Catherine Cazin on their fantastic achievements.
Senior Prize for Public Engagement to Professor Andrew Whiten FRSE FBA, Wardlaw Professor of Psychology and Professor of Evolutionary and Developmental Psychology, School of Psychology and Neurosciences, for his extensive, creative and unique forms of public engagement particularly as founding Director of the “Living Links to Human Evolution” Research Centre at Edinburgh Zoo.
Thomas Reid Medal (Early Career Prize) to Dr Katie Stevenson, Senior Lecturer in Late Medieval History, School of History, for her outstanding scholarly work on the cultural and political history of late medieval Scotland which has established her as a leading international expert in the field and for her commitment to knowledge exchange. 
RSE/Makdougall Brisbane Medal (Early Career Prize) to Dr Per Ola Kristensson, Lecturer in Human Computer Interaction, School of Computer Science, for his outstanding research work and entrepreneurialism that intersects human-computer interaction, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. Dr. Kristensson is also a Member of the RSE Young Academy of Scotland.

RSE/Makdougall Brisbane Medal (Early Career Prize) to Dr Catherine Cazin, Royal Society University Research Fellow and Lecturer, School of Chemistry, for her outstanding research work and breadth and depth of experience in her chosen field of homogeneous catalysis. Dr. Cazin is also a Member of the RSE Young Academy of Scotland.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Bell Pettigrew Open Afternoon - Saturday 22 March

Come and explore the fabulous zoology collection at the Bell Pettigrew Museum, the University’s natural history museum, open on a Saturday especially for Science Week!
Although the space at the Bell Pettigrew has been modernised over the years, it remains very similar to the way it appeared at the time of its foundation in 1908 and continues to employ an Edwardian style of display.

"Packed full of treasures and wonders, the Bell Pettigrew is a spectacular reminder of how important a museum can be in the study of the natural sciences." Sir David Attenborough

Free, drop-in, no booking required.
Saturday, 22 March 2014, 12:00-5:00 PM
Bell Pettigrew Museum, Bute Building, off St Mary's Quad