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Oxford researchers Honoured In Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists

Oxford researchers honoured in Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists

Oxford researchers honoured in inaugural Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists


Four scientists and engineers from Oxford University are among the laureates and finalists of the 2018 Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists in the United Kingdom, announced today by the Blavatnik Family Foundation and the New York Academy of Sciences.

One laureate in each of the three Blavatnik Awards categories—Life Sciences, Physical Sciences & Engineering, and Chemistry—will each receive a prize of US$100,000, and two finalists in each category will each receive US$30,000. The Blavatnik Awards in the UK are the largest unrestricted cash prizes available exclusively to young scientists in the UK.

Professor Andrew Goodwin of the Department of Chemistry has been named as the 2018 Chemistry Laureate. Professor Goodwin is a world leader in the study of the chemistry and physics of functional materials, which have unique magnetic, optical, and electrical properties. His work has revealed the role of structural disorder in these materials, and how this phenomenon can explain unique material properties such as negative thermal expansion, negative compressibility, and exotic magnetic states.

Professor Henry Snaith of Oxford’s Department of Physics has been named the Physical Sciences & Engineering Laureate. His pioneering work in developing new, low-cost and high-efficiency solar cells based on metal halide perovskite materials has not only initiated a new research field now studied by scientists around the world, but also has the potential to deliver solar energy to the market at a fraction of the cost of currently used materials.

Professor Timothy Behrens of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences has been named as a Life Sciences Finalist. Professor Behrens investigates the biology of the brain that underlies human behaviour. By combining mathematical models with behavioural experiments and neural recordings, he has uncovered at a cellular level how the brain stores abstract information about relationships between things in the world, and how we use this mental map in decision-making. His discoveries have applications in neural network computing and artificial intelligence, but also on our understanding of cognition and mental health.

Professor Philipp Kukura of Oxford’s Department of Chemistry has been named as a Chemistry Finalist. He is a physical chemist recognised for pioneering efforts in single-molecule scale microscopy and spectroscopy that enable the study of native, unlabelled molecules in real time. His particular focus is on biological macromolecules such as proteins as they interact with drugs or self-assemble with each other.

Professor Louise Richardson, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, said: ‘We are all delighted to learn of this public recognition for some of our most creative young researchers.

‘It speaks to their potential to improve our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, as well as to inspire others to grapple with the most vexing scientific challenges. It is exciting to think of the future impact of their transformative research.’

The Blavatnik Awards, established by the Blavatnik Family Foundation in the United States in 2007 and administered by the New York Academy of Sciences, honour and support exceptional early-career scientists and engineers aged 42 years or younger. In 2018, the Awards recognise the first cohort of international honourees in the United Kingdom and in Israel. To date, the Blavatnik Awards have conferred prizes totalling US$5 million, honouring 220 outstanding young scientists and engineers.

In this inaugural year of the Blavatnik Awards in the UK, 124 nominations were received from 67 academic and research institutions across England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. A distinguished jury of leading senior scientists and engineers from throughout the UK selected the Laureates and Finalists.

The inaugural Blavatnik Awards Laureates and Finalists in the UK will be honoured at a gala dinner and ceremony at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on 7th March, 2018.

Oxford Martin School Appoints New Director

Oxford Martin School appoints new Director

Professor Sir Charles Godfray, the new Director of the Oxford Martin School


The world-leading population biologist Professor Sir Charles Godfray CBE FRS has been appointed as the next Director of the Oxford Martin School.

Sir Charles, whose work spans ecology, evolution and epidemiology, will lead the School in its multidisciplinary work on the global challenges of the 21st Century.  Through his own work on the health, environmental and economic consequences of food policies Sir Charles has had a major impact on future thinking about global food security. His research on insect population dynamics has been extremely influential in understanding insect population control, including in the biological control of agricultural pests and the genetic control of malaria and dengue vectors.

Sir Charles holds a number of leadership positions across the research and policy arenas.  He is part of Target Malaria, a multi-university consortium of researchers working on the control of the mosquitoes that transmit malaria in Africa. He is Chair of the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Science Advisory Council, a Trustee Director of Rothamstead Research and a Trustee of the Food Foundation, as well as sitting on a number of other scientific advisory committees. Previous roles include Trustee of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, President of the British Ecological Society, and Chair of the Lead Expert Group of the UK Government’s Foresight Project on the Future of Food and Farming. In 2017 Sir Charles was knighted for services to scientific research and for scientific advice to government.

Sir Charles has been very involved with the Oxford Martin School for a number of years, for example as the Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food and as co-creator of the Oxford Martin Restatements, a new approach to providing succinct summaries of scientific evidence around highly contentious topics.

The Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Professor Louise Richardson, said: ‘Sir Charles is an exceptional scientist with an outstanding track record of ensuring the impact of his research on the world beyond the academy, just as James Martin envisioned. I am delighted that he will be taking up the position of Director of the Oxford Martin School in February.’

Sir Charles commented: ‘I am honoured to be appointed to lead the Oxford Martin School.  The work of the School, across so many subject areas, has never felt more urgent or compelling, but I am also deeply aware that it is only by ensuring that this cutting edge research has an impact beyond academia, for example through those who set government policies around the world, that we can truly fulfil James Martin’s vision.’

Professor Sarah Whatmore, Chair of the Oxford Martin School’s Management Committee and Head of the University’s Social Sciences Division, said: ‘We are delighted that Sir Charles will be taking up this hugely important post within the University. The breadth of his research interests, combined with years of success in translating research into policy and his experience of the challenges of ensuring that academic research delivers solutions, made Charles a perfect fit for this role. I look forward to working closely with him.’

Sir Charles will take up his post on 1st February 2018.

Flu Vaccine Spinout Secures a Further £20m in Funding

Flu vaccine spinout secures a further £20m in funding

Vaccine wide

Vaccitech, an Oxford University spinout company developing a universal flu vaccine, among other vaccine-related products, has secured £20 million in Series A financing.

The round was co-led by new investors GV, Sequoia China, and existing backer Oxford Sciences Innovation, which manages a £600m fund aimed at Oxford University spinouts, and was also joined by Neptune Ventures.

This brings the total amount raised by Vaccitech to £30 million since it was established in 2016.

Vaccitech, which was spun out by Oxford University Innovation in 2016, is commercialising the research of vaccine development specialists Adrian Hill and Sarah Gilbert, who developed the underpinning technology at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute.

It is now a clinical stage company with six products that are based on inducing cellular immune responses using non-replicating viral vectors for treatment or prophylaxis against diseases at various stages.

Currently based at the Oxford Science Park, Vaccitech will use the funding to expand its business, develop its lab structure, and to push its influenza and prostate cancer programmes through Phase II by the end of 2019, and move three other programs into the clinic.

Tom Evans, Chief Executive Officer at Vaccitech, said: “When you look at the 250 million people chronically infected with hepatitis B globally, or the number of people killed by the flu each year, it becomes clear just how much potential impact Vaccitech’s portfolio of vaccine products could have on the world.

“You add Oxford into the mix, where you have unprecedented ability to do advance products through outstanding vaccine science and tremendous translational medicine capability, and Vaccitech is clearly well positioned to have an important impact on global health.”

Tom Hulme, General Partner at GV, added: “Vaccitech’s world class team have achieved an incredible amount with relatively little funding to date – the T-cell responses to the company’s viral vector platform are among the highest that have been achieved in man – we look forward to it being applied to tackle multiple human diseases.”

Gravitational Waves: Oxford Scientists Offer Exciting Insights Into Latest Discovery

Gravitational waves: Oxford scientists offer exciting insights into latest discovery


Oxford scientists have provided important insights into the latest discovery of gravitational waves.

Today’s announcement by the LIGO/Virgo collaboration marks the first time gravitational waves have been detected from the merger of two neutron stars – as well as the first detection of electromagnetic radiation from the same cosmic event.

The scientists behind the original observation two years ago were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work. However, until now these ‘ripples in the fabric of spacetime’, first anticipated by Albert Einstein a century ago, had only been found following the merger of black holes.

An international team led by Dr Kunal Mooley of Oxford’s Department of Physics was able to detect the ‘afterglow’ of these ripples in radio waves, using the New Mexico-based Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) telescope. Thanks to the follow-up of telescopes like VLA, the source of the gravitational waves was pinpointed to the nearby galaxy NGC 4993.

In parallel to the radio detection reported by VLA, the electromagnetic counterpart to the gravitational wave source was also observed by the MeerKAT radio telescope currently being commissioned in South Africa. Observations with MeerKAT were led by a small team including Dr Mooley and his colleague Professor Rob Fender, also from Oxford Astrophysics. When complete, MeerKAT – in which Oxford astrophysicists have strong involvement – will be one of the most powerful radio telescopes in the world.

Meanwhile, the European Space Observatory-funded ePESSTO project, led by Queen’s University Belfast and involving Oxford astrophysicist Professor Philipp Podsiadlowski, confirmed that the merging of two neutron stars is accompanied by a transient, supernova-like astrophysical event known as a kilonova. Such phenomena are powered by the nuclear fusion reactions that take place within the material ejected during a neutron star merger.

Dr Mooley, principal investigator on the Jansky Array Mapping of Gravitational Wave Sources as Afterglows in Radio (JAGWAR) project, said: ‘The discovery of this gravitational wave source and its electromagnetic counterpart has opened up a new avenue of research in astrophysics. Since the elements heavier than iron – such as gold, lead, platinum or mercury – are predominantly produced during neutron star mergers, the study of such mergers across the electromagnetic spectrum allows us to understand how the enrichment of these elements takes place within our Universe.’

The VLA findings are described in a paper published in the journal Science. Dr Mooley, a Hintze Research Fellow at Oxford, added: ‘Two months after the neutron star merger, the electromagnetic signal has already faded below the sensitivity limits of most optical telescopes. It is also currently close to the Sun, and therefore radio wavelength observations are probably the only means of getting more information from the afterglow.

‘Teams from Oxford, Caltech, Texas Tech and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory are now working together to watch the evolving electromagnetic counterpart with the VLA and other radio telescopes. These observations will provide key information about the environment in which the merger took place, as well as more fascinating details on the neutron-rich material that was ejected.’

Professor Podsiadlowski, co-author of the ePESSTO paper published in the journal Nature, said: ‘The discovery of the optical transient event confirmed that the merger of two neutron stars is associated with a kilonova. Kilonovae are powered by the nuclear reactions that occur when the neutron-rich material ejected in the merger decompresses and starts to build up heavy nuclei. This includes neutron-rich elements such as gold and platinum, whose origin has been a longstanding mystery.

‘Until recently, many astrophysicists believed that these elements were produced in some type of supernova explosion. But these observations suggest that perhaps all of these neutron-rich elements are produced in neutron star mergers rather than supernovae.’

Professor Podsiadlowski added: ‘One question that remains is whether the early detection of a neutron star merger by Advanced LIGO implies that the rate of mergers is much higher than predicted – with important implications for the production of the heavy elements associated with these events – or whether the team was just lucky. This will only be resolved when the detectors operate again in the second half of 2018 after a major upgrade. With increased sensitivity, they should be able to find neutron star mergers on a regular basis.’

‘Should It Be Illegal To Run A Red Light In The Middle Of The Night On An Empty Road?’

‘Should it be illegal to run a red light in the middle of the night on an empty road?’

Traffic lights

The University of Oxford today releases sample interview questions from tutors who conduct Oxford interviews.

The questions have been released ahead of the deadline day for students to apply to study at Oxford University next year (15 October). Students applying to study French might be asked about the difference between reading a work in its original language compared with a translation, while aspiring doctors might be asked to discuss and rank the mortality rates of several countries from around the world.

‘We emphasise in all our outreach activity that the interview is primarily an academic conversation based on a passage of text, a problem set or a series of technical discussions related to the course students have applied for,’ says Dr Samina Khan, Director of Admissions and Outreach at Oxford. ‘But interviews will be an entirely new experience for most students, and we know many prospective applicants are already worried about being in an unfamiliar place and being questioned by people they have not met – so to help students to become familiar with the type of questions they might get asked we release these real examples. We want to underscore that every question asked by our tutors has a purpose, and that purpose is to assess how students think about their subject and respond to new information or unfamiliar ideas.

‘No matter what kind of educational background or opportunities you have had, the interview should be an opportunity to present your interest and ability in your chosen subject, since they are not just about reciting what you already know. Tutors want to give students a chance to show their real ability and potential, which means students will be encouraged to use their knowledge and apply their thinking to new problems – with tutors guiding the discussion to ensure students feel comfortable and confident. They are an academic conversation in a subject area between tutors and students, similar to the undergraduate tutorials which current Oxford students attend every week.’

Dr Khan adds: ‘It’s important to remember that most interviews build on material students will have encountered in their studies or touch on areas students mention in their personal statements. Most commonly tutors will provide candidates with material to prompt discussion – for example a piece of text, an image, or a sample experiment whose results they are asked to consider. It is often best to start responding by making very obvious observations and build up discussion from there – solving the problem quickly is less important than showing how you use information and analysis to get there.

‘We know there are still misunderstandings about the Oxford interview, so we put as much information as possible out there to allow students to see the reality of the process. We now have mock interviews online, video diaries made by admissions tutors during the interview process, and lots of example questions to help students to familiarise themselves with what the process is – and isn’t – about.’

Here are some sample questions:

Subject: Modern Languages (French)
Interviewer: Jane Hiddleston, Exeter College

Q: What do we lose if we only read a foreign work of literature in translation?

Jane: This is a good question as it helps us to see how candidates think about both languages and literature. They might be able to tell us about the challenges of translation, about what sorts of things resist literal or straightforward translation from one language to another, and this would give us an indication of how aware they are of how languages work.

They might also tell us about literary language, and why literary texts in particular use language in ways that make translation problematic. This might lead to a discussion of what is distinct about literary works, and this helps us to see what kind of reader they are more broadly. We don’t do this with the expectation that they have already read any particular works, however, but in order to get a sense of why they think it is worth studying literatures in foreign languages. This is an important issue, given that Modern Languages students at Oxford read a lot of literature in the language as part of their course. Occasionally candidates are able to give examples of famous lines or quotations that risk being misread when translated into English. This issue might also be something we discuss when we read an extract or poem in the language together during the interview.

Subject: Philosophy (Philosophy, Politics and Economics)
Interviewer: Cecile Fabre, Lincoln College (now of All Souls)

Q: ‘I agree that air transport contributes to harmful climate change. But whether or not I make a given plane journey, the plane will fly anyway. So there is no moral reason for me not to travel by plane.’ Is this a convincing argument?

Cecile: The interview is not meant to test candidates’ knowledge of Philosophy, since more often than not, they have not studied this subject before. Moreover, we are not trying to get them to guess or arrive at ‘the right answer’. Rather, the interview is about candidates’ ability to think critically, to deal with counter-examples to the views they put forward, and to draw distinctions between important concepts.

This answer raises the difficult question of individuals’ responsibility, as individuals, for harmful collective actions. Some candidates might be inclined to dispute the premise that air transport contributes to climate change: that’s fine, but we would then ask them to accept that premise for the sake of argument. Whether they are able to do that is in itself an important test, since much of philosophical thinking proceeds in this way.

Some candidates might say that the argument is a good one: given that what I do makes no difference, I have no moral reason not to do it. At this point, I would want to know what they consider a moral reason to be (as distinct from or similar to, for example, a practical or prudential reason).

I would also push them to think about other cases: for example, the bombing of Dresden (one jet fighter less makes no difference to the collective outcome – so why not go and fight); or voting (why should I vote in a general election, given that my vote makes no difference)? Are the cases the same? Are they different? If so, are the differences or similarities relevant? That is to say, do those differences and similarities help us think about the original case? Do they help us to work out a view about individual responsibility in those cases? For example, in the Dresden case, the individual jet fighters act together as part of an organisation – the air force – whose aim is to bomb Dresden. But we cannot say of companies such as British Airways that they aim to cause climate change. And the air passengers cannot really be described as acting together. Does this make a difference?

Subject: Law
Interviewer: Jon Herring, Exeter College

Q: Should it be illegal to run a red light in the middle of the night on an empty road?

Jon: The ability to think normatively is important to the study of law, so we are interested in what candidates think the law ought to be, but more important is their capacity to justify their position. This involves being able analyse concepts, critically appraise arguments and the reasoning behind a position, as well as to consider objections and to offer rebuttals to those objections. There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this question; we would be using the example to see how well the candidate could justify their stance. For example, a candidate might say that if no one was harmed by running the light, then it wouldn’t hurt to run it so it shouldn’t be illegal. This would be suggesting that the law is based on preventing harm. We might then explore whether this is the only purpose or the dominant purpose of the law, and how that might shape how legal rules need to be constructed, when exceptions might be valid and how effective exceptions could be created. Here, we would be looking to see how well they can see the problems with their approach, the difficulties inherent in drafting a rule that works in every situation without being too broad. This line of discussion would draw out their capacity to respond to challenges to their position, their mental flexibility, and their ability to think precisely. Another candidate might suggest that even if no one is harmed, it is important that laws are respected and we could examine why this is the case. For example, if running lights was only illegal when it was dangerous, this would leave it to each person’s assessment of ‘dangerous’, so we could never be sure when someone would run a light, leading to chaotic traffic.

This question also picks up on ideas about what it means for something to be illegal and citizens’ relationship with the law, whether it can ever be justified to break the law and what might be a sufficient justification. This could lead into more philosophical discussions of what it means for a law to be binding and how legal rules might differ from moral rules or guidelines. A candidate might begin to consider whether there is something special about ‘law’, and we could use this as a way into exploring with them whether the fact that something is illegal is itself a reason not to do something, over and above, perhaps, the harm the rule is aiming to prevent. Candidates might then think about how law makes other people’s behaviour more predictable so that we can plan our own actions, or how the law might serve functions like punishing wrongdoing. An example might be that because the law makes murder illegal and those who kill are punished, I can expect that I can leave my house and generally not expect to be killed, so this allows me to decide it’s safe to go outside.

Subject: Medicine
Interviewer: Andrew King, Exeter College

Q: Put these countries in order by their crude mortality (deaths per thousand of the population): Bangladesh, Japan, South Africa, the UK.

Andrew: Interviews for Medicine aim to gauge candidates’ understanding of the science underpinning the study of medicine, as well as skills in scientific enquiry. This question invites candidates to think about a public health question and epidemiology that can be approached in many different ways, without necessarily knowing anything about specific mortality rates around the world. We would expect the initial discussion to probe the differing causes of death that contribute to mortality rates – such as those ‘Western diseases’ heart disease and cancer – and how they compare to those found in developing countries (high infant mortality, infectious diseases, poor nutrition, high rates of HIV etc.). The majority of candidates will expect Bangladesh or South Africa to have the highest crude mortality rate, and will be surprised to find that it is in fact Japan.

The other part of the mortality rate calculation is of course the age of the population: we would ideally steer the conversation towards a discussion of why a wealthy but older country like Japan might have a higher mortality rate, while a country like Bangladesh – which many people might initially expect to have a high mortality rate due to relative poverty as a country – actually has a relatively lower mortality rate because of its young population. Similarly, Britain actually has the second-highest mortality rate because of the age structure of its population: we are a relatively old country and a majority of deaths occur in older people. We wouldn’t expect students to get the right answer on their own, and in fact that’s not the point: the point is to see how they apply their understanding of social and cultural factors in health and illness to a problem of epidemiology. Some students might already have a detailed knowledge of demography, others might need to be given more relevant information – the point isn’t what they know, it’s what questions they ask to make their conclusions, and how they interpret information to draw those conclusions. We might then go on to discuss how you could make a valid comparison between mortality rates in different countries.

Social Sciences At Oxford Named ‘World’s Best’

Social Sciences at Oxford named ‘world’s best’

Image credit: Shutterstock

The Social Sciences Division at Oxford University has been named the ‘world’s best’ in the 2018 Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

The news marks the first time that a UK institution has taken the top spot for Social Sciences in the poll’s eight year history.

The 2018 ranking sees Oxford moving up three places to claim the top spot from Stanford University. The publication recognises Oxford Social Sciences’ research excellence and for its improved teaching performance.

The 2018 Times Higher Education World University Rankings table highlights the universities that are leading across sociology, geography, political and international studies and communication and media studies subjects. The positions are informed by 13 performance indicators, but this methodology is adjusted to suit the individual fields.

Social Sciences at Oxford provide the knowledge base, evidence and inspiration for new policies and approaches that promote resilience, sustainability and social change, while preserving human diversity and culture. The division’s academics and trained economists, sociologists, lawyers and political scientists act as consultants to government and industry and have influence at both an international and community level. Through its world leading research, the division supports the development of practical solutions to address some of the most pressing problems of our time and provide authoritative comment to the media on issues that shape and influence society.

Professor Neil Macfarlane, Interim Head of the Social Sciences Division at Oxford University, said: ‘Social Sciences in Oxford strives to combine excellence in research with excellence in teaching. Our first place position in the World University Rankings for Social Sciences is welcome recognition of that effort. Our success reflects the hard work of our academics and the leadership of Professor Roger Goodman as Head of Division over the past ten years.’

Government Apprenticeship Schemes Are ‘Fragile’, According To New Research

Government apprenticeship schemes are ‘fragile’, according to new research

Image credit: Shutterstock

Apprenticeships remain a relatively fragile mode of vocational education, despite growing political interest internationally, according to new Oxford University research.

In the study, People and Policy: A comparative study of apprenticeship, researchers from Oxford University’s Department of Education have for the first time reviewed apprenticeship participation on a global scale. Conducted in collaboration with the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), an initiative of Qatar Foundation, the research assesses apprenticeship frameworks in eight countries: Australia, Denmark, Egypt, England, Finland, Germany, India, and South Africa.

Apprenticeships play an important role in supporting young people to make the transition from school to working life and supporting adults in advancing their skills or acquiring new professions.

However, the findings suggest that reliance on the active participation of employers makes the apprenticeship model more vulnerable than classroom-based forms of learning, which can be delivered by state-sponsored colleges acting without direct employer support. For the model to work and produce successful, qualified apprentices, employer engagement is crucial, the authors suggest. Therefore, having strong incentives for employers to participate in programme provision is vital.

The study assesses participation levels by looking at the number of apprentices employed per 1,000 staff. This uptake ranges from 47 in Denmark, which has the highest level of engagement, to five in South Africa, and as little as one in both Egypt and India. England and Germany have 32 and 31 apprentices per 1,000 staff respectively, while Australia has 22 and Finland 18.

Apprenticeship schemes vary widely across countries in all areas of management, from how they are organised and financed, to the day to day running and learning style of the programmes offered. In some countries, apprenticeships have come to be used as a route for giving less academically minded young people a second chance in life, which the authors find to be increasingly unrealistic.

The varying degrees of international participation suggest that there is still a grey area in some countries around how to make the most of the apprenticeship model. Apprenticeship incentives are more appreciated in regions where employer associations are historically stronger, for example in Denmark and Germany.

For employers in some countries, such as Egypt, apprenticeships are seen to have as many disincentives as they do incentives. A big concern is around employee retention: why invest in someone when they might leave and go elsewhere?

In other countries, including England and Australia, a policy discourse has developed where the apprenticeship has come to be perceived as a form of ‘magic dust’, which can be sprinkled on almost any vocational education and training problem, and offered to any young person who wants one.

Dr. Maia Chankseliani, Associate Professor of Comparative and International Education at Oxford University and co-author of the Oxford/WISE report, said: ‘The policy purpose of apprenticeships is not always clear. There are economic and social purposes of apprenticeship and there is a potential for tension among policy-makers between wanting apprenticeship to be viewed by employers and wider society as a rigorous, high status route, and also wanting to use it to support social inclusion for those who have not thrived on the academic route and within mainstream schooling. This tension about apprenticeship purpose can be problematic because it may impede the formation of realistic expectations about apprenticeship system.’

In Finland, apprenticeships have been assigned a niche role focused largely on second chance, social inclusion objectives, with little attempt to see it as a broader, high quality route for large volumes of initial vocational education and training (V.E.T). In the UK, by contrast, there has been a tendency to try to pursue social inclusion and high status objectives simultaneously, with the overall result that to some extent neither outcome has been realised.

When the New Labour governments in the UK expanded apprenticeship provision, it was positioned as a relatively high status option for those seeking intermediate and technician level training and offered with an “apprenticeship guarantee”. This guarantee proved impossible to deliver, as the volume of apprenticeship places was (and still is) determined by the willingness of employers to provide them, rather than by individual demand from young people, and the guarantee was quietly abandoned.

In order to improve apprenticeship engagement in countries where the model has been less successful, the authors suggest that it is in the government’s interest to work with industry to better incentivise this investment and make the benefits of the approach more explicit.

Dr. Asmaa Alfadala, Director of Research and Content Development, World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), remarked: ‘WISE is very pleased to collaborate with our Oxford colleagues on this important topic, as part of an ongoing series of WISE reports on key global education challenges. This research report provides useful portraits of diverse approaches to apprenticeships, intended to guide policy-makers and suggest what could be achieved with more integration and cooperation among stakeholders around this unique and practical education tool.’
Dr. Maia Chankseliani will participate in the upcoming World Innovation Summit for Education that takes place in Doha, Qatar 14-16 November, 2017.

New Plaque Celebrates Oxford’s First Black Student In 1870s

New plaque celebrates Oxford’s first black student in 1870s

The plaque celebrating Christian Cole

Oxford’s first black graduate is being celebrated with a plaque at his Oxford college.

Christian Cole matriculated at Oxford in 1873 to read Classics, and graduated from Oxford in 1876. He became a member of University College in 1877 and became the first black African to practice law in English courts in 1883. On 14 October University College will unveil a plaque in his honour. The plaque is the result of a collaboration between the college and Pamela Roberts, director of the project Black Oxford: Untold Stories.

Sir Ivor Crewe, Master of University College, said: ‘University College is proud to call Christian Cole an Old Member and we are delighted to be able to honour him in this way. The plaque in Logic Lane will act as a permanent reminder of his remarkable achievements as well as a symbol of our continued commitment to recognising and supporting the brightest students whatever their backgrounds.’

Dr Rebecca Surender, Advocate and Pro Vice-Chancellor for Equality and Diversity at Oxford, said: ‘Christian Cole’s place in Oxford’s history as its first black graduate is one that deserves to be recognised and celebrated. The plaque will be a reminder of how far we have progressed since Cole graduated from Oxford, and of many more diverse stories of achievement and success. The University has made it a priority to celebrate Oxford’s diversity and reflect in its iconography the full range of Oxford’s history and the experiences of its members. The plaque at University College, like the University’s Diversifying Portraiture project, will encourage us to continue to celebrate the full diversity of our staff and student body.’

University College Archivist Dr Robin Darwall-Smith said: ‘I have long been an admirer of Christian Cole. His ambition and determination were remarkable, and I hope that he will continue to inspire future generations of students. It is very exciting to have his place in the history of Oxford celebrated in this way.’

Christian Cole was born in 1852 in Waterloo, Sierra Leone and enrolled at Oxford as a non-collegiate student in 1873 to read Classics. To supplement an income from his uncle, he taught music lessons and helped students prepare for their divinity exams. He became the first black African to achieve a degree from the University of Oxford in 1876. In 1877, he became a member of University College, and in 1879, a member of the Honourable Society of the Inner Temple. He was called to the Bar in 1883, becoming the first black African to practice Law in English courts.

The plaque’s unveiling follows the launch of the Oxford Black Alumni Network, a campaign to connect Oxford’s black graduates and encourage future generations of leading black students in the UK.

Family-Run Accountancy Firm Has Been Selected As A Finalist For The British Accountancy Awards

Family-run accountancy firm, Ridgefield Consulting, has been selected as a finalist for the British Accountancy Awards, under the category for Independent Firm of the Year – South-West England. Trading since July 2010, Ridgefield Consulting is the youngest firm shortlisted in the category. The awards are regarded as the industry’s most prestigious accolades and provide acknowledgement and recognition for professional excellence in accountancy and finance management. This year, the awards will welcome over 750 guests from practices all over the UK on 13th October at The London Hilton on Park Lane.


Simon Thomas, managing director of Ridgefield Consulting, and co-founder Brian Thomas (Simon’s father) have over 50 years of experience between them. With a background from both Ernst & Young and Crowe Clark Whitehill, Simon’s experience combined with his natural entrepreneurial spirit has led to Ridgefield Consulting being a key point of call for advice and guidance amongst Oxford’s start-up community. With continued success and growth, Simon intends to support more local businesses with an emphasis on providing Big Four quality expertise in an affordable and friendly service.


Simon thanks his team: “Just to get nominated for this award is outstanding. And you all need to feel exceptionally proud for being part of it. It is truly rewarding to see you all contributing to the growth of this practice and the wonderful character that it has become and will continue to develop into”.

Research Reveals the Hidden History Of Sociable Reading In 18th Century Homes

Research reveals the hidden history of sociable reading in 18th century homes


Books had a social function in 18th century homes, according to new research from Oxford University.

Abigail Williams, a Professor in the English Faculty and Fellow at St Peter’s College, has written The Social Life of Books: Reading Together in the Eighteenth-Century Home.

The book offers new insights into how books were used by their 18th Century readers, and the part they have played in middle-class homes and families, knitting people together, providing entertainment and distraction in the long evenings before iPods, Netflix and Kindles.

She describes reading in the 18th century as a “spectator sport”. People read aloud all kinds of books – from sermons and plays to humorous books and popular science.

As literacy rates rose, and books became more accessible, middle class readers wanted to raise their game, to stand and deliver with aplomb – often to keep up with the Joneses. Professor Williams calls the 18th century “the great age of elocution”, in which people from all backgrounds had “a near obsession with learning to read aloud”.

Professor Williams’ research also calls into question the long-held assumption that the print revolution of the 18th century led to a move from oral to silent reading.  She found that reading aloud remained as popular as ever.

Even when literacy meant that many more people were able to read on their own, they shared books and read together for entertainment and self-improvement.

Families often read books aloud to each other at home in the evenings, and the most enthusiastic joined “spouting clubs” where they could perform their favourite extracts to an audience.

Handbooks on how to read aloud with panache were released, advising people on how to wrinkle their brow to display “the emotion of horror”, to clutch the bosom in moments of passion, and gesture towards the imagined scenery to create more power in performance.

‘Reading well in the eighteenth century was harder than it sounded,’ says Prof Williams.

One of the surprising outcomes of the work was the number of parallels with modern practice. In our own age of wiki quotes, Pinterest and memes, we’re not so different from all those eighteenth-century readers assembling collections of their favourite passages and excerpts to show to their friends and read aloud, which Prof Williams calls ‘the literary equivalent of a modern playlist’.

And although we complain about distraction and multi-tasking, and our growing inability to read lengthy texts, eighteenth-century readers were not all completists – they very often read sections of books, rather than reading the whole thing in a linear fashion – Prof Williams calls this “dipping and skipping”.

Reading aloud enabled them to multi-task – to embroider or sharpen razors or mend clothes, accompanied by an improving or entertaining soundtrack.

Professor Williams’s work on the sharing of literature and ideas in the past reflects recent developments in modern uses of the book: the rise of book groups, or the online sharing of favourite passages or quotations shows a growing return to the kinds of social practices found in eighteenth century homes.

The research was based on studies of 18th century marginalia, letters, diaries, library catalogues, elocution manuals, and subscription lists.

The book can be found here.

Neutrino Facility Could Change Understanding Of The Universe

Neutrino facility could change understanding of the universe

Image credit: Shutterstock

The University of Oxford’s Department of Physics will play a pivotal role in a flagship global science facility that could change our understanding of the universe.

The UK is investing £65million in the initiative, which will be based in the United States and could secure Britain’s position as the international research partner of choice.

UK Universities and Science Minister Jo Johnson today signed the agreement with the US Energy Department to invest the sum in the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility (LBNF) and the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE). DUNE will study the properties of mysterious particles called neutrinos, which could help explain more about how the universe works and why matter exists at all.

The UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) will manage the UK’s investment in the international facility, giving UK scientists and engineers the chance to take a leading role in the management and development of the DUNE far detector and the LBNF beam line and associated PIP-II accelerator development.

The LBNF will be the world’s most intense high-energy neutrino beam. It will fire neutrinos 1300 km from Fermilab in Illinois towards the 70,000 ton DUNE detector at the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in South Dakota in order to study neutrino oscillations. Once constructed, it will operate for at least 15 years undertaking a broad and exciting science programme.

Professor Ian Shipsey, Head of Particle Physics at Oxford, said: ‘Neutrinos are the second most common particle in the universe and yet today we know more about the recently discovered Higgs particle than we do about neutrinos.  Much of what we do know, however, has been painstakingly pieced together over many years in very clever neutrino experiments in which Oxford physicists have played a leading role.

‘I am thrilled that the agreement that has just been signed between the US and UK  will enable many UK physicists including my brilliant Oxford colleagues and neutrino experts Professor Giles Barr and Professor Alfons Weber to continue to learn more about neutrinos through participation in what is arguably the most ambitious experiment yet mounted to study them’.

Prof. Alfons Weber, the UK Principal Investigator of the project, said: ‘This is a dream come true. We have been working hard over the last few years to develop the techniques needed to be able to build this experiment. Our partners in the north have concentrated on the readout structures, while we in Oxford have taken the lead in the development of the data acquisition system.

‘We have an excellent team that came up with innovative solutions. These detectors have to be huge as neutrinos interact so rarely. You have to optimise the cost so that we can build the biggest detector possible, but at the same time it has to be sensitive enough to be able to still measure these feeble interactions. I am now organising a design study to specify the near detector, which is an essential tool to characterise the neutrino beam and interactions.’

Prof. Giles Barr has led the data acquisition design group of the international project for the last four years. Under his leadership, the collaboration has developed the concepts to handle the large data set from this 70,000 ton detector. He has overseen the first implementation and tests and is now heavily involved in commissioning the latest full-scale prototype at a test beam at CERN. Commenting on his role in the experiment, he said: ‘It is exciting working with people both locally and internationally who have the expertise and imagination to squeeze the maximum performance out of some very hi-tech, modern electronics components.

‘The detector will generate over a TeraByte of raw data every second for more that 20 years and it is our job to find and keep the parts of the data that show the neutrinos interacting in the detector – “the needle in the haystack’.

The UK research community is already a major contributor to the DUNE collaboration, with 14 UK universities and two STFC laboratories providing essential expertise and components to the experiment and facility. This ranges from the high-power neutrino production target, the readout planes and data acquisitions systems to the reconstruction software.

One aspect DUNE scientists will look for is the differences in behaviour between neutrinos and their antimatter counterparts, antineutrinos, which could give us clues as to why we live in a matter-dominated universe – in other words, why we are all here, instead of having been annihilated just after the Big Bang. DUNE will also watch for neutrinos produced when a star explodes, which could reveal the formation of neutron stars and black holes, and will investigate whether protons live forever or eventually decay, bringing us closer to fulfilling Einstein’s dream of a grand unified theory.

The DUNE experiment will attract students and young scientists from around the world, helping to foster the next generation of leaders in the field and to maintain the highly skilled scientific workforce worldwide.

Oxford Launches Digital Portal To Get School Students Tackling The ‘Big Questions’

Oxford launches digital portal to get school students tackling the ‘Big Questions’


Oxford University has launched an innovative new digital outreach portal aimed at engaging school students aged 11 to 18 with debates and ideas that go beyond what is covered in the classroom.

As the ‘Home of Big Questions’, Oxplore will tackle complex ideas across a wide range of subjects and draw on the latest research carried out at Oxford.

The project aims to raise aspirations, promote broader thinking and stimulate intellectual curiosity. Examples of Big Questions include ‘Is a robot a person?’, ‘Does fake news matter?’, ‘Can war be a good thing?’ and ‘Would you want to live forever?’

Content on Oxplore reflects the kind of thinking students undertake at universities like Oxford and draws on the University’s expertise in everything from archaeology to zoology, offering approaches to challenges and questions underpinned by the latest thinking and research.

Dr Samina Khan, Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach at Oxford University, said: ‘Oxplore can underpin outreach work from right across the collegiate University. It complements and adds value to our current programmes, but the digital medium also gives us the opportunity to have sustained contact with young people who are geographically distant from Oxford.

‘The engaging design and content and the independent study it encourages may also reach those who for whatever reason don’t think Oxford is for them. From an early age we can start to dispel this belief and at the same time nurture intellectual curiosity. Developing this new platform has allowed us to challenge ourselves, innovate and create something entirely new.

‘Supporting access and outreach work at Oxford is essential to helping us ensure Oxford is accessible to all and we can select the best students purely on academic merit and passion for their subject.’

Oxplore has been built and created by the University of Oxford for young people as part of its commitment to reaching the best students from every kind of background. The project is co-ordinated by the University’s Widening Access and Participation team, which delivers outreach work with young people across the UK.

Cassini – The Final Curtain

Cassini – the final curtain


Oxford University scientists are today mourning the demise of the landmark Cassini Space Mission, launched almost twenty years ago.

The probe will end its journey with a momentous suicide dive on Friday 15 September. When the spacecraft runs out of fuel, it will shatter into fragments and implode into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Led by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, the original Cassini mission launched in October 1997. Scientists from the Department of Physics at Oxford University and RAL Space in Didcot have played an integral role in the satellite’s creation from the start. The group built some of the probe’s most significant components and even witnessed history when they attended its launch at Cape Canaveral.

Since leaving Earth twenty years ago, Cassini has ushered in a new age of science, delivering valuable high quality data that, as the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn, has allowed unparalleled insight into the planet’s activity.

The joint US and European Cassini-Huygens mission is the most complex and ambitious unmanned space expedition in history. It has informed scientists’ understanding of Saturn’s structure and atmospheric make-up, including the realisation that the planet actually has sixty two moons – twenty more than first thought.

Scientists from Oxford were involved in the construction of one of the mission’s main instruments, the Composite Infrared Spectrometer or CIRS. CIRS measures the heat emitted by a planet’s atmosphere or surface and identifies the individual elements present in the minerals and gasses, revealing their chemical make-up.

The Oxford team provided two critical structural elements of the Cassini probe: the radiative cooler, which is the radiator that sits on the side of the spacecraft, cooling the CIRS infra-red detectors to -190C; and the mid-infrared focal plane assembly, which holds the infrared detectors and focuses the light from the instrument’s main telescope, a bit like the lens of an eye.

The Oxford University Department of Atmospheric Physics has played a key role in interpreting the spacecraft’s observations of Saturn and its largest moon, Titan. Oxford physicists used data gathered by CIRS to explore and understand storms, vortices and waves in both Jupiter and Saturn’s atmosphere, detecting and quantifying seasonal cycles of temperature and photochemically produced molecules in Titan’s atmosphere.

Led by Dr Simon Calcutt of Oxford’s Department of Atmospheric Physics, the team included Dr Patrick Irwin, Professor of Planetary Physics (who went on to lead the scientific analysis effort), Dr Neil Bowles, University Lecturer, and Dr Jane Hurley, previously a Post-Doctoral Research Associate at Oxford, and now Project Manager at Science and Technology Facilities Council RAL Space.

Acknowledging the bittersweet culmination of two decades of work, Dr Patrick Irwin, said; ‘Cassini/CIRS has provided the underpinning to our planetary research in Oxford, and during its 20-year mission we have grown older, raised families and trained a whole new generation of scientists who have gone on to be international leaders of planetary science in the Europe and the USA.

‘Speaking personally, the Cassini mission is as old as my marriage, which took place two months before the launch, and I and my wife were lucky enough to witness the launch in 1997. Together with losing a key unique stream of data I will miss the camaraderie of the international Cassini/CIRS team and will miss being able to look up at Saturn and think ‘I helped build something in orbit about that!’ Our design, construction and testing of the CIRS cooler was a job bloody well done and it still amazes me what we achieved with relatively little resource.

‘Anyway, we’ll raise a glass, or two, in the pub to Cassini on Friday lunchtime and will remember our involvement fondly and with great pride. ‘

During its final dive Cassini will be travelling at around 70,000mph. Its plunge to destruction will mark the end of a series of 22 orbits, as the probe becomes the first ever to slip between Saturn and its rings.

Because Saturn is so far away, the spacecraft’s final transmissions will take 83 minutes to reach Earth. As the final pieces of the probe burn away to nothing, the landmark mission’s legacy, of setting the gold standard for exploratory space travel, will live on long after the spacecraft itself.

For further information please contact Lanisha Butterfield in the University of Oxford press office at or on+44 (0)1865 280531

Tectonic Plates ‘Weaker Than Previously Thought’, Say Scientists

Tectonic plates ‘weaker than previously thought’, say scientists

Olivine crystals

Experiments carried out at Oxford University have revealed that tectonic plates are weaker than previously thought.

The finding explains an ambiguity in lab work that led scientists to believe these rocks were much stronger than they appeared to be in the natural world. This new knowledge will help us understand how tectonic plates can break to form new boundaries.

Study co-author Lars Hansen, Associate Professor of Rock and Mineral Physics in Oxford University’s Department of Earth Sciences, said: ‘The strength of tectonic plates has been a major target of research for the past four decades. For plate tectonics to work, plates must be able to break to form new plate boundaries. Significant effort has gone into measuring the strength of the key olivine-rich rocks that make up plates using laboratory experiments.

‘Unfortunately, those estimates of rock strength have been significantly greater than the apparent strength of plates as observed on Earth. Thus, there is a fundamental lack of understanding of how plates can actually break to form new boundaries. Furthermore, the estimates of rock strength from laboratory experiments exhibit considerable variability, reducing confidence in using experiments to estimate rock properties.’

The new research, published in the journal Science Advances, uses a technique known as ‘nanoindentation’ to resolve this discrepancy and explain how the rocks that make up tectonic plates can be weak enough to break and form new plate boundaries.

Dr Hansen said: ‘We have demonstrated that this variability among previous estimates of strength is a result of a special length-scale within the rocks – that is, the strength depends on the volume of material being tested. To determine this we used nanoindentation experiments in which a microscopic diamond stylus is pressed into the surface of an olivine crystal. These experiments reveal that the strength of the crystal depends on the size of the indentation.

‘This concept translates to large rock samples, for which the measured strength increases as the size of the constituent crystals decreases. Because most previous experiments have used synthetic rocks with crystal sizes much smaller than typically found in nature, they have drastically overestimated the strength of tectonic plates. Our results therefore both explain the wide range of previous estimates of rock strength and provide confirmation that the strength of the rocks that make up tectonic plates is low enough to form new plate boundaries.’

The study was an international collaboration involving scientists from Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, Oxford University and the University of Delaware.

Dr Hansen added: ‘This result has implications beyond forming tectonic plate boundaries. Better predictions of the strength of rocks under these conditions will help inform us on many dynamic processes in plates. For instance, we now know that the evolution of stresses on earthquake-generating faults likely depends on the size of the individual crystals that make up the rocks involved. In addition, flexing of plates under the weight of volcanoes or large ice sheets, a process intimately linked to sea level on Earth, will also ultimately depend on crystal size.’

Earliest Recorded Use of Zero Is Centuries Older Than First Thought

Earliest recorded use of zero is centuries older than first thought

Earliest recorded use of zero is centuries older than first thought


The concept and associated value of the mathematical symbol ‘zero’ is used the world over as a fundamental numerical pillar. However, its origin has until now been one of the field’s greatest conundrums.

Scientists from the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, have used carbon dating to trace the figure’s origins to the famous ancient Indian scroll, the Bakhshali manuscript. The text dates back to the third or fourth century, making it the oldest recorded use of the symbol.

The research was commissioned by Bodleian Libraries, where the manuscript has been held since 1902. The text was found to contain hundreds of zeroes, and the landmark finding puts the birth of ‘zero’ or ‘nought’ as it is also known, at 500 years earlier than scholars first thought.

The concept of the symbol as we know and use it today, began as a simple dot, which was widely used as a ‘placeholder’ to represent orders of magnitude in the ancient Indian numbers system – for example 10s, 100s and 1000s. It features prominently in the Bakhshali manuscript, which is widely acknowledged as the oldest Indian mathematical text.

A Big Zero: Research uncovers the date of the Bakhshali manuscript:

The earliest recorded example of the use of zero was previously believed to be a 9th century inscription of the symbol on the wall of a temple in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh. The study findings predate this event and therefore have great historical mathematical significance.

Although a number of ancient cultures including the ancient Mayans and Babylonians also used the zero placeholder, the dot’s use in the Bakhshali manuscript is the one that ultimately evolved into the symbol that we use today. India was also the place where the symbolic placeholder developed into a number in its own right, and the concept of the figure zero as it exists today, was born.

Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, said: ‘Today we take it for granted that the concept of zero is used across the globe and is a key building block of the digital world. But the creation of zero as a number in its own right, which evolved from the placeholder dot symbol found in the Bakhshali manuscript, was one of the greatest breakthroughs in the history of mathematics.
‘We now know that it was as early as the 3rd century that mathematicians in India planted the seed of the idea that would later become so fundamental to the modern world. The findings show how vibrant mathematics have been in the Indian sub-continent for centuries.’

The Bakhshali manuscript was found in 1881, buried in a field in what was then an Indian village called Bakhshali, now in Pakistan. It is broadly recognised as the oldest Indian mathematical text, however, the exact age of the text is widely contested. The most conclusive academic study on the subject, was conducted by Japanese scholar Dr Hayashi Takao, and, based on factors such as the style of writing and the literary and mathematical content, it asserted that it probably dated from between the 8th and the 12th century. The new carbon dating reveals that the reason why it was previously so difficult for scholars to pinpoint the Bakhshali manuscript’s date is because the manuscript, which consists of 70 fragile leaves of birch bark, is in fact composed of material from at least three different periods.

Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s Librarian, said: ‘Determining the date of the Bakhshali manuscript is of vital importance to the history of mathematics and the study of early South Asian culture and these surprising research results testify to the subcontinent’s rich and longstanding scientific tradition. The project is an excellent example of the cutting-edge research conducted by the Bodleian’s Heritage Science team, together with colleagues across Oxford University, which uncovers new information about the treasures in our collections to help inform scholarship across disciplines.’

Low-Level Radiation Less Harmful To Health Than Other Lifestyle Risks

Low-level radiation less harmful to health than other lifestyle risks

Image credit: Shutterstock


Low-level radiation exposure poses less of a health risk than other modern lifestyle threats, such as smoking, obesity and air pollution, according to Oxford University research.

Human populations have always been exposed to ionizing radiation, and more so in modern life due to its use in medicine, industry and the armed forces. Whilst the risks to human health from medium and high-level radiation are relatively well-understood, the risks at lower levels are less clear.  Mixed messages about the safety of low doses of radiation from different sources have created confusion for the public and for policy makers.

In a new study, published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, a team of experts from the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford have compiled the evidence on health risks from low-level ionizing radiation, adding a new nuance to the debate. The restatement is intended to better inform policy decisions and show where crucial gaps in knowledge lie. It clarifies the scientific evidence available from a variety of sources, and ranks them as to how much they enjoy consensus support from the scientific community.  The paper concludes that the overall risk to human health from low-level radiation exposure is small, particularly when compared with general risks from modern society, such as obesity, smoking and air pollution.

Professor Angela McLean, lead author and Co-Director at the Oxford Martin Programme on Collective Responsibility for Infectious Disease, said: ‘We know a great deal about the health risks from radiation thanks to exceptionally careful studies of groups of people exposed to different levels from nuclear bombs or accidents, medical exposure of patients, naturally occurring sources (such as radon), and workers in the nuclear industry and medicine. From these studies it is clear that moderate and high doses of radiation increase the risk of developing some types of cancer.’

The team illustrate the size of this increase in risk by using the following example. 100 individuals were each briefly exposed to 100 mSv (millisievert is the measure of radiation dose), then, on average over a lifetime, one of them would be expected to develop a radiation-induced cancer, whereas 42 of them would be expected to develop cancer from other causes.   To put 100 mSv in context, the low dose from a CT scan of the whole spine is 10 mSv, while the average dose from natural background radiation in the UK is 2.3 mSv each year.

To build on the insights gained from this study, further research will be conducted to better understand the genetic healthcare implications of radiation exposure and the biological basis of the damage from radiation to DNA and cells.

Professor McLean said; ‘Despite the depth of our knowledge, there are still many unknowns. Even the best designed epidemiological study finds it hard to distinguish between no extra risk and a small additional risk at low levels of exposure and we have to make some important assumptions here, particularly for the purposes of radiation protection.  For example, no human study has conclusively shown an increase in hereditary disease in the children of irradiated parents, but radiation protection calculations assume some risk is present because of evidence from large animal experiments.

‘There is also a great deal of work being undertaken to investigate the biological basis of the damage from radiation to DNA and cells, but it is still not clear precisely the steps by which a dose of radiation might lead to cancer, sometimes decades later’.

Oxford and Cambridge Top World University Rankings

Oxford and Cambridge top world university rankings

Image captionOxford is the world’s best university, according to the ranking

Two UK universities occupy the top spots in a global ranking for the first time.

The University of Oxford is top of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, with Cambridge University second, up from fourth place last year.

A key factor in the rankings is income and both universities saw this rise in the past year, partly in the form of European Union research grants.

But this income could fall with Brexit, warned rankings director Phil Baty.

Times Higher Education, which compiles the rankings, said that margins were extremely tight at the top, with all the top-ranked institutions excelling against measures in teaching, research, citations, international outlook and income.

But Oxford and Cambridge saw significant increases in their total institutional income – up 24% and 11% respectively while their nearest rivals, the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University saw falls in income.

The researchers also point out that about a quarter of Cambridge’s research income, and a fifth of Oxford’s, come in the form of EU grants – a factor which they say underlines the risk Brexit could pose to the global performance of the UK’s leading universities.

The top of the global ranking of 1,000 universities in 77 countries is dominated by US institutions.

Other UK universities in the top 50 are Imperial College London in eighth place; University College London, 16th; London School of Economics and Political Science, 25th; University of Edinburgh, 27th; and King’s College London, 36th.

Times Higher: Top 20 Global Universities

  • 1: Oxford University
  • 2: Cambridge University
  • =3: California Institute of Technology
  • =3: Stanford University
  • 5: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • 6: Harvard University
  • 7: Princeton University
  • 8: Imperial College London
  • 9: University of Chicago
  • =10: ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
  • =10: University of Pennsylvania
  • 12: Yale University
  • 13: Johns Hopkins University
  • 14: Columbia University
  • 15: University of California, Los Angeles
  • 16: University College London
  • 17: Duke University
  • 18: University of California, Berkeley
  • 19: Cornell University
  • 20: Northwestern University
Cambridge punting
Image captionCambridge University rose from fourth to second place

The researchers say the findings show “a widening gulf between the UK’s super elite institutions and other universities”, with just over half of the UK’s top 200 institutions, dropping down the ranking.

Mr Baty said: “The UK higher education system is facing intense political pressure, with questions over the value for money provided by £9,250 tuition fees in England, our continued attractiveness to international students, the flow of research funding and academic talent post-Brexit, and even levels of vice-chancellors’ pay.

“But one thing this new data makes absolutely clear is that the UK has many of the very best universities in the world and it has one of the world’s strongest higher education systems.

“The data shows UK universities are consistently producing ground-breaking new research which is driving innovation, they are attracting international students and academic talent and are providing a world-class teaching environment.

“They are a huge national asset, and one that the country can ill-afford to undermine at a time when its place in the global order is under intense scrutiny.”

Former senior police officer Helen King shares vision for St Anne’s

Former senior police officer Helen King shares vision for St Anne’s

Former senior police officer Helen King shares vision for St Anne’s


Well-being and a concern for the vulnerable sit at the centre of the vision of first senior police officer to be appointed head of an Oxford College.

Helen King, the new Principal of St Anne’s College, has come to Oxford from the Metropolitan Police, where she was Assistant Commissioner.

In a wide-ranging interview with Oxford Today she named her first major initiative as ‘Be well do well’. ‘It expresses my aspiration for all students and staff here, to achieve their goals but also be healthy mentally and physically as well, living the lives they want to… – my position on all this is that you can’t do really well unless you are well.’

The post marks a return to the College for Ms King who graduated in PPE in 1983. She then joined the Cheshire Constabulary as a Police Constable in 1986 before working in uniform and CID roles across the county. In 2005, she transferred to Merseyside Police as an Assistant Chief Constable. She joined the Metropolitan Police Service as Assistant Commissioner for Territorial Policing in June 2014, later becoming Assistant Commissioner for Professionalism. She was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal in the New Year’s Honours list 2011.

Reflecting on why no previous police leader had headed an Oxford college, she said there was a stereotype of the police as ‘Practical people rather than as academics or thinkers – and yet they have to make pretty complex decisions all the time.’

She added that there were parallels between the social challenges which both the police and the University aim to address. ‘If you think about it, most of the time in policing, you’re working with the most vulnerable communities with some of the biggest challenges in society. St Anne’s prides itself on being connected and relevant to the outside world, allowing people to access an Oxford education who might not otherwise be able to. I hope my professional background can reinforce this – I’m never going to aspire to or portray myself as being from an ivory tower.’

Read the full interview here.

Ryanair random seat allocation is not so random says Oxford University expert

Ryanair random seat allocation is not so random says Oxford University expert

Image credit: Shutterstock

Passengers have more chance of winning the National Lottery jackpot than being allocated middle seats at random on a Ryanair flight, according to new Oxford University analysis.

In recent weeks Ryanair have faced mounting customer criticism, with some accusing the airline of splitting up groups and families, who do not pay an additional charge for reserved seating. These claims have been rejected by the airline which says that customers who do not wish to pay for their preferred seat are randomly allocated one, free of charge.

Last night, the BBC Consumer affairs programme, Watchdog, ran its own investigation to test how random the airline’s seating algorithm is.

As part of their tests, groups of four people were sent on four separate Ryanair flights. In each instance every single person was allocated a middle seat. Dr Jennifer Rogers, Director of the new Oxford University Statistical Consultancy was then invited to analyse the data, to work-out the chances of every person getting a middle seat allocated randomly.

By looking at the amount of window, aisle and middle seating available on each flight, at the time of check-in, Dr Rogers, calculated the chances of all four people being randomly given middle seats on each of the flights, to be around 1:540,000,000. The chances of winning the National Lottery jackpot are 1:45,000,000. (This means that you are 10 times more likely to win the lottery than be in a group who are all randomly allocated middle seats.)

To support her analysis, Dr Rogers was also given access to data from a further 26 individuals, from nine groups, who had been separated from their party when travelling with Ryanair. Of the 26 people canvassed, 21 had been allocated middle seats, and in 11 of the total 13 groups (including the four BBC flights) assessed, each person had been given a middle seat.

Dr Rogers also considered whether row allocation played a part in the seating arrangement, observing that passengers were often scattered throughout the plane. An individual from a group would, on average, be sat 10 rows away from someone else from their group. On two of the flights the data revealed that a passenger had been sat 26 rows away from someone else who they were flying with.

Dr Jennifer Rogers, Director of Oxford University Statistical Consultancy, said: ‘This is a highly controversial topic and my analysis cast doubt on whether Ryanair’s seat allocation can be purely random. I am delighted that Oxford University Statistical Consultancy (OUSC) has been able to support Watchdog with their research in this way. It’s great that in the run up to the official Unit launch we can highlight the kind of services that we will be able to offer.’

University researchers reach out into the community

University researchers reach out into the community

VC pub engagement


A researcher reconstructing lost historical sites, a project transforming lion killers into lion conservationists, activities to help people living with dementia and a department giving schoolchildren a chance to touch a piece of the moon have all been named winners at this year’s Vice-Chancellor’s Public Engagement with Research Awards.

These projects, along with eleven others, were recognised at the University’s Vice-Chancellor’s Public Engagement with Research Awards on 28 June, at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Dr Claire Sexton, of the Department of Psychiatry, won an Early Career Research Award for engaging communities with her research on ageing in the brain. Since 2015 she has delivered Dementia Friends information sessions and public talks about her research. She is also Founding Chair of Dementia Friendly Chipping Norton. The group aims to bring together people living with dementia, caregivers, community organisations and researchers to increase awareness of dementia locally and improve inclusion and quality of life.

The Department of Earth Sciences was recognised in the Building Capacity category, for their work with Oxford primary school groups. Schoolchildren joined researchers in investigating samples of real lunar material brought to earth by the Apollo missions in the 1970s, which are rarely seen and held, even by researchers of lunar science.

Awarded projects engaged those much further afield too. A project led by Dr Amy Dickman from the Department of Zoology worked with communities in Tanzania to transform lion killers into lion conservationists – a major need in an area which holds the world’s second largest lion population, but had previously suffered extremely high rates of lion killing by local people.

The Vice-Chancellor’s prize was also announced at the ceremony – this year’s winner was Dr Alexy Karenowska, Department of Physics, for her work on the documentation, preservation, and restoration of at-risk cultural heritage sites across the world. Dr Karenowska led a team to create a 13 tonne replica of the Triumphal Arch from Syria’s Palmyra site, destroyed in 2015. She managed the installation of the structure on Trafalgar Square in London and has overseen the installation of the same arch in New York, Dubai and Florence.

Professor Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor says: ‘I have been deeply impressed by the quality of the public engagement with research projects submitted for this year’s awards. The breadth and diversity of the activities taking place show how seriously the University takes its commitment to public engagement. It is inspiring to see the positive impact these activities have both on research and on the individuals and communities that have been involved, from warriors in Tanzania and young adults in Brazil, to local communities affected by dementia.’

Professor Alison Woollard, the University’s Academic Champion for Public Engagement with Research says: ‘Public engagement enriches both research and society and the University is committed to enabling our researchers to inspire, consult and collaborate with the public. I’m delighted that we are able to recognise and highlight the fantastic work our researchers are doing and hope these awards encourage more colleagues across the University to carry out their own public engagement with research.’

A full list of project winners can be found here.

Cancer hijacks natural cell process to survive

Cancer hijacks natural cell process to survive

Image credit: Shutterstock


Cancer tumours manipulate a natural cell process to promote their survival suggesting that controlling this mechanism could stop progress of the disease, according to new research led by the University of Oxford.

Non-sense mediated decay (NMD) is a natural physiological process that provides cells with the ability to detect DNA errors called nonsense mutations. It also enables these cells to eliminate the mutated message, (decay) ,that comes from these faulty genes, before they can be translated into proteins that can cause disease formation. NMD is known among the medical community for the role it plays in the development of genetic diseases such as Cystic Fibrosis and some hereditary forms of cancers. But not all nonsense mutations can elicit NMD, so until now, it’s wider impact on cancer was largely unknown.

Biomedical researchers and computer scientists from the University of Oxford Medical Sciences Division and the University of Birmingham developed a computer algorithm to mine DNA sequences from cancer to accurately predict whether or not an NMD would eliminate genes that had nonsense mutations. The work originally focused on ovarian cancers, and found that about a fifth of these cancers use NMD, to become stronger. This is because NMD ensures that the message from a gene called TP53, which ordinarily protects cells from developing cancer is almost completely eliminated. In the absence of NMD, a mutated TP53 might still retain some activity but NMD ensures that this is not the case.

This is very exciting news. Professor Ahmed and his team have identified how cancer cells rely on a process called NMD for their survival. This discovery could help clinicians identify and inhibit the process, giving them much better control of a person’s cancer.

Katherine Taylor, CEO of Ovarian Cancer Action

Based on this research, the team predicts that because cancers essentially feed on NMD, they become dependent on it in some cases. If scientists were therefore able to inhibit or control the process, it is possible that they could also control cancer and prevent the progression of the disease.

Dr Ahmed Ahmed, Co-author and Professor of Gynaecology Oncology at the Nuffield Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology and the head of the Ovarian Cancer Cell Laboratory, at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Oxford, said: ‘Our first observations of evidence of the role of NMD in ovarian cancer were tantalizing. We found that NMD precisely explained why there was almost no expression of TP53 in certain ovarian cancers. We went on to test the role of NMD in other cancer types and the evidence of the role of NMD was compelling. This opens the door for exciting possibilities for customised treatments including individualized immunotherapies for patients in the future.’

Following the ovarian cancer analysis, the team expanded the study to include other cancer types. They analysed about a million different cell mutations in more than 7,000 tumours from the Cancer Genome Atlas covering 24 types of cancer. The team was able to map how each cancer type used NMD revealing the remarkable extent to which NMD helps cancer to survive.

Katherine Taylor, CEO of Ovarian Cancer Action, who part-funded the research, said: ‘This is very exciting news. Professor Ahmed and his team have identified how cancer cells rely on a process called NMD for their survival. This discovery could help clinicians identify and inhibit the process, giving them much better control of a person’s cancer.

‘Ovarian cancer is a very complicated disease and survival rates are low, with only 46% of women living beyond five years after diagnosis. So understanding how we can prevent the disease from thriving is imperative if we are to improve the outcome for more women.
‘It’s fantastic to see how our funding is helping make real progress and we couldn’t do this without the generosity of our supporters. We look forward to seeing where Professor Ahmed takes his research next.’
Moving forward the team will focus on testing their theory and understanding to what degree stopping the NMD process allows them to control tumours.

Co-author, Dr Christopher Yau, a computational scientist at the Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences, University of Birmingham said: ‘As a result of these findings, we now plan to apply the same computer algorithm to determine if NMD affects cancer patients in The 100,000 Genomes Project. These investigations may pave the way to new treatment possibilities for NHS patients in the future.’

World’s Largest Health Big Data Institute Opens In Oxford

World’s largest health big data institute opens in Oxford

Li Ka Shing Centre Opening May 2017

A new £115 million biomedical research centre will pave the way for treatments for some of the biggest population health issues around the globe, potentially improving the everyday lives of millions.

Opened with the support of a £20m gift from the Li Ka Shing Foundation, the centre will bring together researchers from related teams to analyse biomedical data from hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, speeding up both our understanding of diseases and the development of new treatments for conditions including cancer, Alzheimer’s and a number of infectious diseases.

The Li Ka Shing Centre for Health Information and Discovery incorporates two related research institutes at the heart of Oxford University’s major biomedical campus in Headington. The two research institutes, the Target Discovery Institute (TDI) and the Big Data Institute (BDI), will lead the development of new types of research activity in the University.

More than six hundred scientists will be based in the centre, from a wide range of research areas, working to define disease more accurately, identify targets for new drugs, and to help us to understand how disease responds to treatment. Molecular and cell biologists, chemists, epidemiologists, statisticians, trialists, computer scientists, informatics specialists, engineers and clinical scientists will all be housed under the same roof, to improve the collaboration between different teams.

Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford, said: ‘Technological advances have exponentially increased the information we have about what happens in a variety of disease states. Some of this comes from health care records and some from analysing patient samples. Being able to efficiently interrogate this data will play an increasing role in both research and treatment development in the coming years, and by bringing together world-leading research teams under one roof we will be able to accelerate this process significantly.’

Speaking at the opening, Sir Li Ka-shing said: ‘I believe the work done here will make history, and will make miracles. I am very honoured to have been able to join Oxford University in this noble enterprise, and consider myself truly privileged to have been able to play a part in enabling the miracles and history that will be made here.’

Andrew Wiles Awarded Copley Medal by Royal Society

Andrew Wiles awarded Copley Medal by Royal Society

Sir Andrew Wiles

Oxford University Professor Andrew Wiles has been awarded the Copley medal, the Royal Society’s oldest and most prestigious award.

Already an Abel Prize winning scientist, which is the Nobel Prize of Mathematics, Professor Wiles is widely known for solving the 300 year-old mystery of Fermat’s Last Theorem. His latest accolade is awarded annually for outstanding achievements in research in any branch of science and alternates between the physical and biological sciences.

Professor Wiles, Royal Society Research Professor of Mathematics at Oxford, is one of the world’s most highly regarded mathematicians. His proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem in the 1990s catapulted him to unexpected international fame as both his peers and the wider world were gripped by his solving of what was widely believed to be ‘impossible’. In 1637 Fermat had stated that there are no whole number solutions to the equation xn + yn = zn when n is greater than 2, unless xyz=0. Fermat went on to claim that he had found a proof for the theorem, but said that the margin of the text he was making notes on was not wide enough to contain it.

After seven years of intense study in private at Princeton University, Professor Wiles announced he had found a proof in 1993, combining three complex mathematical fields – modular forms, elliptic curves and Galois representations. However, he had not only solved the long-standing puzzle of the Theorem, but in doing so had created entirely new directions in mathematics, which have proved invaluable to other scientists in the years since his discovery.

Educated at Merton College, Oxford and Clare College, Cambridge, where he was supervised by John Coates, Andrew made brief visits to Bonn and Paris before in 1982 he became a professor at Princeton University, where he stayed for nearly 30 years. In 2011 he moved to Oxford as a Royal Society Research Professor.

In addition to receiving the Abel Prize in 2016, Professor Wiles has won many prizes including, the Wolf Prize in Mathematics. In his current research he is developing new ideas in the context of the Langlands Program, a set of far-reaching and influential conjectures connecting number theory to algebraic geometry and the theory of automorphic forms.

Oxford Student Creates First Synthetic Retina for the Visually Impaired

Oxford student creates first synthetic retina for the visually impaired

4 May 2017

A synthetic, soft tissue retina developed by an Oxford University student could offer fresh hope to visually impaired people.

Until now, all artificial retinal research has used only rigid, hard materials. The new research, by Vanessa Restrepo-Schild, a 24 year old Dphil student and researcher at the Oxford University, Department of Chemistry, is the first to successfully use biological, synthetic tissues, developed in a laboratory environment. The study could revolutionise the bionic implant industry and the development of new, less invasive technologies that more closely resemble human body tissues, helping to treat degenerative eye conditions such as retinitis pigmentosa.

Just as photography depends on camera pixels reacting to light, vision relies on the retina performing the same function. The retina sits at the back of the human eye, and contains protein cells that convert light into electrical signals that travel through the nervous system, triggering a response from the brain, ultimately building a picture of the scene being viewed.

Vanessa Restrepo-Schild led the team in the development of a new synthetic, double layered retina which closely mimics the natural human retinal process. The retina replica consists of soft water droplets (hydrogels) and biological cell membrane proteins. Designed like a camera, the cells act as pixels, detecting and reacting to light to create a grey scale image. The Colombian native said: ‘The synthetic material can generate electrical signals, which stimulate the neurons at the back of our eye just like the original retina.’

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, shows that unlike existing artificial retinal implants, the cell-cultures are created from natural, biodegradable materials and do not contain foreign bodies or living entities. In this way the implant is less invasive than a mechanical devise, and is less likely to have an adverse reaction on the body. Miss Restrepo-Schild added: ‘The human eye is incredibly sensitive, which is why foreign bodies like metal retinal implants can be so damaging, leading to inflammation and/or scaring. But a biological synthetic implant is soft and water based, so much more friendly to the eye environment.’

Of the motivation behind the ground-breaking study, Miss Restrepo-Schild said: ‘I have always been fascinated by the human body, and want to prove that current technology could be used to replicate the function of human tissues, without having to actually use living cells.

I have taken the principals behind vital bodily functions, e.g. our sense of hearing, touch and the ability to detect light, and replicated them in a laboratory environment with natural, synthetic components. I hope my research is the first step in a journey towards building technology that is soft and biodegradable instead of hard and wasteful.’

Although at present the synthetic retina has only been tested in laboratory conditions, Miss Restrepo-Schild is keen to build on her initial work and explore potential uses with living tissues. This next step is vital in demonstrating how the material performs as a bionic implant.

Miss Restrepo-Schild has filed a patent for the technology and the next phase of the work will see the Oxford team expand the replica’s function to include recognising different colours. Working with a much larger replica, the team will test the material’s ability to recognise different colours and potentially even shapes and symbols. Looking further ahead the research will expand to include animal testing and then a series of clinical trials in humans.

Affluent Countries Contribute Less to Wildlife Conservation Than the Rest of the World

Affluent countries contribute less to wildlife conservation than the rest of the world



Less affluent countries are more committed to conservation of their large animals than richer ones, a new Oxford University research collaboration has found.

Researchers from Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU) have assessed how much, or little, individual countries contribute to protecting the world’s wildlife. Working in partnership with Panthera, the only organisation dedicated to protecting wild cats, they found that in comparison to the more affluent, developed world, biodiversity is a higher priority in poorer areas such as the African nations, which contribute more to conservation than any other region.

Led by Panthera Research Associate Dr Peter Lindsey, the team created a Mega-Fauna Conservation Index (MCI) of 152 nations, to evaluate their conservation footprint. Since a high proportion of mega-fauna species, such as tigers, leopards and gorillas face extinction, the team focused their research on the protection of large mammals. The benchmarking system evaluated three key measures: a) the proportion of the country occupied by each mega-fauna species that survives in the country (countries with more species covering a higher proportion of the country scoring higher); b) the proportion of mega-fauna species range that is protected (higher proportions score higher); c) and the amount of money spent on conservation – either domestically or internationally, relative to GDP.

The findings show that poorer countries tend to take a more active approach to biodiversity protection than richer nations. Ninety per cent of countries in North and Central America and 70 per cent of countries in Africa were classified as major or above-average in their mega-fauna conservation efforts.

Despite facing a number of domestic challenges, such as poverty and political instability in many parts of the continent, Africa was found to prioritise wildlife preservation, and contribute more to conservation than any other region of the world. African countries made up four of the five top-performing mega-fauna conservation nations, with Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe topping the list. By contrast, the United States ranked nineteenth out of the twenty performing countries. Approximately one-quarter of countries in Asia and Europe were identified as significantly underperforming in their commitment to mega-fauna conservation.

Dr.Lindsey said: ‘Scores of species across the globe, including tigers, lions and rhinos, are at risk of extinction due to a plethora of threats imposed by mankind. We cannot ignore the possibility that we will lose many of these incredible species unless swift, decisive and collective action is taken by the global community.’

Human impact continues to have a devastating effect on the natural world, with wildlife species across the globe under threat from poaching, hunting and the consequences of climate change. Recent studies indicate that 59 per cent of the world’s largest carnivores and sixty per cent of the largest herbivores are currently threatened with extinction.

Professor David Macdonald, Director of WildCRU and co-author of the paper, said: ‘Every country should strive to do more to protect its wildlife. Our index provides a measure of how well each country is doing, and sets a benchmark for nations that are performing below the average level, to understand the kind of contributions they need to make as a minimum. There is a strong case for countries where mega-fauna species have been historically persecuted, to assist their recovery.’

The study also goes some way to explaining why the regional disparities occur. Mega-fauna species are associated with strong ‘existence values’, where just knowing that large wild animals exist, makes people feel happier. In some cases, such as the African nations, this link explains why some countries are more concerned with conservation than others. Larger mammal species like wild cats, gorillas and elephants play a key role in ecological processes as well as tourism industries, which are an economic lifeline in poorer regions.

The conservation index is intended as a call to action for the world to acknowledge its responsibility to wildlife protection. By highlighting the disparity in each nations’ contributions to conservation the team hopes to see increased efforts and renewed commitment to biodiversity preservation.

Addressing how countries can improve their MCI scores, Dr Peter Lindsey said: “There are three ways; Firstly, they can ‘re-wild’ their landscapes by reintroducing mega-fauna and/or by allowing the distribution of such species to increase. They can also set aside more land as strictly protected areas. And they can invest more in conservation, either at home or abroad.”

At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, developed nations promised to allocate at least $2 billion (USD) per annum towards conservation in developing nations. However, current conservation contributions from developed nations sit at just half of the proposed amount, $1.1 billion (USD) per year.

Discussing how the scores were tallied, Professor Macdonald added: “These countries have achieved high scores in a variety of ways – some by setting aside vast protected area networks, others by allowing mega-fauna species to occupy high proportions of their landscape, and others by investing significant funding in conservation either domestically or internationally. Our hope is that this will be produced annually to provide a public benchmark for commitment to protecting nature’s largest, and, some would say, most charismatic wildlife. The way the index has been structured means that as countries of the world do more, the average benchmark will increase encouraging underperformers to try harder.”

Professor William Ripple, Co-author and Oregon State University Professor concluded: “The Megafauna Conservation Index is an important first step to transparency – some of the poorest countries in the world are making the biggest investments in a global asset and should be congratulated, whereas some of the richest nations just aren’t doing enough.”

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