Time to think about visual neuroscience

by Poppy Sharp, PhD candidate at the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences, University of Trento.

All is not as it seems

We all delight in discovering that what we see isn’t always the truth. Think optical illusions: as a kid I loved finding the hidden images in Magic Eye stereogram pictures. Maybe you remember a surprising moment when you realised you can’t always trust your eyes. Here’s a quick example. In the image below, cover your left eye and stare at the cross, then slowly move closer towards the screen. At some point, instead of seeing what’s really there, you’ll see a continuous black line. This happens when the WAB logo falls in a small patch on the retinae of your eyes where the nerve fibres leave in a bundle, and consequently this patch has no light receptors – a blind spot. When the logo is in your blind spot, your visual system fills in the gap using the available information. Since there are lines on either side, the assumption is made that the line continues through the blind spot.

Illusions reveal that our perception of the world results from the brain building our visual experiences, using best guesses as to what’s really out there. Most of the time you don’t notice, because the visual system has been adapted over years of evolution and then been honed by your lifetime of perceptual experiences, and is pretty good at what it does.

WAB vision

For vision scientists, illusions can provide clues about the way the visual system builds our experiences. We refer to our visual experience of something as a ‘percept’, and use the term ‘stimulus’ for the thing which prompted that percept. The stimulus could be something as simple as a flash of light, or more complex like a human face. Vision science is all about carefully designing experiments so we can tease apart the relationship between the physical stimulus out in the world and our percept of it. In this way, we learn about the ongoing processes in the brain which allow us to do everything from recognising objects and people, to judging the trajectory of a moving ball so we can catch it.

We can get insight into what people perceived by measuring their behavioural responses. Take a simple experiment: we show people an arrow to indicate whether to pay attention to the left or the right side of the screen, then they see either one or two flashes of light flash quickly on one side, and have to press a button to indicate how many flashes they saw. There are several behavioural measures we could record here. Did the cue help them be more accurate at telling the difference between one or two flashes? Did the cue allow them to respond more quickly? Were they more confident in their response? These are all behavioural measures. In addition, we can also look at another type of measure: their brain activity. Recording brain activity allows unique insights into how our experiences of the world are put together, and investigation of exciting new questions about the mind and brain.

Rhythms of the brain

Your brain is a complex network of cells using electrochemical signals to communicate with one another. We can take a peek at your brain waves by measuring the magnetic fields associated with the electrical activity of your brain. These magnetic fields are very small, so to record them we need a machine called an MEG scanner (magnetoencephalography) which has many extremely sensitive sensors called SQUIDs (superconducting quantum interference devices). The scanner somewhat resembles a dryer for ladies getting their blue rinse done, but differs in that it’s filled with liquid helium and costs about three million euros.

A single cell firing off an electrical signal would have too small a magnetic field to be detected, but since cells tend to fire together as groups, we can measure these patterns of activity in the MEG signal. Then we look for differences in the patterns of activity under different experimental conditions, in order to reveal what’s going on in the brain during different cognitive processes. For example, in our simple experiment from before with a cue and flashes of light, we would likely find differences in brain activity when these flashes occur at an expected location as compared to an unexpected one.

One particularly fascinating way we can characterise patterns of brain activity is in terms of the the rhythms of the brain. Brain activity is an ongoing symphony of multiple groups of cells firing in concert. Some groups fire together more often (i.e. at high frequency), whereas others may also be firing together in a synchronised way, but firing less often (low frequency). These different patterns of brain waves generated by cells forming different groups and firing at various frequencies are vital for many important processes, including visual perception.

What I’m working on

For as many hours of the day as your eyes are open, a flood of visual information is continuously streaming into your brain. I’m interested in how the visual system makes sense of all that information, and prioritises some things over others. Like many researchers, the approach we use is to show simple stimuli in a controlled setting, in order to ask questions about fundamental low level visual processes. We then hope that our insights generalise to more natural processing in the busy and changeable visual environment of the ‘real world’. My focus is on temporal processing. Temporal processing can refer to a lot of things, but as far as my projects go we mean how you deal with stimuli occurring very close together in time (tens of milliseconds apart). I’m investigating how this is influenced by expectations, so in my experiments we manipulate expectations about where in space stimuli will be, and also your expectations about when they will appear. This is achieved using simple visual cues to direct your attention to, for example, a certain area of the screen.

When stimuli rapidly follow one another in time, sometimes it’s important to be parse them into separate percepts whereas other times it’s more appropriate to integrate them together. There’s always a tradeoff between the precision and stability of the percepts built by the visual system.  The right balance between splitting up stimuli into separate percepts as opposed to blending them into a combined percept depends on the situation and what you’re trying to achieve at that moment.

Let’s illustrate some aspects of this idea about parsing versus integrating stimuli with a story, out in the woods at night. If some flashes of light come in quick succession from the undergrowth, this could be the moonlight reflecting off the eyes of a moving predator. In this case, your visual system needs to integrate these stimuli into a percept of the predator moving through space. But a similar set of several stimuli flashing up from the darkness could also be multiple predators next to each other, in which case it’s vital that you parse the incoming information and perceive them separately. Current circumstances and goals determine the mode of temporal processing that is most appropriate.

I’m investigating how expectations about where stimuli will be can influence your ability to either parse them into separate percepts or to form an integrated percept. Through characterising how expectations influence these two fundamental but opposing temporal processes, we hope to gain insights not only into the processes themselves, but also into the mechanisms of expectation in the visual system. By combining behavioural measures with measures of brain activity (collected using the MEG scanner), we are working towards new accounts of the dynamics of temporal processing and factors which influence it. In this way, we better our understanding of the visual system’s impressive capabilities in building our vital visual experiences from the lively stream of information entering our eyes.


The wonders of kelp, and why we need to save it.

‘Deforestation of the Sea: A closer look at valuable kelp forests in shallow seas around Britain’ by Jess Fisher.

 ‘I can only compare these great aquatic forests… with the terrestrial ones in the intertropical regions. Yet if in any country a forest was destroyed, I do not believe nearly so many species of animals would perish as would here, from the destruction of the kelp’

Charles Darwin (1834) Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Kelp forests: the rainforests of the ocean

A few weeks ago, I settled happily into Finding Dory on a Saturday night. Towards the end, the little blue fish drifts through the giant kelp forests, devoid of life, and sadly proclaims ‘…there’s nothing here but kelp!’. Having studied this oceanic plant, I can confirm that this is 100% scientifically incorrect: well done Pixar.

Kelp forests actually have around the same levels of biodiversity as a tropical rainforest. But why should you care?

Because kelp can do everything: it’s home to hundreds of thousands of marine species, it can be used as a fertiliser and a biofuel, it can be extracted to use in cosmetics like make-up and toothpaste, amongst many more uses. In 1908, Japanese biochemist Professor Ikeda isolated monosodium glutamate (or MSG – one of the things that makes Asian food so great) from kelp. Who knew science could be so delicious?!

Why is kelp disappearing?

Unfortunately, kelp is reported to be disappearing. This is mostly because of climate change making the oceans uninhabitable for some species, but also that more people are harvesting kelp from the wild. Lots of people are even beginning to call it a superfood. While its rapid growth rate (up to half a metre per day in some species) suggests that harvesting kelp should not really be a problem, conservation scientists are worried that all the marine life living in kelp forests will take quite a bit longer to return. Britain is especially important for kelp (because of the variation in habitats and rocky shores) which is why I started working on a project looking to test novel monitoring methods for kelp, so we can potentially measure what is actually happening.

How our project works

Kayaking into the open ocean near Plymouth, we fought through choppy waves into a prevailing wind, whilst I continually threw cold seawater with my paddle onto my kayak-partner, who was sitting behind me! Lots of kelp lives in the subtidal zone (beneath the sea surface even at low tide), and so the plan was to beam sonar onto the seabed from a kayak, look at the graph that the sonar gives back, and then use a GoPro camera to visually verify assumptions that we were making about which graphic patterns denoted kelp. For example:


 This was one of four kayak trips the team made to test the method. Amongst some other objectives, the main aim is to ask whether sonar can be used to monitor kelp at a Britain-wide scale. The findings will be given to our funder, The Crown Estate, who manages development on the British coastline (The Crown Estate is owned by the Queen of the United Kingdom). They would like to eventually create some guidelines for sustainably harvesting wild kelp, so that this valuable seaweed resource (and its associated flora and fauna) will be available for future generations for years to come. Some kelp snapshots from the seabed:

Counting the cost of losing kelp forests

Kelp forests are reported to be worth billions of pounds. In the northeast Atlantic, young lobster live in the kelp, and are eventually fished by a lobster industry worth £30 million alone. Is it worth keeping? Certainly. Is it worth monitoring incase of declines? Definitely.

 Inspired? Check out the Big Seaweed Search, Capturing Our Coast, and Floating Forests for some citizen science kelp-focussed initiatives. You can also read about the project on ZSL Wild Science.


Science and the City: An interview with Laurie Winkless

Laurie Winkless is the writer of the recently published book ‘Science and the City’. Science and the City has already received fantastic reviews, with the book described as ‘fascinating, lucid and entertaining’, and ‘a wonderful source of fascinating information’. With a background in science research, Laurie now works in science communication (follow her on Twitter here). We met Laurie before the Irish launch of her book at the Science Gallery in Dublin at the end of August (The Science Gallery sold out of copies of Science and the City mere minutes after the launch ended!). Laurie was really kind and gave us a half-hour of her time during what has been a very busy month since her book was published. Read on to find out more about her book, her new-found love of London Underground tunnels, mealworms, jiggly atoms, the Mars Curiosity Rover, women in science,  gendered toys, and more!

Tom Lawson

Laurie and her book in one of Laurie’s beloved rail tunnels in London! Photo: Tom Lawson

Science and the City

Women Are Boring: Congratulations on the launch of the book! It’s getting a great reception! What is your favourite fact in the book?

Laurie Winkless: One thing I hadn’t realised before I started writing the book was that I am obsessed by tunnels! I get on the London Underground (the tube) pretty much every day, and I don’t tend to really think about it, but when I started hanging out with tunnel engineers I developed a real love and affection for tunnels. Somewhere deep inside me, there’s a train nerd! That is my favourite part of the ‘today’ science. As for the ‘tomorrow’ science, I’m excited about research around trying to reduce landfills by letting mealworms eat the plastic waste. This seems to be completely fine for the mealworms, and it gets rid of our non-biodegradable waste! I also spoke to an architect in Colombia who is using waste plastic to build houses. He melts down the plastic and turns it into what are almost lego blocks that clip together. The reuse of plastic is really interesting; we’re so silly with our use of plastic – it takes so long to biodegrade.

WAB: What inspired you to write the book?

LW: It’s been a combination of living in London, and my research background. I’ve lived in London for eleven years now and I think you get a bit obsessed with the city – even if you’re complaining about it, you’re still talking about it! Getting from A to B is a big thing for everyone in London, and that’s where my love of transport came from. My research background is in material science, which tends to be quite a practical, hands-on research area and is very applied to the real world. I kept coming across new technologies, building materials, battery technologies, the use of nanotechnology in food packaging, for example, and I thought ‘you know what? Maybe I can help people understand how cities work today, and also do some future-gazing’.

Thermoelectric energy harvesting

WAB: You’ve had a really cool career – you have a BSC in Physics with Astrophysics from Trinity College Dublin, an MSc in Space Science from University College London, you worked as a researcher at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory for seven years, and you work in science communication. Your pet topic is thermoelectric energy harvesting – tell us a bit about that.

LW: Thermoelectric materials are solid materials, with no moving parts, but they can transform heat into electricity. They can do it because they use these two separate properties of materials that overlap. Think of a hot cup of tea in a cold cup – eventually the cup will get warm and the tea will cool down, so the temperature equalises. With thermoelectric materials, if you can keep that temperature difference – keeping the hot end hot and the cold end cold – what you end up doing is you give energy to the atoms inside the material – which is what heat does all the time. Whether you realise it or not, we live in a universe of jiggling atoms. The higher the temperature is, the more atoms jiggle. That’s basically how we measure temperature – it’s how jiggly atoms are. So, an atom will only ever stop moving at absolute zero, which we can’t really reach. When you’re giving out hot and cold you’re getting all this heat energy; the atoms are jiggling like crazy! But in thermoelectric materials, that also spits out electrons, and a stream of electrons is electricity. If you strap loads of these thermoelectric materials together – for example a square of 64, 120, or 500 of these blocks of thermoelectric materials –  even though each one is only producing tiny amounts of electricity, you turn the waste heat into electricity.

WAB: What was your own research in this area on?

LW: My research was on the car industry in particular. It looked at how we can capture all of that waste heat in car exhausts, because car exhaust temperatures can be almost 500 degrees Celsius – that is energy that is not helping to move the car forward. It is wasting fuel. In fact, only about a third of the energy in fuel actually moves our car. Almost all of the rest is thrown away as heat. We were trying to design devices made with thermoelectric materials that we could strap on to car exhausts. Then you’d have the car exhaust hot, the air outside a bit cooler, and harness that temperature difference to have electricity being produced. We could then use that to do other things in the car, like run the radio or some of the electronics, so that fuel doesn’t need to be used for those things.


The Mars Curiosity Rover, which is powered by thermoelectric materials. You can follow the Rover on Twitter here! Photo: NASA

WAB: Amazing! What else can thermoelectric materials be used for?

LW: There are lots of other ways you can use thermoelectric materials. The Mars Curiosity Rover is powered by a thermoelectric generator. It has a tiny piece of a plutonium on the inside. Because plutonium is radioactive, it naturally decays and produces heat, and then there’s all these fins around it so the outside is much cooler, and that powers the entire Rover! They’ve been using thermoelectric materials in the space industry for a long time – we’re just catching up on Earth now!

WAB: What do you think will be the next big application of thermoelectric materials?

LW: One thing that people are really interested in is power plants. Most electricity plants produce heat. A lot of them will burn fuel, usually coal or gas, which heats up an enormous tank of water. That tank of water turn to steam, the steam turns a turbine, and the turbine produces electricity. So actually, a generation of electricity is all about heat. There are lots of researchers who are now asking ‘can we capture some of the heat that we’re producing to make power plants more efficient?’. We want to move away from fossil fuels as rapidly as possible, but this is a good stop-gap in between: making fossil fuels a bit more efficient until we get to the point at which people realise the value of renewables.

Science – the natural option!

WAB: What inspired you to go into science?

LW: I’m quite a curious person. I always have been, and I always wanted to study science – I can’t remember when I first thought ‘I want to be a scientist.’ I like taking things apart, and trying to put them back together again – I used to do that and have bits left over and think ‘oh no, I haven’t done a good job!’ I’ve always enjoyed hands-on, practical work. I like using my hands and questioning the everyday, so science was a natural option for me!

WAB: Tell us about your career path, how did you go from working in a lab to science communication?

LW: My career path has felt more like random leaps around! I did science communication alongside my research, and I was always visiting school, fairs and festivals to talk to the public about science. I decided to take a break from the lab to try and develop communication skills and see if I was any good, and I got the book deal out of that! I really enjoy science communication, and I think that helps. You give more of yourself to something when you enjoy it. People engage with you more. I wanted the book to be authentically myself, because as a scientist, when you’re writing papers, you are often editing your personality out – and that’s an important thing, it has to be neutral. But when I’m not writing papers, I can show a bit more of my personality. I was very nervous about doing that, to be honest. I think it was easier to be logical and very neutral, and I was very anxious about writing the way I talk because I felt it was too informal. It’s scary!

WAB: It is scary! We were very nervous when we launched Women Are Boring, both about putting ourselves out there and wondering whether we’d be taken seriously.

LW: Exactly! You feel like there’s a nakedness, don’t you?

WAB: Its something you’re not used to really doing when you’re in an academic environment.

LW: Definitely. And I think, for sure, not everyone will enjoy it. But the book helped me get braver at being myself. One of the nicest compliments I’ve had about the book has been that it sounds like I’m sitting beside you on the sofa as you read the book. That’s a hugely positive and flattering thing for me. That was the hardest thing to do.

Women in STEM and the ‘leaky pipeline’


WAB: What has your experience as a woman in science been like?

LW: I have to say, I’ve had very few negative experiences as a woman in science, and those negative experiences have almost never included my colleagues. I think a lot of my colleagues were completely gender-blind! I never felt treated any differently. The only time I did feel treated oddly was by ‘outsiders’, for want of a better word. For example, I had a situation in the lab once where we had a contractor in to install a high-voltage line for a piece of equipment that I had designed. My male colleague was in the lab with me, but it wasn’t his research project. The contractor just kept speaking to my male colleague – and my colleague was really embarrassed by this! It wasn’t his project, it wasn’t his thing. Eventually, my colleague said to the contractor ‘I really don’t know why you’re asking me this – she’s the boss.’ The contractor looked around at me and was shocked by this! Ordinarily I would be quite patient with things like that, but he got me on a bad day, and I said ‘if you could start speaking to my face, that would be great. I’d appreciate that.’ I then told him what we needed, when we needed it done by, and asked ‘do you think you can do it by this time? Because if you can’t, I can get someone else’. He was taken aback, but I shouldn’t have had to lower myself to that. But as I said, there have been so few moments like that, so experiences like that have really stood out. I’ve been lucky – others have been less lucky than I have.

WAB: What about the issue of keeping women in science? We know there’s a dearth of women in science once we get to a certain level in many areas.

LW: That is a big challenge. We’ve got a leaky pipeline. Like me, for example – I graduated with a STEM degree, I worked in research, and now I’ve stepped sideways from research into communication. But that decision wasn’t to do with me thinking that I couldn’t develop as a scientist – I just wanted to try this, to see if I was any good at it. However, many other women have left science careers at a similar time to me, or later, so we get to the point where we have very few female physics professors, for example. I think part of that is to do with how we can treat people as equally as possible. In an ideal world, things would be a meritocracy, but they so rarely are. That a bigger problem in STEM.

WAB: Absolutely. We attended the L’Oréal – UNESCO Women in Science awards in London in June, and one of the things we found really interesting was that many of the nominees, and those who were awarded fellowships, felt that an important thing about that funding is that it is flexible – they could use it towards childcare. Without that, they might have had to cut back on lab hours, for example. What do you think of that?

LW: In some research areas, a year out of research can be seen as career suicide. If you are a woman, and decide you want to have a child – which is a totally personal choice – you’re accepting the fact that you’re going to be a year out of the publications cycle, a year out of the grants cycle. That puts you back two or three years. You’re constantly on the back foot. We definitely need to be flexible around that kind of issue. But for those woman who don’t want to have children, there is also a problem that isn’t related to childcare. I don’t think its as simple as just being more flexible. I think the whole culture needs to change – which it is, slowly, but it needs to change faster!


Let Toys Be Toys!

WAB: What do you think we can do to encourage more women to go into STEM? Do you think we need to start encouraging girls quite early – is it too late by the time they’re going into university?

LW: I believe so. I volunteer for an organisation called ‘Let Toys Be Toys’, which I followed on Twitter for a long time before getting involved with them. The idea of the campaign is to stop the artificial gendering of toys. Why do we need pink aisles for girls, and blue for boys? Why can’t boys play with prams? Why do some girls think they’re weird if they play with garages? Its so silly. However different individuals are, those differences are not necessarily along gender lines – society projects much of it. By the time that children are six or seven years old, they already have independent thought. They already have their own ideas about things. If we’ve been telling them for the previous seven years that girls should play this way and boys should play that way, that will naturally influence their own view of themselves. I think the choices we make in our own homes with our children as just as important as the teachers and mentors they’re surrounded by in school and the wider educational world. I was never made to feel weird for my choice of toy. I was equally happy to play with a drill and to learn how to use hand tools as I was to play with My Little Ponies! Neither was ever questioned in any way. I felt confident enough to follow the things I enjoyed doing, rather than the things I felt I should be doing. I hope to have kids in the future, and that is something I’ll want to try really hard to pass on. I know it gave me the confidence to never question whether I could be a scientist. There was never a doubt in my mind that I could do that! I have my family to thank for a lot of that.

Inspirational women in science

WAB: Do you have any female scientist role models? Is there anyone who you think, if you were a young girl or a woman who is interested in science, would be really good to look at for inspiration? Apart from yourself, of course!

LW: I feel very privileged in that two of the endorsers on the back of my book are female physicists. One is Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who is originally from Northern Ireland. She’s an astrophysics professors, and she also discovered pulsars, and quite famously didn’t get the Nobel prize for it. She is a legend! To have her read my book and write a really positive comment about it was a huge, amazing moment – I almost cried, I was so excited! She is someone I’ve always respected. She has sometimes been presented as a victim, but she doesn’t see herself that way at all. She’s also been the President of the Institute of Physics, and has done lots of incredible stuff during her career, she’s written remarkable papers, and she’s also a thoroughly decent human being!

Another would be Athene Donald, also a professor of physics. She writes a lot about gender and about being a woman in physics, in a way that I really admire. She talks about the fact that barriers exist, but she’s not weighed down by them. I think that’s a great lesson for a young female scientist – to know that its okay to talk about those barriers, and we should talk about them. I felt so lucky to have her write a quote for the book, it’s really amazing!

There’s also an engineer called Linda Miller, who works on the London Crossrail project. I’ve been hanging out a bit with people working on that project for the past while. Linda is SO cool – as I said, she works on the Crossrail project so is rebuilding the Thames tunnel, which is very exciting. Before that, she was a civil engineer rebuilding certain sections of the Space Launch Complex at Cape Canaveral in Florida, and prior to that she was a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Air Force! She’s had two incredible careers. She’s a brilliant communicator and a huge supporter of young women in engineering.

WAB: Are there any other science writers you recommend? We know you have further reading mentioned in your book, too.

LW: A writer I love is Mary Roach. She writes funny, popular science – I recommend everyone read Bonk, which is about the science of sex! Her and her husband had sex in an MRI machine as part of her research for the book, for example. She’s a legend! I love her too because she’s not a scientist but she takes science very seriously, and equally, she’s a brilliant storyteller. So she does that popular science interface really well. She’s very funny and very approachable, and I feel like we’re laughing together over a pint when I read her books. I love that. I’d love to aspire to that sort of work.

‘Look up!’

WAB: Back to your own book – what would you like the lasting result of the book to be? Would you like there to be something big that people take away from it?

LW: I really wanted the book to be a primer on how cities work. I went for breadth rather than depth, with enough detail so that people can get their teeth into it. My hope would be that this will be the kickstart for a lot of people to start thinking about science in a different way. That would be my ultimate dream – that it makes people think ‘I live in a city, and now I know how traffic lights work, where my water comes from, where my faeces go when I flush the loo! I’ve got a better understanding of the world around me, and now I’ll read the book she recommended at the back of her own book.’ I want it to be an entry point, to help people look at the world about differently and to realise that science and engineering has built everything around us. That would be an absolute dream! If I met someone in a few years who said ‘I read your book and that led me to do this, this and this’, I would cry! I’d be delighted! It’s a first book, and I saw first because I really want to write another one! I have an idea, but its very early stages. I’ve loved writing this book, as a project and as a process, and I hope my enthusiasm comes across.

WAB: Any final words to people as they walk around their cities?

LW: Look up! Look up when you look around your city and think about what you see. And also be a little bit more cynical about ridiculous reports about red wine both killing you and curing cancer! I hope the book makes people a tiny bit more scientific in their approach.


Science and the City is published by Bloomsbury (ISBN9781472913227). You can buy it here from Amazon, or here from Bloomsbury. Go buy it for yourself, and for anyone you know with the tiniest interest in science. You never know who might be inspired, and who could be the next Jocelyn Bell Burnell or Laurie Winkless! 

L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards

By: Grace McDermott, Co-Founder of Women Are Boring.

The Awards:

Last week, Women Are Boring had the honour of attending the L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Awards. We had the chance to meet and learn about some of the women carrying out ground-breaking scientific research work in Ireland and the UK.

Approximately 30% of researchers in the world are women*, a statistic which is notoriously lower for women in the Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Women comprise  a mere 15% of the UK STEM workforce, and to this day only 3% of all Nobel prizes in the sciences have been awarded women. As such, it is no surprise that a recent study showed that some 23% of current female science students in the UK “won’t” or “aren’t sure” whether they will pursue a career in science.

The L’Oreal Women in Science Programme “recognizes the achievements and contributions of exceptional females across the globe, by awarding promising scientists with Fellowships to help further their research.” Founded eighteen years ago, on the premise that ‘the world needs science and science needs women’ over 2000 women from across the globe have been recognised  and received funding to further their research. 

Despite an uphill battle for female STEM researchers across the globe, this year’s awards saw a record number of applications, a feat which proves that female scientists are not going away anytime soon. Out of 400 applications, 40 were longlisted and 8 academics made it to the final nomination list, a selection that L’Oreal’s Scientific Director, Steve Shiel called “ impossibly difficult”. The 8  nominated candidates included female mathematicians, chemists, paleo-biologists, nuclear physicists and the list goes on. In the end, five fellowships were awarded. 

There were two things about the awards that really stood out as newsworthy. Firstly, it was the importance of the research the nominees presented, and the simultaneous significance of presenting such work to audiences who would have otherwise never engaged with it. Secondly, it was the urgent need for a reexamination of what the research community and its supporters, consider valid research costs.


All of these women were impressive in their own right, taking on major issues that range from curing diseases, to perfecting wastewater treatments, or challenging accepted conceptions about how star clusters form. Shiel stated

“It’s hard to compare the work of paleobiologists to a medicinal scientist’s work but one thing was evident about all of the winners, and it was that they each had passion. They each had a palpable passion you could feel for what they did, but also this sense of curiosity and discovery.”

The importance of communication: 

Like any award ceremony, there was no shortage of deserving candidates, many of whom we intend to feature in the upcoming months, but one of the projects that stood out for us was Reham Bedawy, a short-listed PhD nominee who was working to support the early detection of Parkinson’s via a mobile phone app. If helping to diagnose life-threatening illness wasn’t enough, she was also able to clearly explain the operationalisation of her work and a seemingly complex disease to two social-science researchers (i.e. us!) who wouldn’t know the right end of a beaker. Her work is inarguably significant, regardless of whether or not a non-expert audience could understand it, but as a result of her interesting and translatable presentation, at least two new researchers who may have otherwise been completely unaware of Parkinson’s research, are now engaged and eager to learn more (follow Reham on Twitter here).

As a media researcher, I was surprised to find how much in common I had with a mathematician. As a large portion of my work focuses on the role of social media in revolutionary movements, I could draw parallels with some of the techno-focused aspects of her methodology. She made me consider how I may better leverage mobile apps for my own work, and above all she inspired me. Her presentation, like so many of the researchers’ presentations, exemplified the significance of not only individual female academics, but the power and influence of the collective. A room full of intelligent, motivated and successful women is something that is seldom seen and far less celebrated. As an aspiring academic, the presence and recognition of these accomplished women helped reignite my own confidence, and motivation to carry on with my work.

It made me think about what the world might look like if these women were splashed across our news headlines, Twitter feeds, or history books?

We need to redefine “direct research” costs:

Aside from inspiration, the awards led to a realization: supporting female academic achievement requires a redefinition of “direct research costs”. What we found particularly noteworthy about the awards was the fact that the winners were allowed to dictate the way in which there awards would be spent, sometimes in ways which are seemingly unconventional in the research community. Many of the past laureates spoke about the importance of using the awards to help facilitate childcare and family relocation to areas or institutions, which were crucial to the development of their work. Moreover, several nominees were pregnant, or brought their young children with them to the awards.

While all funding aimed at supporting equality in research is important, the seemingly non-direct costs of research careers are sometimes the most expensive and difficult to articulate. As such, the importance of funding opportunities which give female academics the power to control the use of their grants presents an equalizing potential that traditional research grants do not. The testimonies of an overwhelming number of past laureates attested to this.

Often, when we speak about female academic achievement the topic of motherhood is ignored. As the notion of motherhood so often consumes, and even stifles the narrative of women in the workplace, I often find myself intentionally discussing the achievements of female academics, or female professionals as an entirely separate entity from their roles as mothers or caretakers.  But these awards brought to the fore the importance of recognizing and funding female academics not only via direct research grants, but also by way of flexible and family-centric support. A recent article in the New York Times upheld this, finding that even seemingly gender-neutral family-friendly policies in many academic institutions tend to favor male academics.

These testimonies leave many open-ended questions, but highlight the need for a continued conversation on the meaning of gender equality and the importance of building female equity in the research space.

What is clear is that female academics experience a different professional reality than their male-counterparts. The awards, and each of the nominated women exemplified the importance of advocacy, not only in the context of each of our individual research work, but also in terms of our collective experiences.  

What now for UK academia? Twelve academics on Brexit


Photo: Dave Kellam
by Catherine Connolly, co-founder of Women Are Boring

We put a call out on our Twitter and Facebook accounts on Friday afternoon asking for contributions to this special feature on what the EU has meant to women working in academia in the UK, and their thoughts on the referendum result. We received a huge response. But first, some background – I was in London last week, and woke at 6am the morning after the UK’s EU membership referendum to hear Nigel Farage’s voice coming from my friend’s radio, hailing a ‘historic day’ for the UK. My immediate reaction was one of shock – going to bed the night before, it had seemed to all of us in the house that “Remain” was going to take it, albeit by a slim margin. Following the disbelief came the sadness and worry for the friends I have living all over the UK – what would happen now? Four women live in the house I was staying in, located in south London – two of whom are Scottish, one English and one Welsh. All are devastated by the referendum result.

I would not know any of these women had I not gone abroad to Paris on Erasmus during my third year of undergraduate study. One of the Scots was the first person I met when I moved to Paris, and today she is one of my best and closest friends. My Erasmus year set me on my career path and opened up so many opportunities for me, from studying for my MA in London, to living and working in Brussels, and then returning to work in London again in the year before I began my PhD in Dublin. Without the EU, much of this would not have been possible, and so many of the friends I have I would never have met. I am lucky to be from Ireland and to be researching in Ireland – my Irish passport means I don’t have to worry about my freedom of movement or any of the other many benefits which EU membership affords me. But my friends, and many academics around the UK, no longer feel so lucky.

EU funding is vital to the UK’s higher education institutions, as are EU and international citizens. EU and international citizens, whether as students, researchers or lecturers, along with EU funding, have made the UK’s higher education sector one of the most lively and exciting environments to work in, and study at, in the world.

What follows are the words of twelve female academics in different fields, from the UK and elsewhere in the EU, working in Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. They demonstrate the massive importance and influence that the EU has on academic research, and elucidate the doubt and worry that many now feel, both in and outside academia.

Professor Fiona de Londras, Chair in Global Legal Studies, University of Birmingham.


“Trying to understand security and counter-terrorism on a national level alone has value, but misses so much of what happens to shape the national story as a result of transnational dynamics and institutions such as the EU.”

All of my university education was in Ireland. In fact, all of it was in UCC where I studied law for seven very happy years. And so, it was a (not unwelcome) shock to the system when I moved first to a chair in Durham and then to my current post at Professor of Global Legal Studies in the University of Birmingham to discover, be challenged by, and ultimately relish in the intellectually diverse and internationally-oriented world of UK higher education. While international and European law had been important in my education and work in Ireland, the richness that Europeanism brought to the student body, my academic community, and the vision and ambition in legal research of the institutions in which I have worked in the UK was energising, challenging and enthralling. That is the first way in which the EU has impacted my career in the UK. It has been a force for diversification of the people, ideas, institutions and challenges with which I try to pursue the key question in which I am interested: what happens to power, law and politico-legal institutions when crises put them under pressure?

For much of my career I have explored this question in the very particular context or counter-terrorism and security, including leading a major cross-national, inter-disciplinary and empirical project entitled SECILE (Securing Europe through Counter-Terrorism: Impact, legitimacy, and effectiveness). With generous funding from the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme I led a consortium of researchers, NGOs and SMEs in the UK, Ireland, Norway and Latvia in a project that both mapped and analysed EU counter-terrorism and, through interviews with major stakeholders in the EU’s institutions and the member states, tried to understand their real world impact on everyday operations and the experience of living in the European Union. This could not have been achieved without EU membership: that created the opportunity to secure the funding, the relationships that underpinned and made possible our consortium, and the access to high level officials in Europe that helped us both access information and gain traction for our findings.

Trying to understand security and counter-terrorism on a national level alone has value, but misses so much of what happens to shape the national story as a result of transnational dynamics and institutions such as the EU. If Brexit brings us out of these funding structures our ability to ask ‘big questions’ in ‘big contexts’ will be sharply constrained. And what, then, will incentivise the very best researchers who have other possibilities through EU or other citizenship, to remain with the UK’s universities? Will national funding structures, already so stretched, step in to compensate? Will the UK retain sufficient influence in Europe to secure access to these key actors and institutions? Will our colleagues from other EU countries, whose impact on law schools all over this country has been such a key part in diversifying our enquiries and deepening our intellectual ambitions, move on? Will possibilities for staff and student exchange shrink, impoverishing our everyday intellectual environment? And if so, what will be the motivation for people who, like me, have Irish citizenship to stay?

For now many, like me, will be committed to staying and to contributing to the task of thinking our way out of the corner Brexit has placed higher education and legal research in, but one suspects we will also remain deeply aware of the Irish passport that leaves open possibilities for mobility that we may, reluctantly, find ourselves exercising in coming years.

Dr. Diletta De Cristofaro, Teaching Fellow in British Studies, Harlaxton College.


“Waking up to the Leave result on 24th June felt like a punch in my stomach.”

A few months ago, I was walking on Brighton beach with a fellow EU academic migrant. Reflecting on our academic lives, he observed that mine was a “very European trajectory”. I replied that indeed it was, and I was proud of it.

I feel strongly about my European identity. As part of the Italian diaspora, my family has been scattered in North America, South America, and Australia for generations. My own parents were living and working in the US when my mother got pregnant with me. However, they decided to move back to Italy because they wanted me to be born there – and, thus, in Europe.

Like many others, my academic “European trajectory” began with an Erasmus. I studied for one year of my master’s in Paris, and, thanks to the EU Erasmus Programme, the credits I gained at Paris IV Sorbonne were recognised by my Italian home Institution, Università degli Studi di Milano. Today, 26th June 2016, the homepage of the largest student-led online resource on the programme reads:


EU mobility programmes, to and from the UK, would be a huge post-Brexit lost opportunity for future academics. The idea for my PhD project – temporality in contemporary post-apocalyptic fiction – was born in Paris, when I discovered Michel Houellebecq’s La possibilité d’une île in a second-hand bookshop near my university. The project was then developed in another European country, the UK, where it was funded by the University of Nottingham’s European Union Research Excellence Scholarship. My research also benefited from a period, funded by Erasmus Mundus, spent at the Centre for the Humanities at Utrecht University. In short, my scholarship was nurtured by the EU and by the education systems of four of its countries.

Waking up to the Leave result on 24th June felt like a punch in my stomach. My visceral reaction was that I would go back to Europe – but even typing this sentence feels odd: the UK is still, technically, part of the EU and is certainly part of Europe geographically and historically. Yet it is undoubtable that the country is moving in a direction I am uncomfortable with, a sentiment shared by that 48% which voted Remain, including friends and colleagues. I have a life in the UK and a three-year teaching fellowship starting on 1st August, but uncertainty looms large: what rights will I have in this country? Can my new institution renege the contract if/when the UK leaves the EU? What happens with my UK-based job applications in the supposed two-year period needed to negotiate Brexit: will they be immediately discarded, as my right to work in this country remains unclear? This is all very imponderable, disempowering, and scary – especially as an Early Career Researcher.

When I was offered my new job at Harlaxton College, I was struck by the irony of a European teaching a module on British identity to US students coming to the UK. Post-referendum, this is a much stronger feeling. And so, in the face of uncertainty, I am working to incorporate in the syllabus Rupert Thomson’s Divided Kingdom, a dystopian novel in which the UK has been divided into four Quarters, each one based upon different humors and personality types. How appropriate.

Diljeet Bhachu, doctoral student, Reid School of Music, University of Edinburgh.

Diljeet photo (c Vivek Vishwanathan)

“I have to ask, will there be anything left to research? If we lose diversity in our music and music education, will I want to be researching it?’

As a very early-career researcher  − mid-PhD − the impact of the UK leaving the EU on my future plans and job prospects hasn’t quite sunk in yet.  I can’t say I’d done much planning, because on Wednesday I felt like the world was my oyster, I could look for post-PhD jobs anywhere, there were options both in and out of the academy. Now? I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll be able to find work abroad. I don’t know if there will be jobs outside of academia.

While I haven’t looked at the details, I imagine it’ll likely be more difficult to get research funding, travel for fieldwork and conferences, and it’s quite possible that the diversity of staff and students at UK HEIs will also suffer. I don’t yet know exactly what Brexit means for university funding both through core and research grant funding, and income from tuition fees. What I do know is that there will be inevitable change in the demographics of our student bodies, if not from changes in access to opportunity, but from the indirect effects of removing the UKs status as a place where non-UK students are welcome. While Universities and other HEIs have been quick to release statements showing support for all students, particularly those from EU countries, and pledging no change to terms of study in the near future, can we guarantee that the cities and towns in which these students will live will be as supportive?  Never mind the economic impact of living in a country where the currency has faced its biggest drop in value for 30 years.

With the growing visibility of the far-right, xenophobic, racist views in UK society, my concern now turns towards my research interests.  As a #proudchildofanimmigrant (of two immigrants, actually), I question how research that attempts to embrace all cultures, and cater to the increasingly diverse classrooms created by immigration over the past century or so, fits in a country where many, albeit not all, Leave voters are clinging onto an idea of British Nationalism that reads as White British Nationalism. Where is the space in this new reality of an “independent” Britain for post-colonial critique – following a campaign that laughed in the face of many British citizens who are here as the very result of Britain’s colonial past. Why is my curriculum white?  Is this a question “independent” Britain still wants to ask? Only time will tell, maybe I’m over-reacting, but is it really unrealistic to consider that some of this might be a possibility?

This may represent the views of a few, but their fires have been fuelled by this “victory” and I’m not sure they can be extinguished.

As I’ve said, it’s early days – who knows what will happen.  But while I’ve been writing this, a few bits of information have come to light. Education research gets 43.13% of its funding from the EU. This is a sector that already bore the brunt of cuts.  Add to that my position as a researcher of music education. I have to ask, will there be anything left to research? If we lose diversity in our music and music education, will I want to be researching it? We can’t pretend music and music education are separate things. Without the ability to tour easily, are we going to see a decline in the music profession in the UK?

Dr. Jessica Meyer, University Academic Fellow in Legacies of War, University of Leeds.


“24th June 2016 was a very bad day for me indeed.”

February 2015 was a good month for me. On the 3rd I was offered a permanent job at the university where I had been working on a temporary contract for the previous four years.  Two weeks later I received a European Research Council Starting Grant, worth €1.07 million, to undertake a project examining the medical and social care provided to disabled British ex-servicemen of the First World War.  Within a fortnight, I had not only achieved a measure of professional and personal security, but I had also been given the opportunity to pursue a project that I had conceived as a PhD student ten years earlier, a project which I never thought would ever be funded.

This project involves creating a database of information held in 22,8289 personal pension files created by the Ministry of Pensions and now held at the National Archive.  The goal is to make analysis of this archive easier and the archive itself more searchable. In creating the database, my team and I (there are four of us altogether) are also identifying files which contain material suitable for further close reading, including letters from pensioners and their friends and family, medical reports and official documentation. We are particularly interested in the stories that these files have to tell about the roles that families, particularly women, played in providing care to these men, and how these women’s work shaped cultural understandings of medical caregiving as a gendered practice. Eventually, I hope to expand the project to include comparative discussions of the care provided to ex-servicemen in other European nations in the aftermath of the Great War.

This is a huge project, and one which no British grant making body would fund. Neither the AHRC nor the ESRC allow for postgraduate funding to be built into grants, and the remits of even their large individual grants are relatively narrow.  The Leverhulme Trust, which funds projects with a similar sort of boundary-pushing ambition as the ERC, does not have a scheme that enables team building on the scale necessary to complete this project.  If I were not funded by the ERC, this project would not happen.

So 24th June 2016 was a very bad day for me indeed.  The Vice Chancellor of my university put out a reassuring statement to the effect that ‘We also believe that the University’s study abroad programmes and our involvement in Horizon 2020 [which includes the ERC] … will remain unchanged during this period of transition.’ But belief is not certainty, particularly not in a period where nothing feels certain, and the period of transition may not cover the entirety of the period of my grant. The money has been committed, I am told, and so I email my team members to reassure them that their post-docs and PhD studies will go ahead as planned. I hope I am right.

And even if the funding remains, what about the terms?  ERC grant-holders are expected to spend 6 months of every 12 in an EU member state.  Will I have to relocate to Ireland for 6 months of every year after 2018?  I have a young family.  What are the implications for that hard-won personal security that seemed so sure 15 months ago? Everything that I have worked for in my academic career feels directly threatened by the referendum result.

For the moment I carry on, trying to believe that the work I am doing, which I believe passionately in, will be funded for the term and at the terms agreed.  But I don’t know, and that insecurity will shape my research for the foreseeable future.

Dr. Kate Wicks, postdoctoral researcher, University of Manchester.

Kate photo

“Through Erasmus and therefore because of the EU, I learnt my very first lessons about what it means to be a scientist.”

I work on inflammation. To put it simply, that’s one process by which the body restores the status quo when it detects that something’s amiss, whether that’s a cut to the hand or a cold virus in the nose. An army of white blood cells is mobilised to deal with the problem, and when it’s resolved, it stands down again. Except sometimes it doesn’t, and the inflammation becomes chronic. That’s what I’m interested in: uncontrolled inflammation, how it starts, and what happens when it doesn’t end.

Back in 2004, though, I was a second-year undergraduate, and I didn’t have research interests yet.Not really. I was studying Genetics with German (‘Did you pick it for the alliteration,’ people asked), which allowed me to combine studying the finer points of gene regulation with German language, literature and history, and I was about to go off on my year abroad through the Erasmus scheme. A rite of passage for modern languages students, for me, it would involve a year working in a German lab. The application form asked what kind of lab I wanted to be placed in. ‘Genetics. Please not plants,’ I wrote. I ended up at the University of Heidelberg, working on the genetics of diabetes-related kidney disease, and that was my future career settled. Ten and more years later, I’m still researching the complications of diabetes, albeit from a different angle.

Through Erasmus and therefore because of the EU, I learnt my very first lessons about what it means to be a scientist. By that, I mean the lab and analysis skills that I use every day – how to plan, perform, analyse, evaluate and write up an experiment – but also about the importance of the international community to which I belong. The lab I worked in was funded by the EU; we had collaborators in the Czech Republic; I trained a student from Slovakia; my boss was Dutch. My friends in another lab spanned a multitude of nationalities. In the UK, being a British scientist who spoke fluent German was a novelty; in Germany, every scientist had a good command of at least one extra language, usually more.  I suddenly realised how inward looking the UK could be, and that if I wanted to be a successful scientist, I mustn’t be like that. I needed to connect with people, with as many people as possible from as many places as possible, and discuss ideas and plans and visions. That was how to grow.

I am upset about the referendum result for many reasons, but a big one is the thought that future generations of UK-born scientists won’t have the chances that I had. I had the freedom then to go off and study abroad; I have the freedom now to go and work in a lab anywhere in the EU. I worry about what that means for the development of young scientists. I worry too about the future of science in the UK: how attractive will our universities be to the very best, when our immigration policies grow ever more restrictive? And I worry for my country, which has just seen victory for a campaign based on the idea that shrinking our horizons is a positive thing. It isn’t.

In a month or so, my research is taking me to Heidelberg again, this time for a conference. I am sadder than I can say that this might be the last time I go as an EU citizen.

Dr. Arianna Andreangeli, lecturer in Competition Law, University of Edinburgh.

20150806_231028 (1)

“After the vote just a couple of days ago, I feel that all of a sudden the country where I chose to build my career and my family has edged away from the Europe I love and was born in.”

The result of the Brexit referendum caught a lot of people by complete surprise.  It left many of us in tears, in deep uncertainty and has led us to question our life choices.  This surely happened to me. I am Italian by birth, live in Scotland now, having moved there in 2011: my husband is Scottish but we actually met in England. I am a proud graduate from University College Dublin, in Ireland, where I read for a Masters’ degree in European Law, and of the University of Birmingham, where I gained my PhD in Law, and my first lecturing post was in the University of Liverpool, in the beating, anarchic heart of the North West of England (sorry, Manchester, but the Scousers win it hands down with me). It is not an exaggeration to say that the “EU made me”, personally, professionally and in some of the aspects of my deepest being. I am a strongly minded European: my birth in Italy has given me the passion for the Classics, the Opera and the boundless love of my wonderful family, yet Ireland and the United Kingdom formed me as an academic.

My area of expertise is also deeply imbued by the European project: I am a competition lawyer. I research market dynamics and how the law ensures that they remain genuine, unhindered by outside pressures, such as monopoly positions that may be abused or concerted behaviour aimed at reaping higher, unjustified profits to the detriment of citizens. Yet, I am not, in the best European tradition, a free-marketer: I think that markets should be protected and cherished to the extent that, and because, they secure best outcomes, in terms of quality and of prices, for individuals and for the societies that they touch with their functioning. Ultimately, they must work to nurture individual freedom, not the pockets of the few: they must function in harmony with the environment, not to destroy it; they must uphold the needs of the communities they affect, not secure lower levels of protection for them.

The health emergency of alcohol abuse in Scotland prompted me to embark on my most recent piece of work: the controversy on whether the Scottish Parliament can enact rules setting minimum prices for the retail sale of alcoholic beverages with a view to pricing out of the market the cheapest, strongest and thus most dangerous drinks seemed to me perhaps the best example of evidence-based policy. Backed by a number of independent studies, this legislation was poised to make a true contribution to addressing alcohol misuse, especially among the poorest and most disadvantaged.  Yet, the snag, which was picked up by none other than the Scotch Whisky Association, who have eventually taken the Scottish Ministers to court in Scotland and also in Luxembourg, was that setting floor prices can actually interfere with the flow of trade among Member States… by making imported goods instantly not as attractive as they could otherwise be in their country of origin, where lower prices than the statutory minimum can be applied.

This instantly made me wonder whether competition on grounds of prices is after all so important: at the end of the day, do the EU treaties not say that achieving goals of high levels of, among others, public health protection is central to the European project? This is what I have been trying to find out, and on Friday, namely the fateful day after the referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU, I finished the second draft of this paper. Yet, is it still going to be relevant? Surely, competition law is very much part of domestic law in the UK, and these issues will always remain alive.  They say that the UK economy is an open and market-minded one: yet, it was only thanks to the impact of the European project that mechanisms for the enforcement of the competition rules and the avoidance of the creation of harmful position of market powers eventually were legislated for; the UK Competition Act is also fundamentally influenced by the EU Treaties.

I sit here in Edinburgh, a city with a strong European heart: Mary Stuart lived literally ten minutes away from my front room, and she was French.  Yet, after the vote just a couple of days ago, I feel that all of a sudden the country where I chose to build my career and my family has edged away from the Europe I love and was born in, just that tiny bit more for me to feel comfortable and serene personally, as well as confident in my academic outlook, on the way in which I look at and study markets and try to contribute to public debate with my scholarship.  I had so many plans as to how to bring this agenda forward: the impact of the new EU rules on tobacco trade on competition within the internal market, as well as on the freedom to express “commercial ideas” was up next, yet I am now unsure whether it is now a viable project.  All of a sudden, being on a tiny island does not make it fun for me anymore.

Lucy Greenhill, researcher, Scottish Association for Marine Sciences.

Lucy Greenhill

“Oceans do not respect national boundaries.”

As a researcher into how governance of our oceans can adapt to enable society to respond to the complex challenges of sustainable development, I can only see ‘Brexit’ as a huge backwards step. Simply put, addressing big challenges requires co-operation, openness, long-term thinking and integration, particularly when dealing with issues that are transboundary. These progressive features were supported by the EU, and will be extremely compromised outside of it.

Sustainable development is, by its nature, a complicated concept, and is interpreted differently by individuals according to their values, culture and what they represent in society. How do we protect the environment, but still enable economic development and gathering of resources to support communities? Should we conserve ecosystems for their intrinsic value, or is it acceptable to treat nature as a service-provider for humanity? What if our market-based economy is incompatible with maintaining a healthy natural environment? These questions are not easy to grapple with, but what I have learnt is that we need to talk about it to get anywhere. In my research I am exploring how we start to address these issues on a smaller scale, and related to our use of the seas.

I focus specifically on an increasingly utilised governance tool called marine spatial planning (MSP), which provides a ‘real world’ situation, where we (as a society made up of the state, NGOs, scientists, communities and others) can look at ‘sustainable development’ in the context of activities that relate to our own situation – our jobs, our view from the house, the fish we eat. Briefly, MSP provides a process of planning ahead for various marine activities and ecosystem protection in a particular region of sea, in an integrated way. This has the benefit of moving away from fragmented management of different industries and interests and explore the most ‘sustainable’ combination of development in an area and involving civil society in the process. Using social science, I am looking at the methods that we can use to explore future possible scenarios through MSP, identify how we manage potential conflicts for space or resources and debate how ecological and social limits are respected. At least that’s the idea…

Conceptually, MSP makes sense, but it faces key challenges, made harder following a vote by the UK to leave the EU. Oceans do not respect national boundaries. Our human activities (shipping, tourism, etc.) and habitats and species operate across boundaries hence the committed drive to increasingly co-operate and integrate between countries of the EU. This includes sharing data and information, aligning our processes, sharing experience and knowledge, collaboratively funding the science essential to improving practice, developing joint ‘visions’ to drive national policy and motivate industries and stakeholders, and many, many more. It saddens me greatly that the UK may now not be a leading participant in such co-operation and which compromises our ability to progress in answering these fundamental questions which define our future. But I am determined to fight for ensuring support for science, to improving the voice of scientists in the political arena and maintaining co-operation with European institutions and organisations on these issues.

Dr. Lauren Redhead, composer and Senior Lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University.

Lauren Redhead Photo 1 Richard Lee-Hair

“Free movement and the right to work has been an essential part of enabling the collaborative relationships that form my work.”

I am a practice-researcher: my research includes performing and composing both as its methodology and its outputs. This type of research is different from written research because it can’t necessarily be enacted without its public-facing and collaborative dimensions (this is not to say that these aren’t important to other researchers, but that they are more often central to practice research). My personal research directions involve the performance of sound in space, iterative processes of composition, and the enactment of extended open notation by partly improvising musicians. As my career has progressed this research has taken place on a global, and particularly European stage. I have recently returned from a tour of performances in Germany and Scotland, working with musicians from the UK, Germany, America, and Iceland. My most recent commission has come from an international contemporary music festival in Belgium; the piece will be performed alongside music by other composers from the UK, Belgium and Portugal by a pianist, Ian Pace, who has made his career on the international stage, performing music from most continents.

This serves to illustrate that research in the arts, by its nature, crosses borders. The collaborations that I have made have been central to the development and dissemination of my ideas. Music cannot be realised without musicians and practice research can’t exist without its practice. But these collaborations are not arbitrary either: the musical tradition that I work in (often called New Music (Neue Musik, derived from a definition made by Theodor Adorno) is, essentially, a Central European tradition, albeit one that draws musicians from America, Australia and Asia. The contemporary musical traditions in the UK, outside of key institutions like the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, have not historically supported this music as other EU countries have done.

Free movement and the right to work has been an essential part of enabling the collaborative relationships that form my work: the ability for me to travel to Europe, to have the right to work and play there, and to be able to invite European musicians to work and perform in the UK means that this work can take place without administrative hurdles that would obscure the research aims. I am worried about the future possibilities for my collaborators in the UK, and for the future potential for me to continue to develop my work in Europe. The potential for the arts to flourish without our European partners is narrow, and this will also impact the development of the arts and therefore the development of research in the arts. As a postgraduate student of composition I was advised by my supervisors to look to Europe as my workplace, and this is advice I’ve continued to give my postgraduate students. I now wonder what the future for their work, as well as mine, will be.

Dr. Rita Singer, Research Assistant for the AHRC-funded project ‘European Travellers to Wales, 1750-2010’.

“Without the opportunities given to me by the EU, my life would look very different today.”

Rita photo cropped

Just a little of under three years ago, I moved to the UK as a freshly recruited researcher working on a major project between three Welsh universities investigating 260 years of travel from mainland Europe to Wales. Since then, this all-female team of researchers have unearthed an unanticipated amount of accounts from 17 countries, written in 15 languages. Needless to say, if I coloured in a map according to the countries of origin for each of these travellers, I’d look at something that would not be much different from the EU. We are still in the middle of evaluating our sources, but one thing is clear: the reasons why people come to Wales were as diverse two hundred years ago as they are today. There are holiday makers scrambling across rocky mountain terrain in all sorts of weather; there are refugees escaping political persecution and wars; there are lovers who establish their family lives in this country; there are engineers who marvel at the great bridges and industry of Wales; there are the artists who have painted and sketched every inch of this country; and – this is where I find myself coming into the picture – there are the scholars investigating Welsh literature, history and language. Two-hundred and sixty years of all these different paths of life connecting the mainland with these islands and as of Friday morning, it seems like this proud tradition is coming undone.

My own history as a German in this country is not exclusively tied to this research project but took off in a roundabout manner in Berlin during a night-time press conference in November 1989. That night, a high-ranking East German politician ‘miss-spoke’ in front of dozens of cameras when an Italian reporter pressed him on the status of the East German border. Less than a year later, the GDR was wiped off the face of the European map as it reunited with West Germany and thus joined the European Community.

Fast-forward sixteen-years to my time as an MA student at Leipzig University where I was enrolled in British Studies as my first major and German as a Second Language as my second subject. When I was given the opportunity in 2005 to apply for the ERASMUS programme, I jumped on the opportunity for one of two precious placements available at Bangor University. Never in my wildest dreams had I anticipated studying abroad, let alone studying in the UK with its tuition fees way beyond my financial means. If it hadn’t been for the EU, studying English Literature and teaching German to undergrad students at Bangor University would have forever remained a pipe dream. It probably would have also meant that I would not have been introduced to the rich and beautiful literature coming from Wales which formed the basis for my later PhD research.

Without the opportunities given to me by the EU, my life would look very different today. The freedom of movement guaranteed by the EU allowed me to return to the UK during my time as PhD student when I dug my way through the Bangor University Archive and Special Collection, the National Library of Wales and the British Library on multiple occasions. The freedom of movement also meant that I could travel to conferences across Europe while being spared the exasperating experience of applying for visitors’ visas, like my German colleagues who travelled to Russia for their research.

Without the EU, I would most likely not have felt encouraged to pursue work as an academic and I would have missed out on this great international network of intellectual exchange and the building of cultural bridges. Learning Welsh would have been much more difficult, too, as schools providing classes for adult learners are heavily dependent on EU funding. So is the National Library of Wales, one of the main collaborators for the current project, or the museums in Wales with whom I teamed up over the course of the previous two years to create a free travelling exhibition. With the Brexit on all of our doorsteps, it seems these institutions, who already struggle for survival owing to chronic underfunding during these years of austerity, will fade into the inevitable cultural twilight.

I am not a politician and can therefore make no predictions about my future in this country. All I know is that as of Friday, all bets are off and I am looking at setting up a ‘Plan B’ down the road which does not rule out a return to Germany, hoping that I may be able to continue with my research on the culture and history of Wales.

Rena Maguire, Doctoral Scholar, Queen’s University Belfast.

Rena Maguire

“It didn’t take a great deal to convince me, like many involved in higher education, that remaining within the EU was the most beneficial option.”

Had there been a more stable and competent government, I may have voted for an arrangement similar to that of Norway and the EU. I initially kept an open mind on Brexit, and did my research on what the key issues would be for my career, family and quality of life. It didn’t take a great deal to convince me, like many involved in higher education, that remaining within the EU was the most beneficial option. Archaeologists are the international wanderers of academia, with constant global collaboration on shared projects. It’s a facet of the profession I’ve loved – learning and being accepted on a world-wide basis. If anything, all the travel and research has reinforced just how much we all have in common across Europe.

The EU has reciprocated that constant interaction of archaeologists by offering funding to heritage and research sectors. The Times Higher Education supplement of June 24th 2016 placed that funding contribution to UK archaeology as around 28%. Leaving the EU means that effectively we have almost a third less available finance to stimulate new projects, consolidate old ones and create employment. It’s obvious that the Brexit vote will have an extremely negative influence on the education sector of the UK, although with statements from people like Michael Gove, there’s a strong feeling of anti-intellectualism or academic specialisation within those who voted to leave the EU. I can only presume they don’t realise that new research stimulates employment across all sectors, not just academia. Universities have already accepted too many cut-backs and perhaps I am being pessimistic, but cannot see a Far-Right Brexit-led government being far-sighted enough to replace the 28% funding we shall lose from Europe.

I worked in the media before entering academia and if I’m capable of any talent in this, it’s translating the past into something relevant and vibrant for the present, making academic issues accessible to all. People love heritage and archaeology because it is fascinating. But it’s also so important to show how much we have in common. The entire heritage sector feels exceptionally apprehensive at the moment, that we will have no fiscal value under such a Far-Right government. I am lucky in that I am Irish/Northern Irish; my passport is Irish and as such I remain a member of the European Union. I can still work with colleagues in Europe, though I fear I may never be employed in the UK. That 28% will take a terrible toll in jobs, and I suspect my own future waits for me on the Continent – I’ll be one of the new breed of Wild Geese which this political event will generate. I am overwhelmingly sad and angry for UK colleagues who do not have this option. However, I know that universities in the UK will do all they can (especially my alma mater of QUB), so am hopeful – academics are an altruistic lot, and resourceful too. I reckon we just need to keep hoping and teaching to overcome all the vitriol.

Dr. Viviane Gravey, Senior Research Associate, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia.

Photo VGravey

“Overnight, the UK is suddenly not such a great place to build a research career anymore.”

As a political scientist working on EU policies and politics, the European Union is not only a potential funder for both my research and that of my colleagues but also the object of my study. As a French citizen living and working in the UK, the European Union not only shapes my professional life but also my private life: rights to work, access the health service, protection against discrimination, right to vote in local and European election. A Brexit puts all of these in question. It will also cast a long shadow on my teaching EU politics in the UK: how will my students, some of whom won’t have been old enough to vote on Thursday, engage with the EU in the coming years and months?

In the last few months I have been involved in efforts by social scientists across the UK to provide facts to voters, trying to raise the profile of environmental issues in this campaign – I am one of these “experts” Michael Gove argued the public is tired of hearing from.  We studied different Brexit scenarios.  We will now have the dubious privilege of seeing whether the environmental protections and rights which we identified as at risk in case of a vote to Leave, will indeed be weakened or removed.  Great for our research, potentially not so great for the environment in the UK…

That someone like me – studying the European Union – is to be affected by Thursday’s vote is really a no-brainer. And while the impacts on my private life and rights will be negative (if I stay in the UK I will be disenfranchised, lose some protections), the vote could open interesting avenues for further research for public policy scholars, as the UK will have to renegotiate so many international agreements and revise so many of its own laws.

I am far less sanguine for my colleagues working in other fields, both hard and social scientists, both from the UK or long-term residents in this country. On Friday, two senior colleagues shared what would normally have been very good news: they had both secured EU Horizon 2020 funding for their research. These grants would effectively pay their wages for part of the year for the next three years. But then, what next? Would these grants be the last EU funding for which they’d be eligible?

The full force of a Brexit impact on research in the UK won’t be felt for many months or even years. For permanent staff, this could mean losing out on cutting edge research funding. For early career researchers on short-term contracts, for PhD students trying to get their first post-docs, this means an even smaller pool of jobs to compete for in the UK. Overnight, the UK is suddenly not such a great place to build a research career anymore, and as we discussed the referendum over coffee, many started openly contemplating continuing their work abroad, be it to the rest of Europe, the US or Commonwealth countries.

Dr. Roberta Guerrina, Reader in Politics, University of Surrey.


“The outcome is likely to have long-term implications for women across Europe.”

One of the big silences in the recent EU referendum has been the impact of a possible Brexit on British women and European women residing in the UK. Now that the verdict is out, many of us have been left wondering what Brexit actually means for us. Gender equality was never one of the key issues in the Referendum. Now that the UK is facing a new political and economic environment made up of economic and constitutional challenges, it is unlikely to surface at the top of the political agenda. Yet, the outcome is likely to have long-term implications for women across Europe.

 I completed my PhD on the UK and Italian implementation of the 1992 Pregnant Worker Directive many years ago. My understanding of the relationship between national politics and European institutions seems more relevant now than ever. I spent the next twenty years looking at the development of the European equality agenda, and like many others I focused on the shortcomings and unfulfilled promises. This year’s Referendum campaign, however, forced me to look at the EU’s role as a gender actor in a completely different light.

Looking at the relationship between UK equality policies and the EU draws attention to the role and influence of the transnational feminist movement and the importance of finding a platform for women’s rights advocacy beyond the state.  The UK’s withdrawal clearly poses additional obstacles to women’s right organisations seeking to expand the equality agenda at the national level.

The recent economic crisis of 2008 had a detrimental impact on women’s position in the labour market. Austerity policies have weakened women’s position in the public sphere and the official labour market. Key services aimed at women’s activation have been depleted by various rounds of austerity measures.  The crisis allowed policy makers to side-line gender equality in the pursuit of higher political and economic goals.

 The result of the Referendum brings into question the longevity of key equality policies, e.g. maternity rights, introduced to fulfil the requirements of European legislation.  Focus on cutting red tape during the campaign did not address one key issue: equal rights, maternity rights and equal opportunity policies are often seen as red tape by those seeking to liberalise the market.  The UK has a well established body of equality legislation, but in a post-Brexit environment it not clear which institutional structures and mechanisms will be put in place to ensure basic standards are maintained.

 The EU’s role as a gender actor has not lived up to feminists’ expectations. Equality is one of its fundamental values, but there is a growing gulf between rhetoric and reality. The kind of equality agenda produced has been largely driven by economic imperatives. However, it has produced a body of legislation that normalised the idea of gender equality in the labour market. It has provided a platform for feminist organisations to lobby beyond the Member States. It has given space to Femocrats (feminist bureaucrats) to promoting far reaching legislation in the area of pregnancy protection.  The question now for women is: can UK actors/policy agencies fill the void left by European institutions?

Solving the childhood inactivity crisis

by Felicity Hayball.

Could children solve the childhood inactivity crisis? Stranger things have happened, argues Felicity Hayball.


“…Children are disappearing from the outdoors at a rate that would make the top of any conservationist’s list of endangered species if they were any other member of the animal kingdom…” (Gill, 2005)

 Think back to when you were a child – Imagine you’re playing – now, tell me – how have you defined ‘play’? Are you being active? Are you outside? Are you with friends? Now think about the children of today. If you asked them the same thing, how would they define play? Would they say being outside with their friends? Or is play becoming more about smart phones and apps?

Children nowadays often think playing with friends is playing computer games; their parents are concerned with ‘stranger danger’ and busy roads; and it’s cooler to have followers on Instagram than follow a path through the woods. This is all leading to time spent outside decreasing. We know that childhood inactivity is a global phenomenon. Research has shown the amount of children achieving the recommended daily guidelines is at an all time low. In Scotland, for example, less than 20% of children are taking part in the 60 minutes of physical activity that the government recommends.

“Childhood inactivity is a global phenomenon. Research has shown the amount of children achieving the recommended daily guidelines is at an all time low.”

Active children have reduced risk of obesity, type-2-diabetes and heart disease. They are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. Here in the UK, where I am based, the National Health Service would save millions of pounds a year from inactivity related illnesses. And to the relief of teachers and parents everywhere, studies also suggest that active children are better behaved in school, often resulting in improved grades.

“Studies also suggest that active children are better behaved in school, often resulting in improved grades.”

Unfortunately, we can’t just tell children “go and be active”, and I don’t think telling them ‘you’ll be less at risk of heart disease’ or ‘you’ll be better behaved in biology’ is going to be much of an incentive.

So, how do we encourage children to take part in more physical activity?

What emotions does the words physical activity elicit when you think about them? For many children, the term ‘physical activity’ is associated with school PE classes; taking part in endless drills for a sport they don’t like… BUT… research has found that there is an association between children spending time outside and increased physical activity levels. Moreover, the term play appears to elicit positive emotions from the children. So to encourage physical activity in children, we need to get them outside, and encourage play behaviours. Figuring this out was the easy part. My research focuses on the hard part – how do we go about getting children outside when so many apps appear far more interesting than a field.


There have been a lot of studies that have asked parents what children want. There is a key problem with this; realistically, how well do parents know what children want? Surely, if we want to know what would make the environment more appealing to children, we should probably ask the children to weigh in on the matter. So my research explores two questions; how do children feel about their outdoor environment? And what changes can we make to increase their time outside? I want to understand what would encourage children to turn off their Xbox, step away from their play stations, stop updating their Facebook, and step out their front door.

Children don’t have the same cognitive competencies as adults. However, that does not mean they are inferior. Children are creative, imaginative, and visual; and it is these unique competencies that are reflected in my research. I asked children to draw, take pictures, and discuss in groups what they like and dislike in their environment, what they want more of, where they feel unsafe, where do their parents tell them they aren’t allowed to go? And do they still go there?!

Six months later and I had some answers.

The findings suggested that adults really have no idea what children want. Take this picture for example, taken by a child in my study:


Now, how would you interpret this photograph? Maybe the child took the photo to show me a really good playground? Well, that’s what I thought…

And I was wrong.

A lot of the children took very similar photographs – the real intention behind it was to show me something that is present in their environment that they dislike. The children felt many of the playgrounds in their neighbourhoods had been designed for much younger children. It was ‘boring’, ‘too easy’, ‘not challenging’ and ‘not meant for them’. Yet councils are continuing to build such playgrounds to solve the inactivity problem.

Additionally, many of the children also felt some adults actively prevented them from playing. Teachers didn’t want children to go on muddy fields, climb trees, or ruin flowerbeds, and ‘no ball games’ signs littered the neighbourhoods.


So we want children to be active, but not if it interferes with how adults want children to be active? Is there a right way to be active? If we want children to be active, we need to accept and encourage whichever way they choose to be active. Surely the fact that they are being active is the most important thing?

“If we want children to be active, we need to accept and encourage whichever way they choose to be active.”

My study also found that children of this age group (10/11 years) felt they had nowhere to go. Skate parks were intimidating, teenagers ‘hung around’ green space areas, and playgrounds were perceived as too young for them.

Children from urban areas spoke more of friends being an important influencer of being outside; whereas rural children appeared to focus more on having lots of physical affordances in one place (somewhere with trees, streams, hills, and play equipment was perceived as ideal).

Children are more than capable of telling adults what would help encourage time outside. Solutions such as rain covers over play equipment, more litter bins, colourful walls, park rangers, and cycle lanes separate from roads were all given by the children. The ideas varied depending on the area they lived, and were often simple and financially feasible – giving adults no excuse not to listen. As adults, our job is simple – create an environment that children want. All we need to do is encourage children to go outside. After all, the chances of them being active are far higher in a field than on a sofa.

Gone are the days when a playground could fix all our problems. We could build enough playgrounds to keep the entire cast of Annie busy, but if playgrounds aren’t what children want, we may as well be building motorways. This isn’t a case of ‘if we build it, they will come’, but ‘what should we build, so they will want to come’. Children know what they want and ignoring them isn’t going to solve the inactivity crisis.


Studying Atlantic salmon eggs in Canada’s freezing winter – the forgotten study season

by Michelle Lavery

[Reworked from a post on The Fisheries Blog and an article in Fisheries Magazine]

 For many hydrologic regimes of the world, streams and rivers are ice covered for the majority of the year, yet minimal research is conducted during this period compared with the more “researcher-friendly” open-water period. Without a doubt, scientific progress is hampered by the logistical difficulties and high cost associated with conducting “winter” research. (Prowse, 2001 (part II))


[Credit: Michelle Lavery] A beautiful, -26°C or -15F° day on the Little Southwest Miramichi River

It seems as though every winter ecology paper contains some variant of this sentiment – we know that winter is important, but we’re not crazy enough to study it. As researchers, we’ve built sampling regimes that ignore an entire season because winter is considered harsh and unforgiving. It’s cold, sharp, and sometimes deadly to us, and so we operate under the assumption that the same goes for the creatures we study.

Alas, it is not so. There’s a lot going on under the snow, and even more going on under the ice. For example, Atlantic salmon eggs incubate in the gravel under river ice in Eastern Canada for six frigid, snowy months at water temperatures barely above freezing. They emerge from the gravel during the spring melt period, when ice jams bulldoze forests and water levels climb metres in minutes. These tiny fish are at the mercy of a dynamic and unpredictable season, yet we barely know anything about it.

As a pampered girl from ‘tropical’ Toronto, I never imagined myself riding a snowmobile and hacking through river ice in the middle of the woods. However, through a serendipitous connection, I found myself doing both – while pursuing a Masters degree supervised by Dr. Richard Cunjak at the Canadian Rivers Institute.


[Credit: Michelle Lavery] Winter is a dynamic season – here a seeping plume of warm, long-residence groundwater melts a thin trail through thick surface ice on the Little Southwest Miramichi River in northern New Brunswick, Canada.

In Eastern Canada’s Miramichi River system, salmon eggs incubate in the gravel riverbed from late October to early May, during which time they experience highly variable winter conditions. In November, air temperatures can drop dramatically overnight (usually to about -20°C or -4°F), causing water to reach its freezing point quickly and inconsistently. As water crystallizes, it can stick to itself and the bottom of the river, forming anchor ice – a squishy carpet of ice crystals on the riverbed. If this ice forms on top of salmon nests (or “redds”), it can block water flow through the gravel and alter the temperature and oxygen levels surrounding the developing eggs.

Once full ice cover forms and precipitation is locked up in the snowpack, long-residence groundwater may be the major contributor to river discharge. “Long-residence” groundwater refers to water that has spent a considerable amount of time in an aquifer deep underground. Consequently, it is often warmer than the surface water in the winter, and can have significantly lower oxygen concentrations (since it has not been recently aerated). As this groundwater seeps through the river bed, the conditions in salmon redds can change dramatically. Depending on the size of the seep, eggs may develop faster due to warmer water temperatures and require more oxygen to sustain this accelerated rate of development. However, the oxygen-poor groundwater is usually unable to meet their biological demands. Without enough oxygen, these eggs may die or experience “sub-lethal” effects – consequences that impact their survival later in life as free-swimming fish. These may include stunted growth or developmental deformities that impair gas exchange, swimming ability, neurological function, etc.


[Credit: Michelle Lavery] Studying an ecosystem during the season without snow only gives us half the story… There’s more going on under the ice than meets the eye!

During the spring melt period, silt and clay can be eroded into rivers by meltwater from the river banks. Depending on the grain size, these sediments may clog the egg membrane and prevent oxygen delivery to the embryo, effectively suffocating the fish. Furthermore, as ice breaks up and moves out of rivers, scour along the riverbed may significantly disturb the gravel and damage the embryos buried in the redds.

It is hard to believe, after considering all of the variation inherent in winter and its potential effects on one life stage of one species in one type of habitat, that winter goes largely unnoticed in the scientific literature. It is, certainly, a challenging season to research. I’ve had my fair share of winter mishaps, including digging a snowmobile out of a slush puddle for three hours, miscalculating ice thickness (not ideal!), hypothermic near-misses, and tethering myself to a tree during the spring melt. However, if we can get past our numb fingers and dripping noses, there’s a whole season waiting to be studied. One could argue that winter research is the last true frontier of freshwater ecology – there are so many unknowns to explore, and so many questions left unanswered. It might not be a “researcher-friendly” season, but it’s definitely exciting! Plus, who doesn’t love a good mid-river snowball fight?


[Credit: Aaron Fraser] When fighting Jack Frost, it helps to have a great pair of neoprene chest waders and some GoreTex mitts. You can take or leave the camouflage…