Celebrating Gates Cambridge research

The Gates Cambridge Day of Research featured fascinating research findings & a stimulating panel discussion on personalised medicine & public health.

The Day of Research is a celebration not just a conference.

Andrea Kusec

Nearly 30 Gates Cambridge scholars took part in this year’s Day of Research, sharing their research findings on a broad range of subjects, including war songs in Donbas, the repair of central nervous system cells and bird conservation.

Andrea Kusec, internal officer of the Gates Cambridge Scholars Council,  described the event as “a celebration not just a conference” and said it was central to the Gates Cambridge those of bringing together scholars in different fields and establishing a global network interested in tackling the world’s biggest issues.

Dame Fiona Reynolds, master of Emmanuel College and former Director-General of the National Trust, gave the keynote address on preserving the environment. She said that recent protests by students and Extinction Rebellion, which won widespread support, showed: “We are all environmentalists now.” However, Dame Fiona says there was a distance between our ambitions and the reality of what we are doing to counter climate change.

She traced the origins of environmentalism in the UK back to the campaign against plans to flood the Lake District in the 19th century and concerns about the impact on the beauty of the area, celebrated by William Wordsworth. She spoke too about the role of Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust, who took inner city London schoolchildren on trips to Epping Forest in the belief that access to the beauty of nature was a human right.

She added that another early driver of the environmental movement was concern about the slaughter of birds for their feathers.

Dame Fiona also spoke about early concerns about growth and sustainable living and about the work of the National Trust in defending biodiversity against commercial interests. There had been victories, but many defeats, she said. Legislation such as the Climate Change Act 2008 and the Paris Agreement were good, but they were not sufficient to stem the “sense of crisis”. “We have to do more,” said Dame Fiona.  “It is not about what we are doing wrong, but what we are not doing right.”

For her an appreciation of the beauty of their surroundings can help to encourage people to make the changes necessary. “Beauty inspires people and makes them feel good. We have reduced everything to technical arguments and not let a sense of wonder at nature and the emotion in,” she said, calling for a move away from GDP as the way we measure national well being. “The economy is not all that we need,” she stated.

She said policies needed to be redesigned to be more sustainable and beauty needed to be placed firmly at the centre of them so people felt good about them. She added that children needed to be encouraged to experience nature rather than be stuck on screens so that they could develop a love of nature.

Dame Fiona concluded: “We need beauty. It is not a luxury when the rest of the world is in chaos. It is a way of looking at the world and appreciating it in its fullest sense and how much it nurtures our lives.  Beauty is a means to our collective liberation and the long-term sustainability of our planet.”

From war songs to neuronal repair

Individual scholar presentations took place throughout the day and covered a wide range of different fields. There were presentations ranging from ecofeminism in Moana and eukaryotic mRNA 3 end processing to medical cartography in 19th century colonial India.

Iryna Shuvalova [2016], who is doing a PhD in Slavonic Studies, spoke of her research into popular war songs in Donbas. Iryna’s study analyses over 300 songs from all sides ofthe conflict in Ukraine and aims to give a snapshot of what is going on on the ground. The songs are both professional and amateur and there is great stylistic variety.

Iryna decided to study war songs because they are participative, constructing shared narratives, are accessible and give an immediate idea of what is going on in a situation of ongoing conflict where things are changing very rapidly. “They shape and reflect existing identities and identities in flux. Identities help us to understand groups and inter/intra-group dynamics,” said Iryna, adding that she is particularly interested in looking for patterns in the process of ‘selfing’ and ‘othering’ and in how words can acquire new meaning within a ‘trauma lexicon, for instance, words used as insults can become badges of pride.

Caitlin Andrews [2016], who is doing a PhD in Zoology, spoke of her research into efforts to conserve the hihi, a bird in New Zealand which is under threat of extinction. Sharing results from her fieldwork, she showed that some hihi are more generalist in their diet and others are more specialist. She wanted to test how diet changed when birds were moved to new environments to start new populations and whether diet could be used to predict which birds were more likely to survive after relocation. She found that some birds who had specialist diets shifted toward more generalist diets once they were moved to a new site, possibly because they faced less competition for food. She said it was important to understand birds’ individual needs to ensure their survival and to predict how those needs might change in different contexts.

Veselina Petrova [2015], who is doing a PhD in Clinical Neurosciences, spoke about her research into how the protein protrudin may aid neuronal repair in the central nervous system. She pointed out that 80% of spinal cord injuries occurred in young men and that there were currently no effective treatments. Glaucoma is another condition which affects the central nervous system and is the second biggest cause of blindness worldwide.

Veselina's research uses retinal cells to investigate why central nervous system cells do not self repair. Her hypothesis is that once cells develop fully, the transport of proteins involved in forming new connections and establishing maturity becomes a priority over that of growth-associated molecules. The lack of these proteins in aged cells could contribute to their reduced ability to repair after injury.

Her research looks at how to re-establish the transport of growth molecules to injured processes through injecting active protrudin. The results are remarkable, showing regeneration of retinal pathways in rats. Next year she plans to do further research, using human embryonic stem cells. Veselina said: “By using protrudin we can identify new pathways and discover new molecules that can be targeted by drugs to improve outcomes.”

Public health and personalised medicine

The Day of Research also included a panel discussion with scholars from the fields of Psychiatry, Pathology, Veterinary Medicine and Chemistry, chaired by Ayan Mandal [2018], who is doing a PhD in Psychiatry. It focused on how to bring together developments in personalised medicine, which is very much based on individuals, with public health concerns, which focus on more equitable healthcare outcomes across the globe.

Minaam Abbas [2017], who is doing a PhD in Pathology,  said developments in personalised medicine were very exciting and were driving better, more effective ways of diagnosing and treating patients. Emma Glennon [2016], who is doing a PhD in Veterinary Science, raised concerns, however, about whether countries which lacked basic health infrastructure could afford personalised medicine and about whether it might heighten health inequalities, resulting in worse care for marginalised groups. Emma Soneson [2018], who is doing a PhD in Psychiatry, said there were big questions about who was developing the research agenda for personalised medicine, who the recipients would be and how personalised medicine could be rolled out in a way which was socially just. She added that there were also strong ethical concerns about the potential implications ofincidental findings about health risks when genomic testing was done on individuals.

However, Minaam Abbas said that research could highlight that some medicines were more effective on certain sub-populations than others and could lead to drug re-purposing, such as had happened with thalidomide which was proving effective for Crohn’s Disease. June Park [2018], who is doing a PhD in Chemistry, added that most clinical trials for treatments currently used were done on white populations which meant there was already a safety and equity issue when prescribing these to groups who they had not been tested on.

Emma Glennon said that it was perhaps more important to focus on adopting a more personalised approach to research - such as including more diverse populations in testing - before considering personalisation of treatment.

The Day of Research also included a series of microtalks by scholars on subjects ranging from the impact of lullaby singing on immigrant mothers’ stress levels to whether theatre can change minds.

There were also poster sessions from a range of different disciplines covering everything from zoonoses in displacement to the evolution of transmissible cancers in Tasmanian devils. Scholars voted on the best posters and presentations. Winner of the competition for best poster was Ramit Debnath [2018], who is doing a PhD in Architecture, for his poster on how slum rehabilitation influences appliance ownership. Alice Fan [2017], who is doing a PhD in Medicine, won Best Microtalk for her presentation on tuberculosis with zebrafish modelling and Lauren Killingsworth [2018], who is doing an MPhil in History, Philosophy, and Sociology of Science, Technology ​and Medicine, won most creative presentation for her presentation on medical cartography in 19th century colonial India.

*Picture credit: Gates Cambridge Scholars Council. Featured are the winners of best presentation/most creative presentation /best microtalk and best panel. From the left: Alice Fan, Lauren Killingsworth, Caitlin Andrews, Emma Glennon, Emma Soneson, Ayan Mandel, June Park and Minaam Abbas, with Andrea Kusec in front.