Celebrating research innovation

A round-up of some of the highlights of the second Day of Research.

Gates Cambridge Scholars took part in the second Day of Research last week - a day of panel discussions and presentations on subjects ranging from neuroimaging markers in dementia to the history of the Panama Canal.

The day consisted of 12 oral presentations and discussions about topics such as big data in politics and gender identity. The keynote address on what research looks like beyond the ivory towers was given by Gates Cambridge alumnus Dr Daniel Greenfield [2005]. There were panel discussions on Government and Media Influence in Policy, a Historical Perspective on Gender Identity and the Human Machine - Advances in Medical Research and Where We're Headed and interactive discussions on Pharmaceuticals: Access, Ethics and Financing and Big Data in Politics as well as poster presentations.

Those giving oral presentations included Aliya Khalid [2015] who spoke about her PhD research into how mothers influence their daughters’ education in Pakistan. She said more than 60% of adult women are not literate in Pakistan. Studies suggest links between maternal education and maternal decision-making influence whether girls go to school and how they progress through the education system. Aliya’s research is focused on how that happens and what interventions work to ensure girls are educated.

She has adopted a two-pronged theoretical approach which encompasses not only the mother’s education, but the influence of other family members, the local community and broader society. “The onus should not fall solely on mothers,” she said. “We need to be sensitive to the constraints individuals face and the context in which they operate.”

That means not only the constraints placed on them by a patriarchal society and a lack of protection from the state but also the constraint they might place on themselves. It embraces how their contribution is valued - for instance, how doing an unpaid caring role affects how mothers think of themselves.

Aliya will be studying 20 mothers in Punjab whose daughters are aged between 12 and 16. “We need to know where intervention goes wrong and where it works,” she says. “I don’t see mothers as helpless women, but as influential decision makers who have the ability to change their children’s lives in the most difficult circumstances. We need to know what we can do to support mothers who have been educated to pass that on to their daughters.”

From hospital-acquired infection to the history of the Panama Canal

Dr Alex Wood [2015], a clinical PhD student in the Department of Medicine talked about his research into hospital-acquired infections in critically ill patients. He is investigating C5a, a protein released by the body which in health is thought to play a role in mobilising neutrophils (the most abundant white blood cells) to sites of infection. However, when a person is critically ill, (following severe infections or trauma for instance) C5a is activated all over the body and may cause neutrophils to become dysfunctional. This neutrophil dysfunction is thought to be part of the reason patients in intensive care are so vulnerable to infection. Intensive care admissions and hospital-acquired infections can have long-lasting effects on patients - including an increased risk of death, mental illness, respiratory impairment and reduced mobility - sometimes for years after they have been discharged from hospital. Alex’s research investigates how C5a affects neutrophils and causes them to stop working properly. He hopes his work will further our understanding of the innate immune system and help to identify novel targets for immune-modifying drugs in critical illness.

Camilo Ruiz [2016], who is doing an MPhil in Biological Science, spoke about how artificial intelligence techniques might be used to pick the best treatment for patients with cancer. He spoke about how his grandfather had died from leukaemia. The failure of the treatments he was offered made Camilo question whether an approach which took into account the unique aspects of his disease would have been more effective.

Camilo’s research is on Diffuse Large B Cell Lymphoma, one of the most common forms of cancer in adults. He wants to find out why treatments like chemotherapy work for some people and not for others. He spoke about the different kinds of mutations that cause cancer. Current prognostics are based on factors like age, extranodal sites and the stage of cancer a person has reached, but these fail to account for the unique differences in any cancer. “If we can understand the specific genetic mutations we can better predict what treatments will work,” said Camilo. Cancer databases based on big data on what works for specific mutations can help to personalise treatment and predict best outcomes, he said.

Elijah Mak [2013], who is doing a PhD in Psychiatry, spoke about how neuroimaging is assisting the early identification of dementia. He said once neurodegeneration has set in it can be difficult to stall the process so recent attention has focused on earlier treatment, even before the onset of cognitive problems. Using MRI and other markers he seeks to detect patterns of brain changes to spot the early signs of dementia and to distinguish the various types of the disease.

Callie Vanderwiele [2014] is doing a PhD in Latin American Studies. She described how men in the Alta Verapaz no longer wear indigenous clothing since Guatemala’s most recent genocide and how for women wearing traditional clothing represents a significant political act of resistance because of the discrimination and violence faced by Maya groups. Her research looks at how indigenous weavers and Pan Mayan activists are working to build a Pan Mayan collective heritage and the role that textiles held in museums across the world play in heritage development. She said the research focused both on how museums can re-imagine themselves as revolutionary spaces as well as showing how museum objects collected during colonisation can help to restore the link between past and present.

Other speakers included:
- Annalise Higgins [2016, PhD in History] who talked about how attempts to manage the Panama Canal in World War One and to renegotiate its international status were problematised by intersections between its strategic and commercial significance;
- Leor Zmigrod [2016, PhD in Psychology] who spoke about the cognitive and personality underpinnings of ideologies and individual differences in psychological characteristics that contribute to people's adherence to various ideologies. She suggested that an understanding of the psychology of ideological commitment has the potential to increase tolerance and reduce some of the hostility and polarisation that exist today between members of different ideological groups;
- Naomi Woo [2014, PhD in Music] who spoke about 'the practicality of the impossible' in 20th century piano music;
- Morgan Seag [2016, PhD in Polar Studies] who discussed the integration of women into Antarctic science institutions in the second half of the twentieth century;
- Josh Feinzig  [2016, MPhil in Criminology] who talked about his research into prisoner-led councils and deliberative democratic programmes within prisons that attempt to foster a sense of ‘prisoner citizenship’;
- Stephen Kissler [2014, PhD in Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics] who described how mathematics has helped us identify where the 2009 outbreak of H1N1 influenza was introduced, how it spread, who was most responsible for driving its explosive transmission and the implications for future pandemics;
- Gregory Reeves [2014, PhD in Plant Sciences] whose research focuses on how to spread the benefits that some plants derive from a more efficient version of photosynthesis to cereal crops.

*Picture credit: Alex Kong. To watch a short film about the Day of Research with interviews with some speakers click here.