Press review of the year 2016

2016 has seen the world peering over the edge, with voters rewriting the rule books, scientists edging ever closer to world-altering breakthroughs, and researchers unearthing fascinating new insights into our inner workings. As ever, University of Sussex experts have been out there helping to make, break and commentate on the headlines.

Here we celebrate some of the ways in which Sussex voices were heard in 2016, in our press review of the year.

What’s going on up top?

Our brains – what goes right with them, what goes wrong with them, and what goes on in them – remain one of science’s greatest mysteries. Sussex researchers are at the forefront of delving into the grey matter and this year came up with some surprising discoveries.

NeuronsProfessor George Kemenes  (Life Sciences) study revealed that snails use a circuit of just two brain cells to make decisions – one cell to detect a food source, and another to work out if it’s hungry enough to bother to go to the food source. The story turned out to be a no-brainer for newsdesks, with extensive coverage from the Mail Online and Daily Telegraph, to Sky News.

Another neural network – the one that causes top performers to stumble and slip when anxious - was identified this year by Brighton and Sussex Medical School neuroscientists, together with the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science.  The study, which suggested that it’s the thought of being watched that deactivates our control over fine movements, found footholds in the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph among others, and scored a perfect ten for BBC Network Radio.

Ice skater stumblingThe Sackler Centre also received coverage in New Scientist for a major exhibition, States of Mind, at the Wellcome Collection, for which the centre’s co-director, Professor Anil Seth (Informatics), was the chief scientific advisor. Professor Seth’s research also helped to inspire two BBC Radio 4 plays on consciousness this summer.

Another big hitter this year was Dr Graham Hole’s (Psychology) research on mobile phone use in cars, which showed that hands-free versions are just as distracting for our brains as handheld ones. Coverage was global (BBC News, Hindustan Times, South China Morning Post), with - not surprisingly -  multiple requests for Dr Hole to be interviewed on drivetime radio shows.

So much for the brain’s behaviour. What about its biochemistry? Dr Karen Marshall and Professor Louise Serpell (Life Sciences) told ITV Meridian why they were excited to have created a “designer protein” to help scientists understand why nerve cells die in the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers.

And there’s new hope for cancer patients after the Sussex Drug Discovery Centre received £6 million from the Wellcome Foundation and AstraZeneca – as reported in the FT – to create a portfolio of new cancer drugs that exploit our DNA damage response (DDR) system.

The secret life of children – and their parents

Childhood is the start of a big adventure for all members of the family, as Sussex researchers have reminded us this year.

Dr Tanja Staehler’s (Philosophy) new philosophy training module for midwives, designed to help them communicate the wonder of childbirth to new parents, was proudly announced in the pages of The Times and also made it on air on bonny BBC Scotland.

Tanja StaehlerTanja Staehler and her children

Meanwhile Dr Alison Pike (Psychology) revealed what was behind the tears and tantrums when she was brought in to be an expert on Channel Four’s eye-opening documentary series, The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds.

For budding young musicians at Southover Primary School in Lewes, an app designed by Professor Ed Hughes (Music) to help them all play in time made a lovely piece for ITV Meridian.

Dr Julia Sutherland’s (Education) project to encourage adolescents to read two challenging novels back-to back during the summer holidays - and to see the benefits it brings to their reading skills – also proved a hit for ITV Meridian and BBC Sussex.

A child readingIf one of the books chosen was the childhood classic, Alice in Wonderland, Dr Bethan Stevens (English), would have been delighted. She curated an exhibition of the original Brothers Dalziel engravings that were used to illustrate the first edition, which enchanted Guardian Online readers of all ages.

A key component of a happy family, says Professor Gordon Harold, Director of the Rudd Centre for Adoption Research and Practice, is a home environment free from parental conflict. In a review he carried out with the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) and reported on by the Mail, the Independent, Daily Telegraph and others, he found that children exposed to frequent, intense and poorly resolved arguments had poorer well-being and were less likely to achieve at school. 

Changes and challenges

It’s been a year of challenging new directions for governments, for people and for the planet itself, with several Sussex voices among those asking the most pertinent questions.

Brexit flagIn the immediate aftermath of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, economists at Sussex formed the UK Trade Policy Observatory (UKTPO) to help ministers, businesses and journalists navigate the new trade landscape. The UKTPO has become a key player in aiding both the government and the media, with Professor Alan Winters writing in the Wall Street Journal, Dr Peter Holmes explaining the EU’s Customs Union to listeners of BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster, and we’re now seeing UKTPO experts appearing nearly every week in the likes of The Economist, the FT, The Times and on BBC.

And despite the proclaimed ‘death of the expert’ from some quarters, award-winning economist Professor Mariana Mazzucato (SPRU) was in hotter demand than ever. With a new book out, Rethinking Capitalism, she had articles in the GuardianFTNew Statesman, and New Scientist, had a wide-ranging interview on CNN and made numerous appearances on Channel 4 News and BBC’s Newsnight. She was also a leading voice in the debate about new Prime Minister Theresa May’s Industrial Strategy, as noted by Anthony Hilton in the Evening Standard, who wrote that May had clearly lifted some of her ideas in a speech to the CBI from Mazzucato’s book, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking public vs. private sector myths. Mazzucato topped the year by appearing as a panellist on BBC’s Question Time.

Donald TrumpAs Brexit rumbles on, the US has been dealing with its own shock results.  Since the beginning of the year, Professor Clive Webb (American Studies) had been giving comment to BBC Sussex, Heart FM on each leg of the presidential race. He has been joined by colleagues Professor Paul Webb, Professor Claire Annesley (Politics) and Professor Cynthia Weber (International Relations) in reviewing the Trump-Clinton fall-out for the likes of The Washington Post, BBC Woman’s Hour, ITV Meridian and BBC Sussex.

Meanwhile, the plight of humanity – and the planet it inhabits – continues.  Dr Linda Morrice’s (Education) heart-wrenching stories of refugees and the difficulties they have faced with integration in the UK made a full-page feature in the Guardian, while Professor Julian Murton’s (Geography) research on a growing Siberian crater, caused by global warming and dubbed by the locals as “the gateway to the underworld”, alarmed The Independent, The New York Times and Nature World News.

There was some good news amidst the gloom. Professor Jorn Scharlemann’s (Life Sciences) co-authored study that showed how protected areas are increasing biodiversity was covered by the Guardian and the International Business Times, among others.  And Professor James Fairhead’s (Anthropology) study that showed how ancient farming practices involving soil improvement could mitigate the worst effects of climate change was featured in National Geographic and then shared on Reddit, reaching an audience of many millions.

The future is fast, floaty and feely

Progress in technology can take years, inching along even before life became metric. And then suddenly there’s a rare and genuine ‘breakthrough’.  Sussex saw several such moments this year.

Quantum computerPhysicist Professor Winfried Hensinger’s ambition to build the world’s first superfast quantum computer took a massive leap forward this year after he and his team radically simplified a method to harness charged atoms; an achievement that Professor Hensinger was able to explain to listeners of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Penelope Cruz watching floating pixelsMeanwhile, Professor Sriram Subramanian’s  (Engineering and Informatics) research on levitating objects just with soundwaves led to him and his team creating a mid-air display of ‘floating pixels’, which hit the spot for top geek site, Techcrunch, The Engineer, as well as Spanish TV show, El Hormigeuro, where Hollywood star Penelope Cruz watched in amazement.

Following the launch of the Creative Technology Group, in April, Dr Mariana Obrist, explained to the Guardian and Wired, among others, how technology will turn watching TV in the future into a 9D experience, or so-called ‘feely-vision’.

This year’s Product Design students in the School of Engineering and Informatics saw their projects, including a fidget toy for children and a doggie treat dispenser, being featured on ITV Meridian and a host of other titles. 

A new strength at Sussex, the Digital Humanities Lab, got a big plug on BBC Four’s The Joy of Data when its co-director Professor Tim Hitchcock (History) explained on how digital technology enabled him to trawl Old Bailey archives to write about its history, while the latest extraordinary developments and inventions in digital music came to campus for Dr Thor Magnusson’s (Media, Film and Music) international Live Interfaces conference.

The brightest stars

Sussex students are making the future. And for some of them, recognition has arrived even before they have finished their studies

Amy Smith on horseAmy Smith, a doctoral student in the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group  carried out research that showed horses can distinguish between angry and happy human face expressions, and the media herd, including BBC ‘Breakfast’ and the Guardian, soon descended on her.

Geography student, Mirea Lauria found a 2000 year-old Native American spear and arrow while on a field trip to California, which became a story for The Argus, ITV Meridian, Heart FM, Juice Radio, Phys.Org, Archaeology News and TechNews Now. Mirea also did an interview with Heart FM about her discovery.

Josh de Wit, a second-year mechanical engineering student, won the Autocar-Courland Next Generation Award for 2016 for designing a graphene battery that could dramatically reduce charging times for electric vehicles. 

Josh de Witt selfieJosh, who received his award at the annual dinner of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders’ (SMMT), also got to meet Amazon Grand Tour presenters Richard Hammond and James May  - and saw his news published in Autocar, Electronics Weekly and a slew of trade press.

Also receiving national recognition this year was social work student Odi Oqusa, He won Student Social Worker of the Year at the Social Worker of the Year Awards 2016 after showing outstanding potential during his studies.

Odi used his own experience of overcoming a mental illness to help others. He runs a weekly music group in a local community hall for people in need of refuge, and is working with a national charity, the Afiya Trust, on the over-representation of Black Minority and Ethnic (BME) men in mental health services.  His success was celebrated in The Argus and Community Care.

From the media relations team, and all our colleagues in the Communications and External Affairs division, have a great Christmas and a happy new year!