Press review of the year 2013

It’s a multimedia world and Sussex played its part 24/7 in 2013, contributing to the understanding of world issues and sharing research gems and academic successes, from the top news spots to the outer blogosphere.

Here's the Press office selection of faculty, student and research stories that made the headlines in 2013.

Mind and body

bag pipesAs is often the case, the new year began with a wake-up call for zombies.  Dr Daniel Bor and Professor Anil Seth (Informatics) were among  Sussex Sackler Centre scientists who took part in a Science Museum event in January, which was aimed at exploring and explaining what we know so far about consciousness.  Their ZombieLab was featured by BBC Science, The Argus and Times Higher Education.

Dr Ildiko Kemenes’ (Biology) research on temporary memory lapses – the sort that might make you forget people’s names at parties – also caused much media chatter across the globe, from BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, to Sky News,  The Times and Daily Telegraph.

Meanwhile Dr Sophie Forster’s (Psychology) research, revealing daydreamers are just as distracted by the world around them as their own thoughts, led the Mail Online to caution employers against giving jobs to those with their heads in the clouds.

So much for minds. How about bodies?  The shape of your face predicts your success in later life, according to research by Professor Jamie Ward and Shuaa Alrajih (Psychology), which made the pages of business news and Mail online.

But isn’t it what’s on the inside that matters more? Despite what we may think, the size and functionality of the brains of mental arithmetic experts are no different to those of lesser maths mortals. Dr Natasha Sigala’s (Neuroscience, BSMS) research, which concluded from fMRI scans that experts are ‘made, not born’, received coverage in the Daily Mirror and The Times of India.

Which isn’t to say that genes are any less significant, as highlighted in Dr Ted Morrow’s (Life Sciences) warning of the implications of the controversial ‘three-parent IVF’ treatment, reported on by  BBC News Online.

In the ever-demanding quest for disease treatment breakthroughs, Professor Laurence Pearl (Genome Centre) and his team’s findings about the hidden potential of a cutting-edge cancer drug was picked up by The Argus and reported on again when they went on to be awarded the prestigious 2013 Cancer Research UK Translational Cancer Research Prize.

The year ended with Professor John Atack (Biochemistry) talking to BBC Sussex about the timely and welcome news that G8 countries would plough money and resources into Alzheimer’s research.

The bear essentials

ElephantsThe appetite for animal stories in the media never wanes and while it might seem that the focus is on “cute and cuddly” or, as one academic put it “ the light and fluffy side”, research stories about our fellow creatures are potent ways of introducing to the public science and serious issues such as evolution or human impact on the environment.

Bees, while not obviously cuddly, continue to capture the public imagination, particularly as their future success is threatened by pests, disease, intensive farming and a lack of countryside flowers.  One thing we can do to help bees to survive is to feed them in our own gardens. The first scientific assessment of pollinator-friendly garden flowers by Professor Francis Ratnieks and Mihail Garbuzov in LASI (Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects, Life Sciences) attracted wide interest, featuring on BBC Radio 2, The Guardian, BBC News Online and green-fingered favourite, Garden News.  Professor Ratnieks and LASI colleagues Norman Carreck and Dr Karin Alton were called on by, among others, Radio 4’s Costing The Earth,  The Times, The Guardian and BBC Radio 5 Live on subjects ranging from pesticides to the rise of urban beekeeping.

New arrivals at Sussex have also been creating a buzz in bee news – Professor Dave Goulson’s book (see Read all about it, below) detailing his passion for bumblebees won plaudits and wide media coverage, while the likes of Country Life, The Economist and New Scientist sought Professor Goulson’s opinion on various bee matters. Professor Bill Hughes’ research into the bumblebee import market (yes, there is one) highlighted the risk to native species of introduced diseases and pests and was reported on by The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, the BBC, and the Daily Mail and others.

At the other end of the scale,  Professor Karen McComb’s (Psychology) research involving our largest land mammal, elephants, looked at what happens when their young are orphaned.  Professor McComb’s African study provided the media with insights into the fascinating psychology of elephants while also highlighting issues such as culling and the pressures of elephants and humans being neighbours. The story featured on Radio 4’s Today programme and on ITN’s News at Ten and all points in between (including the BBC online, The Times, the Daily Mail, National Geographic and the Huffington Post), keeping Karen and her fellow researcher Graeme Shannon busy for several days.

Sussex research into koala vocal communication probably compromised the creature’s “cuddly” image, as well as offering some genuinely novel scientific insight. Dr Ben Charlton and Dr David Reby (Psychology) published research on a newly discovered vocal trait – an extra vocal fold – in the teddy-like marsupial and showed how it was responsible for the frankly alarming sound of the koala’s mating call (described variously as “belching bullfrogs”, donkey braying, “angry Wookie” and the animal equivalent of “Walrus of Soul” Barry White). BBC Radio Sussex couldn’t stop playing the sound clip provided by the team, and the story was picked up by Scientific American, BBC Radio 5 Live, Nature, the Daily Mail, The New York Times, National Geographic and CBBC TV’s Newsround.

Happy ever after . . .

Ken Dodd

English in love book coverThe greatest gift, as Ken Dodd once sang, is happiness.  But how can it be measured, and where is it to be found?  Thankfully, Sussex academics have a few answers.

The seaside is a good place to start, according to Dr George MacKerron (Economics). His Mappiness App found that nowhere is more likely to instil a sense of peace and contentment than a briny shore; a message cheerfully iterated by The Argus and other coastal media.

Alternatively Dr John Drury’s (Psychology) study found there was much joy to be found in being part of a crowd, especially one with a common purpose – except maybe for Christmas shopping. Giving the story a seasonal tag worked for the journos of BBC South East, LBC radio, The Daily Telegraph and the Mail online.

Dr Claire Langhamer’s (History) book about marriage in the 20th century, The English in Love, revealed a less than rosy view of our romantic past.  Nevertheless, it garnered a mass of favourable reviews in publications such as Times Higher Education, The New Statesman and the Daily Telegraph, as well as BBC Radio 4’s ‘The World Tonight’.

Fellow historian Professor Carol Dyhouse’s (History) book, Girl Power, also created much discussion about the ‘pleasure, pain and panic of being a modern girl’ over the decades, with Professor Dyhouse penning  a piece for Harpers Bazaar.

For some,  especially chronic worriers, peace of mind will remain elusive until they learn to go with the flow.  Dr Suzanne Dash’s (Psychology) review of various studies, as reported in the Daily Mirror and Nature World News, found that those who tend to employ a more instinctive or ‘heuristic processing technique’ for making decisions were generally more positive about their choices.

But, if all else fails, turn to mathematics.  Dr Lionel Bartlett and Professor Anil Seth (Informatics) have come up with an equation that can help predict calamities. It brought a smile to their faces to see the story picked up by Wired and International Science Times, and Professor Seth was thrilled to illuminate more to the listeners of BBC Sussex.

The big occasion

The Queen
Nelson Mandela
Kayaletu Tshiki (student)The media diary is a mix of the anticipated and the unexpected: planned-for anniversaries rub up next to breaking stories and dramatic events in the daily news agenda.  Sussex staff and students contributed to some of the biggest stories of the year – sometimes at very short notice.

Professor Clive Webb (American Studies) was called on to give an historical perspective to the 50th anniversaries of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech and the assassination of President Kennedy for the BBC , LBC Radio and the Voice of Russia,  for whom he also reviewed the ‘financial cliff fall’ crisis in the USA. Professor Webb also assessed for Channel 4 News President Obama’s attempts to secure military strikes on Syria.

The media clamour regarding the use of nerve gas in the Syrian conflict led to Dr James Revill (SPRU) outlining the history of chemical weapons in war for the World This Weekend (BBC Radio 4) and commenting on the same for BBC World News.  Dr Kamran Matin (IR) and Professor Paul Taggart (Politics) were called on too by the BBC to assess the call for air strikes on Syria and the UK parliamentary vote on military action. Elsewhere in the Middle East, the prospect of thawing relations with Iran excited Press interest and Dr Matin was once again on hand to discuss with the BBC’s World Service.

The death of Margaret Thatcher in April inspired acres of column space devoted to opinion across the political spectrum. Professor Paul Taggart (Politics) reflected on Thatcher’s political legacy for BBC Radio Sussex while Dr Lucy Robinson (History), whose research into the cultural and social history of the 1980s was referenced by The Guardian, assessed for BBC South East TV the divisive nature of Thatcher’s politics and the admiration she attracted for her strength in leadership.

Other hot topics during the year included the fracking debate in the heat of summer, while the Tories felt the heat from the rise of the UK Independence Party (Ukip). Professor James Wilsdon (SPRU) and Professor Jim Watson explained the fracking process, what it means for energy policy and green campaigners’ opposition to fracking for, among others,  The Economist and BBC Radio 5 Live.  The Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and BBC picked up on Professor Paul Webb’s (Politics) YouGov poll of Conservative Party members, which showed a rise in support for Ukip, with one in five members saying they might switch to Ukip in the next General Election. 

The Queen’s visit at the end of October to open The Keep, the new home for the University’s archive treasures, filled pages of the local newspapers, including Sussex Express and The Argus. The national media focused instead on the historical nuggets held in The Keep – specifically from the University’s Special Collections. Head of Special Collections Fiona Courage talked about some Collection highlights, including the Kipling papers and the Mass Observation Archive, to BBC Radio 4’s PM news programme,  BBC South East TV’s Inside Out, Radio 4’s Archive Hour and for the BBC web site.  Historian Dr Lucy Robinson helped to select for the BBC some  of the quirkier observations from Mass observers, such as the rise in “real” coffee consumption and homemade custard “Delia-style” noted in 1980s Christmas diaries. And fellow historian Dr Claire Langhamer delved into the Mass Observation Archive with David Dimbleby for the BBC documentary The People’s Coronation, commemorating in June the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Elizabeth II.

As the year drew to a close, the news of the death of Nelson Mandela brought unprecedented coverage across the world. Sussex’s long association with the anti-apartheid struggle and its contribution to the Mandela legacy was given prominence thanks to University of Sussex student and Mandela Scholar Kayaletu Tshiki, whose eloquent tribute to the late African leader was featured on the BBC’s Six O’Clock News. Amid all the many reports on Mandela’s passing, it was perhaps fitting that Sussex’s contribution included a young South African voice inspired by the past and representing the hopes and aspirations of a new generation.

Read All About It

A sting in the tale book coverUniversity of Sussex authors had a bumper year in 2013, picking up nominations, prizes and glowing reviews.

In June, Sussex PhD graduate Ros Barber was awarded the £10,000 Desmond Elliot Prize for Debut Fiction for The Marlowe Papers, a verse novel exploring the death of Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe and the authorship of Shakespeare's plays. Ros was interviewed by The Sunday Times Culture section and her success was noted by The Daily Telegraph and Metro.

Dr Claire Langhamer’s (History) book, The English In Love, earned admiring reviews from The Times of India, the New Statesman, The Financial Times and The Daily Telegraph as well as an interview on BBC Radio 4’s The World Tonight.

Professor Mariana Mazzucato’s (SPRU) book The Entrepreneurial State seized the moment in this age of austerity to champion State investment in new and green technologies.  Her book was reviewed by many, including The Economist, The Financial Times (“a brilliant exploration of new ideas”) , Forbes and the International Herald Tribune – and the interview requests kept on coming, alongside numerous conference addresses and a TED Global lecture.  In December, David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science named Professor Mazzucato’s book as one of his top choices for 2013 in Times Higher Education, saying that it “has helped to persuade me to shift our approach in the UK and adumbrate the eight great technologies”.

In September, Professor Dave Goulson’s book A Sting In The Tale was nominated for the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction. Professor Goulson’s account of his passion for ecology and the bumblebee, from boyhood and activism to academia, made to the final six and was also serialised as Book of the Week on Radio 4.

Professor David Hendy’s (Media) book Noise: A Human History was another popular read of 2013, following on from his acclaimed BBC Radio 4 series of the same name, that was broadcast in May.

Put a cork in it

Dry JanuaryBefore you reach for the bottle once more this festive season, take note of some of the sobering studies carried out this year by some Sussex scientists.

Professor Dai Stephens (Psychology) was among a group of scientists who identified a genetic mutation that caused some mice to prefer alcohol to water – causing them to drink to excess.  Professor Stephens spoke to Heart FM and The Argus about how the research could help in understanding human behaviour, while the story was served up to national and international audiences through various media, including ABC in the US

Of course, as these mice know, it’s hard to stop if you’re hardwired to enjoy the taste of alcohol. Professor Stephens also gave comments to the Daily Telegraph and others about a study that found even a smidgen (15 mls) of beer was enough to release the pleasure-giving brain chemical dopamine in some people, causing them to want to drink more.

But how to stop? Doctoral student Dominic Conroy’s (Psychology) research revealed that, although students are renowned for their heavy drinking, they rather admired the abstainers and regarded them as more social competent.  The  message that was repeated in The Argus.

What is also surprising, according to research by  Dr Richard De Visser and Nina Furtwangler (Psychology), is that there is no global consensus between countries on what constitutes safe levels of drinking. Their research made a quite splash in the media, including The Guardian and The Scotsman, as well as trade press for the drinks industry. Dr de Visser was also invited to discuss the findings on the BBC World Service programme ‘Healthcheck’.

Dr de Visser’s research spills over into next year as he assesses the success of the Dry January campaign.

And finally . . .

Alexandra LoskePhD student Alexandra Loske's (Art History) research into the colour schemes of Brighton's sumptious Royal Pavilion is the source of our beautiful banner picture on the home page. Alexandra's work informed her exhibition in the Royal Pavilion in the summer, which was featured in The Argus

Alexandra will be appearing in the New Year in the BBC series Great British Railway Journeys, presented by Michael Portillo (pictured with Alexandra, right). Alexandra will be discussing the fate of the Royal Pavilion Brighton in the Victorian era. The series begins in January 2014.

The homepage image is a detail from an abstract study of crimson by Mary Gartside, from An Essay on Light and Shade, London 1805. Image courtesy of Alexandra Loske.