Review of the decade

As the 'noughties' make way for the 'teenies', we take a look back at some of the University of Sussex stories that captured the headlines during the past decade



At the dawning of a new millennium, Sussex biologists were surprised to find that plants grew best when fed a diet of heavy metal music. A third-year biology student Ruth Davies, under the supervision of Dr Peter Scott, measured the germination rates of a range of plants in various conditions - silence, classical music, Kenneth Branagh reading Hamlet - and discovered that plants did best when played Meat Loaf's Bat out Of Hell for hours on end.

Drs Alasdair Thomson and Lani Russell put out an appeal for stories about those who left Britain for a new life in Australia after the Second World War on the government's 'Ten Pound Poms' scheme. They received an enormous response and the project eventually became a book and a television programme.

Professor Mike Land ( Neuroscience) studied the eye gaze of cricketers to find out how batsmen hit fast the fast balls.  It transpires they actually take their eyes off the ball and look instead to where they expect the ball to bounce in order to prepare for their shot.



Dr Karen McComb (Psychology) researched the myth that elephants have good memories - and found it to be true. She observed that the matriarchal female in a group acted as the guardian of social knowledge - she would remember whether an approaching elephant was friend or foe, and would be able to signal her knowledge to the rest of the group. A strong matriarch ensured more stability within the groups, and higher chances of producing more offspring.

It was also the year that Professor John Maynard Smith received the Kyoto Prize, Japan's equivalent to the Nobel Prize, for his contribution to science, notably evolutionary biology.  Professor Maynard Smith, who died in 2004, was cited as having made a groundbreaking contribution to the biological sciences through his work on the social activities of organisms and his theories on the evolution of sexual reproduction.

And His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh paid a visit to the Sussex campus to meet robots and researchers in artificial intelligence - and members of the university's support staff - while the Queen was on an official visit to Brighton.



Work began on building the new Brighton and Sussex Medical School, on both the campuses of Brighton and Sussex universities. The first new medical school in the South East opened with an annual intake of 128 trainee doctors. The £28.5million joint venture between the two Universities is now regarded as one of the top places in the country to study medicine.

Professor Terry Clark and his team were in the early stages of developing a new remote sensor for monitoring heart beats and brain waves. Potential applications of the sensor include remote monitoring of burns victims who cannot be touched.

Prof Clark is confident about the potential of the new approach, suggesting that in the near future it may form the basis of a radically new technology. "We now have the means to access and detect non-invasively any electrical signal ranging from foetal heart signals through to EEGs of brain function," he said.  The technology continues to be developed.

Work got underway on the Sussex campus to build the largest research centre in the world devoted to science, innovation and technology policy issues. The £9.4 million Freeman Centre combined  the joint expertise of SPRU - Science and Technology Policy Research, based at Sussex, and the Centre for Research in Innovation Management (CENTRIM), which relocated from the University of Brighton.




Sussex's  Genome Damage and Stability Centre (known as the Genome Centre) was opened by Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse, who was a research fellow in biological sciences at Sussex during the 1980s.  The £5.75m suite of laboratories houses ten research groups who are investigating links between DNA damage and cancer and has received major grants from the Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK, among others.

In a decade marked by terror attacks and atrocities, including  '9/11' and the London Bombings, Dr John Drury's psychology research into how crowds react during emergency evacuations has been called upon by the media on countless occasions.  Dr Drury, who received major funding for his work in 2003, has revealed that "every man for himself" is not the usual behaviour of crowds in panic situations.  In fact, there is clear evidence of altruism, mutual helping and effective co-ordination.  

The University joined forces with American Express to create postgraduate MSc programmes.  The partnership celebrated its fifth anniversary in 2009 and is now seen as a successful model for universities and businesses to work together with mutual benefits.



It was the year that Sussex alumnus Jeremy Deller picked up the Turner Prize, and paid tribute to the Sussex tutor who inspired him in his studies, Professor David Alan Mellor.  Deller won the judges vote with a film, Texas Memory Bucket, a journey through the American state.

Another award winner was Professor Erik Millstone (Spru), who beat celebrity chefs including Nigel Slater and Michel Roux to be awarded the Andre Simmons Award for best food book of the year. Together with his colleague Tim Lang at City University, Professor Millstone put together The Atlas of Food, which presents comprehensive information on global patterns and trends such as where hunger and over-consumption exist side by side, how pesticide sales are increasing despite consumer and ecological concerns, and how agricultural biodiversity has rapidly declined.

The Apple iPod, now an integral part of millions of people's lives, came under scrutiny during 2004 when Dr Michael Bull's research into the mobile music technology phenomenon hit the headlines around the world. Dr Bull said: "The iPod is the first cultural icon of the 21st century." His book on the subject, Mobilizing the Social: Sound Technology in Urban Experience, was published in 2005.




While binge drinking became a national obsession, both as an activity and a point of discussion, Dr Theodora Duka's (Psychology) research into the effects of alcohol became highly topical.  Dr Duka has since contributed to numerous documentaries and news reports - and the news about binge drinking continues to be bad.

A fascinating addition to the University of Sussex archives was a collection of notes and diaries by folk legend Bob Copper. Three generations of the Copper family - attended the presentation party at the University library, where an invited audience heard them sing together in the style taught to them by Bob, who died aged 89 in 2004.

Dr Georges Kemenes turned to the humble snail to learn more about how to treat memory loss in human.  Dr Kemenes said snails and humans share some important characteristics, including the basic molecular mechanisms that control long-term memory and learning.



As the fashion industry continued to debate about the use of 'size zero' models Dr Helga Dittmar's (Psychology) research revealed that ultra-thin models do not help sell clothes.  Dr Dittmar and Dr Emma Halliwell, from the University of the West of England, interviewed 800 women on the perceived effectiveness of adverts. They found that body size of the models, whether normal size or ultra-thin, did not influence the women's opinion of the adverts' effectiveness.

After ten years of research a Sussex-led team of physicists made a significant discovery that could lead to a better understanding of the aftermath of the Big Bang. They've discovered a tiny distortion in sub-atomic particles, creating a pear-shaped neutron, which will give insights into the creation of stars and planets. Dr Philip Harris said: "This will really help to constrain theories that attempt to go beyond our current understanding of the fundamental laws of physics. For some of them, it's back to the drawing board; but for the bVictoria Wood in Nella Last's Waretter ones, it will definitely show them the way forwards."

Meanwhile, a war diary from the Mass-Observation Archive at the University's library provided the source for an ITV drama, 'Housewife, 49' starring Victoria Wood. Head of Special Collections & Research Services Dorothy Sheridan helped with the original publication of the diary, Nella Last's War.  The programme went on to win a Bafta.



The most significant new staff appointment at Sussex this year was that of the new Vice-Chancellor Professor Michael Farthing. Formerly Principal of St George's Medical School, Professor Farthing arrived in August Professor Michael Farthingand set about getting to know the university community as well as seeking opinions and comments from staff to feed into the development of the university's Strategic Plan.

 Llamas were the unlikely stars of another research story, with the Today programme on Radio 4, the Telegraph and BBC Breakfast News all wanting to know how llama droppings helped Dr Mick Frogley, in the absence of written history, to chart the rise and fall of the Inca empire in Peru. Llamas were the primary form of transport for the ancient Incas. Analysis of the fossilised remains of mites that fed on llama droppings revealed tantalising clues about Inca trade, animal and population numbers around the time of the Spanish conquest. Similar techniques could now be used to help analyse global climate patterns.

 Professor Anthony Moore got on the scent of one of the world's largest - and smelliest - flowers when a Titan lily came into bloom at Cornwall's Eden Project. The flower - which blooms only once every seven years - releases an odour similar to rotting flesh when an enzyme in the plant causes the flower spike to heat up. The same enzyme is found in the parasite that cause African sleeping sickness, and in fungi and could yield properties of use to industry and medicine. Professor Moore, who is conducting research into the enzyme, even managed to deliver a series of public lectures standing next to the short-lived bloom without holding his nose.



Students, academics and staff came together to bid a fond farewell to Lord Attenborough, after ten years as the University's Chancellor. A star-studded party saw family, friends and admirers pay tribute at a special show, where a new portrait of Lord Attenborough was also unveiled. Lord Attenborough with his wife, Sheil Sim

The new Laboratory for Social Insects (LASI), headed by Professor Francis Ratnieks (Biology), certainly caused a buzz this year, with plenty of across-the-board media interest in the research team's work on the British honeybee and a £100,000 donation from honey company Rowse for research. Professor Ratnieks also revealed to the world's press the selfless sacrifice of a species of ant.


Collaborations of a virtual kind also made the news for Sussex in 2008. The University's new Second Life campus - a virtual world created online - opened to virtual visitors. Each visitor creates an online character or avatar and can interact with others and with campus facilities such as lecture theatres and the library. Avatars can even fly - something one BBC reporter tried out when she came to report on the web team-inspired innovation.


2009New Chancellor Sanjeev Bhaskar

It was the year that the University welcomed its new Chancellor, actor and comedy writer Sanjeev Bhaskar.  During his first Graduation ceremony, Mr Bhaskar livened up the proceedings with his sparkling wit and presented an honorary degree to Anil Gupta, his long-term associate and the producer of his first radio success, Goodness Gracious Me.

Author Terry Pratchett's sad announcement that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's was followed by the news that he was helping to fund research into the disease at the University of Sussex. Dr Louise Serpell (Biochemistry) is looking at how how toxic particles in the brains of people with Alzheimer's form and begin to attack brain cells. With the aim of the research to gain detailed understanding of how Alzheimer's develops, the findings will be a crucial in the development of new treatments that could combat the disease.

The year - and the decade - ended with Professor Sue Hartley (Ecology) presenting the prestigious Royal Institution Christmas Lectures.  The shows, televised on More 4, were themed on the war between plants and animals, which Professor Hartley told her young audiences had been continuing for 300 million years, and there's no sign of it ending yet.








By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Tuesday, 5 January 2010