Learning from experience…

From Greek myth to improving medical diagnostics, final-year undergraduate Andrej Zukov Gregoric explains the basis of the PhD he is starting in September in a branch of Artificial Intelligence called ‘machine learning’.

Greek mythologyHistory is full of tales of animate beings created from inanimate matter. It is said that to compensate for his limp the ancient Greek god of blacksmiths Hephaestus created two little golden robots to help him with his work. What once belonged to myth slowly began to feature as a theme of science as times moved on. In his 1948 paper “Intelligent Machinery” Turing outlined what in hindsight can be thought of as the first manifesto of artificial intelligence (AI). Ever since then researchers have pursued AI in two ways. One school of thought starting in the 1950s tried directly to bring about human-like AI. The other, which became popular later on, focused instead on the immediately applicable sub-problems of AI. A subset of these sub-problems is what we today call machine learning.

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Women in Science Athena SWAN awards for Psychology and Earth Sciences

ImageTwo Royal Holloway Science departments have been given Athena SWAN awards this week, recognising their commitment to supporting the careers of women in science. The Department of Psychology have been awarded a silver award and the Department of Earth Sciences a bronze award.

The Athena SWAN Awards recognise success in developing employment practices to further and support the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) departments in higher education. A record 68 awards were presented to 35 different higher education institutions this week.

Royal Holloway set up a Women in Science Working Group in 2007. In November 2009 the College signed up to the principles in the Athena SWAN Charter and in July 2010 was awarded institutional Bronze status.

Each department in the Faculty of Science has one member of academic staff designated an “Athena Champion”.  These staff take a lead in promoting the principles of the Athena SWAN Charter within their department/school and are pivotal in developing bids for Athena SWAN status.

The Department of Physics already holds Athena SWAN silver level award as they hold   Project JUNO Champion status from the Institute of Physics.

Professor Katie Normington s who chairs the Royal Holloway Women in Science group said:

“We are delighted to receive this recognition for our Earth Sciences and Psychology Departments from Athena SWAN. Royal Holloway has a long and distinguished history of pioneering education for women and it is important that we support existing and future academic staff. There is still much work to be done to ensure that women in science are fully represented and supported.”

A formal award ceremony is being held at the Royal Society of Edinburgh in June for the successful departments. 

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Royal Holloway Science Festival firing on all cylinders

sciencefestivalSchools, students, staff and the local community flooded onto campus just before Easter for Royal Holloway Science Festival. The Science Faculty, together with several Arts departments, threw open their doors for a week-long programme of activities including an opera about bees, a big bang chemistry show, stand up comedy, a pub quiz and a village fete! The Science Festival has evolved from Royal Holloway’s long-running annual Science Open Day which is a key fixture in the Surrey events calendar.

This year, around 2000 visitors – not put off by snowfall – came along to Festival finale Super Science Saturday to be greeted by staff and students from Royal Holloway’s science departments. An impressive array of exciting activities let visitors investigate whether soap bubbles always had to be round, whether hippos once lived in London and whether objects could really levitate, among other things.

The Department of Psychology took the opportunity to involve Festival visitors in their own research including asking whether people could tell the difference between a fake laugh and a real one.

Those who ventured into Founder’s Building found an eclectic array of performances, art installations and workshops at the Science Alternative Village Fete. Elsewhere on campus visitors were kept enthralled by performances from the Science Museum’s resident comedy duo Punk Science and Dr Hal and his Big Bang! Show, that had to be heard to be believed.

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Off the beaten track

A little while ago I was given the opportunity to take part in fieldwork in China with lecturers and research staff from Royal Holloway, through the Royal Geographical Society and the Institute of British Geographers. Find out more about them here.

After completing an application form for their Learning and Leading Fieldwork Apprenticeship, I was short-listed for a Skype interview and then found out that I’d received a grant to take part in fieldwork in China!

Look here to see me on the Royal Holloway Geography news page.

The fieldwork is part of an on-going project led by Dr Thomas Stevens together with other geographers and geologists around the country and is a Natural Environment Research Council funded project that aims to determine the sources of Chinese dust over the last 22 million years.

Dust in the atmosphere is an important and poorly understood part of global climate, and…

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Does forest diversity matter?

By Julia Koricheva and Harriet Milligan, School of Biological Sciences.

Prof. Julia Koricheva and PhD student Harriet Milligan report on their work in the collaborative EU project which examines links between forest diversity and ecosystem functioning. This project takes them on a journey across Europe, from Finland to Spain, to assess the effects of browsing by moose and deer on different forest types.   

Julia Koricheva:

Forests are the most species-rich of all terrestrial ecosystems, they also control a large portion of the carbon, nutrient and water balances of the Earth. But are these two aspects interlinked? Do more diverse forests deliver better ecosystem services? This is an important question given that the majority of European forests are subjected to some degree of human intervention and the way that forests are managed has a direct impact on their biodiversity. Quantifying the role of forest biodiversity for ecosystem functioning is not an easy task. First, as forest ecosystems provide many different functions and services, we need to measure many variables (e.g. carbon sequestration, water cycling, nutrient retention, habitat provision, timber production etc), which requires joint efforts of specialists from different fields. In addition, the assessment should not be restricted to a single country or forest type but cover as many forest types as possible. Our team at the School of Biological Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL) is currently involved in an ambitious large-scale collaborative project which is funded by the EU and aimed at meeting the above challenges. The FunDivEUROPE (Functional significance of forest biodiversity in Europe) project represents a consortium of 24 partner institutions from 15 European countries.

Harriet assessing browsing of oak seedlings

Harriet assessing browsing of oak seedlings

The RHUL’s FunDivEUROPE team has two important missions in the project. First, we provide one of the experimental platforms for testing the effects of tree diversity on ecosystem functioning in forest ecosystems – the Satakunta forest diversity experiment which I have established in SW Finland in 1999. Last summer we have hosted in Satakunta numerous FunDivEUROPE research teams which measured everything from photosynthesis, tree growth and sap flow, soil chemistry and soil fauna to understory vegetation and herbivory in mixed and pure stands in order to assess how stand diversity and species composition affect ecosystem functioning. This summer it is our turn to travel and to do our own data collection, which brings me to the second mission of the RHUL’s team – assessment of forest resistance to mammalian herbivory.

Ability to regulate and reduce damage by pests is one of the services provided by forest ecosystems, and it is commonly believed that diverse ecosystems are able to regulate pest damage better than species-poor ecosystems and communities. This principle is widely used in agriculture; for instance, intercropping (planting several crop species together) has been shown to successfully reduce crop losses to a variety of insect pests. But does the same mechanism work for mammalian herbivores in forests? Damage by moose, deer, voles and hare is an important source of seedling and sapling mortality. Could it be reduced by planting or maintaining mixed-species tree stands? The answer is not straightforward because one important difference between insect and mammalian herbivores is that while majority of insect pests are specialists and feed on only one or a few closely related plant species, majority of mammalian herbivores are generalists and have a fairly broad diet. Therefore, instead of reducing herbivore damage, diverse tree stands may actually attract more mammalian herbivores by providing a kind of ‘smorgasbord’. I call on Harriet Milligan, who is doing her PhD on effects of forest diversity on mammalian herbivory within the FunDivEUROPE project.

Harriet Milligan:

Assessing herbivore browsing in forests: from bites to poo

To investigate if and how mammalian herbivores respond to forest diversity, I am assessing the degree of browsing on woody plant species in forest plots of differing tree species number and composition across 3 key European forest ecosystems (boreal, temperate, and Mediterranean). My PhD looks at what mammalian herbivores in these forests like to eat, and will attempt to understand how the structure of the forest influences their meal choices. Does a species-rich forest, for example, provide protection for regenerating woody plants or do herbivores prefer a more species-rich environment to make sure they get their 5-a-day? Levels of nutrients and secondary chemicals vary among tree species, and generalist mammalian herbivores have been shown to include various plant species in their ration to obtain a balanced diet and avoid too many toxins. In the field we identify and quantify the understory vegetation and subsequently assess levels of browsing damage on individual plants. These data provide information on the dominant woody species, occurrence of repellent plant species, and preference of different species by browsing mammals.

Faecal pellets of roe deer

Faecal pellets of roe deer

Looking for evidence of mammal visits to our plots (poo!) is another important aspect of data collection across Europe as it helps to assess the habitat use by mammalian herbivores. One thing I have noticed since starting my fieldwork is how excited I get when I spot a group of deer fecal pellets. I’m still unsure as to whether I should be concerned about this, or if this is a healthy level of enthusiasm for my PhD data. Hopefully these data will help us answer questions such as:

  • Are there common factors that determine deer distributions in forested areas?
  • Is this consistent across different regions in Europe?
  • How important is vegetation? Is it the main driver of deer distribution or second consideration to other factors such as distance to roads/water, slope etc.

Last summer I did field work in the boreal forests of Finland assessing browsing by moose in the Satakunta forest diversity experiment. First results suggest that tree species diversity and composition have significant influence on moose browsing behaviour. The experimental set up is obviously different from the natural systems, but we found greater degree of moose damage in plots with larger number of tree species.  Selectivity of moose also decreased with stand diversity – they were less picky of food items in these plots. Another important factor to come from the study was the importance of preferred tree species, Scots pine and silver birch in the case of moose. Moose know what they like and browse more from plots which have higher abundance of preferred species.

Alto Tajo National Park

Alto Tajo National Park

Currently I am working with Julia in the Mediterranean oak-pine woodlands of the Alto Tajo National Park in Spain. The landscapes here are beautiful and remote, the forests are as I expected from a Mediterranean system; open, shrub-like, dry and hot. There is no moose here, but plenty of deer (Red, Fallow, and Roe deer), as well as wild boar. We often hear the ‘bark’ warning call of the deer while in the forest, and one highlight of the field trip so far was coming across a Roe deer fawn on a hike through the mountains. The region is also home to a diversity of plants as well as several species of eagles and vultures that can be spotted ominously circling as we work in the field.

After collecting data in Spain, the rest of my summer will be spent visiting temperate forests of Romania, Poland and Germany. This project hopes to gain a holistic view of the processes of forest systems in Europe and so my data will allow across-country and across-European comparison. You can follow my travels on twitter @harriettui

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National Insect Week

By George Fussey, Curator at Eton College Natural history Museum

With the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics taking up so much media attention recently it is probably not surprising that National Insect Week  hasn’t blipped on to your radar screen.

To put this state of affairs right, Royal Holloway, University of London has teamed up with Eton College Natural History Museum to promote the most common organisms on the planet to local schoolchildren at two high profile events.

With help from Royal Holloway students Lucy Foster and Kiran Ghadave, we ran an environmental stand at the biennial Windsor Great Park Schools’ Open Day.  The event in the Great Park attracts 1600 children from a range of local schools and so it didn’t take long for me, as a museum curator, and the RHUL Science Outreach officer, Lucy Yeomans, to get involved with this tremendous opportunity for outreach.
The Windsor Estate is already known throughout the world for its conservation and biodiversity work and we were delighted to be tasked to raise awareness amongst local schoolchildren of just what lies on their doorstep.  Our aim was to raise awareness of insect biodiversity in the Great Park using live animals from Royal Holloway and a very few of the 10,000 insect specimens kept at the Museum.   But how to go about this?

‘Hands-on’ activities with objects as delicate as insects is never easy so we used insects set in acrylic to allow students to handle and closely observe the features of groups and allow children to establish, say, the difference between a beetle and a bug and a dragonfly and a damselfly.  The fact that real dragonflies were patrolling the inside of our marquee whilst all this was going on made life more interesting.  Handling embedded insects also has the advantage that even the most squeamish child can be persuaded to hold something like a stag beetle.  This activity really works well and leads on to an activity called Inventomology.   Once the children are aware of the characteristics possessed by all insects and have some idea of the sheer variety of insect orders, and the sorts of issues involved in classifying them.  We then encourage the children to use their imaginations and design their own insect, labelled appropriately.

Meanwhile, in the same large marquee, other children were learning about the variety of food chains that operate in and around an oak tree.  Woodpeckers and Tawny owls from the Museum overlooked the display whilst some of the unique species to be found on ancient oaks were highlighted.  The Great Park is the United Kingdom’s most important site for the violet click beetle, royal splinter crane fly and stag beetle to name but a few priority species.  Through activities like this, children soon understand how a food web works and the concept of the Balance of Nature.  Children really do understand, and quickly, why the balance of Nature is so important – it’s just a crying shame that quite a lot of adults and politicians don’t get it!  Anyway, because in theory educated children turn into educated adults, we should be hopeful that tomorrow’s generation will put right the damage that we are currently doing to the planet.
The third and final activity that our Environmental Education tent explored the various ways insects can be collected and then challenged the children to think through what data the budding entomologist needs to record to be scientifically useful.  Just to develop this thinking for a second, the Natural History Museum in Eton contains 18,000 objects and it would be nothing short of an eco-crime if all these objects weren’t in some way also to contribute to our scientific dataset (and therefore our understanding) about the local environment.  Bulk that up to the other natural history museum, the bigger one in South Kensington with its 70 million specimens, and all the children can appreciate that collecting without data is a crime scene without a forensics team.  Dealing with 1600 children arriving in small groups over a morning requires unquenchable enthusiasm from the staff and not a little stamina, but the experience of reaching a lot of young people with a clear message about the organisms that play such a vital part on the world ecological stage made it very worthwhile indeed.

Our second event to mark National Insect Week is on a smaller scale but the opportunities for enthusing about insects were just as evident.  We ran an ‘Incredible Insects!’ Family Learning Event on the last day of NIW in the Eton College Natural History Museum itself.  The event sold out quickly, which was encouraging, and probably proves that insects don’t lag too far behind dinosaurs in their pulling power.  Parents and children learnt together about insects (in particular) and arthropods (in general).  Special activities included thinking through insect locomotion and extending this approach to thinking about millipede movement too.  How is it that millipedes don’t trip up over all those legs!?  Trying to answer that involved forming a huge human chain (like a conga) and getting all those present to walk like a millipede!

The Museum actually contains a working model millipede that answers all the questions one might want to ask about myriapod locomotion.  Made of Meccano and nearly a metre long, the model was used by zoologists at Manchester Museum (nearly 40 years ago now) and illustrates perfectly the coordinated Mexican wave that passes down the millipede‘s legs to ensure smooth forward progress.  Whether the ‘congatastic’ human millipede matched it for smooth efficiency remains in some doubt!

Other activities exposed parents and their children to the Museum itself as they plied our arthropod trail, getting them to sort out crustaceans from myriapods and insects from arachnids, and taking them to every corner of the museum.

The advantage of all this outreach and the developing collaboration between RHUL and Eton College Natural History Museum should be obvious.  Not only does it raise the scientific profile of both institutions but it is giving graduate and undergraduate students valuable opportunities for honing their teaching skills and engaging the public with their science.  This means leaving behind the long worded terminology of academe and learning how to express complex concepts in simple and everyday language.  More than ever, we need scientists who can present a simple message in an engaging way.  As yet another UN Summit for Sustainability fades from the memory, who could argue that we need a public who not only understand ecology but who are enthusiastic about it.  For those scientists who don’t have the time for outreach, do you think you might be missing the point?

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Resources, Nationalism and Indigenous Rights: Learning in Greenland

By Professor Klaus Dodds, Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London

At about 7am, close to the old heart of Nuuk (known in the past by its Danish name Godthab), I gathered with a colleague Professor Mark Nuttall who holds joint appointments at the University of Alberta and University of Greenland. We had arrived at the opening part of a public celebration (National Day) of Greenland’s growing sense of autonomy and national pride. The public area was already decked out with Greenland’s distinctive flag and the public lectern was adorned in those white and red colours.

At exactly 7:30am, a brass band came down the hill followed by hundreds of people waiting to listen to the city’s mayor and singing by the Nuuk choir. With Mark close by, he kindly translated into English the Danish and Greenlandic elements of the ceremony. It was an impressive spectacle and a very powerful reminder of how this national day (invented in 2009) is contributing to what used to be called by historians the ‘invention of tradition’.



To emphasize the creative and performance-based nature of nationalism is not to mock the ceremony and celebrations I witnessed on 21st June. It is, however, a reminder that national identity projects have to be assembled. As I was standing in the crowd, a Greenlandic man handed me a national flag and the waiting crowds waved their flags with great fervor. It was an exciting moment. And I was moved by the crowd’s energy. Greenland, since the referendum in 2008, is coming closer to independence. The world’s first indigenous nation might come to fruition and in so doing change a colonial relationship with Denmark, originating in the eighteenth century.

But what kind of future might Greenland face? Well according to some in the Government of Greenland it will be one based on resources. Greenland is generously endowed. It has fish, it has minerals and it might well have a great deal of oil and gas in its waters as well. And multinational corporations and countries such as China are interested in doing business in Nuuk and elsewhere. A resource-based future is not for the faint hearted. There are quite a few examples around the world where resources such as oil and gas seem to act as a curse to human development. For Greenland, if there is a model of sorts then it is epitomized by Norway. Whereas Norway has about 5 million people, Greenland only has 60,000 people living on the world’s largest island.

So there is an urgent need (according to some at least) to ensure that, as the country’s resources are further exploited, Greenlanders are in a position to take advantage of opportunities to reduce their dependency on Denmark and the so-called annual block grant. But not everyone is happy with the pace of change and there are fears that local people are not being sufficiently consulted. People complained to me that there is a lack of a vigorous debate about the future of the country. Some are worried that they might swap one form of dependency (with Denmark as former colonial master) with another, which is tied to foreign investors, markets and corporations.

Prof Dodds in Greenland

Prof Dodds in Greenland

All this talk about resources and possible independence in the future sits uneasily with scientific debates regarding climate change and the fate of the Greenlandic ice cap. Greenland is currently represented as both a resource frontier but also on the frontline of global environmental change. As with other areas of the Arctic region, resource extraction feeds the very processes judged to be responsible for regional and global warming trends. It is a paradox for sure; but one that is not going to delay Greenland’s apparent commitment to a resource-led future. In the meantime, public disquiet over domestic consultation, trust and openness as well as foreign stakeholder commitment to indigenous rights will continue to rumble on.

After watching the national day celebrations, I returned to the university. It is perched up on a hill just outside Nuuk and the main buildings bear some resemblance to Royal Holloway’s International Building. I stress some resemblance because at the University of Greenland you also enjoy a view filled with snow-capped mountains, peninsulas and a fjord filled with sea ice. Throughout the week, Mark introduced me to his new PhD students – they all speak three languages fluently (Danish, English, and Greenlandic) and they are all eager to tackle topics relevant to the here and now as well as the future facing Greenland. They are all native Greenlandic and they are all committed to being active and engaged scholars and citizens. No complacency to be found here at least.

Greenland is changing. And don’t be tempted to think of it as remote, forbidding and disconnected. It is anything but. You may well see the world’s first indigenous nation-state take its place on the world stage in the next decade.

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