Research with Impact – Annual Review 2016/17

Research is a fundamental part of our identity as an academic institution. In the last decade we have increased our annual research income by 172% and, in 2014, we celebrated our best ever Research Excellence Framework (REF) results, with three quarters of our output judged to be at least ‘internationally significant’. Professor Nick Antonopoulos was appointed as Pro Vice-Chancellor Research in April 2017 to further support our research ambitions. Professor Antonopoulos moved to Derby in 2009 and became Dean of the College of Engineering and Technology in 2014. In his new role, he will develop a research strategy for Derby that will seek to build our reputation and foster a culture of research.


New Research Centres established

Our aim is to produce research that makes a difference in the real world, and to do this we have therefore established new research centres that will provide enhanced support and focus for our research community. The new centres are:

  • The Centre for Business Improvement (led by Professor Carley Foster) will focus on sustainable business, the green economy, customer engagement, and evaluation and applied economics.
  • The Centre for Education Research and Innovation (led by Dr Deborah Robinson) will focus on career education, educational leadership, Higher Education, mathematics education and Special Educational Needs.
  • The Environmental Sustainability Research Centre (led by Professor Aradhana Mehra) will focus on ecosustainability, evolution, sustainable exploitation in bio-geosciences, and sustainability and climate change.
  • The Health and Social Care Research Centre (led by Professor Derek Ward) will focus on wellbeing, enhancing care for patients, healthy lifestyles, and developing an effective health and social care workforce.
  • The Institute for Innovation in Sustainable Engineering (IISE) (led by Professor Paul Stewart) will focus on advanced manufacturing strategy and systems, sustainable design and innovation, control and instrumentation, embedded systems, sustainable rail transport infrastructure, and energy and the environment.
  • The Social, Cultural and Legal Research Centre (SCaLR) (led by Professor Alex Nunn) will focus on inequality, social justice, culture, social cohesion, crime policy, policing, and legal research.

Reconnecting with nature

Dr Miles Richardson, Head of Psychology, has been involved in ongoing research looking at the effect of people reconnecting with nature. One part of this research involved a randomised controlled trial looking at the effects of a ‘daily dose’ of nature, which revealed positive effects on mental health. The experiment is now being expanded as part of a £1 million project in Sheffield to increase wellbeing. The Improving Wellbeing through Urban Nature (IWUN) project will include the development of a smartphone app that will encourage people to engage with the natural world.

Protecting coral reefs

Climate change and rising sea temperatures are threatening coral reefs, which contain some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. They also play an important role in protecting coastlines and provide essential nutrients for marine food chains.

Dr Michael Sweet, Senior Lecturer in Invertebrate Biology, was involved in the creation of a purpose-built research laboratory in the Maldives. This will enable vital research projects to be carried out, such as growing new varieties of coral that will allow new areas of reef to be replanted.

Dr Sweet said: “This was the first project of its kind in the Indian Ocean. We ran short courses, workshops at local and neighbouring islands’ schools, funded internships for Maldivian nationals and delivered lectures at the Maldives National University. We taught local people how to protect the coral reefs, which meant the skills stayed in the country, where they are most needed.”

Coral reef

The promiscuous sex lives of crickets

Dr Karim Vahed, Professor of Entomology, examined the reproductive behaviour of bush-crickets and found that females actively avoid mating with the same male. The study, a collaboration with researchers from St Andrews, found that each female cricket mated with up to six different partners in the wild. It is thought that females seek new mating partners because this can increase the hatching success of the female’s eggs and is linked to increased survival chances for her offspring.

For the first time, researchers were able to determine how many males each female had mated with and how many times they had mated with each male. The study also allowed the team to work out which male’s sperm had fertilised the female’s eggs and the factors that affect this.

Improving analytics for the pharmaceutical industry

A team of computing and mathematics researchers are working with Roche, the pharmaceuticals and diagnostics company, to deliver a high-speed analytics platform for use in the development of personalised and precision medicines. The platform will integrate anonymised clinical data with DNA data to allow practitioners to develop new drugs at a faster rate.

Professor Ashiq Anjum, lead researcher on the project, explained the potential benefits: “An example of personalised medicine is two patients with high blood pressure receiving different treatment because of different underlying genetic factors or causes. Personalised medicine is now considered to be best practice.”

The project could also lead to the development of more effective drugs, as Professor Anjum explained: “Where drugs only work for a proportion of people with the same illness, data from this platform could help to uncover the genetic reasons for this and provide the basis for new areas of research or new clinical trials.”

Developing sustainable building practices

Dr Boris Ceranic, Programme Leader for the BSc and MSc Architectural courses, is working with visiting professor Derek Latham, founder of Lathams Architects, to design and build an environmentally friendly residential property. The project is the brainchild of Professor Latham and, once completed, will become his new family home.

Professor Latham’s aim was to produce a building with a low visual and environmental impact that adopted the character of the site using local materials. The area is covered with sycamore trees and these will be used in the construction, although this is a risk as the material is known to rot and warp and is vulnerable to insect attack. However, Professor Latham wanted to pioneer the use of sycamore in building.

“I wanted to build a truly sustainable house”, he explained. “Not sustainable in the usual tick-box way; I wanted to be more experimental and try things that I couldn’t do with my client projects because they would be too risky.”

The property will utilise ‘passive design’ measures where natural sources of heating, cooling and ventilation will be used to reduce the overall environmental impact. Dr Ceranic and a team of students contributed to the designs and will monitor the performance of the property over the next five years.

Architecture

Pioneering cancer research

University researchers carried out the first pilot study in the UK looking at the rates of a common oral infection in young healthy adults which can cause cancer in the mouth. Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) is a common viral infection which can be passed through close contact and has high-risk strains that can lead to head, neck and cervical cancers. The study, which questioned 124 people aged 18-24 about their lifestyle as well as involving a mouth swab, revealed 4% had a detectable oral HPV infection and indicated that possible lifestyle choices, such as smoking, could increase the risk of contracting HPV.


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