Aston in Touch 2018

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Aston Alumni Magazine — 2018

06 Happiness is the best medicine

45 Medication management and older people

16 Meet the Exec 26 A new vision

CONTENTS 2018 – Alumni Magazine FEATURES


06 Alumni profile – Nisha Kotecha

31 Comment – Joe Bush

12 Battling the fake news of sex difference

32 How to… Practice Victorian medicine

19 Goodbye Guild 22 Optical arts

46 Where are they now? – news from your classmates

28 History - Birmingham’s medical pioneers


37 Me and my microbes

09 Aston alumni: transforming lives 10 The year in pictures

Executive Editor: Dr Annette Rubery Fundraising Editor: Carol Fryer Illustrations: Rachael McCamphill; Cat Mirley Photography: Richard Battye; Edward Moss Design: Digitronix Print: Sterling

48 In detail - Peekaboo GIVING 42 In my own words - Vogue Wadrup





09 How Aston graduates are making an impact 25 A brief history of

Optometry at Aston

37 Me and my microbes

WELCOME As a recent graduate and now employee at Aston University, I am honoured to join the Aston alumni network and guest edit this health issue of Aston In Touch. My PhD focussed on improving the presurgical evaluation of epilepsy using neuroimaging and I am now investigating the underlying mechanisms that give rise to persistent post-concussion symptoms. Therefore, as a health-related scientist, this issue of Aston in Touch greatly appeals to me as it highlights some of the fascinating work being carried out at Aston and also addresses issues such as accurate scientific reporting. In this issue, Professor Gina Rippon (p.12) elegantly tackles the latter by discussing how neuroscience can be misreported, whilst also highlighting important social issues including gender-based roles and gender classification. On a similar neuroscience theme, Robert Seymour (p. 44) comments on his exciting research at the Aston Brain Centre investigating how information flows in young people with autism. We have an interesting insight into the valuable clinical work conducted by Dr Valldeflors ViùuelaNavarro (p.22) in improving eye-care for children with special needs. Professor Anthony Hilton and colleagues (p.37) also talk about the invisible world of microbes and their influence in human health. Last but certainly not least, we look back at some of your memories from the Aston Guild and introduce the plans for the new Adrian Cadbury Building which will soon be host to the Aston Students’ Union (p.19). Dr Mike Hall Guest Editor and Research Associate in Psychology (


Aston Alumni Magazine — 2018

Time capsule buried close to new Students’ Union A receipt for a Tesco Meal Deal, a bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and a cuddly goose toy have been buried by the new Aston University Students’ Union building which is currently under construction (see p. 19). They are joined by many more items representing life as an Aston student that have been placed in a time capsule for future generations to discover. The capsule has been registered with the International Time Capsule Society, and is scheduled to be opened in 50 years’ time on April 30th 2068.

Common infections ‘a bigger heart disease and stroke risk than obesity’ A major study into the impact of common infections leading to hospitalisation has found that they may substantially increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes and, in the longer term, death. A British team, based at Aston Medical School in Birmingham, found patients admitted to hospital with a urinary or respiratory tract infection were far more likely to experience subsequent heart attacks or strokes. The Aston researchers presented their ground-breaking findings at the American College of Cardiology conference in Orlando in March.

Aston University and KEDGE Business School announce partnership An ambitious cross-border education partnership has been announced that will involve Aston University working closely with France’s KEDGE Business School. As well as encouraging collaborative research and student exchanges, the partnership will seek to develop two ‘dual degree’ models for undergraduates, and enable students and staff from both institutions to work overseas. As part of this move, the KEDGE campus in Suzhou, near Shanghai in Eastern China, will be opened to Aston students. An early project will involve developing a European Executive Doctorate. There are also plans to co-create an MBA in the fields of health, arts/creative industries, and manufacturing technologies. Meanwhile, the School of Engineering & Applied Science will develop hybrid programmes in topics such as Big Data, and there will be common research projects on the theme of smart cities.

Aston Alumni of the Year Awards Do you know a graduate who has gone on to great things? We’re proud that Aston alumni make a real difference across the world and we want to celebrate your achievements. The University has launched the Aston Alumni of the Year Awards, with categories that reflect your diverse contributions to local, national and international communities.

For more information and to make a nomination please visit



Doctors could use new ‘Star Trek’ laser device for health checks

Alumnus to acquire ‘smart food’ platform

A new machine has been unveiled which could allow doctors to carry out a battery of health checks with a beam of light. The laser-based system, developed by researchers at Aston University’s School of Engineering & Applied Science, uses light beams to perform painless, non-invasive checks on medical indicators such as cardiovascular performance and other key metabolic information. Another advantage is that needles are not required, hopefully leading to a more relaxed examination for the patient.

Nick Holzherr (International Business and German, 2009) has announced plans to acquire the German food tech start-up Avocando. The creator of Whisk, a smart app that turns recipes into shopping lists, Holzherr (pictured) aims to join forces with his European competitor to drive forward plans for global expansion. Avocando is an online platform which offers a similar service to users in Germany, Austria and across Europe. It powers 600,000 recipes and reaches 20 million monthly shoppers across the continent.

Aston Graduates’ Association

AGA NEWS The year started with a visit to Stratford-upon-Avon Butterfly Farm. In beautiful tropical gardens we were able to admire the thousands of exotic butterflies that are free to roam through the foliage and over ponds filled with enormous goldfish. A slightly different kind of experience was arranged for October; 1683 Chocolate Place has been opened recently by Joseph Vaughan, one of the UK’s youngest chocolatiers. He gave a very interesting talk about the different kinds of chocolate beans found in various parts of the world and we were encouraged to taste and compare a wide variety. He explained the process by which the beans are converted into chocolate and the techniques he uses to make chocolates with exotic flavours. We joined with members of the Birmingham Guild of Graduates for our winter lunch at the Birmingham College of Food. As always, we had an excellent meal, served by the students. On a hot day in April we visited the Midland Air Museum near Baginton and in May we visited the Transport Museum in Wythall, home to a wide range of buses and a large collection of electric vehicles including milk floats and bakery vans. Finally, our traditional pétanque match was played against the Hints village team in July and was followed by an excellent buffet supper including doughnuts. -3-

Details of AGA events and an application form to join are available at The subscription is £5 per year. For further information about any event, please contact Jenny Martin +44 (0)1564 777 185


Aston Alumni Magazine — 2018

Aston sets up crowdfunding platform GO!

Student cheerleading club, Aston Ravens, and Finance student, Faruk Ojikutu, were the first projects to be successfully funded through Aston’s new crowdfunding platform GO! Crowdfunding is sponsorship by a crowd of donors, each making a small donation enabling projects, events and ideas to come to life. For the Aston Ravens this meant a new high-spec training mat to practice safely and continue to perform at the highest level. Faruk, meanwhile, can pursue his entrepreneurial dream of launching Mechanlink, a mobile app connecting vehicle owners to reliable mechanics (this business will form his placement-year project). On securing the funds Faruk said: “I am elated, smiling from ear to ear, and hungrier than ever to accomplish great things with Mechanlink!” The GO! platform it is also being used to raise funds for the new Students’ Union building (see p. 19). Those who give £200 or more can have a message of their choice inscribed on a special panel on the wall.

Pathway to Healthcare The Pathway to Healthcare Programme was launched in 2016 and is designed to help students enter medical school or other healthcare professions, either at Aston University or elsewhere. The programme is open to students from non-traditional backgrounds (e.g., those who will be the first in their family to study at university) across the West Midlands. We can now report that the first cohort has now completed its studies; 50 per cent of the students applied to a medical school and all participants obtained a place on a medical degree. The programme, which was built on the fantastic philanthropy of former Aston Villa chairman, Sir Doug Ellis, is an attempt to create opportunities amongst the region’s most disadvantaged communities. Of the 60 undergraduates beginning their studies at Aston Medical School this autumn, 20 came through the Pathway to Healthcare programme. Sir Doug Ellis has praised Aston Medical School as a “platform for mobility into medicine” and believes that Pathway to Healthcare has the potential to deliver a lasting impact on Birmingham and the health of its population.

For more information on GO! please visit

Alumnus improves students’ trading skills Finance students in Aston Business School can now hone their trading abilities using real-time data, thanks to the generous support of an Aston alumnus. Dr Alan Hearne (PhD, Management, 1978) kindly made a donation to enable Aston Business School to purchase a trading simulator software package which allows MSc students to test their ‘portfolio trading’ skills in a capital-free environment. As well as developing investment strategies, this practical trading experience allows students to adjust tactics in response to live news flow and changing market conditions. Within groups they can then critically evaluate the consequences of their trading strategies in a safe environment. Dr Hearne said: “As when I was a student, Aston has a great track record of taking talented individuals and providing the support, knowledge and experience to make them employable upon graduating. I’m very happy to support the University to continue to do the great work it does and would encourage others to do the same.” -4-



With your support our students have the time and space to focus on their studies without financial worry. By sharing your time and expertise they have the chance to grow and learn. In 2017/2018 with your help, we have achieved:

Total raised:

£2.1m 300 chose to be featured on the Donor Roll of Honour.

Aston graduates provide help and advice through undergraduate and postgraduate mentoring programmes

(youngest 23)

MBA Alumni Mentors:


Every donation made to Aston is doubled by the Hayward Fund. Set up by 1978 Geological Sciences graduate Dr Tony Hayward in 2015, the Fund will last for six years and support 100 students. There are only three years left to take advantage of this fund.


Oldest donor was

700 18



Total number of donors:

Global Alumni Chapters

Largest gift:

Gifts received by age of alumni donors


Allen and Nesta Ferguson Chariable Trust Scholarships awarded since 2006


Charter Society members each awarding £1k towards scholarships


Scholarships supporting female students, established by Dr Colin Goddard and his wife -5-

50-59 - 23% 40-49 - 18% 20-29 - 16%

60-69 - 16% 30-39 - 15% 70+ - 14%

GO! CROWDFUNDING Number of donors



Largest gift

Smallest gift

Successful projects

£580 £1


Aston Alumni Magazine — 2018



Frustrated that charity work and other positive stories rarely find their way into the mainstream media, alumna Nisha Kotecha launched a unique social enterprise that helps people to appreciate the good in life.

Happiness is the Best Medicine is no duty we so much underrate as “T here the duty of being happy. By being happy we sow anonymous benefits upon the world which remain unknown even to ourselves.” So wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in his glorious essay An Apology for Idlers: first published in the July 1877 edition of the Cornhill Magazine. His view of happiness not mere self-indulgence, but a force for universal good - is one that Aston alumna Nisha Kotecha would recognise. This Human Psychology graduate has been spreading happiness with her social enterprise, Good News Shared, since April 2014. As a result she has thought more than most of us about happiness: what it is and how we can experience more of it.

“I actually went to a happiness festival not so long ago in Manchester,” she says with a laugh. “It was quite funny - bringing a thousand happy people together in the same room. I think a lot of us look to the big moments in life for happiness, but for me it’s the simpler, smaller things. You’re supposed to think about milestones: you get married; have children; buy a house; but every day should really have something nice in it, even if you’re going through a hard time.” -7-

This idea of simple appreciation is the force behind Good News Shared: initially a blog but now also a fully-fledged social media and communications business for charities. The aim is to find as many positive, charitable stories as possible and publish them, Monday to Friday. The blog’s mission statement sums it up: ‘Studies have found that hearing and sharing good news can have a number of positive effects on us, including increased optimism and reduced stress levels. The world is full of amazing things, but if you watch, listen or read mainstream media you might not realise this. As well as giving you a boost of positivity, we want to showcase the work and impact charities, social enterprises and individuals are having on the world - both so you are able to take advantage of the opportunities they provide, and to inspire you to get more involved in your community.’ From modest beginnings, Good News Shared has grown rapidly, with an estimated 1,200 stories having been published and 135 writers involved, all of whom are volunteers. Last year Nisha was named in The Independent’s Happy List: a selection of people who make life better for others (and an antidote to the media’s annual rich lists). She has also been listed in


Aston Alumni Magazine — 2018

Forbes magazine as an entrepreneur to watch. The idea for Good News Shared came to her when she was working for a small, national charity for elderly people that organised free coach holidays. “Unfortunately we didn’t always fill the coach and it was really frustrating to think that we were offering a really good opportunity and yet weren’t able to get the attention I felt we should have,” she explains. “I spoke to a few people in the sector and they were experiencing similar frustrations, and I realised that many people don’t understand what charities do and the impact they’re having. So I just thought ‘Let me try and do something about it’. So that’s why I set up Good News Shared. The more I worked on the project the more I realised there are lots of people who don’t read or listen to the news because it can be quite depressing.” Not that avoiding the mainstream media is necessarily a good thing, she adds, but her intention is to provide some balance and remind people that positive stories do exist. The blog’s endorsements speak for themselves: “If you want an instant emotional lift take a look at the Good News Shared website, it will restore your faith in humanity” says one reader. And not just humanity. The Amazing Animals section (sample article: ‘14 Cute Cats Celebrated for their Heroism, Survival and Companionship’) provides a regular shot of feel-good hormones - no prescription required. “I didn’t know a lot about animals when I started the blog but now I’m volunteering for a local rescue,” says Nisha. “I used to spend quite a lot of time in a park in Lisbon reading and I just loved seeing all the dogs playing. That really made me happy.”

If you want an instant emotional lift take a look at the Good News Shared website, it will restore your faith in humanity

A love of volunteering, coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit, have both been vital ingredients in the creation of Good News Shared. Nisha first began volunteering for charities during the school summer holidays and has continued ever since. Her first job with a charity, Second City Second Chance, based in Sparkbrook, was during her placement year at Aston University. She has also volunteered for MediCinema: an organisation that arranges cinema trips for patients undergoing complex treatments in hospital.

It was on the Erasmus Entrepreneurs Programme, however, that Nisha’s ideas around happiness and volunteering began to coalesce with her interest in social enterprise. She completed the course in Berlin where she developed her first product: The Moments Journal. The journal (which she sells as a means of supporting the blog) helps people to capture the smaller, good things that happen on a daily basis. “I used to just rush through my days and forget about the nicer things,” she explains. “It’s easy to focus on the annoying things in your day. You can spend a couple of minutes or longer filling in the journal - it’s up to you. It helps you with small changes that can make a big difference long-term. For instance, I recently bought a radio because I like listening to music and found I wasn’t doing it much. Now I can listen to music while I cook. I also think volunteering is a really good way of helping you to be happy. It doesn’t have to be a huge part of your life but you can do things for a few hours a month. Doing something for other people does make a difference to you as well.”

For uplifting stories, to buy the Moments Journal, or to enquire about getting involved in the blog, please visit -8-


How Aston Graduates are Making an Impact Every year, Aston University alumni and friends help to change the lives of talented students by supporting them through scholarships, mentoring, guest lectures and innovative projects. Here are a few examples of how you gave back last year:

1 2 3 4 5 6

With support from Aston alumni and business partners, the student-led Aston Racing team was able to design, build and prepare its car to race at the international competition, Formula Student.

Every donation made to Aston is doubled by the Hayward Fund. Set up by 1978 Geological Sciences graduate Dr Tony Hayward in 2015, the Fund will last for six years and support 100 students.

Crowdfunding is sponsorship by a crowd of many donors each making a small donation enabling projects, events and ideas to come to life. In February Aston’s crowdfunding platform Go! was launched and several student projects have already been successfully funded. Aston graduates are some of the most employable in the UK, which is thanks in part to the work placement programme taken up by 70 per cent of our students during their studies. Last year students were placed around the world in companies owned or managed by Aston alumni. Graduates regularly come back to campus to share their knowledge and expertise with students through alumni guest lectures. Dr Matthew Crummack (BSc International Business & Modern Languages, 1993; Honorary Graduate, 2016) spoke at student careers event, Aston Accelerator 2018.

Pharmacy graduate Sue Hedaux founded the Michael Haynes Scholarship in memory of her father, which supports students from low-income families.




— The Year —






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01. Launch of the Midlands Chapter


In December alumnus Dr Andy Bass addressed guests as the President of the new UK Midlands Chapter for Aston alumni.

02. Food Unwrapped


06. Campus return for David McCollum In May alumnus David McCollum flew from the US, where he is Director of Development for the Aston University in the Americas Foundation, to revisit campus for the first time in 20 years.

07. Trust Me, I’m A Doctor

Jimmy Doherty visited campus in May to film a segment for Channel 4’s Food Unwrapped with microbiologist Dr Amreen Bashir.

Dr James Brown (see p. 36) appeared in an episode of BBC2’s Trust Me, I’m a Doctor in January investigating whether fizzy water makes you fat (pictured with presenter Dr Michael Moseley).

03. ‘From Diamonds to Dismemberment’ lecture

08. Jakarta gathering

Professor Sarah Hainsworth invited the audience to take a 3D look at Richard III’s skull injury during her Inaugural Lecture in November (see p. 16).

04. Formula Student In July Engineering students designed, built and prepared a car for racing in the international competition, Formula Student.

05. Cricket at Lord’s Three alumni (left to right: Tony Hayward, Viswas Raghavan and Rob Perrins) donned whites to play at Lord’s Cricket Ground in the summer under the banner of financial services firm J.P. Morgan.

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Pro-Vice-Chancellor International, Saskia Loer Hansen, and Associate Dean International, Dr Geoff Parkes, met alumni in Jakarta in May.


Aston Alumni Magazine — 2018 H

Battling the Fake News of Sex Difference




Is there such as thing as a male or female brain? Annette Rubery talks to cognitive neuroscientist Professor Gina Rippon about biological myths and why we must fight them.















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’m a man who discovered the wheel and built the Eiffel Tower out of metal and brawn,” says Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy: hero of the film Anchorman. “You’re just a woman with a small brain with a brain the third the size of ours. It’s science.”

Anchorman is, of course, a satire on the sexism of the 1970s TV newsroom, with Ferrell playing the bullish presenter, secure in his male-dominated world. But while those arguments might seem laughable to us now, the idea that men and women’s brains are different has never really gone away. Take Allan and Barbara Pease’s 2001 book Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps, for example. Or recall the Google controversy of 2017 - when a male software engineer wrote a memo suggesting that the low numbers of women in technical fields was down to biological differences. Far from being outmoded, the myth of the male versus female brain is still alive and well in the 21st century. According to Gina Rippon - Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Neuroimaging at Aston University - those stereotypes are not only inaccurate, they’re disabling. If, for example, girls believe that computer science is a ‘boy thing’ this bias will probably have a negative effect on their performance. Yet as research is revealing, just knowing whether a person is male or female is a poor indicator of any type of behaviour; men and women are fundamentally more similar than they are different. “I think every brain is different from every other brain,” explains Professor Rippon, when asked if she thinks men’s and women’s brains are the same or different. “So, men’s brains can be different from women’s brains, but not because of some kind of fixed biological template, but because the world treats males and females differently. We now know our brains are plastic throughout our lives and that the experiences we have, and the attitudes we encounter, can change our brains.”


Perceptions of certain subjects as ‘masculine’ might itself have been a factor in Professor Rippon’s journey into neuroscience. A pupil at an all-female convent boarding school, she had hopes of getting into Medicine but her school didn’t offer Physics or Chemistry ‘A’ Level. Biology was available and she managed to combine it with independent tuition in Chemistry, but the only other option available was English Literature. “So I did Biology, Chemistry and English Literature and couldn’t get into Medical School because they were the wrong ‘A’ Levels,” she explains. “I was already interested in the brain, so I applied to do a degree in Psychology instead. At that time, this subject was much more about predicting how people behaved, but the parts of the course I really liked were the ones about the brain, and biology’s role in human behaviour.”

Men’s brains can be different from women’s brains, but not because of some kind of fixed biological template, but because the world treats males and females differently…

She gained her PhD from Birkbeck College in London, having studied the biological aspects of schizophrenia, then got a job teaching at the newly established Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick. It was here that she first began looking for differences between male and female brains. “I was doing some research into sex differences and we had some new brain imaging equipment,” she remembers. “I spent ages setting up paradigms and collecting data, never finding any differences. I thought I must be using the wrong task or not using the right kind of analysis, and then

How Neurononsense Keeps Women in Their Place

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eventually I thought: ‘Maybe it’s because there aren’t any differences’. And then I started looking at the data in a different way, in terms of how the individuals were performing on the tasks I was giving them, for example, and then differences in the brain data did emerge. So I carried on looking at individual differences between brains, but no longer in terms of whether they were from males or females, as this didn’t seem to be a fruitful approach.” It has long been assumed that there is a direct link between biological sex and social gender. In other words, being born male or female would determine the skills an individual had and this would set them on a fixed path in the world. Now scientists are finding that classifying brains or behaviour as male or female is, in most instances, meaningless. Brains are a mosaic of male and female characteristics and the alleged differences between the sexes in, for example, spatial cognition tasks, have been reducing for some time or may even have become non-existent. The emerging notion that gender is not a binary category (i.e., just a choice between male or female) may be a reaction against the rigid divisions of the past. Facebook’s decision, in 2014, to allow users to select from 71 gender categories to describe themselves might have been an acknowledgement of changing norms. Many are concerned about the sharp rise in the numbers of children being referred to clinics because of gender dysphoria (i.e., a feeling


that there is a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity). Children, says Professor Rippon, are “gender detectives” from a very early age, and quickly pick up on gender rules. They may feel pressure to conform to very polarised stereotypes, for example via the gendered marketing of toys or clothes. If they feel differently from what is seen as acceptable for them they may conclude that there is something wrong with them and go on to feel that their biology is at fault. As part of understanding the pressure to conform to stereotyped beliefs about sex differences, Professor Rippon has developed an interest in what she calls the neurotrash industry - the Ron-Burgundy-style misreporting of science to support both lazy assumptions and downright misogyny. She has appeared in a number of TV broadcasts, such as BBC Horizon’s Is Your Brain Male or Female?, and in print media, tackling spurious arguments. Her battle against what’s been called the ‘fake news of sex difference’ is important because, ultimately, we are all shaped by our environment. “Neurotrash has implications for sustaining stereotypes because it feeds into the world view of what men and women should be like - the Mars and Venus hokum,” she explains. “This includes challenging some of the findings from neuroscience itself. If scientists are basing their research on outdated binary male-female categories then they are failing to acknowledge other important factors in shaping brains. They

Neurotrash has implications for sustaining stereotypes because it feeds into the world view of what men and women should be like - the Mars and Venus hokum…

should always be checking, at the very least, what kind of educational experiences their participants have had. What’s their socioeconomic status? What’s their occupation? These things will change what you find. And if you go into the outside world with your claims that you’ve found male/female differences, they will be picked up by the popular press who will not always represent things accurately. Then you get a kind of vicious circle where it feeds back into what people think, and - as we now know - this changes how their brains work.”

Professor Gina Rippon joined Aston University in 2001 as Deputy Director of the Neurosciences Research Institute and today she is Professor Emeritus of Cognitive Neuroimaging in the Aston Brain Centre. Fighting The Neurotrash

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Her new book, The Gendered Brain: The new neuroscience that shatters the myth of the female brain, is published by The Bodley Head and is out in March 2019.


Aston Alumni Magazine — 2018

Meet the Exec Professor Sarah Hainsworth joined Aston last year from the University of Leicester. Her research interests include forensic engineering and she is a leading forensic science expert on stabbing, dismemberment and knife sharpness. In 2013, following the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton under a car park in Leicester, her expertise helped to establish the manner of his death.

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Aston in Touch: What attracted you to working at Aston University? Sarah Hainsworth: Aston is a really exciting university, I like the fact that it has opportunities to link to business and industry. My undergraduate degree was in Materials so my background fitted well with the profile of the School in terms of things like the materials research [the Aston Institute of Materials Research was launched in 2016] but also Chemical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Design, Electrical, Electronical and Power Engineering, and then the Computing and Maths areas. I also liked the fact that the School has a group that was really strong in terms of Engineering Systems Management, looking at how you can apply leadership and management skills to Engineers. AiT: Can you please tell us a bit about how you got interested in forensic science - particularly your work looking at marks on bones made by different weapons? SH: When we got our first microscope at the University of Leicester there was a press release in the University’s internal communications and a colleague from forensic pathology rang me up and asked if I would look at some bones with him. He brought those bones up - they happened to be from a dismemberment case - and I asked the questions that you ask when you start working in somebody else’s discipline. Some of the questions are to gain a better understanding of what you are trying to do, but some you find colleagues don’t know the answer to because there hasn’t been the research into those areas. We went from looking at bones from a particular case to working on a project looking at what leads to certain marks on bone and whether or not we can clearly identify the implements that did them. - 17 -

Separately, I was interested in Surface Engineering, particularly looking at the sharpness of knife edges that were from kitchen knives that had been coated with either titanium nitride or tungsten carbidecobalt. I was asked if I could look at a knife that had been used in a stabbing incident to find out whether or not it was sharp. I was able to apply my work in Surface Engineering to that case. Then my colleague in Forensic Pathology was asked what was known about the forces involved in stabbing, and where there were gaps in our understanding we started working together again, trying to fill those gaps with scientific research. AiT: How did you feel when you were working on Richard III’s skeleton? SH: When we first started working on the bones they hadn’t been confirmed as Richard III, so at the time, we were looking at a skull with weapon marks from the injuries that had led to the death of the individual. I think, for me, the day where I realised the impact and significance of what we had been doing was when the University arranged the press conference to announce that it was in fact the skeleton of Richard III. When I did history at school it was very much dates and events and battles and a lot of it was just remembering facts. The thing that really excited me about the Richard III project was that it was a historical whodunnit and I found that really interesting.

Richard III. © Society of Antiquaries of London.


Aston Alumni Magazine — 2018

AiT: You are also involved in testing new materials for potential use in the car industry. What appeals to you about this kind of research? SH: We’ve done a lot of work on using coatings in traditional components in automotive engines to try to reduce the friction of wear that you have on them. When you use new materials the consequence of that friction on any particular car might be quite small, but then you multiply the effects over the fleet as a whole and it’s incredibly significant, allowing you to get lower emissions; to save carbon monoxide; to save the greenhouse gasses building up. It’s always exciting when you can implement a new technique or a different application which can have significant benefits. AiT: The Engineering School has an Athena SWAN Silver Award and is active in promoting Engineering as a career path for women. What needs to be done to encourage more women into this sector? SH: This is incredibly timely because 2018 is the Year of Engineering. At the moment the Royal Academy of Engineering are doing a campaign [This is Engineering] which tries to present the profession in a new light - showing it’s not all hard hats and dirty jobs. They want to show that Engineering is a modern profession with applications across a whole range of areas. For me, one of the things that the ATHENA Swan Silver Award [given to the Engineering Department in 2014] shows is that the School has made great steps in terms of creating a culture that is welcoming to people from a diverse range of backgrounds, and Aston is particularly strong in having a number of women academics in leading roles in the School. That’s great because there should be no barriers to anyone coming into this exciting profession.

Digging up Richard. © University of Leicester.

Exec Insight Professor Sarah Hainsworth is the first female Executive Dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Aston University, and she is also a Pro-Vice-Chancellor at Aston. Before joining us, she was at the University of Leicester for almost 20 years, where latterly she was Professor of Materials and Forensic Engineering and also Head of Engineering. Among her many accolades is the Andrew H. Payne Jr. Special Achievement Award 2015 from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences Engineering Sciences Section in recognition of exemplary contributions in advancing Forensic Engineering Sciences. - 18 -


Goodbye Guild It has hosted many well-known bands from Pink Floyd to ELO, Blur to Black Sabbath. The Wednesday evening ‘Impact’ disco was a night not to be missed in the 1970s, and the long-running Freakers’ Ball, held at a time before camera phones, was unforgettable for many. You met your partners in the Guild, fell in love and are still together many years later. Thousands of students have passed through its doors over the last 50 years and many memories have been made. Now, the building central to student life for many years is set to close.

The Students’ Guild building, renamed Aston Students’ Union in 2013, has been refurbished many times, even including a rooftop terrace and bar at one point. However it’s no longer fit for purpose and will host its last student night in early 2019. After many years in the planning, work has now begun on a purpose built £10m Students’ Union which will be located in the heart of the student accommodation and adjacent to the Chancellor’s Lake. The modern two-storey building will be the new home to over 100 clubs and societies, and the glass frontage and bright reception will bring a welcome change. Offices for student services and advice will be housed on the ground floor along with the shop, prayer and meeting rooms. On the first floor students will be able to relax playing pool, refuel in the restaurant or have a drink on the balcony overlooking the lake. At the back of the building there are two large halls for events. Always a strong supporter of Aston University, former Chancellor, Sir Adrian Cadbury, bequeathed £500,000 to support the new building. Honorary President of the Aston Athletic Union, Sir Adrian - who passed away in 2015 always took great delight in meeting students and handing out the annual sporting awards. The new building will be named the Adrian Cadbury Building to remember his longstanding dedication to Aston University and its students.

Motorbikes outside the Guild, 1970s

For more information, including a digital fly-through of the building and details on supporting the Students’ Union please visit - 19 -


Aston Alumni Magazine — 2018

Entertainments Committee on the steps of the Guild, 1988

Back row: Sarah Collins, Bill Gallop, Mike Manning, Kevin King and Jason Judge. Front row: Simon Rees, Gareth Price, Julie Holliday, Ady Yong and Vanish Patel.

Post Office in the Guild, 1980s

Aston Aunties, 1990

Bugsy Malone Production, 1992

BLADS Team, 1992

Photograph courtesy of Phil Barrett (BSc Electronic Engineering and Computer Science, 1992)

Photograph courtesy of Phil Barrett (BSc Electronic Engineering & Computer Science, 1992).

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Say Oops Upside Your Head, 2003

Photograph courtesy of Simon Clifford (BSc Civil Engineering, 2004)

Dudley the Bouncer. Raggyoeke, 2006

Photograph courtesy of Naveed Ahmed (BSc Economics and Management, 2009)

Charter Ball 2005

Photograph courtesy of Simon Clifford (BSc Civil Engineering, 2004)

“My husband and I got together playing gin rummy in the guild 45 years ago. My memories are a bit hazy (a pint was 10 or 11p at the time) and most of our photos are similarly hazy but I did find this one. On the back it says ‘Unknown spirit of the May Ball 1977 2am’” Mary Faulkner née Vincent (Combined Hons, 1972-1975)

To see more photographs of the Guild over the years, please visit

Night in the Guild, 2006

Photograph courtesy of Simon Clifford (BSc Civil Engineering, 2004)

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Photography: Edward Moss


OPTICAL ARTS An Aston optometrist is putting the fun into eye-care for children with disabilities. Dr Valldeflors Viñuela-Navarro is no ordinary optometrist. She does not wear a lab coat or use a standard eye-chart. Her white cardigan is dotted with multicoloured pom-poms and she says that sometimes you have to avoid following a set list of actions - the optometrist’s ‘protocol’ during eye examinations. This is because Dr Viñuela-Navarro (known to everybody as Flors) is an expert in eye-care for children with special educational needs - disabilities such as Down’s syndrome, autism and ADHD.

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The eye test has to be something that is exciting; different; funny. As long as you can adapt your routine to something that the child would find interesting, you can achieve anything.

Aston Alumni Magazine — 2017

“My father is an optometrist, my uncle is an optometrist, my cousin is an optometrist, my great-grandfather was an optometrist,” she says with a laugh when asked how she got into the field of vision sciences. “My family has its own practice and I used to run around in it when I was young. I did my degree in Spain, where I come from, but after being in practice in the family business for a couple of years I realised that I didn’t want to be in mainstream optometry doing sight tests every day. So I came to the UK and did a Masters at Manchester University.” With optometry in her family and clinical experience already on her CV, Dr ViñuelaNavarro passed with flying colours and was persuaded to apply for funding to do a PhD. She chose Cardiff University, where she worked alongside Dr Maggie Woodhouse OBE, a world-leading optometrist and researcher on visual development in children and young people with Down’s syndrome. Unlike her previous experience doing routine sight tests, working with these children required flexibility and an open mind. “Like any child they want to have fun,” she explains. “The eye test has to be something that is exciting; different; funny. As long as you can adapt your routine to something that the child would find interesting, you can achieve anything.” Having completed her PhD - and after two years of postdoctoral experience - she moved from Cardiff to Birmingham, where she joined Aston University’s Vision Sciences department. In a relatively short time she has set up a clinic devoted to children with special needs which attracts patients from as far afield as West Yorkshire, Berkshire and Suffolk. Patients from all over the Midlands, including Warwickshire and Leicestershire, routinely attend and she is also running a project in Midlands’ special schools, testing an easy-to-use machine that screens for major vision problems. Her enthusiasm for the work comes across clearly. “Something I like about this field is that it challenges me to think outside the box and make it interesting for that specific child,” she says.

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Even Dr Viñuela-Navarro’s toolkit is different from the standard machines and gadgets used in adult and mainstream optometry. She does not use digital eye-charts, for example, but has a series of large-scale cardboard charts (called Teller Acuity Cards) which have square-wave gratings and a peep-hole in the middle. She uses these to measure visual acuity in babies. Alongside her clinical work she is giving students new skills that are not routinely taught, despite a growing demand across the country. “When we train optometrists in universities they start practicing with young adults who have no vision problems and in the final year they provide eye-care to the general public,” she says. “Most of the time the patients are adults so the students are used to communicating with people who can very well understand them. But when you are testing children - with or without disabilities - you have to modify the way you talk and you have to be approachable. That’s something I find optometrists struggle to do.” Although students are able to observe professionals working in hospitals, Dr Viñuela-Navarro is giving them the opportunity to do some of the tests themselves, which she hopes will build their confidence. “They really appreciate it,” she says. “The first time I tested a really young child at Aston University, all the optometry students wanted to come and see it. I ended up asking the mum if it was OK as there were 20 students queuing up to see this baby! But I think it’s a very good experience for them. When they see a six-month-year-old when they are in practice they will think ‘I’ve done this before!’ and the experience will be useful to them. Most of the time we have good luck with the patients and it’s really good fun.”

Dr Viñuela-Navarro joined Aston University in 2017 as a Lecturer in Optometry. She is the recipient of an excellence award from the College of Optometrists and the Giles Van Colle Memorial Foundation for her research into the eye-movements of children with learning-related disabilities.


A brief history of Optometry at Aston Aston University’s forerunner institution, Birmingham Municipal Technical School, offered physics classes from 1895 but it wasn’t until 1925 when classes in optics were introduced, largely as a result of encouragement from the Midlands arm of the British Optical Association. Duke Street police garage, 1983.

HRH The Prince of Wales opening Vision Sciences, 1987.

In the post-war period all ophthalmic lectures took place in one room behind a glass-blowing workshop in the School’s premises on Suffolk Street. Eventually the department obtained enough space to make two cubicles for eye examinations, though there were no windows and the conditions were stuffy. Patients - usually actors resting until Pantomime season began - were obtained from the local Labour Exchange and were paid half a crown for their attendance. In 1951 G. V. Ball was appointed as the first full-time lecturer in ophthalmic optics. With his father he got out his hammer and nails and converted the room, which sufficed until 1955 when the department moved to a new building at Gosta Green. The first intake of the course was six students. In 1956 Aston was made the first College of Advanced Technology (CAT) in the country and a period of rapid development began. By the mid-1960s there was a major demand for Aston’s courses and for the first time the College began admitting more optometry than physics undergraduates. The expansion continued and, in the 1980s (by which time Aston had gained University status) a police garage on Duke Street was converted into a new home for the Department of Vision Sciences.

Optometry undergraduates, 1980s.

Today, Aston’s Head of Optometry, Professor Leon Davies, says he particularly recognises the contributions of two long serving members of staff, Dr Colin Fowler and Professor Bernard Gilmartin, who helped to shape the department over the last 45 years. Both will retire from Aston this year. “Our thriving Ophthalmic Research Group, established in the 1980s, was led by Bernard Gilmartin for over 25 years. Now in the capable hands of Dr Nicola Logan, our clinical research into dry eye, myopia, presbyopia, and ophthalmic technology is internationally recognised. This year, we are also looking forward to new opportunities to collaborate with colleagues in Aston Medical School as they share facilities in the Vision Sciences building over the next 12 months. It’s an exciting time for Aston Optometry School.”

The Department of Vision Sciences today.

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Aston Alumni Magazine — 2018

A NEW VISION An Aston alumnus is revolutionising the eye-care business with novel technologies “The optometry industry is vast,” Dr Thomas Drew tells me in the board room of Aston EyeTech Limited: the spin-out company he helped to found and which operates out of premises across the road from campus. “Two hundred and fifty thousand pairs of glasses are sold a week in the United Kingdom; in the United States it’s 81,000 pairs a day.” With people living longer and other macroeconomic drivers, there is growing demand for eye healthcare globally. But how is the industry responding to this rapidly changing market? Dr Drew, who is Aston EyeTech’s Chief Technology Officer, mentions several products marketed under the company’s EYOTO™ brand and has high hopes that they will revolutionise the eye-care business. One of the EYOTO™ star product sets is called eMap™: a lens analyser which has applications both in the manufacturing process and as a retail tool. Utilising novel technology, eMap™ helps lens-makers to spot defects in the manufacturing process, while optometrists can use it to check customers’ eyewear for fit and performance, as well as involve them more fully in lens selection. Both devices were unveiled this Spring at Vision Expo - a major trade show in New York - and the reception was excellent. “Modern lenses are progressive lenses,” explains Dr Drew, “People who have both near and distance requirements prefer a progressive lens - which provides distance and near zones in a single pair of glasses - rather than switching between different pairs of glasses. But they are quite sophisticated lenses and it’s difficult checking them for quality because you need - 26 -

Illustration: Cat Mirley

to take multiple measurements to check the different areas. However, our eMap™ technology does it automatically. While it takes someone five or six minutes to check manually it now takes around ten seconds, and all they have to do is push a button. We’re the first company to implement this with a proper cloud-based platform, which stores all the quality data collected.” While at Aston University (where he is now a Visiting Fellow) Dr Drew worked across two Schools and his interdisciplinary background has influenced this novel combination of hardware and software solutions. He initially studied for a Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering at Aston, graduating with a first in 2008, then was invited to stay on for a PhD-sponsored project working with Professor James Wolffsohn in Optometry and Dr Mark Prince in Engineering. After that he worked on several post-doctoral projects and went on to become a lecturer at Aston, where he was instrumental in setting up the Biomedical Engineering degree. It has been quite a leap into the world of business, but he now seems just as comfortable talking about branding as he is lens manufacture (“We have gone for a modern, colourful, almost consumerelectronics brand,” he tells me, showing me a set of images that would not look out of place on a fashion magazine).

Two hundred and fifty thousand pairs of glasses are sold a week in the United Kingdom; in the United States it’s 81,000 pairs a day

there are plans in the pipeline to sponsor some PhD students. But the question now is: where next? Following the great reception at Vision Expo, the company has been inundated with new leads. “What we’re doing right now is preparing ourselves for the commercial launch and deployment of our eMap™ products in the Autumn,” says Dr Drew. And will Aston EyeTech cut loose from the University? “We have no plans to cut loose from Aston. We have that pedigree,” he says.

Dr Thomas Drew is Chief Technology Officer at Aston EyeTech Limited and a Visiting Fellow of Aston University.

The growth of the company has been rapid, from its first seed investment in 2014 to a successful £5million funding round in 2017. It has maintained its links with the University, employing at least seven Aston graduates and - 27 -


Aston Alumni Magazine — 2018

Fifteen minutes from campus, past Snow Hill station and towards Constitution Hill, the road bends to the right into Summer Lane. Today this nondescript street is populated with industrial units, but in the late 18th century, on the spot where West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive now has a Brutalist office block, Birmingham’s first hospital stood. This might not, in itself, seem extraordinary, but Birmingham General Hospital was a long time coming - 34 years, in fact. Once established, however, it fostered some discoveries that would become landmarks of medical history.

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Foxglove X-ray by Chris Thorn (


Modest it may have been, but several discoveries emerged from Birmingham General which have shaped medical practice today.”



irmingham General started out as an idea by Dr John Ash, who opened a subscription to the hospital in 1765. No doubt inspired by the foundation of the General Infirmary at Stafford, the project attracted initial donations from, among others, the firm of Taylor and Lloyd (later Lloyd’s Bank) and the printer John Baskerville, but after a promising start it ran seriously aground, leaving the Committee embarrassed by delays and debts. In the end it was art, not science, which gave Birmingham its first hospital building. With the launch of the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival in 1768, Birmingham General found itself a source of philanthropic income that would enable the structure on Summer Lane to be completed and opened on September 20th 1799. It was a modest start, however, with just 40 beds (less than half the number envisaged) and only four nurses at four guineas per annum, with another guinea promised “if they behave well”. Modest it may have been, but several discoveries emerged from this institution which have shaped medical practice today. Clifford Bailey, Professor of Clinical Science at Aston University, points to “pioneer studies conducted at the hospital that heralded the treatment of heart failure and the medical use of X-rays”. One of its notable physicians was William Withering (right), who moved to Birmingham in 1775 to take up a post made vacant by the death of Dr William Small. This year was important for another reason - because it marked the commencement of Withering’s experiments with the leaves of the foxglove (digitalis purpurea). Over ten years later, he outlined his discoveries in what would become his most famous work: An account of the foxglove, and some of its medical uses: with practical remarks on dropsy, and other diseases. In the year 1775, Withering explained, he was asked his opinion concerning a family recipe for the cure of dropsy (an 18th-century term for a generalised swelling of the body). He was told that it had long been kept secret by an old woman in Shropshire, who had sometimes made cures after the more regular practitioners had failed. He was also informed - 29 -

that there were side-effects - violent vomiting and purging - though its diuretic effects had not been recorded. “This medicine was composed of twenty or more different herbs, though it was not very difficult,” wrote Withering, an apothecary’s son from Wellington in Shropshire, “… to perceive that the active herb could be no other than the foxglove.”

William Withering © Research and Cultural Collections, University of Birmingham.

Eighteenth-century medicine had not yet made the connection between swollen limbs and heart failure, but in tackling ‘dropsy’, Withering effectively devised the first modern heart medicine. “We now recognise oedema [swelling] as a symptom of heart failure,” explains Professor Bailey. “You can see it in several ways, such as swollen ankles and pitting. We know that, subsequently, it was found that this plant contained a substance called Digitalis. Digitalis was able to enhance the contractile activities of the heart and, as a result, improved circulation. It subsequently gave rise to a derivative called Digoxin, which is still used to this day - not as extensively as other treatments, but nevertheless, Withering’s discovery was a landmark of pharmacognosy. It’s one of the first traditional, herbal treatments that has gone on to be a conventional medicine with nothing more than the active ingredient taken out of the plant. That makes it an absolute pivotal observational study for the treatment of a particular heart disease.”


Aston Alumni Magazine — 2018

Drawing from William Hutton’s An History of Birmingham (1809 edition).

In order to improve this X-ray technique he kept X-raying his own hand and arm, and eventually he got severe burns and had to have that arm amputated.”

John Hall-Edwards plaque outside Birmingham Children’s Hospital.

Withering’s discovery has long since entered folklore. His first biographers, Peck and Wilkinson, speculated that Withering had encountered the patient with dropsy on a trip to Stafford, but the details were later embellished to include the Shropshire woman Old Mother Hutton, to whom Withering supposedly handed golden sovereigns for the “secret of the wayside flower”. Withering - a man not given to fanciful thinking would have dismissed such fantasies. “His work,” says Professor Bailey, “is a reminder that you should observe, you should then try to deduce from the observation, develop a hypothesis, test it, and then rationalise what you have found - and Withering achieved all of that at a time when people weren’t instructed in that way.” In 1985 Dennis Krikler used the same principles to trace the origins of Old Mother Hutton, finding her to be the invention of a 1920s advertising copywriter at Parke-Davis, a company that sold Digitalis preparations. “In spite of opinion, prejudice, or error,” Withering wrote, “time will fix the real value upon this discovery, and determine whether I have imposed upon myself and others, or contributed to the benefit of science and mankind”. Today his major contribution to medicine is marked by a blue plaque on his former home, Edgbaston Hall, and a portrait by Carl Frederik von Breda (p.29), a copy of which is currently in storage at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. In 1897 Birmingham General relocated to Steelhouse Lane on a site now occupied by Birmingham Children’s Hospital. A few years earlier, in 1895, Wilhelm Conrad - 30 -

Röntgen had made the first radiographic image using a new type of ray which he called the X-ray (‘x’ being the mathematical designation for something unknown). The following year, a Birmingham man called John Hall-Edwards made the first use of X-rays under clinical conditions when he radiographed the hand of an associate, revealing a sterilised needle beneath the surface. “Hall-Edwards realised that you could use this technique to see how bone fractures had healed or needed to be re-set, and he went about developing medical imaging,” says Professor Bailey. In 1899 Hall-Edwards was made the first surgeon radiographer at the Birmingham General, and was the first person to X-ray the human spine. He served in the Boer War with the Warwickshire Regiment as the first military radiographer, and after the outbreak of World War I was promoted to Major. “In order to improve this X-ray technique he kept X-raying his own hand and arm, and eventually he got severe burns and had to have that arm amputated. But Hall-Edwards managed to put in place a whole new impetus to explore X-ray technology for medicine. I think he deserves much more credit for that.”

Clifford Bailey is Professor of Clinical Science and Head of Diabetes Research at Aston University.


“Homeopathy is Scientifically Illiterate Nonsense” It’s a good decision for the NHS to stop funding homeopathy, says Dr Joseph Bush. A few months back, in the summer, the Daily Mail published an article – based on the testimony of four people – with the headline ‘We’re proof that homeopathy works – so why has the NHS scrapped it?’. The headline is a reference to a June 2018, High Court decision by Mr Justice Supperstone who upheld a decision made by NHS England to stop NHS funding for homeopathy. In his remarks, Mr Justice Supperstone stated that “it would not be appropriate for the court to pass judgment on the legitimacy or otherwise of the view that homeopathy works”. No criticism can be made of the judge for such reticence as the court case was not focussed around the effectiveness of homeopathy but on the fairness of the consultation process which led to NHS England’s decision to stop funding it. Luckily I am not a High Court judge so I do feel able to pass judgement on the legitimacy or otherwise of the view that homeopathy works – it doesn’t and it’s scientifically illiterate nonsense. The decision to stop funding for homeopathy was made in November 2017 as part of a plan to save the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds by halting the provision of low value treatments on the NHS. Alongside homeopathy, herbal remedies, rubefacients (think ‘warming’ creams like Ralgex or Deep Heat) and glucosamine and chondroitin (which for some reason became the go-to fad for treating knee pain for a little while) were also in the list of treatments which would no longer be available on the NHS. Homeopathy’s supporters were quick to point out that banning the NHS-funded provision of magic sugar pills – sorry, ‘homeopathic remedies’ – was largely symbolic as NHS England ‘only’ spent £92,000 on unicorns tears – sorry, ‘homeopathic remedies’ – in

2016. In the mid-1990s, the NHS spent roughly £1 million on prescriptions for homeopathy but as the importance of evidence of the effectiveness and costeffectiveness of treatments has become increasingly accepted within the NHS, so the amount of precious NHS resource wasted on homeopathy has decreased. In the grand scheme of things, £92,000 is a trifling amount of money when one considers that the total budget for the NHS in England is about £125 billion. There is still greater scope to reduce spending on the provision of care which is not supported by robust evidence – the NHS Health Check programme is a case in point – but the NHS is a risk-pooled system where we all pay in so that we can ‘take out’ when our clinical need dictates that it is necessary. Spending £92,000 on homeopathy means that the NHS is unable to spend £92,000 on other much more useful stuff – like the salaries of two nurses for example – and while there is scope for argument around the evidence of the effectiveness of Health Checks, there is really no justification for spending precious NHS money on a therapy which has all the scientific, forensic logic of a Daily Mail headline.

Dr Joseph Bush is a Senior Lecturer in Pharmacy Practice and Director of the MPharm Programme at Aston. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of Aston University or its School of Pharmacy. For more comment follow @josephbush on Twitter. - 31 -

Illustration: Rachael McCamphill


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How to…

PRACTICE VICTORIAN MEDICINE What did the Victorians know about health and how was it represented in the fiction of the time? We asked English Literature lecturer, Dr Abigail Boucher, to select some extracts and then we invited staff from the School of Life & Health Sciences and Aston Medical School to comment on them from a modern perspective.

The more I study health in the Humanities, the more I realise that there’s nothing new under the sun. The preoccupations with health in the long 19th century are, as now, often really just anxieties about progress. And in an age noted for its progress, often to the point of cliché, I had plenty of literary options to choose from. I chose the below extracts not only because they are from some of the more beloved novels of the century, but also to show the scope of these anxieties during that century. There is a focus on blood in Dracula that resonates with ideas not only about foreign invasion and cultural tainting, but also changing class and gender dynamics. Frankenstein deals with issues of medical ethics, grave robbing, and autopsy, as well as anxieties around childbearing and rearing; Mary Shelley’s mother, the philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, had, after all, died giving birth to her. Frankenstein also pre-empts a lot of the modern Disabilities Studies rhetoric around the “superhuman.” It’s fun to look at Frankenstein and see the dialogue it continues to have with contemporary science fiction and our fascination with superheroes and cyborgs. Country Houses, which is the least well-known and most satirical text on the list, traces the morphing class roles in the first half of the century. In particular, it looks at the trend among the aristocracy - and later, the middle classes aping the aristocracy - of performing illness to show you were refined. Medicine becomes just another fashionable accessory. Lady Audley’s Secret also makes heavy commentary on performing pathology, especially in the light of the burgeoning women’s rights movements at the time. We’re not really sure if she’s mad or just trying to escape the scaffold; if her ‘secret’ is insanity or ‘unfeminine’ and calculating competence. I chose the spontaneous combustion scene from Charles Dickens’ Bleak House because I was trying to think of the most ludicrous example I could! I’m convinced that Wilkie Collins wrote this scene. He and Dickens were best friends and used to swap chapters when they were serialising novels. They got very good at mimicking one another’s styles to this day, we’re still not entirely sure who wrote what.

Dr Abigail Boucher is a lecturer in English Literature at Aston University. She specialises in genre and popular fiction of the long 19th century, with interests in the body, class, and medicine and science in literature. She has been published in Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, Nineteenth-Century Contexts, Revenant, and The Wilkie Collins Journal. - 33 -

Dracula — Bram Stoker (1897) “Young miss is bad, very bad. She wants blood, and blood she must have or die. My friend John and I have consulted; and we are about to perform what we call transfusion of blood—to transfer from full veins of one to the empty veins which pine for him. John was to give his blood, as he is the more young and strong than me”—here Arthur took my hand and wrung it hard in silence— “but, now you are here, you are more good than us, old or young, who toil much in the world of thought. Our nerves are not so calm and our blood not so bright than yours!” Arthur turned to him and said:— “If you only knew how gladly I would die for her you would understand——” [….] Then with swiftness, but with absolute method, Van Helsing performed the operation. As the transfusion went on something like life seemed to come back to poor Lucy’s cheeks, and through Arthur’s growing pallor the joy of his face seemed absolutely to shine. After a bit I began to grow anxious, for the loss of blood was telling on Arthur, strong man as he was. It gave me an idea of what a terrible strain Lucy’s system must have undergone that what weakened Arthur only partially restored her.

Blood. Nothing symbolises life - and death - quite like blood. From biblical stories to ‘bloody battles’ it is inextricably linked to our very existence. Yet this vital and complex fluid has been misunderstood through the centuries and continues to raise issues about clinical practice. Three thousand years ago the Egyptians started the practice of blood-letting. Whilst now usually discredited, the practice of blood-letting can be found in medical texts as recently as 1948. Interestingly the nearest group of live medicinal leeches live less than 1 mile from the centre of the Aston campus. They are used (legitimately) in plastic surgery. New Pharmacist trainees in hospitals are traditionally told it is their job to look after the leeches, perhaps with visions of offering a finger of blood to further their career! Fortunately, this is an example of medical humour. Actually medicinal leeches are very carefully farmed and cared for to avoid any risks. Without doubt they are amongst the strangest items on the pharmacy shelf! Blood transfusions are much more recent than blood-letting, with early research starting in the 17th century. Transfusions are an important tool in modern clinical medicine but must be carefully managed to avoid risks to the recipient. Monitoring blood levels is an everyday task for hospital Clinical Pharmacists.

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Drugs are used to manage blood related problems, but other drugs can cause blood related side-effects some can be quickly life-threatening. Monitoring and responding to haematological changes caused by the use of medicines is at best complex. It is, however, professionally very satisfying to find the culprit and rectify the problem - supporting the patient’s recovery. Many local Pharmacists, often trained at Aston, will be thinking about blood today and playing an important role in keeping blood doing its essential work.

Dr David Terry, Senior lecturer in Clinical Pharmacy.


Bleak House — Charles Dickens (1853) “They advance slowly, looking at all these things. The cat remains where they found her, still snarling at the something on the ground before the fire and between the two chairs. What is it? Hold up the light. “Here is a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tinder from a little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here is—is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal? Oh, horror, he IS here! And this from which we run away, striking out the light and overturning one another into the street, is all that represents him. “[….] Call the death by any name your Highness will, attribute it to whom you will, or say it might have been prevented how you will, it is the same death eternally[:] spontaneous combustion.” Spontaneous human combustion is an intriguing phenomenon, several cases of which have been reported in the past 150 years. Usually, it appears that the victim has burned with little evidence of fire damage to the surrounding room. Fortunately, people do not burst into flames every day, however some reports of human combustion are well documented. The best explanation is probably ‘the wick effect’. The human body is on average about 25 per cent fat and it is thought that an initial fire would melt the fat and the clothes would act like a wick, rather like a burning candle. One experiment involved wrapping human fat in cloth and igniting it, which created a contained fire that burned for one hour. In another experiment, shown in a television documentary, a pig carcass was wrapped in a blanket and burned in a furnished room. The body burned for hours at a high temperature due the wick effect, but did not damage the rest of the room.

Fat is a very good energy store and the average amount of fat in the human body is about 17.5 kg. If all the energy stored in our fat reserves was released in one second it would generate 650 MWatts of power, which is about the same output as a small power station. This would be an impressive firework display, but luckily the energy in our fat stores is released very slowly in a carefully controlled manner.

Dr Ray Carson, Medical Studies Coordinator for Aston Medical School.

Country Houses — Charlotte Trimmer Moore (1832) “I am one of those unfortunate persons . . . who are dyspeptic . . . indeed, I take charcoal before I dare touch any thing . . . it is the most fashionable medicine now, pure carbon, and ... I believe it has saved the life of my nephew, at Malta: they give it with great success in the fever prevalent there, and at Paris they take it for every disease under heaven. The fine ladies take it constantly, and carry it in their reticules in the form of bon bons.” Charcoal is largely pure carbon and is produced by heating a number of materials, most commonly wood, to a high temperature in a low oxygen environment. Charcoal can absorb a diverse range of materials including toxins and chemicals. The earliest mention of its use in medicine comes from Egyptian papyri from around 1500 BC when it was used to absorb odours from wounds and taken by mouth to reduce flatulence. By the early 19th century charcoal became widely used for many medicinal purposes including oral administration to treat digestive disorders. It acts by absorbing dietary constituents that - 35 -

lead to gas production and it can trap toxins in the gut which prevents them from being absorbed into the blood stream. The above quotation dates from this time when charcoal was considered a universal antidote. In the late 19th century, the charcoal activation process was developed. This involves heating charcoal to very high temperatures (600 to 900 degrees Celsius) and it results in a material with a very small particle size with greatly enhanced absorptive capacity. This is the modern medical form of charcoal and it is mainly used medically for acute treatment of certain types of poisoning by absorption in the gut. However, oral preparations of activated charcoal including tablet and capsule forms are still available with a range of claimed benefits including digestive health.

Regius Keith Wilson, Pharmacy.


Tess of the D ‘urbervilles — Thomas Hardy (1892) “He called to see the doctor to-day in Shaston. It is not consumption at all, it seems. It is fat round his heart, ‘a says. There, it is like this.” Joan Durbeyfield, as she spoke, curved a sodden thumb and forefinger to the shape of the letter C, and used the other forefinger as a pointer. “‘At the present moment,’ he says to your father, ‘your heart is enclosed all round there, and all round there; this space is still open,’ ‘a says. ‘As soon as it do meet, so,’” — Mrs Durbeyfield closed her fingers into a circle complete — “‘off you will go like a shadder, Mr Durbeyfield,’ ‘a says. ‘You mid last ten years; you mid go off in ten months, or ten days.’” We all know that having too much fat around our middle is bad for us, but have you ever considered how much fat sits around your heart? A healthy heart is surrounded by a thin layer of fat, and this provides the energy for the heart to beat, which it does roughly once every second for the whole of your life. This requires a constant energy supply and therefore this thin layer of fat is much needed. In some individuals however, often those who are overweight or obese, the ‘fat pad ‘ that sits around the heart can become greatly increased in size, sometimes to the point that it is difficult to see parts

Aston Alumni Magazine — 2018

of the heart due to this thick, yellow layer of fat. Studies has shown that the thickness of your heart’s fat pad is a better indicator of your risk of developing heart disease than the thickness of your waist, suggesting that too much fat around the heart is a very bad thing. Currently, it is difficult to measure this cardiac fatty tissue, without an expensive MRI scan and so its use as a predictive tool for heart disease risk is very limited. Hopefully the development of newer technologies will one day mean we can all know how much fat we have around our heart and what we can do to reduce it.

The Boscombe Valley Mystery — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1891) “‘I am a dying man, ‘said old Turner. ‘I have had diabetes for years. My doctor says it is a question whether I shall live a month. Yet I would rather die under my own roof than in a gaol.’” Diabetes during the Victorian era was unrecognisable from today. Whilst today around six per cent of the UK population suffer from diabetes, it would have been rare during Victorian times. Diagnosis was still performed in many settings by tasting urine to see if it was sweet, as the chemical methods of testing for glucose were in their infancy and very costly to perform. Very little was known about the biology of diabetes, with the cells that release insulin not being identified until 1869, and even then these cells were not linked to diabetes. Interestingly, war and advances in diabetes went hand in hand. Previously, in the 18th century the British army doctor John Rollo had identified excess sugar in the urine of soldiers with diabetes, and during the Franco-Prussian War, the French physician Apollinaire Bouchardat noted that diabetic patients’ symptoms improved due to war-related food rationing. This led to the use of starvation diets as the main - 36 -

treatment for diabetes until insulin was discovered in 1921. These diets were associated with graphic accounts of the gasping and sighing and sweet smell of the breath of a patient in a diabetic coma. Alongside starvation diets, Victorian medics would prescribe opium or hawthorn to try to lower their blood glucose, more often than not with little effect. It was a time of scientific ignorance and suffering for people with diabetes. Victorian Britain was a miserable place to be diabetic.

Dr James Brown, Senior Lecturer in Life and Health Sciences. For more on the history of diabetes, see Dr Brown’s book, From Bird Ponds To Monsters: A History of Diabetes.



Scientists are finding that microbes have a complex role to play in human health, affecting everything from our ability to recover from surgery to the food we like to eat.


rofessor Anthony Hilton is explaining a theory called competitive exclusion. “The analogy that’s been used is a car park,” he says. “If you’re a bad bacterium and you enter an empty car park, you can park wherever you want; if everything is full of cars you just drive around and can’t get in anywhere. In other words, if your gut is rammed full of good bacteria, there’s no real space for the bad bacteria to get a foothold.”

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Aston Alumni Magazine — 2018

Clostridium difficile bacteria on a blood agar plate. Wikimedia Commons.

This neat and vivid example is typical of Professor Hilton’s engaging style of communication. Well known at Aston and in the wider world for his scholarly work on bacterial survival and control, he is also an award-winner when it comes to public engagement. He has made numerous TV appearances, notably in BBC3’s documentary series Grime Scene Investigation, and has commissioned a series of ‘microbial’ plays including last year’s The Drugs Don’t Work: a collaboration with Hobgoblin Theatre Company about the misuse of antibiotics. He has a passion for sharing his insights with young learners and can sometimes be spotted with giant cuddly-toy microbes, which he uses as props for talks in schools (“When you’re trying to enthuse others about things that are essentially invisible you need all the help you can get!”) His research on the ‘five second rule’, about the relative cleanliness of food dropped onto different surfaces, went viral in the media last year: an appropriate outcome for a microbiologist, you might say. His enthusiasm for the invisible world of microbes is also highly infectious. Whether good, bad or neutral the astonishing fact is that the human body has more microbes than it has human cells. These typically range from bacteria and fungi to protozoans (mostly single-celled animal-like organisms) and, collectively, these tiny tenants are known as the microbiome. We are not born with this mass of microbes - though we do receive an initial dose of them when passing through the birth canal - rather, we acquire them in the first few years of life. In recent years

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of metal into places it normally wouldn’t be. It’s one thing rubbing a silver or gold ring on an infection but it’s another thing having an item that’s got silver within it, such as a carrier bag or a disposable coffee cup.”

the microbiome has become a hot scientific topic and current thinking is that it can even influence our eating habits and risk behaviours. “There’s a parasitic element to microbes. The parasite will always drive its host to be consumed by the next host up, so a parasitic infection drives us to take risks, such as running across the road when we shouldn’t. We’re just vessels for these bacteria in our gut and on our skin. To some extent, the fact that they’re calling the shots doesn’t surprise me one bit,” says Professor Hilton cheerfully. “At one time the mantra was that we should just kill all microbes because they’re all bad. What has become obvious is that some are actually beneficial. We need to understand how we can apply control in a way that maximises the effect of killing the bad bacteria without harming the good ones.” Hence the idea of our gut as a microbial carpark, and the ongoing research into probiotics and prebiotics, which are useful methods of encouraging populations of good bacteria to grow. But the work undertaken at Aston extends much further than the microbiome. One of Professor Hilton’s key interests is antimicrobial resistance (AMR) or the ability for a microorganism to resist the effects of antibiotics, antivirals and antimalarials. The issue is complex and far-reaching, affecting the treatment of diseases such as cancer and HIV, right through to the problem of controlling hospital ‘superbugs’.

When you’re trying to enthuse others about things that are essentially invisible you need all the help you can get!

Professor Hilton’s work frequently takes him from microbiology into areas such as engineering, where the health benefits of metals can be translated into usable products. When the UK Government introduced a levy on plastic carrier bags in 2015, for example, people diligently started reusing bags but the potential for cross-contamination with foodstuffs like fish and poultry led to an increased risk of infection. Thanks to his collaboration with a company called Addmaster, however, the antimicrobial reusable-carrier-bag was born and has since been adopted by many large retailers. “One thing to say is that these plastic bags are not self-sterilising surfaces,” he warns. “People think of antimicrobial activity as: you spray something on, leave it a few minutes and it’s clean. It’s not like that with these surfaces. If your bag did become contaminated, say with chicken juices - which we know carry harmful bacteria - you could clean it when you discovered it and the antimicrobial surface would give you some added protection. It’s a safety net rather than an instant cure.” Another way that scientists are using this technology is in hospitals. Peter Lambert, Emeritus Professor of Microbial Chemistry at Aston, was involved in a study looking at copper fittings in the ward of a working hospital. Half of the ward was provided with touch surfaces made from copper alloys, while half remained standard. The results were astonishing. After a series of daily tests it was shown that, compared to the regular surfaces, the copper contained 98 to 100 per cent fewer harmful organisms. Professor Hilton has since built some of his own work on these findings.

“At Aston we see our work as a continuum,” he explains. “The pathway to antimicrobial resistance is very long and starts with a person becoming ill because of a microorganism which is itself resistant to antibiotics. Everywhere along that continuum there’s probably a place where we can intervene.” His own interests lie ‘upstream’ of the AMR continuum in a less publicised area - illness prevention. He is particularly focussed on the antimicrobial properties of metals and how we can harness them to ward off undesirable bacteria in our everyday lives.

“One of the problems with copper is that it’s very expensive, particularly when you’re creating door architecture like handles. It’s quite a soft metal and not particularly durable. I’ve been working on a project to create architectural ironwork which is antimicrobial on its surface yet iron throughout its core. That way you can take a structurally sound, cheap metal and make it functional as well as beautiful.”

“The idea of using silver, gold and other metals like titanium and gallium is not a new idea, it’s actually quite an old technology, some of which is embedded within urban myths. People used to claim that if you had a sty on your eye you should rub it with a gold ring, for example. I’m interested in the idea of targeting the application - 39 -


Aston Alumni Magazine — 2018


ntibiotic resistance is a natural phenomenon. Over time bacteria adapt to the drugs developed to kill them and mutate in order to survive. However, human behaviour can accelerate these changes in many ways - by mishandling food, living in unsanitary conditions or overusing antibiotics. Another high-risk scenario is when patients are admitted to hospital with serious illnesses. Treatments may have wiped out their normal gut bacteria - the good bacteria that regulate their immune systems - and they become vulnerable to the so-called hospital ‘superbugs’ such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile (or C. diff).

and produce very potent proteinaceous toxins that cause explosive diarrhoea and a condition called PMC or pseudomembranous colitis. C. diff infection can kill some patients.”

Bugs will take advantage of wounds if they can; even the friendly bacteria will take advantage of you.

This area of the microbial continuum is Dr Tony Worthington’s specialist interest. He started his career in medical microbiology, working for the National Health Service, but moved to Aston University in 2004, having collaborated with Professor Peter Lambert since 1996. For the last 14 years he has worked on amongst other things - methods of eradicating C. diff: a bacterium that affects the bowel and is endemic in hospitals.

The problem is that C. diff spores are resistant to many common disinfectants because the spores have hard outer coatings that can’t be penetrated without the use of harsh disinfectants like bleach. But when the spores enter the gut, they begin to germinate into bacterial cells, and at this point they become more sensitive to antimicrobials. “So we thought, could we con the spores by inventing a germination solution which could be applied to the environmental spores through a spray or wipe for example, while they are on a hard surface, so they would ‘wake up’ and think they’re in the gut? Then clinical staff could use everyday disinfectants to eliminate them alongside other infection control procedures.” In the gut the main germinant for C. diff is sodium taurocholate. Dr Worthington and colleagues took this ingredient and added five amino acids to develop a formulation that would rapidly wake the spores. They also found that, once germinating, they could easily be destroyed with alcohol and even natural products like tea tree oil and eucalyptus oil. Building on Professor Lambert’s work, they placed C. diff spores on copper surfaces - a spray of the germination solution woke them, then the antimicrobial properties of the metal killed them off. “Then we thought, if we put an antimicrobial into the spray, it could be a one-stage process. So we worked with colleagues at Aston and found that benzylkonium chloride works in a germination solution, eliminating spores of C. diff in one move.” More work is underway to try to in-

“C. diff is a spore-forming bacteria, so when the environment for survival isn’t favourable for the bacterial cells it produces spores which are hardy little dormant, survival structures of C. diff that can live in the healthcare environment for many months - on work surfaces; patient bedside tables; curtains; bedding,” he explains. “They need to be physically removed through appropriate cleaning and disinfection otherwise hospitalised patients with a sterile gut, for example those who have been on broad spectrum antibiotics, can ingest them. The ingested spores will germinate into bacterial cells in their gut - 40 -


corporate an alternative to sodium taurocholate into plastic, while the original germination solution is now patented worldwide. A London-based company, Insight Health, is helping to bring it to market. Aston’s work on healthcare-associated infections also touches on surgery itself. When preparing a patient for an operation, clinicians currently use a formulation called ChloraPrep (a combination of chlorhexidine and alcohol) which eliminates bacteria on the surface of the skin. However, when a cut is made in the skin bacteria lying much further down - out of the reach of the ChloraPrep - can enter the patient’s bloodstream and cause an infection. “Bugs will take advantage of wounds if they can; even the friendly bacteria on and in your skin will take advantage of you if you’re debilitated or in a compromised position,” says Dr Worthington. However, he has discovered that eucalyptus oil can improve the penetration of chlorhexidine into the skin, acting as “a second-generation antiseptic for people undergoing surgery”. As with the C. diff spray, the formulation is patented and there is work underway getting it into clinical practice.

My true belief is that we have to work with industry to come up with solutions for the problems that we have in the world.

The good, the bad and the cuddly: Professor Anthony Hilton with a soft-toy microbe (Salmonella).

“My true belief is that we have to work with industry, in harmony, to come up with solutions for the problems that we have in the world, whether that’s in the food industry, diagnostics or, in my case, healthcare,” says Dr Worthington. “I think the C. diff solution on hard surfaces and the chlorhexidine with eucalyptus are definitely two areas that would contribute to reducing healthcare infections. They won’t eliminate them, of course, but they’re intended to form part of a healthcare package.” Microbes might be invisible, but their influence is felt by every one of us.

Anthony Hilton (left) is a Professor of Applied Microbiology and Deputy Executive Dean of the School of Life & Health Sciences at Aston University. Tony Worthington is an Associate Professor in Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Disease at Aston University. - 41 -



Photography: Edward Moss

For some the road to university is straightforward, for others, like first-year Biomedical Science student Vogue Wadrup, there are a few twists and turns along the way. Here she shares her challenging journey to Aston, and how technology is enabling her to keep on studying.

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From a young age, I always knew I wanted a career in medicine. My Mum was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when I was six and over the next ten years she had several life-threatening operations. The support from the doctors and nurses was amazing; from then I knew I wanted to go into medicine.

Aston’s centre for student support and advice, has been a great help, emailing me every so often asking if I need help. My personal tutor, Dr Joanne Gough, is also really understanding; all of my tutors have been golden. The Tony Hayward Scholarship has had a tremendous impact on me. It gave me an extra bit of money when I couldn’t work and took the pressure off, which meant I didn’t have to panic about how I was going to afford things. I have put some of the money towards text books. Even second-hand these can cost £70 to £80 so it is a real help.

I dropped out of my ‘A’ levels when I was 17 years’ old. I started to feel unwell, and slowly got worse. Symptoms included tiredness, pleurisy, swollen joints, skin rashes, chest pain, mouth ulcers and at my worst I weighed just seven stone. Initially I was misdiagnosed with the psychosomatic disorder Munchausen’s syndrome.

After my degree here, I plan to complete a postgraduate medical degree, which will set me on the path to becoming a doctor. Through my work and personal circumstances, I have seen the buzz and energy in hospital A&E departments, and my goal is to work there. I also want to travel and see more of the world while I can.

I spent the following three and a half years in and out of hospital. My Mum was incredibly supportive. I was living as a 90-year-old at 20 years’ old. I wanted a life. If I didn’t find someone to help me, I knew I would die from my condition. Suspecting I had Lupus, I made an appointment with a specialist at the City Hospital. I cried with relief with when I was diagnosed with the autoimmune condition, Still’s Disease, a rare form of inflammatory arthritis which targets my heart and lungs. Still’s disease on a good day is feeling like you have the ‘flu, on a bad day it can put you in bed in enormous pain. This condition will be managed for the rest of my life with a combination of steroids and chemotherapy.

It is really easy to think ‘Why me?’ Still’s disease means I can’t live a full life like others, but while I can, I want to make the most of life and becoming a doctor is part of that plan.

Determined to pursue my goal of a career in medicine I completed my ‘A’ levels and began studying Biomedical Science at Aston in September 2017. All lectures are recorded and available online, and Aston is one of the few universities in the area offering this facility. When I had a relapse in November, it allowed me to continue studying at home. The recordings are an ideal revision tool, too. Anyone who has studied a science degree will appreciate the long hours in lectures, tutorials and practicals involved - even though I’m only in the first year they have really thrown me in at the deep end. I’m in classes most days from 9am or 10am until 5pm. We have two or three online tests a week, the grades of which go towards my final coursework mark. Like many students, I also have a part time job. I work as a healthcare assistant in hospitals. Although Still’s Disease is rare, I met a junior doctor through work who also has the condition. She is my inspiration, showing that becoming a doctor can be a reality. Aston staff have been incredible. Due to my chemotherapy I was advised by my Professor to leave a microbiology practical. After he showed me the petri dish we would be studying, I agreed! I went away, revised the subject, and while it was a little more work, it was worth it as I secured a first in the written exam. The Hub, - 43 -

THE HAYWARD SCHOLARSHIP FUND Scholarships are an important source of support and can enable students to fulfil their potential. Right now every gift from our alumni unlocks a matching amount from the Hayward Scholarship Fund, meaning any gift you make will be doubled. Because Aston is also eligible to claim Gift Aid this means that if you make a gift of £100 towards the scholarship fund, the final total received will be £250 - at no extra cost to you, beyond your original donation.

Find out more about Aston scholarships and how you can support them at: scholarships/


MAKING HEADWAY WITH AUTISM Autism is much more common than people think, affecting more than one in 100 people in the UK. Providing an early diagnosis of this incurable neurodevelopmental condition can lead to autistic people and their families receiving the right support and reducing the risk of isolation and mental health problems.

Typical information flow

Aston Alumni Magazine — 2018

Many people with autism have trouble processing sensory information and can be overwhelmed by bright lights or crowded situations. With thanks to a generous donation (alongside funding from Aston and Macquarie Universities), researchers at Aston Brain Centre and Macquarie University are using leading technology to measure this neurological activity. The project, which is supported by Tommy’s Fund, is being led by researcher Robert Seymour, under the supervision of Professors Klaus Kessler (Aston University), Gina Rippon (Aston University) and Paul Sowman (Macquarie University). It is focussing on ten to 20-year-olds who have been diagnosed with autism, as well as those who are not on the autistic spectrum, and aims to understand whether adolescents and young people on the spectrum process information on sights, sounds and social situations in different ways to their peers. While previous research in this area has used electroencephalogram or EEG, this study uses the non-invasive brain imaging technique magnetoencephalography, known as MEG. Located in the £5m Aston Brain Centre, it’s one of the few research facilities in the world to have a MEG scanner specifically for children. MEG enables measurements of the brain to be taken 1,000 times every second, providing a highly accurate picture of activity. “The study is measuring the very fast brain activity when people are shown pictures and sounds, as well as attempting to determine which areas of the brain process information about other people,” Seymour explains. “The aim is to try and determine if, and how differently, the brain responds during sensory and social tasks.”

information flow in autism

Initial findings show a difference between the two groups. Those not on the autistic spectrum feed back what they expect to process, shaping the information from the outside world through a balanced forward and backward flow of information, while those with autism seem to rely more strongly on a forward flow of information (see left). “Many people with autism become overwhelmed by incoming sensory information,” adds Seymour. “We are trying to understand whether the autistic brain behaves differently to a neurotypical brain and how that might, in the future, help to improve diagnosis and lead to the development of better interventions.”

Cut Through of Brain, image of Robert Seymour using MEG

To find out more about research at Aston Brain Centre visit: - 44 -




ecent research, published by Dr Ian Maidment, has shown that the number of people over the age of 65 taking at least five different medicines has quadrupled in the last 20 years. One particular challenge may be when a family carer, usually a husband or wife with their own health problems, is responsible for the medication for their loved one. They may be administering over ten pills a day, increasing the risk of medication errors. Furthermore, between a third and half of all medicines for long-term illnesses are not taken correctly, and all medicines can produce unpleasant side-effects.

Dr Maidment and his team are currently looking into the extent of the problem. The initial study, supported by Pharmacy Research UK funding, looked at people living with dementia and the role that family care-givers have with supporting medication management. The outcomes of this study led to a further grant from the National Institute of Health Research (called the MEMORABLE study) to investigate the problem and develop ways to help older people and their family carers.

Increased numbers of older people are taking medication to help with long-term medical conditions but researchers at Aston, led by Senior Lecturer Dr Ian Maidment, are investigating the problem.

If someone doesn’t take a medication it isn’t going to work, yet this aspect of medication management is frequently overlooked in clinical trials. “Why spend £1billion developing a drug which is not taken in the ‘real world’?” asks Dr Maidment. “If medication is not taken properly it is a wasted investment.”

With the NHS spending £300m every year on medicines that aren’t taken, and problems with medication such as errors or side-effects costing the NHS £750m per year, this is a significant issue. MEMORABLE, a collaborative research project with four Universities across the UK and international partners, has an innovative and participatory approach which could be the key to solving some of these issues. Education about medicine management and aligning services to support older people are also important, says Dr Maidment. “After 25 years of working as a practising Pharmacist, I could see the issues first hand. We need to listen to the views of patients and their family carers. Involving members of the public has been key to my research from the onset.” Dr Ian Maidment spent 25 years as a Pharmacist in the community, industry and hospital, specialising in old age and adult mental health. He has published over 70 papers in peer-reviewed journals.

For the latest news on Ian’s work follow @maidment_dr on Twitter. For more information on the study see: - 45 -


WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Where has life taken you since you’ve been away from Aston? We’d love to hear what you’ve been up to. Why not drop us an email at alumniinfo@ with your story and a photograph? The best will be included in the next edition of the magazine.

1970s Keith Yeates (BSc Production Engineering, 1971; PhD 1974) ) is the CEO and one of the owners of a plasticcard manufacturing company based just outside of Rochester, New York. He started his career as an apprentice in the automotive industry and was sponsored by his employer on a four-year degree course at Aston, where he enjoyed playing football. “The away games were fun as we travelled with the rugby team who sure knew how to party, win or lose! I considered this to be an important part of my education and can still party,” he says. After his studies were complete he took up running and holds several national awards for cross-country and road racing in the seventy-plus age group. Keith married in the final year of his degree (his wife worked as a secretary at the School of Architecture). He now has three daughters and seven grandchildren, all living in the United States. Geoff Stokes (BSc Electrical and Electronic Engineering, 1978) gained experience in industry while studying on Aston’s sandwich course, then started his career on a graduate programme with Birmingham firm Lucas Industries Plc. From there he experienced

Aston Alumni Magazine — 2018

world travel in the oil industry. He worked in Norway, Libya and Australia, finally settling in Adelaide where he has been living since 1995. He has worked in diverse industries including manufacturing (vehicle and pharmaceutical), oil and gas, and transportation. One of his more memorable experiences was being a passenger on flight BA9 in June 1982 when it flew into a cloud of volcanic ash and glided for 20 minutes without any engines working. For the last 20 years he has specialised in asset management software. “I would never have predicted I would finish my career in software after graduating in Engineering,” he says, “but that is just a sample of all the career options an Aston graduate can look forward to.” Mark Pender (BSc, Managerial & Administrative Studies, 1979) worked for Whinney Murray & Co. Limited (now Ernst & Whinney) during his sandwich year and rejoined it after graduation, qualifying as a Chartered Accountant. Shortly afterwards he moved to London and spent 18 months at Plessey Company PLC. before joining The West of England P&I Club, a marine mutual insurer, in 1985 where he progressed to Finance Director. After 32 years at West of England and many challenges (including the 2008 financial crisis) he retired in 2017 and moved to Dorset to pursue a new direction as an artist and to enjoy other interests. In 1984 he married Miriam (née Konieczny), also an Aston alumnus. They remain happily together and share a studio as she follows, effectively, a third career as an artist/musician.

1980s Peter Branston (BSc Modern Languages, 1985) did his first degree at Aston, before completing his Masters in European Management at Cranfield School of Management. From there he entered the world of business, starting with Scholl, then moving through progressively more senior roles at Coopers & Lybrand, Glaxo Wellcome (now GSK), McCue International, Technicolor, Gilbarco - 46 -

Veeder-Root, Avery Weigh-Tronix, ERIKS, and, most recently, De La Rue (manufacturer of bank notes, ID products and authentication products). He loved his time at Aston and had an amazing year at the Dolmetscherschule (Institute of Translating and Interpreting) in Zurich where he was a student throughout his third year. He has used his language skills widely, having married a French lady (Brigitte) and bought a holiday home in the Perpignan area of France. He and Brigitte have three children, Jonathan (aged 28), Natalie (aged 25) and Emily (aged 14). As well as work and family, Peter tries to look after himself and played rugby for 44 consecutive seasons before finally hanging up the boots in May 2017 at the age of 55. He now sticks to less dangerous activities like cycling, and once completed a ten-day trek from Le Havre to Perpignan in support of Leukaemia research.

1990s Arif Hassan (BSc Management and Computer Science, 1993) lives in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He has over 25 years’ international experience in programme management, project management offices, consulting and operational business management. This was gained working for Logica Plc (now CGI), helping to set up operations in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Arif has co-founded a number of technology starts-up focused on innovation, education and integrated learning. He has maintained his links with Aston, frequently visiting the UK and the University campus, as well as being a mentor on the Aston University Professional Mentoring Scheme. He has also led a youth initiative to plan and host a seminar aimed at capacity-building and developing leadership skills among young people. He is currently helping to organise a youth-led trip to an indigenous community programme in Africa which focuses on education, water, social welfare, economic development, medical and spiritual/social awareness. Martin Richards (MBA, 1998) studied for his Masters in Business Administration at Aston Business School. On completing his course he moved to the USA and started a new company selling software to the Energy Industry (McLaren Software). He exited McLaren in 2002

and returned to the UK to start an IT services business (Chapter26). In 2005 he joined EMC in London to run and build their software services organisation in Europe. In 2009 he was asked to return to the USA by EMC to run its Americas services business. He moved to Silicon Valley 2012 and set up a new business line inside EMC to build and sell enterprise solutions for the energy industry. Martin has recently joined First Data (NYSE: FDC) in New York as VP of Business Development, reporting to the Board.

2000s Tauqeer Jamadar (BSc Computing Science, 2004) is currently working in the private equity industry and has recently joined a Birmingham-headquartered FinTech (finance and technology) start-up called Colmore. Since graduating he has worked in the UK, US and Middle East across banking, technology, hedge funds and private equity fund businesses. Carmen Beatrice Thaler (BSc Combined Honours in Business Administration and International Relations, 2009) is originally from Brazil but opted to study in the UK at Aston University. After completing her degree she continued her British experience by working at the London 2012 Games as part of sponsor Cisco’s marketing team. Following this she had the opportunity to go back to Brazil and work for the Rio 2016 Olympic Organising Committee for four years, assisting over 50 sponsors including Visa, Coca-Cola, Samsung, Dow and McDonald’s, among others. After a glamorous experience in two big cities (London and Rio de Janeiro) she has returned to her hometown (Campinas) to work as marketing manager for OPTEL Group, a Canadian company specialising in technological solutions for the pharmaceutical industry. Michael Batko (Economics and Management, 2013) did his Aston University placement at American Express and this led to internships with PwC and KPMG. Still undecided about his career, he did an International Management Masters degree with CEMS during which he completed an internship with the Austrian Government in Australia. This starkly contrasted with his first job after graduating - working for a two-person start-up called MadPaws, a marketplace for pet sitters. However, through


MadPaws he found a love for start-ups and moved on to another start-up called Expert360 - a marketplace for freelance consultants. Finally, he undertook a world trip over six months and found his current job: Head of Operations for Startmate Australia, a leading technology accelerator helping 20 to 30 start-ups every year. Katie Grace (BSc English Language, 2017) graduated from Aston with a first class honours degree and shortly afterwards secured an editorial role working for 44: a successful internal communications agency in Leamington Spa. “Every day is exciting and a little bit different,” she says. “I’m involved in a real variety of different projects, from magazines to campaigns, animated video to newsletters for different clients. Winners of Best Agency of the Year 2017, 44 has taught me so much about the world of internal communications and I’m very fortunate to have found such a fantastic company to work for after leaving Aston University.” Ali-Reza Panjwani (BSc Marketing, 2011) returned to his placement year employer, Pinsent Masons LLP. After two years of working in the legal industry, he transitioned into the banking sector to work for JP Morgan Chase & Co, in their Asset Management division. In 2014, Ali not only completed his post-graduate diploma, he also received the Bob Johnson Memorial Award for Outstanding Workplace Achievement. In 2016, the Firm sponsored Ali to relocate to its headquarters in New York, to support their Chief Operating Office. He was officially promoted to Vice President in January 2017 and subsequently became one of the youngest in the Firm’s history. A community man at heart, Ali continues to inspire young professionals in his role as an Aston University Career Champion and was recently a key speaker at a firm-wide Global Mobility event where he spoke about his own career journey and the importance of building your own brand. Ali currently resides in Manhattan, New York.

Read more entries for Where Are They Now? on the website: - 47 -


It is with great sadness that we record the loss of alumni and staff whose passing has come to our attention over the last year. Our sincere condolences go out to the family and friends of those listed here.

Julian Berry (Mathematics, 1984) passed away on Sunday December 17th 2017. The day before he died, Julian suddenly became very unwell and was rushed to hospital. CT scans revealed that he had an aneurysm in an artery in his brain; this ruptured, causing a massive bleed from which he could not recover. Julian was a mathematician all his life and in 1993 moved to Bloxham, Oxfordshire, to take on the Head of Maths post at Bloxham School, where he remained for the next 24 years. In July 2017 he stepped down from this post to work part-time constructing and maintaining the school timetable, and to pursue and develop his interests outside of work. It is sad that he had so very little time to enjoy his newfound freedom and spend more time with his wife, Catherine, and children Alex, James and Harriet.


Aston Alumni Magazine — 2018

Peekaboo This little green egg (it also comes in blue and pink) is a smart-home-integrated, app-controlled baby monitor. It’s been developed by Ben Acey, a Product Design and Management student, as his final-year project. In June it was exhibited at Aston Inspired: a showcase of student innovation held on campus each year. Ben Acey Product Design Management Student

“If a sleeping child began to cry during a nap, a parent could check the app and intervene from a different room instead of having to disturb the child’s sleep cycle,” explains Ben. “From the app they could, for example, turn on an auto-rocker feature on a crib, control the lighting, or adjust the temperature to help send the child back to sleep.” A good way of harnessing tech to keep your little one comfortable.

Discover more of Ben’s innovations at



The School of Pharmacy’s Manufacturing and Testing Laboratory at Birmingham Central Technical College c. 1930. The Central Technical College was a forerunner of Aston University and was located on Suffolk Street; the building was demolished in 1967 to make way for roadwidening, but the teaching of Pharmacy continues, making it Aston’s oldest academic programme.





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