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Shedding light on climate change

Embracing the space race

Smarter solutions to disease management

CONTENTS 2 – A new tomorrow Setting out Northumbria’s transformation and growth 4 – Cold climate research has impact around the world Antarctic research projects that explore the planet 6 – Guardians of the galaxy Solving the problems created by a new era of space exploration 8 – Smart solutions for good health Technology that enables new types of disease prevention 10 – Collaboration by design The human-digital designs pioneered by NORTH Lab 12 – Partners in the fight for global justice The projects furthering international development 14 – Harnessing the power of the Earth’s resources Solving intractable problems with smart materials Special projects editor Alistair Lawrence Designer Joe Wilkes Sub-editor Lorraine Eames Produced by THE World Universities Insights Limited to a brief agreed with Northumbria University. Paid for by Northumbria University. All editorial content commissioned by THE. Sponsorship/advertising branding@ timeshighereducation.com Digital edition digital.timeshighereducation. com/NorthumbriaUniversity/ html5/index.html Times Higher Education 26 Red Lion Square London W1CR 4HQ


A new tomorrow Northumbria University vice-chancellor Andrew Wathey tells Jo Faragher how the institution continues to transform itself through education and research IN THE PAST DECADE, Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne has undergone a major transformation. In 2008, it began a project to plumb research into the heart of the university and its disciplines. In 2012, it launched a transformation programme to reposition the university into the upper quartile of the UK sector by 2025, with a vision to reach the top 30 as a new kind of excellent university – a research-rich, business focused, professional institution with a global reputation for academic excellence. Its investments are paying off. In the 2014 research excellence framework exercise, Northumbria ranked in the top 50 in the UK for research power – marking the highest rise of any institution. “This was a decisive moment for the university. Almost overnight, it transformed our relationships with prospective stakeholders, staff and students,” says Andrew Wathey, Northumbria’s vice-chancellor and chief executive. “Education and research form the twin, blended core of our mission: an alloy, not a ­­ bi-metallic strip,” he says. “We expect academic staff to be inspirational teachers and excellent researchers.” The university now graduates more than double the number of PhDs it did 10 years ago. Since 2013, new research awards have increased by 160 per cent and the university’s UK rank for research citations in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings has risen from the low 60s to the high 30s. It’s clear that research lies at the heart of Northumbria’s mission and also increases the quality of its teaching and student experience. “The past five years were just the first phase of our transformation,” says Professor Wathey. “We’ve developed a new strategy for 20182023 – the second part of the transformation programme. So, in one sense, we are halfway up the mountain – the view has changed, along with our outlook and stature, but there is at least as far again to climb.” In the latest THE World University Rankings, Northumbria climbed 273 places – from 522nd to 249th position for citations. Its research output means that it sits much closer to its p ­ re-1992 counterparts than many other new universities. External drivers, such as increased competition for staff and students,

globalisation and advances in technology, have also pushed the institution to sharpen its focus. Professor Wathey and colleagues have embraced these challenges. “All change presents challenges – as humans, we’re wired not to like it – but it can also be exhilarating. If we’d not adapted, we would not have improved, and our increased stature benefits our students, our staff and the communities we serve,” he says, adding that the drive for research excellence has been across the institution, improving the quality of student entry, social diversity and teaching. One of the research highlights at Northumbria has been the development of a prototype engine that could harvest energy on the surface of Mars – but its research is also making its mark closer to home, particularly in the fields of technology and digital design. The university boasts a number of worldleading experts in artificial intelligence, information architecture and human-digital design. It is also a key player in Newcastle’s digital economy – the fastest growing technology hub outside London. “This all helps to emphasise how world-class research can have a transforming local application,” says Professor Wathey. Furthermore, with the North of Tyne recently completing a once-in-a-generation local authority devolution deal that will result in the recruitment of a mayor and receipt of more than £600 million in government funding, the university’s research will continue to be a driver of growth and will help to shape the economic identity of the area. Northumbria’s growing reputation continues to attract high-quality teaching talent, too. In 2017, the teaching excellence framework panel noted how academic staff were committed “to providing effective support to help keep students on track, enjoy their studies and achieve high attainment through a range of academic and personal support services”. It also praised the quality of physical and digital resources used and it noted how students had many opportunities to engage with research through structured enquiry. “We are not pursuing research purely for its own sake,” says Professor Wathey, “but for the local, national and global impact that research can and does have and because research and academic excellence are major drivers

‘We are pursuing research, not purely for its own sake but for the local, national and global impact that research can and does have’

of teaching quality.” In the past 10 years, attracted by this ethos, an increasing number of academic staff have joined Northumbria from research-intensive institutions, changing the university’s academic make-up. The proportion of staff with a PhD is now about 60 per cent, compared with 20 per cent a decade ago. It has also been a lure for students: Northumbria is now the highest-ranked English post-92 university – ranked 30th on entry points of all English institutions in The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2019 – and, in the past six years, has achieved a near-unique feat of growing quality, volume and social inclusion almost in lock-step. There is a strong focus on multidisciplinary working, so colleagues enjoy opportunities to come together to solve issues such as environmental justice and integrated approaches to supporting people with longterm health conditions. Its extreme environments research unites academics from maths, astrophysics, geography, computer science and statistics, for example. A new campus in Amsterdam – in addition to those in Newcastle and London – will open


Location, location Northumbria’s City Campus is situated in the heart of Newcastle upon Tyne

up opportunities to work with businesses and other institutions in those cities. Northumbria’s international reputation is also on the rise, with the university building collaborative partnerships with global institutions such as the Czech Republic’s Palacký University in Olomouc, Northwestern Polytechnical University in China and Northeastern University in Boston. Co-authorship of research with international partners has also increased significantly in recent years. The university has now put the finishing touches to its 2018 to 2023 strategy, and is targeting “large, bold, ambitious goals” for 2030. Professor Wathey acknowledges that the world “will be a very different place by then”, driven by exponential increases in computing power and larger populations, both literate and connected, interacting with technology. He says: “This presents a challenge on a global scale but also increases the scope of what a university can do – the opportunities will be enormous.” Given its impressive trajectory in the past 10 years, Northumbria has all the hallmarks of a university that will grasp those opportunities and make the most of them. 3

Cold climate research has impact around the world The work of Northumbria University’s Cold and Palaeo-Environment group explores current landscapes and reconstructs past environments, writes Linda Nordling KATE WINTER’S passion for fluid, frozen worlds was kindled at an early age, after seeing her first glacier during a school trip to Iceland. “I just knew that ice was something that fascinated me,” she says. From that moment, she dreamt of one day going to Antarctica. It took Dr Winter about 10 years to realise her dream. As a PhD student at Northumbria University, she camped on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in the southern hemisphere summer, spending six weeks in a tent in permanent daylight, living on dried army rations and Dairy Milk chocolate. “What amazes me is the peace and quiet. The air is so fresh. It’s so far from everybody else.” Dr Winter, a vice-chancellor’s research fellow at Northumbria, uses radar systems to study what lies beneath Antarctica’s vast ice sheets. In May, she won global recognition for the discovery of three vast canyons near the South Pole, which stretch for hundreds of kilometres, unseen from the surface. These canyons help to drain the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and, in a warmer climate, they are likely to accelerate the flow of meltwater into the surrounding oceans. Dr Winter is also tracing how sediments move through the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. “We don’t know how much rock is being transported through the ice,” she says. But it is likely that these rocks transfer nutrients like iron through the Ice Sheet, she explains. When those nutrients get into the Southern Ocean, they fuel algae growth which, in turn, binds carbon dioxide in the water – a phenomenon that, if accelerated by climate change, could help reduce the quantities of the greenhouse gas present in the atmosphere. “Its impact could be significant,” she adds. Dr Winter is a member of Northumbria’s Cold and Palaeo-Environment group, known as CAPE, part of the department of geography and environmental sciences. CAPE is the largest university-based group of its kind in the UK, featuring 24 academics, 15 PhD candidates and five postdoctoral researchers. It focuses on two research themes: contemporary ice, snow and permafrost landscapes, and reconstructing past climate and environments using historical 4

Tip of the iceberg Kate Winter is planning an expedition to Antarctica to aid her research into what lies beneath its vast and remote ice sheets

‘I want to get across that climate change is happening, that it’s affecting us and that we’re doing something about it’ data and modelling. The latter work has a global reach. Recent publications from the group have covered, for example, the evolution of coral reef islands of the Maldives, the impact of climate change on Neanderthals in Eurasia and how ancient civilisations farmed their land in remote areas of the Amazon. It is a golden era to research cold climates and modelling, says Hilmar Gudmundsson, one of CAPE’s senior scientists. A glaciologist, he is leading a project to model how and when the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica might collapse into the sea. That is a question of some urgency since, if it does, it could raise global sea levels by several metres.

The project is part of a £20 million collaboration between the UK and the US to study the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. “This is where the action is,” he says. The glaciers in the region are out of balance. More ice is lost into the sea than is falling as snow on top and the region is currently responsible for 10 per cent of the globally observed sea-level rise. Professor Gudmundsson says that, in the past decade, there has been a tremendous improvement in our understanding of how and why glaciers move but a lot of questions remain. “Prediction is still a tough one,” he says. The project will use remote-sensing data to model possible scenarios for the Thwaites Glacier over the next 100 years. It will look at


the ice flow, the ocean and the interaction between the two. It will build on a glacial flow model developed by Professor Gudmundsson and his colleagues at Northumbria, which already underpins the work of other groups in Germany, Denmark and the UK. Professor Gudmundsson and Dr Winter agree that the environment at Northumbria is conducive to great research and teaching. The university’s new environmental monitoring, modelling and reconstruction MSc sees students travelling to the Arctic for a weeklong field trip, immersing them in an inspiring research culture. And Dr Winter thinks that the support she obtained as a doctoral candidate paved the way for her recent success.

“They didn’t have to take a young scientist with them to Antarctica, but they took me. If I hadn’t been there for my PhD, I’m not sure I would be comfortable leading my own expedition this year,” she says. The university’s media department enabled Dr Winter to communicate her work to a wide audience. The findings of her paper on the Antarctic glacial valleys were reported by outlets such as Newsweek, The Washington Post and the BBC. She is also passionate about having a local impact. Children from low-income families in the north east of England will help to test her new seismographic equipment ahead of her expedition, and she will film the experiments in Antarctica to discuss with them on her return

to the UK. “I want young people to be aware that you can have fascinating and exciting jobs,” she says. “As a university employee, I’m paid by the taxpayer and want to give back [to society]. “I want to get across that climate change is happening, it’s affecting us and that we’re doing something about it from the north east.” Professor Gudmundsson says he appreciates the wider academic community that the university offers. “There is real ambition at Northumbria and I like the energy and enthusiasm of everyone working together in a research-rich environment. For students, that is also important: the freedom to think, surrounded by curious people. We definitely have that here at Northumbria.” 5

Guardians of the galaxy From introducing new legal frameworks to improving the spinal health of astronauts, Northumbria is filling the voids created by a new era of space odysseys. Helen Beckett reports


SPACE EXPLORATION is undergoing a seismic shift and Northumbria University is part of that movement, advancing related medical, legal and solar physics research. What has changed fundamentally is that small, agile companies are now conducting relatively cheap, low Earth orbit projects. Academia has an important role to play in the nascent, multi-sector space industry. Northumbria is forging a unique position with a multidisciplinary approach. Chris Newman, a professor of space law and policy, says: “We are breaking out of academic silos. You can’t figure out legal matters without understanding the hostile physical environment of space and engineering constraints. There’s a lot of crosstalk between academics at Northumbria.” Space travel is difficult and hazardous. Traditionally, getting there was the achievement. “Now the goal is formulating sustainable practices in order for Earth-bound humans to benefit from space discoveries of the future,” says Professor Newman. Northumbria’s law school is playing a vital role in training future lawyers, recently introducing a space law specialism to its flexible LLM Law framework, equipping students with the knowledge and skills needed to fill the legislative void for litigating matters in space. Space is governed by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, and the dominant space powers at

the time were the US and USSR. Today it is a multi-sectored activity. “Private companies and organisations from many countries are getting involved. Commerce, government and the military are all key players, and business wants certainty and a robust legal framework to reassure investors,” says Professor Newman. The emerging market is driven by the need for investors to obtain funding – and they want to know that their expensive assets are insured against risk and loss. The other driver is the requirement by the UK Space Agency for any player to obtain third-party liability in order to acquire a licence. Insurance has to be in place for all aspects of a mission, from launch to when a satellite goes into orbit. To date, there have been few incidents that would warrant litigation – but space is getting more crowded, he says. “In 2009, an American communications satellite collided with a defunct Russian satellite and created a large amount of space junk, but neither party was keen to litigate. Given the large numbers of actors we now have, litigation is inevitable.” Commercial space activity needs to be regulated in order to prevent interference with Earth-based capabilities, such as GPS and weather forecasting. “If space were to become too congested, it could impede our ability to use it, with catastrophic consequences,” says Professor Newman. He


cites the Kessler effect, which theorises that space junk may cause a chain reaction and create an impenetrable belt of debris around the Earth, rendering its orbit unusable. Nations are starting to create their own domestic space legislation – the UK government passed its Space Industry Act in 2018. Professor Newman believes that establishing laws in space can be accomplished: “We have been a seafaring species for thousands of years and have developed codes of conduct and conventions. In the same way, we are becoming a spacefaring population with

‘Having such breadth of expertise helps in terms of profile and equity in space’ a need for predictable patterns of behaviour.” Professor Newman and his law students are complemented by the activities of other Northumbria faculties and colleagues, whose parallel studies inform their work. Research into space health, spearheaded by Nick Caplan, professor of aerospace medicine and rehabilitation, gives an insight into the hostility of space as a working environment. His work focuses on improving the spinal health of astronauts with exercise regimes that would enable them to colonise Mars. “Humans living

Watch this space Above: commercial space activity needs to be regulated to prevent interference with satellite-guided GPS and weather forecasting. Left: parabolic flights in the ‘vomit comet’ help scientists to experience reduced gravity

on Earth are able to stand upright against gravity. It requires significant capability from muscles throughout the body, especially around the spine, to keep upright. Once in space, in a weightless environment, muscles decondition,” Professor Caplan says. Northumbria is researching the Functional Re-adaptive Exercise Device, or FRED, with the European Space Agency’s Space Medicine Office, which could maintain astronauts’ spinal muscle condition on future missions. The gravity on Mars is 38 per cent of that on Earth, and astronauts need to survive a voyage of six to nine months, a Martian landing and be fit enough to carry out operational tasks. In 2018, Caplan’s team carried out a parabolic flight campaign – affectionately dubbed “the vomit comet”. A stripped-out and padded Airbus A310 flew through a series of parabolas and, as the flight went over the top of the arc, the scientists experienced freefall and reduced gravity. Participants were tested for muscle function at 0.25g (25 per cent of Earth’s gravity – midway between gravity on the Moon and Mars), 0.5g and 0.75g. “The simulation let us take a targeted approach to new exercise countermeasures that could be used on the surface of Mars. We are also conducting a study in 2019, where participants will lie down for two months to simulate the long-term adaptations to the

microgravity environment,” says Professor Caplan. Both experiments investigate how artificial gravity could help to maintain the spinal muscles and the effectiveness of FRED as a rehabilitation tool after a space mission. Predicting space weather – another area where Northumbria is active – has huge implications for space technology, health and future legislation. Solar physicists collaborate with Nasa to better understand energy transfer from the Sun’s surface into the corona, the outermost part of the Sun’s atmosphere. In work led by Shaun Bloomfield, associate professor of solar physics, Northumbria collaborates with the European Space Agency to issue and assess spaceweather forecasts. Northumbria’s research will benefit life on Earth, too. Understanding space weather helps prevent disruption to communications and power supplies. Mitigating astronauts’ spinal deconditioning will help to treat people with lower back pain and boost productivity by reducing workplace absenteeism. Space study is a cross-discipline endeavour bringing the university global recognition. “The great thing about Northumbria is that we have experts in space weather, law and space life sciences all working together,” says Professor Caplan. “Having such breadth of expertise helps in terms of profile and equity in space.” 7

Smart solutions for good health Disease prevention is one of the world’s biggest challenges. Here, Nic Mitchell showcases four examples of how multidisciplinary research at Northumbria is spearheading innovative approaches around the globe, including mobile screening for viruses, dementia detection, support for those nearing the end of their life, and the health benefits of yoga

‘The catalyst for finding a better way to test for a virus or disease was the Ebola outbreak in West Africa’ 8

POWERFUL PORTABLE SCREENING Technology designed for a quick and mobile way to screen for viruses – such as Ebola in West Africa – could one day find its way into UK GP surgeries and pharmacies, allowing the detection of flu symptoms and bacterial infections such as meningitis, and helping to detect HIV and hepatitis in prisons. So predicts Sterghios Moschos, associate professor of cellular and molecular sciences at Northumbria University, who has led an international team of researchers from the UK, the US and Africa to develop a machine capable of testing for viruses on the spot, rather than expecting sufferers to trek miles for treatment. “The catalyst for finding a better way to test for a virus or disease, wherever the patient might be, was the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014,” says Dr Moschos. “People were exhausted when they reached treatment centres and were then put at substantial risk by being placed with others who may have the disease. “Why not produce something portable and take it to where the outbreak is?” It took 12 months to produce a prototype, known as QuRapID, using proprietary technology developed by Cambridge-based manufacturer BioGene. It is mobile, A3-sized, weighs just 12kg and can test very small blood samples for viruses from eight people, either serially or at once. BioGene is testing the prototype to see if it could be used to screen for Zika, dengue and other viruses in Brazil, Africa and Turkey. Dr Moschos believes it could be used to test all manner of high-risk viruses – including MERS, SARS and flu viruses – and for identifying infectious diseases such as meningitis and malaria. He wants to develop a version to test for HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C in prison inmates and hopes that the technology will be available one day in pharmacies and GP surgeries for the diagnosis of infectious diseases. “It would be very cost-effective for the NHS,” he says.

Tools for treatment Above: the Ebola virus can now be tested for using a portable device Below: Sea Hero Quest provides researchers with insights into dementia


THE QUEST TO DETECT DEMENTIA A team of neuroscientists, psychologists, doctors and programmers – who were designing a computer game to detect early signs of dementia by testing navigational abilities – turned to architect Ruth Dalton, of Northumbria University, to develop very precise variations of complexity in the 75 levels users try to navigate across five different environments. Since its launch in 2016, Sea Hero Quest has been played by almost 4 million people worldwide and has created a massive database that is being shared with other researchers in the fight against dementia. Professor Dalton is one of the world’s leading experts in the relationship between navigation, design and layout in the built environment. She was invited to join the team by project co-leaders Hugo Spiers, of UCL, and Michael Hornberger, of the University of East Anglia. She says that while architects are trained to build environments that people can easily move around in, they also know how to design disorientating surroundings – exactly what confronts people playing the game. Players navigate a small boat, in environments ranging from icy Arctic waters

to swamps, in the game developed with a start-up grant of €10 million (£8.9 million) from Deutsche Telekom and support from Alzheimer’s Research UK. The aim is to detect the onset of dementia by comparing natural loss of navigational abilities with any sharp decline. “Loss of navigational skills is one of the early symptoms of dementia but we were surprised to discover that gradual agerelated decline in navigational abilities starts from 19 onwards. We thought that such degeneration would be concentrated in the over 60s,” says Professor Dalton. Tests show that playing the game for two minutes generates as much data as scientists would take five hours to collect in lab-based research. In the first swathe of data being analysed, 1.4 million gamers provided information such as gender, age, country and educational qualifications to help the crowd-science approach to detecting dementia. The game has been shown to the United Nations as a way to improve dementia detection and was shortlisted in 2018 for a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award in the academy’s new Game Beyond Entertainment category.

BETTER LIVING THROUGH YOGA Garry Tew, associate professor of exercise and health sciences at Northumbria, is leading a £1.4 million project, starting in 2019, testing the benefits of yoga for people over 65 who suffer from multiple long-term health conditions. Two-thirds of people over 65 in the UK have two or more long-term health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma, depression and anxiety, says Dr Tew. The four-year study, funded by the National Institute for Health Research, comes after a pilot that showed social, mental and physical health benefits from yoga. “We hope to recruit 586 people from GP practices in 12 UK locations for the research, and will work with the University of York and independent yoga consultants to compare the benefits of yoga with those just receiving normal care,” he says. Health benefits from exercise have been established for long-term health problems, such as coronary heart disease, but are not widely available for people with multimorbidity. Yoga was chosen because it is thought to increase strength, flexibility, balance and quality of life. The project aims to determine the clinical and cost benefits of the specially adapted British Wheel of Yoga 12-week programme, and highlight any savings in NHS resources, such as reducing GP and hospital visits.

PRESERVING POSITIVE MEMORIES Jayne Wallace, professor of craft and wellbeing in Northumbria’s School of Design, is exploring how the digital media we use now can help to create positive memories about ourselves for others after we die, and allow those nearing the end of life to maintain a sense of self. Her work also focuses on dementia, with those recently diagnosed among three groups involved in the three-year, £1 million Enabling Ongoingness project. Those nearing the end of their life and the recently bereaved will take part, with support from charities such as the Alzheimer’s Society, Cruse Bereavement Care, Hospice UK, Dementia Positive, Marie Curie and Dementia Care. Professor Wallace says we each gather a “digital trail” of personal data as we live, such as photographs, videos, blog posts, tweets and music preferences. Using a person’s digital trail could help to maintain a positive sense of connection to them after death. In what is an under-represented demographic, the project will highlight fundamental societal challenges and identify ways to address them through the meaningful curation of our digital footprint.


Collaboration by design COLLABORATION AND cross-faculty contributions have been the driver behind some of Northumbria University’s most groundbreaking and interdisciplinary initiatives over the years, and the institution’s NORTH Lab is no exception. Underpinned by research from the School of Design and the departments of psychology, and computer and information sciences, NORTH Lab is a hub for human-computer interaction (HCI) and interaction design. It is one of the biggest centres of crossfaculty HCI activity in the UK, and includes the Psychology and Communication Technology (PaCT) and Northumbria Social Computing (NorSC) research units, which cover two of the university’s multidisciplinary research themes, known as MDRTs: “ideate” (examining design solutions) and “digital living” (looking at “smart cities”). David Kirk, professor of digital living in the department of computer and information sciences, set up NORTH Lab in 2016 after identifying a need for a “cohesive interdisciplinary forum for faculty members to exchange ideas and work up collaborative research bids”. The results made a splash at the prestigious ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, where research is disseminated and peer reviewed. “Our output is very high,” says Professor Kirk. “In 2018, we had the second-largest number of papers published at CHI in Europe, unofficially placing us 11th in the world out of hundreds of institutions,” he adds. Among the projects run via NORTH Lab are initiatives around cyber security, which emphasise human behaviour as much as technology. Other areas covered include the potential for redesigning high streets, constructing immersive experiences with museum archives, and community-based projects on civic engagement and loneliness in the digital age. “With NORTH Lab, we have much more capacity, in terms of people and equipment, to carry out all of these projects,” says Professor Kirk. “It’s an environment where we feel we have equal membership and can more easily share alternative perspectives.” Professor Jason Whalley, a specialist in telecommunications at Northumbria’s Newcastle Business School, is involved with 10

the digital living MDRT, involving academics from across the faculties of engineering and environment, health and life sciences, and business and law. “Often, universities are very siloed,” he says. “You may know what colleagues are doing in other institutions, or in other countries, but not across the campus.” Professor Whalley describes how regular “show and tell” meetings help to spark off collaborations that would not otherwise happen. “One example is a non-digital company that came to us via the BIM Academy [a building information modelling operation started by Northumbria and Ryder Architecture in 2010] and who wanted to make money from their technologies. We discussed their business model, how technology could inform that and what regulatory challenges they might face. That would never have happened without the MDRT.” Making products commercially viable is a focus of Professor Whalley’s work on the “internet of things” – in particular, how this network of devices that “talk to each other” can be harnessed by the telecoms industry and how they feed into “smart cities”, where technology is used to enhance efficiency, sustainability and development. Professor Whalley’s work has shown that many of the problems around the march of technology are attitudinal. “There are issues around benefit,” he says. “For example, smart meters. Consumers may think ‘Why should I have one?’, but the company concerned benefits in terms of managing demand.” Another pronounced disconnect is between the user and the tech itself. “How do you get people to adopt technology? If you are a ‘digital native’ – that is, under 40 and used to having a computer and a mobile phone – that’s easier than if you are over 65 and in a nursing home. An app to control your boiler is not a challenge for some but, if you don’t have a smartphone or good enough wi-fi, then it’s a different matter.” Professor Whalley is keen for everyone to share in what he calls the “mundane” tangibles of the internet of things rather than focus too much on the “sci-fi hype” that can persist. “There’s potential around healthcare, education and government – classic areas where technology can make things better. For example, you could help people stay in


NORTH Lab acts as a hub for human-computer interaction, where cross-disciplinary research thrives, writes Julian Hall

‘We’re considering how the network of IoT devices could feed into smart cities, and how those products could be made commercially viable’

Digital-built Britain Above: Northumbria’s Virtual NewcastleGateshead model lets architects and developers assess the impact of their design proposals Left: an example of human-computer interaction

‘A smart kitchen that alerts you if a pan boils over could help people stay in their own homes for longer – that would be cheaper for the state’ their own homes for longer by having a smart kitchen that alerts you if a pan boils over or alerts others if you fall – that would be cheaper for the state.” Driving down costs by increasing efficiency is also at the heart of building information modelling, the focus of BIM Academy, which promotes the digital transformation of the built environment through research, education, training and consultancy work. Its commercial operations are performed by a joint venture spin-off company, BIM Academy Enterprises, set up in 2013 with Ryder Architecture. BIM is a transformational process that supports architects, engineers, contractors, suppliers, manufacturers and facilities managers in creating, visualising and managing digital information on every aspect of a built asset. The output of that process – the digital model itself – allows its users to

design, construct and operate the resulting buildings and infrastructure assets efficiently, effectively and sustainably. BIM Academy has helped industry partners in many innovative research and development projects, where its expertise is in creating interoperability between digital systems through its xBIM open-source toolkit. The consultancy arm, BIM Academy Enterprises, has been employed in various high-profile global projects, including aligning the facilities management systems used in the Sydney Opera House. BIM Academy’s reputation has been further enhanced by its part in the research excellence framework’s ranking of Northumbria in 2014 and as winner of the 2017 Times Higher Education award for Most Innovative Contribution to Business-University Collaboration. Meanwhile, the extent of its

activities has included enhancing the Virtual NewcastleGateshead smart city model (created by Northumbria in 2008) and working to establish the International Centre for Connected Construction, or IC3, which BIM Academy director David Greenwood describes as “a global hub for a smart built environment and a hatchery for new digital businesses”. He adds that BIM has the potential not only to transform the construction industry but to contribute to a vision of a “digital-built Britain” by interacting with other technologies, such as “big data”, sensors, artificial intelligence and blockchain. “There are some really interesting potential futures around BIM,” says Professor Kirk, who was on the steering committee for IC3. “Crossover outcomes include examining the user’s livable experience of the building and not just the assets.” 11

Partners in the fight for global justice Northumbria University utilises expertise from across academic disciplines to tackle real-world problems that hinder worldwide equality. Beckie Smith reports HOW DO YOU SOLVE global inequality? It’s a question that scholars have been asking for decades. The more pessimistic among them might argue that the answer remains as elusive as it has ever been. One thing academics can agree on is that any progress towards that goal will not be achieved in isolation. “By now, it’s widely accepted that the challenges of international development are not going to be met by single disciplines or solitary scholars,” says Matt Baillie Smith, codirector of Northumbria University’s Centre for International Development, who has grappled with global inequality for many years. Professor Baillie Smith began his career working in an international aid and development non-governmental organisation. That first-hand insight is the foundation for his research into volunteering, development and citizenship, which he does working closely with NGOs. His work includes co-authoring the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ Global Review on Volunteering – the largest worldwide study of volunteering to date – and he is currently partnering with a university and civil society organisations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, looking at young people’s contributions to sustainable development. He is also research director for the Volunteering in Conflicts and Emergencies, or ViCE, initiative – a collaboration between Northumbria’s Centre for International Development and the Swedish Red Cross. Their research is shining a light on the experiences of local volunteers in crisis situations, which are often ignored in narratives centred on affluent Western volunteers working internationally. “One consequence is that local volunteers tend to be used in service delivery but they’re often not seen as the ‘thinkers’ – their local knowledge and ideas are not necessarily central to the decision-making process,” he says. His research aims to “shift the discourse” through a series of exhibitions and papers targeted at academics, aid practitioners and policymakers. For Professor Baillie Smith, practitioners’ knowledge and analysis is as important as academic knowledge in steering international development research. “I try to think not about researchers and practitioners, but various 12

people analysing knowledge and trying to get meaning out of things to meet global challenges together,” he says. The same is true of the centre that he co-leads, which focuses attention on oftenignored groups and the relevance of their knowledge to justice and development – such as through Katy Jenkins’ participatory photography project on how women from communities facing large-scale mining in the Peruvian Andes think about development. The centre’s researchers come from such diverse fields as history, design, urban studies, geography and sociology, each contributing a perspective that couldn’t be achieved through the lens of a single discipline. This multidisciplinary approach is also reflected in the student population, with the cohort from Northumbria’s international development MSc coming from a wide variety of professional and disciplinary backgrounds, including social sciences, law, geography and

‘International development challenges are not going to be met by single disciplines’ business; as well as professions within the government, the private sector and NGOs. The centre is one of many research hubs and multidisciplinary research themes, known as MDRTs, at Northumbria that bring expertise from across the academic spectrum to bear on issues of global justice and other worldwide challenges. Researchers at the Psychology and Communication Technology Lab are exploring how technology affects behaviour, how it contributes to health and well-being and how it might be used to tackle social isolation. In the humanities department, the Environmental Humanities Research Group brings together scholars from history, literary studies and creative writing to consider the ways environmental and “more-than-human” perspectives can shape how people engage with the literary, political, social and cultural histories of modern Britain, the British Empire, the US and beyond. Areas of specialism include imperial ecologies, conservation politics,

energy provision, disease and disability, and sanitation and water management. And in Northumbria Law School and department of social sciences sits the Environmental and Global Justice MDRT, which, says its co-director and professor of criminology, Tanya Wyatt, “sits at the nexus of global and environmental issues” and asks how we can come to a “balance between humans and the environment”. The group’s research covers “green crime” issues, such as palm oil production in Colombia and the international wildlife trade. In 2017, the MDRT co-sponsored the inaugural Summer Academy, which invited postgraduates from around the world to learn about global justice issues from researchers, judges, criminologists and other experts. Students were introduced to the concept of “ecocide”: the idea that environmental destruction is often deliberate and “should be considered a type of crime”. Professor Wyatt is one of a small number of green criminologists who examine environmental issues, such as pollution and land use, through the lens of crime. “We’re looking at everyday harms that we ignore because they’re common behaviours that have been accepted for a long time – and challenging the status quo,” she says. Her research examines how our treatment of the environment contributes not only to wildlife extinction but also to instability and violence among humans. She has worked with biologists, conservationists and charities of all stripes to examine the impact of wildlife trading between the EU and Mexico, puppy smuggling in the UK and sanctions for environmental crime across the EU. Professor Wyatt is now looking at how governments comply with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – a global pact to promote sustainable trade and prevent the extinction of rare species. She aims to identify the most successful models so that other governments can learn from them. Such research cannot exist in an academic vacuum, she says. “That’s the point of most of what I do. I really want to make a difference and policy is one way where my research can inform positive change.”


In harm’s way Above: Northumbria’s research shines a light on the experiences of local volunteers in crisis situations. Left: Researchers are examining governments’ compliance with international laws relating to the trading of wildlife


Harnessing the power of the Earth’s resources ‘Dewetting’ and the use of nanoparticle ink are among approaches being trialled in Northumbria research projects to help the environment, finds Sarah Wild IN A LABORATORY at Northumbria University, researchers are developing an engine that they one day hope to see operating 34 million miles away on Mars. This is one of a number of multidisciplinary initiatives within the university aimed at using smart materials to solve some of humanity’s most intractable problems, whether here on Earth or further afield. “This is not an engine for the Earth of our normal experience but one for extreme environments,” says Glen McHale, a professor of applied and materials physics. The engine could use dry ice to generate power and help explore the icy slopes of the Red Planet. Professor McHale and fellow researchers at the universities of Northumbria and Edinburgh call it the Leidenfrost engine. It is based on the Leidenfrost effect and hinges on how substances react when placed on hot surfaces: the top layer of material vaporises when it touches the hot surface, and so the substance levitates. When placed on a hot, turbine-inspired surface, dry-ice blocks rotate. The abundance of dry ices found on planetary bodies across the solar system, such as carbon dioxide frozen solid on Mars, could be used to power their Leidenfrost engine. Working with collaborators from Nottingham Trent University, Professor McHale was also part of a team of researchers that became the first to directly observe a controlled form of the process known as “dewetting into a single droplet”, which is the opposite of when a liquid spreads, like spilt milk on a table. “The concept is that you can take a liquid that would not usually form a film on a smooth surface, force it to make a film and then trigger it to recoil into a droplet,” he says. This research, published in the journal Science Advances, showed that dewetting was not the same as liquid spreading in reverse but had unique characteristics of its own 14

– something that the Northumbria University researchers and their collaborators aim to exploit as they probe this phenomenon and its possible applications. The dewetting research recently received two grants from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, totalling £660,000, which is split between Northumbria and Nottingham Trent. By generating an electrical field through the surface, the researchers were able to make the liquid on top of it form a film, but when they switched off the field, the film coalesced into a droplet again. This kind of technology could be used in coating, printing or displays, Professor McHale says. Other research at the university also aims to transform the way that we live. Richard Fu, chair in smart materials and microsystems, and his colleagues in the smart materials and surfaces research group at Northumbria are working with the University of Glasgow (and a total EPSRC funding support of £800,000) to develop a flexible and wearable diagnostic “lab-on-a-chip” device. Using a thin-film acoustofluidic platform, the “patch” can be applied directly to someone’s skin to detect, record and transmit physiological information from body fluids, such as sweat, to provide a quick and accurate diagnosis of a person’s health. Professor McHale, who is currently taking a year-long sabbatical from his role as pro vice-chancellor of the Faculty of Engineering and Environment to concentrate on a number of research projects – including the dewetting research and the Leidenfrost engine – believes that it is important to “follow the ideas”, which is how he explains the multidisciplinary nature of his work and collaborations. “If you follow the ideas, then you need to construct the experiments you need to follow them. The ideas drive the work and you need to bring in the people with expertise,” he says. Neil Beattie, a physicist and leader of the university’s contribution to the North East

Here comes the Sun Northumbria’s researchers are working on developing an inexpensive solar-powered alternative to photovoltaic technology, which currently relies on expensive silicon wafers

‘The ideas drive the work and you need to bring in the people with expertise’


Centre for Energy Materials, known as NECEM, agrees: “By combining insights from different disciplines, you can drive a field forward.” NECEM brings together the universities of Northumbria, Durham and Newcastle to create a hub of expertise, from chemists to physicists and engineers, all working on energy materials at a range of length scales, Dr Beattie says. With his background as an innovation consultant, he sees a gap in the market – and has solar power generation in his sights. To date, solar power has been increasingly successful for centralised power generation, he explains. In fact, on a single day in May 2017, solar energy smashed through previous records and accounted for almost a quarter of the UK’s energy supply. Solar photovoltaic technology currently relies on silicon wafers, created through a

relatively expensive process. “But in the next wave of energy applications, those who can generate power competitively at the point of use will be king,” Dr Beattie explains. This is why he and his team are working towards a nanoparticle ink that can be used to generate electricity from the Sun – and, in particular, to charge portable electronic devices that enable new applications, for example in healthcare. Consultancy Statistica estimates that, by 2025, there will be 75.4 billion connected devices worldwide, all of which will need to be charged. “We wanted to create a technology that could be scaled up and compatible with low-cost manufacture,” Dr Beattie says. The team is working to make an ink that is comprised of non-toxic elements that can be painted on to surfaces. With the pushback

against environmentally damaging products, such as single-use plastics, “it is clear that materials and materials use will become as important as climate change in the near future”, he explains. The ink contains copper, tin, sulphur, selenium and zinc, all of which are abundantly available and non-toxic. At the moment, the ink’s efficiency in generating electricity from the Sun is about 7 per cent, which is significantly less than conventional photovoltaics. However, Dr Beattie believes that improving this figure to 10 per cent would potentially enable commercialisation – something the researchers aim to achieve by nanoengineering the interfaces inside the devices. “We want to improve people’s lives, but we also want to discover things in the laboratory,” Dr Beattie adds. 15

Profile for Northumbria University

Northumbria University - Times Higher Education Supplement  

Northumbria University - Times Higher Education Supplement