The magazine for the staff of the University of Cambridge
lent term 2012
Hawking honoured Scientists, staff and public celebrate
The job in hand: spotlight on careers page 6
Situation critical: Tackling the dementia timebomb page 8
snapshot contents Cover Professor Stephen Hawking on illness, hope and turning 70. Turn to page 5.
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hawking Scientists,honoured public ce staff and lebrate
2-5 News round-up The job in spotlight hand: Situation on careers page Tackling critical: 6 timebomthe dementia b
Fun for kids: Twilight at the Museums, a once-in-a-year opportunity for families to visit University museums and collections after dark, returns on 15 February. This year will see Kettle’s Yard, the Museum of Technology and the Farmland Museum at Denny Abbey take part for the first time. Further details on participating institutions, opening times and bookable events are available at www.cam.ac.uk/ twilight. For further ideas on half-term activities visit http://www.admin.cam. ac.uk/whatson/ Red hot: An exhibition of photographs examining volcanoes, volcanic eruptions and their hazards and consequences has opened at PandIS and runs until 5 April. Presented by Dr Peter Baxter, of the Department of Public Health and Primary Care, and Dr Clive Oppenheimer, of the Department of Geography, the show captures how volcanoes are both crucial to sustaining life but also a threat to the populations living in their proximity.
6-7 Getting practical Thousands of Cambridge students pass through the doors of the University Careers Service – and on to an impressive range of graduate jobs. 8-9 Making a difference The Cambridge Elan Centre, dedicated to finding innovative therapies for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, is a shining example of interdisciplinary research at the University. 10-11 Profile Queens’ boatman Paul Knights discusses late-night calls, early-morning coaching and a life lived by, and on, the Cam. 12 People
125 years of history: Hughes Hall President Sarah Squire and Honorary Fellow Professor Ged Martin celebrate the launch of Hughes Hall, Cambridge: 1885-2010. The book, launched at the end of last year, and produced to coincide with the college’s 125th anniversary celebrations, is an illustrated history of Cambridge’s oldest graduate college. Copies can be ordered via the Hughes Hall website.
Trinity announcement: Sir Gregory Winter will succeed Lord Rees of Ludlow as Master of Trinity College on the latter’s retirement in June this year. Sir Gregory, who has been a Senior Research Fellow of the college since 1991, is a genetic engineer and best known for his research and inventions relating to therapeutic antibodies. He was until recently Deputy Director of the MRC’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology.
13 Prizes, awards and honours 14 Small ads 16 Back page
Front cover photograph: Sir Cam
The Newsletter is published for the staff of the University of Cambridge and is produced by the Office of External Affairs and Communications. Please send in ideas for content and other ways we can improve the publication. Tel: (3)32300 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Suggestions for articles for the next edition should reach the Editor by 16 March. Editor: Andrew Aldridge Design: www.creative-warehouse.co.uk Printers: Labute Printers Contributors: Andrew Aldridge, Becky Allen
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Your comments and contributions are always welcome. Please send them to the Editor at email@example.com The deadline for the next issue is 16 March.
Conference support launched Academics across Cambridge can now receive dedicated help when organising professional conferences at the University. Such events are typically run by professional associations, and many invite bids from their members. Hosting a successful conference can help raise individual and departmental profiles, encourage networking and knowledgesharing, and kick-start academic collaborations – but the time, pressures and skills required put many researchers off. This is where Conference Cambridge can help. Its new Ambassador Programme, launched this term, offers the following free services: Practical support in demonstrating the advantages of Cambridge as a conference destination
The Howard Theatre, Downing: one of many conference venues in the colleges
to professional bodies and associations Help in compiling and submitting formal bids that provide detailed information on potential venues,
Changes to the Newsletter
From this issue, the University Newsletter will be published on a termly basis. A new online version is due to be developed – details of which will appear in a future edition. If you have any suggestions on what you would like from an online publication, or would like to be considered to take part in focus group sessions, please email newsletter@ admin.cam.ac.uk.
a range of event organisers H elping with contractual obligations A cting as a single point of contact for venue liaison. Judith Sloane, Assistant Manager at Conference Cambridge, said: “The University and colleges have many excellent venues and facilities for holding conferences but we understand that academics often do not have the time or contacts to organise them themselves. “It is also important that Cambridge’s conference business, which is worth some £35m a year, is helping our research staff as much as possible – and is fully aligned with the research priorities of the University.”
keynote speakers, accommodation and ideas for social programmes F inding venues, and organising site recces and guided tours Recommending and sourcing
Find out more ➔ For more information about
the Ambassador Programme, call (01223) 768740 or visit http://www. conferencecambridge.com/
The Cambridge Society for the Application of Research continues its popular speaker series on 20 February with a lecture by Professor Felicity Huppert, Director of the Well-being Institute at the University. Professor Huppert’s lecture, The Science of Well-being and its Application to Policy, will take place at the Wolfson Lecture Theatre, Churchill College on Storey’s Way. Other speakers due to take part in the series are Professor David King, Director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford, and Professor David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk. The CSAR aims to encourage discussion around the benefits of academic research, with focus on the dissemination of knowledge from scientists to the local community, industry and businesses. For more information visit www. csar.org.uk. lent term 2012 | UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE Newsletter | 3
➔ A comprehensive examination
of Gothic cathedrals and their place in medieval society is the focus of the 2012 Slade Lectures in Fine Art. The lectures, which run weekly until 12 March, consider a range of topics – from architecture and religious experience, to stained glass and cathedrals’ relationship with their cities. The series is hosted by Professor Paul Crossley, Emeritus Professor at the Courtauld Institute of Art and an alumnus of Trinity College. The lectures take place at 5pm on Mondays in Lecture Room A of the Arts School, Bene’t Street. For a list of lectures and dates, visit http://www.hoart.cam.ac.uk/ news/sladelectures ➔ The University Combination
Room has reopened following an extended period of closure. Current and retired members of the Regent House can use the facilities, and visiting academics may also be issued with access cards on nomination by their college or department. The room will be open Monday to Friday, from 10am to 4pm. Tea and coffee are available, although it is not now possible to buy food. A range of newspapers, and access to Eduroam and Lapwing wireless networks, are provided, and Cambridge University Press maintains a selection of books it feels may interest visitors to the room. For further information about the Combination Room and how to access it visit http:// www.admin.cam.ac.uk/univ/ combinationroom/ ➔ Patrick Collinson, Regius
Professor of Modern History from 1988 to 1996 and Fellow of Trinity, will be remembered in a memorial service at Trinity College Chapel at 2.30pm on 10 March.
Eight Cambridge museums secure substantial funding Eight University museums are set to receive significant new funding over the next three years following a successful bid to Arts Council England. The University of Cambridge Museums (UCM) is one of 16 partner museums across the UK that will together receive £20 million a year. The money will support UCM’s mission to become a world-class centre of excellence for museum research, outreach and learning for all ages. UCM comprises the Fitzwilliam Museum, Kettle’s Yard, the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, the University Museum of Zoology, the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, the Polar Museum/Scott Polar Research Institute, and the Museum of Classical Archaeology. The UCM bid focused on unlocking the University’s world-class collections, and the research activities
that underpin them, to a larger and more diverse audience. While strong emphasis was placed on the museums working with each other, the bid also recognised that these partnerships were strengthened by the different identities and remits of the individual institutions, and further enhanced by working with other museums and cultural communities across Cambridgeshire.
Dr Kate Pretty, Chair of the Joint Museums Committee, which oversaw the bid, said: “Cambridge is fully committed to its museums and their collections, which are a great national treasure. We are very pleased that this partnership with Arts Council England will enable the museums to work together even more closely, making further links between the University and its partners in the Eastern region.”
University success in leading employer poll The University of Cambridge ranks among the very best employers in the country for lesbian, gay and bisexual staff, according to a leading survey of workplace equality. The 2012 Stonewall Top 100 Employers list, published last month by the campaigning charity, placed the University 11th – a rise of nearly 80 places on its 2011 position and the highest ranked higher education institution. Individual praise was reserved for the University’s LGB&T staff network, which received ‘star performer status’ for its work supporting and advising lesbian, gay and bisexual staff, and in acting as a forum for consultation between staff and University governance structures. The University has worked hard to understand, engage with and
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Naomi Young, Chair of the LGB&T staff network
promote the experiences and needs of its LGB&T staff. Among a range of activities over the past year, it has run a sexual orientation at work questionnaire, worked with local community groups and held events at the Festival of Ideas. Naomi Young, Chair of the University’s LGB&T staff network, said:
“I am very happy to see the University succeed and progress in the survey, which has recognised the work of the network and the University’s E&D team in broadening policies and increasing inclusion of all staff, but especially the LGB&T community.” Dr Nick Bampos, Senior Tutor at Trinity Hall and one of the University’s three equality champions, said: “The ranking shows that the University is a responsive and inclusive employer that values diversity and looks to provide a supportive and exciting environment in which to work.” The Stonewall Top 100 Employers list, now in its eighth year, ranks the most gay-friendly employers in Britain and showcases institutions from a broad range of sectors. To view the full list, visit www. stonewall.org.uk
hawking at 70
Professor Hawking honoured “However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at” Professor Stephen Hawking
Lord Rees of Ludlow at Stephen Hawking’s 70th Birthday Symposium
A capacity audience gave a standing ovation at the end of a moving autobiographical speech by Stephen Hawking on the occasion of his 70th birthday last month at the Lady Mitchell Hall. Sadly Professor Hawking was unable to attend the 70th Birthday Symposium as he was recuperating at home after a short spell in hospital, but he was able to watch it online as cameras broadcasted a live webcast of the event. The day began with a welcome by Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, who paid tribute to the famous scientist before revealing
that benefactors Dennis and Sally Avery had offered a gift to establish a Stephen Hawking Professorship in the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology. Lord Rees of Ludlow, the Astronomer Royal, gave the fateful news that the Andromeda Galaxy will crash into our own galaxy in about four billion years, while Professor Saul Perlmutter, who won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for the co-discovery of dark matter, and theoretical physicist Professor Kip Thorne, a long-term collaborator of Professor Hawking’s, gave insightful lectures on their areas of cosmological expertise. The symposium ended with
a recorded lecture by Professor Hawking entitled ‘A Brief History of Mine’, in which he looked back over his life, from his birth on 8 January 1942 until the present day. At school he was not a high flier. “My classwork was very untidy, and my handwriting was the despair of my teachers,” he said. “But my classmates gave me the name Einstein, so presumably they saw signs of something better. When I was 12, one of my friends bet another friend a bag of sweets that I would never come to anything. I don’t know if this bet was ever settled, and if so, which way it was decided.”
After studying Natural Sciences at University College, Oxford, he came to Cambridge to study for a PhD in Cosmology in October 1962. “At that time it became clear something was not quite right with me. The Christmas after arriving in Cambridge I went home. It was a very cold winter and my mother persuaded me to go skating on the lake in St Albans, even though I knew I was not up to it. I fell over and had difficulty getting up.” He described spending weeks in hospital having tests. “They never actually told me what it was, but I guessed enough to know it was pretty bad so I didn’t want to ask.” After initial depression he began to accept his condition and to progress in his work. “After my expectations had been reduced to zero, every new day became a bonus, and I began to appreciate everything I did have. While there’s life, there is hope. And there was also a young woman named Jane whom I had met at a party. Getting engaged lifted my spirits and I realised, if we were going to get married, I had to get a job and finish my PhD. I began to work hard and I enjoyed it.” Professor Hawking discussed his research in “the golden age, in which we solved most of the major problems in black hole theory”, his belief in M-theory as the answer to questions such as ‘why do we exist?’ and ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’, and how he came to write his famous, multi-million-selling book A Brief History of Time. In a moving conclusion he advised: “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet,” reflecting that “it has been a glorious time to be alive and doing research in theoretical physics. Our picture of the universe has changed a great deal in the past 40 years and I’m happy if I have made a small contribution. “Try to make sense of what you see and about what makes the universe exist. Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”
lent term 2012 | UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE Newsletter | 5
Making it work The challenges that new graduates face in securing their first full-time job has received much coverage in the national media. But as Gordon Chesterman and David Ainscough of the University’s Careers Service explain, Cambridge students have many reasons to remain optimistic
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There are certain landmarks in the life journeys of Cambridge students that seem to capture the imagination: interviews at colleges; time spent studying; end of term balls. Far less consideration appears to be given to the process of leaving the University – more specifically, the transition that thousands of young people make every year from student to professional, in whatever shape or form that might take. And yet, as recent news about the challenges faced by 16- to 24-year-olds in securing employment suggests, the business of finding a job is an increasingly complex and difficult one. At Cambridge, these issues are the daily concern of the Careers Service, which provides advice and information to all current undergraduates, postgraduates and junior research staff of the University. Located in Stuart House, Mill Lane, and staffed by a team of 15 advisers, the Cambridge Careers Service has the highest rate of engagement with undergraduates of all UK universities (90 per cent of all final years will have passed through its doors by the time they leave) and currently interacts with some 5,500 companies through a range of events, presentations and placements. The service is led by Director Gordon Chesterman who, with Deputy David Ainscough, is responsible for ensuring that the provision of careers advice is tailored to the specific needs of the University and its students, while responding to external pressures arising from higher education reform, public sector cuts, visa restrictions and an uncertain economic climate. There are competing interests to balance. A Careers Service that is fit for purpose cannot ignore the possibility
that students who will eventually repay tens of thousands of pounds in fees may now place greater emphasis on where in the job market their Cambridge degree may take them. On the other hand, the value placed in independent thought and scholarship – whether at undergraduate or doctoral research level – is precisely what makes Cambridge graduates so attractive to employers. The tension is neatly summarised in a story that Gordon tells about a representative of a major energy multinational who visited a University department and started to advise students on what they needed to do to come and work for his company – only to be told by the head of department that his students were busy working to put him and his bosses out of business by the application of research into new technology. Fortunately, employers are attracted by the calibre of Cambridge students and the quality of education that the University and colleges provide. “Cambridge graduates enter a whole spectrum of careers,” says David. “The graduate of history can and does go on to work in a whole range of professional roles and sectors. Employers are just as interested in the intellectual rigour and skills required to complete a degree at Cambridge as they are in the subject of that degree.” Gordon and David are passionate advocates of their own careers – moving from thoughtful analysis of the effects of changes to higher education policy on today’s students to an impressive grasp of the detail and data that pass through the Careers Service office. A question about alumni is met with a flourish of a nearby folder entitled ‘Numbers, lots of’
and Gordon reeling off the exact number of interactions the Careers Service has had that year with former students of the University. Another enquiry into the types of events that the service provides sees Gordon dashing off to retrieve a frighteningly comprehensive print-out, concertinaed and listing every single careers-related interaction his office has made over the course 2011. Such thorough data helps inform the work and future direction of the service by spotting trends and changing popularity of certain careers. Such passion must be reassuring to the many undergraduates who take careers advice at Cambridge, but it also underscores one of the key benefits of the service itself – that it is personalised. “We are funded by the University so the interests of the students are uppermost in our minds,” says David. “We are impartial and not motivated by an agenda – unlike recruitment agencies. Students can have their own personal careers adviser, and they can see them as many times as they like.” The modern employment world, as Gordon and David are quick to point out, is becoming ever more complex and competitive. Gone are the days when the country’s brightest students could feel confident of securing a graduate-level job by virtue of going to a leading university and a 20-minute interview with sherry in the company boardroom. Today’s employers expect young people to have
“Students can have their own personal careers adviser, and see them as often as they like”
accumulated relevant work experience, or perhaps to have worked as an intern for little or no pay, and found the time to accumulate impressive transferable skills through their extra-curricular activities. But how do you fund that when you are a student who needs to work in the summer holidays to finance the next academic year’s living expenses? The answer is: with difficulty. It was with such issues in mind that the Careers Service pioneered its Summer Bursary Scheme, which offers £500 to Cambridge undergraduates hoping to gain work experience in the not-for-profit, media and arts and heritage sectors. Funded jointly by key recruiters who are members of the Careers Service Supporters Club and the University, the 2012 scheme will offer 41 bursaries in total. Last year’s recipients used the money to fund a wide range of placements, including those at a performing arts charity in India and Nepal, the World Health Organization in Geneva and Coventry Citizens Advice Bureau. Another recent development has been the growth of targeted careers advice for Cambridge’s postdoctoral research staff. The Careers Service now has four careers advisers providing help to research staff looking to advance their career at Cambridge, elsewhere or move on to another related or different profession. The service is also having to respond to the growing internationalisation of the jobs market – both in terms of staying abreast of the legal requirements affecting international students and graduates who wish to work in the UK, and those who wish to work overseas (on whose behalf it is drawing on the help, contacts, expertise and goodwill of the University’s global alumni).
Can you help?
There are no formal procedures by which the University Careers Service engages proactively with students – it is reliant on them dropping in or making contact of their own accord. Students do not have to have a clear idea of what career they wish to pursue before visiting the service – the team can help find ideas. But staff in departments and colleges can help by encouraging students to use the service. Senior tutors, in particular, can play an important role in reassuring students that they are highly sought after by employers, and that Cambridge graduates, whatever their subject discipline, can enter a broad range of jobs.
Despite three or four very challenging years for the world’s economy, and the impact that this has had on the UK job market, Cambridge students continue to prosper when they leave the University. The unemployed rate for undergraduates who left during the summer 2010 remained at under 5 per cent – compared with a figure of closer to 20 per cent for all UK graduates. In terms of destinations, some 30 per cent of 2010 leavers embarked on a further degree, either joining a taught course or undertaking research, while sectors such as banking, management consultancy, health, publishing and media, and IT were popular. Statistics like this do not capture the variety of roles and jobs that Cambridge students take when they leave the University. In the process of finding employment, many display the qualities of tenacity, creativity and independence of thought that gained them a place to study here in the first place, whether they start work as an actuary, journalist or harpsichord maker. Whatever their aspirations, they can find a lot of useful advice from Gordon and his team.
Pictures, from left to right: the University Careers Service interacts with some 5,500 companies through a range of events and presentations
Find out more ➔ The Careers Service
can be contacted on (01223) 338288. ➔ For a range of online resources and advice, visit http://www. careers.cam.ac.uk/
lent term 2012 | UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE Newsletter | 7
making a difference
The scientists with dementia in their sights Set up last December in the Department of Chemistry, the Cambridge-Elan Centre is a joint enterprise between the University and pharmaceutical firm Elan. Dedicated to research into innovative therapies for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, it is a prime example of the value of basic science and interdisciplinary research Every 3.2 seconds, someone in the UK is diagnosed with dementia, and one in three people alive today aged over 65 will die with a form of dementia. More than 820,000 Britons have dementia, a number set to increase as we live longer. According to Professor Chris Dobson who, together with colleagues Professor Michele Vendruscolo and Dr Tuomas Knowles, has established the centre: “Neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases arguably represent the greatest challenges to the social fabric and healthcare systems of much of the modern world.”
Yet despite the huge personal, social and economic impact of these diseases – they cost the UK economy more than £23 billion a year – just 2.5 per cent of the government’s medical research budget is spent on dementia, compared with 25 per cent on cancer, whose costs are about half of those of dementia. According to Alzheimer’s Research UK, the combined government and charitable investment in dementia research is 12-times lower than spending on cancer research. “£590 million is spent on cancer research each year, while just £50 million is invested in dementia research,” the charity says. Explaining this disparity is difficult but,
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Picture: Professor Chris Dobson, Dr Tuomas Knowles and Professor Michele Vendruscolo believe that if they can design small molecules to give our bodies’ natural defence mechanisms a helping hand, they might be able to prevent, or slow down, abberant protein behaviour that plays a central role in neurodegenerative diseases
says Professor Dobson, taboo and the age groups hardest hit by these diseases may play a role. “It could simply be that dementias were originally considered as part of the normal ageing process, and so were not considered to be as important to understand as diseases that hit the young,” he says. “Moreover, there is still a reluctance to talk about them openly because relatives and friends naturally find the symptoms enormously upsetting.” Although as yet there is no cure, Dobson, Vendruscolo and Knowles are helping to build up a detailed picture of the molecular basis of these diseases
– a knowledge that they hope can be exploited to develop therapeutic interventions through the collaboration with Elan. Only in the past 20 years or so have researchers realised that aberrant protein behaviour plays a central role in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, CreutzfeldtJakob, Motor Neurone and Huntington’s diseases – as well as other seemingly unrelated conditions. “One of the most important findings has been that many neurodegenerative diseases seem to have very similar underlying molecular origins,” Professor Dobson explains. “Perhaps more remarkable is that the same processes are also responsible for a variety of non-neurological disorders with quite different symptoms, such as type-2 diabetes.” What unites this seemingly disparate group of diseases is a phenomenon known as protein folding, something that Professor Dobson had been studying for years before it was linked with disease. Constantly produced and degraded in our cells, proteins, which are molecules involved in essentially all biochemical processes in living organisms, begin their existence as long polymer chains, but must then fold individually into specific three-dimensional shapes to function correctly. “It was a very exciting intellectual problem to understand the process of protein folding,” says Dobson. “So for 20 years, until the mid-90s, that was what most of our research was on – this basic understanding of proteins and how they fold.” Then, while working on a protein called lysozyme – which Dobson admits is “not in itself the most exciting biological molecule in the world” – a chance conversation transformed this basic research into something highly relevant to human disease. “One day we were contacted by a medical colleague who told us that he had come across a very small number of patients who had enormous quantities of lysozyme deposited in their bodies,” he says. “We then found out that rare genetic mutations in these patients stopped lysozyme from folding properly and caused it to aggregate into intractable deposits. Astonishingly, these looked just the same as the ‘amyloid’ deposits that are found in the brains of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.” Armed with the experience gained
from the lysozyme studies, Dobson then set about investigating the proteins involved in the much more common neurodegenerative diseases. “What seems to happen is that perfectly normal proteins, which are soluble and functional, start to clump together when they misfold and eventually end up in these amyloid structures, the most famous of which are plaques in Alzheimer’s and Lewy bodies in Parkinson’s,” he explains. “And the crucial issue is that during the course of the clumping together, you first get much smaller particles that we now know are very toxic.” Proteins constantly misfold and aggregate in our cells, but do so at a rate that the body’s defence mechanisms can normally cope with. “It’s a widespread phenomenon but we have quality control mechanisms that degrade the aggregates,” explains Professor Vendruscolo. These mechanisms function amazingly well when we are young but, says Vendruscolo: “With age, they become impaired and are less effective in maintaining proteins in their soluble functional states, so they go on aggregating and eventually start killing neurons or other types of cells.” Dobson, Vendruscolo and Knowles believe that if they can design small molecules to give our bodies’ natural defence mechanisms a helping hand, they might be able to prevent, or slow down, the aggregation process. But to discover where along the protein misfolding pathway they might be able to intervene, they needed to develop new tools to study the process at a molecular level. “The question of what’s going on and how we might be able to interfere with the process wasn’t really amenable to traditional biochemical methods,” Dr Knowles explains. This is partly because working at very small scales is key to studying one of the most crucial events – how the misfolding process begins. According to Knowles: “It’s called nucleation, and probing it in the lab is very difficult because typically in a test tube you would have 1,020 molecules and might only see one of these events, so we’ve had to find ways of making measurements in very small systems.” Using his background in solid state physics and nanotechnology, he turned to techniques more commonly found in the semiconductor industry than in a lab studying human disease. “We developed microchips to make
“Cambridge attracts bright people but it also takes openness to do collaborative research. We are extremely lucky because our group shares this aptitude” Professor Michele Vendruscolo
“Our dream drug would be preventive in the way that statins reduce the risk of heart disease” Professor Chris Dobson
very small compartments – the size of a living cell – of protein solution in a carrier fluid,” he says. “Physical methods like this are becoming increasingly important to problems in biology where it is essential to have a quantitative understanding of what’s happening.” Coupled with Dobson’s discoveries and Vendruscolo’s work on a technique call nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which has allowed him to record ‘movies’ of how proteins move and change shape en route to aggregating, the trio’s progress is a persuasive advertisement for interdisciplinary research. “Research into neurodegenerative diseases must include tools from maths, physics and chemistry, through to molecular and cell biology and medicine. None of these components can be neglected, and I consider myself a component in this big picture. We each bring our own experience and ideas,” says Vendruscolo. As well as contributing different skills, interdisciplinary researchers also need to leave something behind – their egos. “One has to accept that collective efforts are essential in order to make significant contributions to very complex problems,” he explains. “Cambridge attracts bright people, but it also takes openness to do collaborative research. We are extremely lucky because our group shares this aptitude.” Knowles agrees. “That’s why this setup has been so successful, because it’s brought together people with diverse backgrounds and has harnessed their energy in a way that’s really pushed things forwards. There aren’t that many environments where this happens, but it’s something that Chris Dobson has spent many years and a lot of effort creating.” Their eventual aim is to come up with small molecules that could help prevent proteins misfolding. “Our dream drug would be preventive or risk-reducing in the same way that statins reduce the risk of heart disease,” says Dobson. And as a result of what they’ve achieved so far, the group are in upbeat mood. “We’re very excited about where we are because we have a set of fundamental concepts and powerful technical tools to follow them up,” explains Vendruscolo. “And because we have this collaboration with Elan, a pharmaceutical company that can then take our results further, we think we have an extremely good arrangement now for making a contribution.”
lent term 2012 | UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE Newsletter | 9
photographs: Chris Loades
behind the scenes
Tales from the river Rowing unites people at Cambridge like no other sport, and it is thought that nearly half of the University population will try it during their time here. But while the competitions, training and social aspects are well known, few people are aware of the contribution of a handful of dedicated boatmen. Paul Knights of Queens’ is one of them 10 | lent term 2012 | UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE Newsletter
In the early mornings, during term time, the River Cam experiences its very own rush hour. Scores of rowers in dozens of eights from the more than 30 college boat clubs descend on the narrow ribbon of water that winds its way from Jesus Green to Bait’s Bite Lock. But behind the armada of boats is a small band of college boatmen who make Cambridge’s most famous sport possible. “If you go down to the river in the morning at sunrise, all the college crews push off at the same time,” says Paul Knights, one of the longest-serving boatmen on the Cam. “Because the river’s so narrow it’s hard to overtake, so each boat becomes part of a giant flotilla making its way downstream.”
Paul has worked for Queens’ College since 1984, and has lived above the current boathouse since it was built in 1987. Looking out across the Cam to Midsummer Common, it is, he admits, an enviable place to live. But living above his office means that students think he’s always on call. “Although I can just walk down the staircase to work, occasionally there are times when you get students knocking on the door because they’ve left their keys somewhere,” he says. Like many employees of the University, Paul has a close relationship with its students. And although coaching isn’t part of his job description, it is
something he often does in his spare time. “I like doing it if I get something out of it – when you get results it’s wonderful,” he says. “Last Lent term I coached the first women’s crew two mornings a week, leaving here at 6.30am, while a friend of mine, Bill Sadler, coached them at weekends,” explains Paul. When their boat excelled in the Lent bumps, he was delighted. “They did very well. They went up four places and won their oars. In the May term they decided to bring in some younger blood to coach them – a nice guy, but they only went up two places in the Mays!” Getting on with the students, as well as looking after college boats and blades, is all part of what makes a good boatman, he says. “You have to be willing to do anything and everything. A good boatman should not just be concerned with coaching or repairs – he or she has to get on with the students and advise them on their technique.” As much as it demands physical fitness, rowing is a supremely technical sport and Paul’s success as a club and England rower means he has bags of experience to pass on. Before arriving at Queens’ he lived in the London area and rowed for Waltonon-Thames Rowing Club, racing at many events and winning most of them, including a gold medal in Belgium. “At Henley Royal Regatta we lost to the crew from Lea Rowing Club who went on to win the Britannia Cup that year,” says Paul. After racing at the National Championships in Nottingham his crew was asked to represent England at the
Home Counties at Strathclyde Park Loch. “We raced against the Irish police, An Garda Síochána, but they beat us quite convincingly.” Still rowing on the Cam and racing locally, Paul competed in the British Indoor Rowing Championships in 1997/98, where he held the British 40plus lightweight record for two years, and went on to the World Indoor Rowing Championships in Boston, taking bronze in his age category. He has won so many pots – which line his bookshelves – that he’s started giving some away, and his medals hang around the frame of a very special drinks cabinet made from the bow of an old clinker-built cedar wood eight. “On the water the boat was called Wet & Willing, and when I arrived at Queens’ in 1984 it was broken. It had hit the bank and smashed so it couldn’t be used – it was my first repair,” he remembers. “They raced it in the Lents and trashed it again, this time so badly that it wasn’t worth repairing, so I decided to keep it as a cabinet. The boat was built in 1957, the year I was born, so it’s got a bit of history to it and sentimental value.” Cambridge born and bred, Paul began rowing when he left school for an apprenticeship at Rattee & Kett. “I bought my first sculling boat from B&H Racing Crafts. When it needed varnishing and canvassing, Roger Silk, the boatman at the Lady Margaret Boat Club, carried out the work.” At the end of his apprenticeship, work took him to London. “As a carpenter and joiner I was doing shop-fitting,” he explains. “The hours were awkward – you
“A good boatman should not just be concerned with coaching or repairs – he or she has to get on with the students and advise them on their technique”
Far left: Queens’ boatman Paul Knights and, top, in his workshop by the Cam. Left: passing on his experience
start work when the shops shut at 5pm and finish at 8am – and I didn’t fancy doing that all my life.” So when the previous Queens’ boatman Reg Pettit retired, Roger Silk suggested that Paul applied. His wood skills and rowing achievements secured him the job and Roger taught him the boat-building skills he needed. It is the design of boats and blades that has changed most over the 26 years since Paul first started working as a boatman: “When I first came here all the boats were wooden except for one plastic four. Now we have just two wooden eights and everything else is plastic. It’s been a big change.” They may look lovely, but Paul does not miss wooden boats. “They were forever leaking. In clinker boats, the boards would shrink and expand,” he explains. “When I started you would have to put a boat in the water the day before you wanted to use it for it to swell.” Student rowers have changed too, observes Paul. “If they’ve rowed before they are fitter and stronger. And they’re definitely taller. Most of the men are over six feet now, whereas that used to be considered tall.” So tall are some of the men, that boat builders need to tweak the design of new boats to accommodate them. “We have some rowers who are six feet six or six feet eight. They are so long that they can only fit in one place in the middle of an eight,” Paul explains. His day to day work, bar mountains of email, remains much the same today as in 1984: repairing boats and blades, cleaning the showers and changing rooms and, most importantly, making sure the boat house and its equipment is safe and healthy to use. “I have to check the boats for anything that might cause injury – from missing heel restraints and bow balls to sharp edges,” says Paul. “And once a month I check the life jackets and survival kit bags, which all the coaches now have to wear in the cold months.” The move follows an accident last winter when a rower was ejected from the boat and into the near-freezing river. “Since then we’ve introduced a system whereby all coaches carry a bag with first aid kit, a thermal blanket and warm, dry clothes.” So next time you spot boats out on the Cam, or watch the bumps from the towpath, remember it’s not just the rowers, but the small band of boatmen working hard to make it all possible.
lent term 2012 | UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE Newsletter | 11
Lectures aim to raise equality awareness Mariella Frostrup, journalist and campaigner for women’s rights and gender equality, will give the International Women’s Day Annual Lecture on 8 March. She will be joined by a variety of speakers from EQUALS, a coalition of charities and arts organisations brought together by Annie Lennox to celebrate International Women’s Day and encourage a younger generation to call for a more equal world. The lecture, which starts at 5.45pm in the Howard Theatre, Downing College, will be hosted by Professor Dame Athene Donald, equality champion for gender at the University. Mariella will talk about her work for global charity the GREAT Initiative, which engages in issues of gender imbalance and works to encourage improvements for women, children and families on the African continent. Other events across the University and city will be taking place to mark International Women’s Day, among them ‘No Going Back! What next for women today?’, a series of
talks, exhibitions and workshops by some 20 groups and organisations across Cambridge. Speakers include Professor Donald, Julie Spence OBE, former Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire Constabulary, Antoinette Jackson, Chief Executive of Cambridge City Council, and Kat Banyard, author, critic and feminist campaigner. Also in March, Dame Anne Begg MP will deliver the 10th Annual Disability Lecture – ‘Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Challenges to Disabled People in 2012’. The lecture, which starts at 5.30pm on 22 March in the Palmerston Room at St John’s College, is open to all, and will be followed by a drinks reception. Fully wheelchair accessible, there will also be a sign language interpreter present. Dame Anne is a British Labour Party politician and former teacher who has been the Member of Parliament for Aberdeen South since 1997. She was the first full-time user of a wheelchair elected to the House
of Commons and is now Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee. For more information on either event, visit http://www.admin.cam. ac.uk/offices/hr/equality/cambridge/
Left: Mariella Frostrup, journalist and campaigner, will speak at the International Women’s Day Lecture. Above: Dame Anne Begg will give the Annual Disability Lecture
➔ Professor Ian White has been elected
Lucy Capewell Lucy Capewell, New Media Manager in the Office of External Affairs and Communications, was the driving force behind much of the University’s work in digital and new media. Lucy joined the University in 2006 after a 20-year career in broadcasting, most of which she spent working on television documentaries. Her brief at Cambridge was to lead the development of ‘new’ 12 | lent term 2012 | UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE Newsletter
the 40th Master of Jesus College with effect from 1st October. He will succeed Professor Robert Mair, who has been Master since 2001. Professor White was an undergraduate, graduate student and then Research Fellow at the college. He is van Eck Professor of Engineering in the University’s Engineering Department, Head of Photonics Research and Pro-ViceChancellor for Institutional Affairs.
prizes, awards and honours Awards ➔ Dr Dora Alexopoulou,
Dr Henriette Hendriks, Dr Napoleon Katsos, Dr Teresa Parodi and Dr Brechtje Post from the Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics have been awarded a grant under the Cambridge Humanities Research Grants Scheme with Dr Claire Hughes (Department of Experimental Psychology) and Dr Michelle Ellefson (Faculty of Education). The project will attempt to integrate linguistic and cognitive perspectives in the development of bilingual children, as well as pioneering internet-based testing methodologies.
Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic has been awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship for Experienced Researchers in the Gerda Henkel Foundation’s M4HUMAN programme. Dr Boyle will spend two years in the Department of Early and Medieval Irish at University College Cork, conducting research on ‘The End of the World? Apocalyptic Expectation in EleventhCentury Ireland’.
➔ Professor Peter Mandler, Faculty of History, has been elected President of the Royal Historical Society. Professor Mandler, who will take up the position in November of this year, succeeds Professor Colin Jones of Queen Mary College, University of London. The society, founded in 1868, is the foremost learned society in the UK promoting and defending the scholarly study of the past, with more than 3,000 elected fellows and members. Also in the Faculty of History, Professor Alexandra Walsham has won the American Historical Association’s Leo Gershoy Award 2011 for her book The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland, and Professor Sir David Abulafia has been awarded the Mountbatten Literary Award by the Maritime Foundation for his book The Great Sea: a Human History of the Mediterranean.
➔ Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta
➔ Dr Richard Samworth, Reader in
(Faculty of Economics) has been inducted as Distinguished Center for Economics Studies Fellow at the University of Munich. He delivered the Munich Lectures in Economics on ‘Time and Generations’.
Statistics in the Statistical Laboratory, Centre for Mathematical Sciences, has been awarded the Guy medal in bronze from the Royal Statistical Society. The award, typically given to individuals under the age of 35, is for his work on theoretical, methodological and computational aspects of non-parametric statistics.
➔ Dr Elizabeth Boyle of the
➔ Professor Andrew Fabian,
Dr Mike Irwin and Dr Paul Murdin of the Institute of Astronomy have been honoured by the Royal Astronomical Society. Professor Fabian was awarded the society’s highest honour – the Gold Medal – in recognition of a lifetime’s achievement in astrophysics. Dr Irwin received the Herschel Medal, the premier award for a researcher in observational astrophysics, while Dr Murdin’s many contributions to astronomy in the UK and Europe were recognised with the RAS Service Award. ➔ Professor Timothy Gowers, of the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, was awarded the 2011 Stefan Banach medal.
New Year Honours
The medal, awarded by the Polish Academy of Sciences for outstanding achievements in mathematical sciences, was set up in 1992 to honour the centenary of the great mathematician.
➔ Sir John Meurig Thomas has been
invited by the American Philosophical Society (APS) to give the next Jayne Prize Memorial Lecture later this year. The APS is the oldest academy in the Americas, founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743. Its 800 or so elected members consist of 102 living Nobel Laureates. ➔ Dr Chris Young (Department
of German and Dutch) has been awarded a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship for the next two years. He will work on his project ‘German Sport c. 1920 – c.1960: Media Entertainment in Four Political Systems’.
Dr Venkatraman Ramakrishnan
Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta
Dr Janet Deane
Six members of the University were recognised in the 2012 New Year Honours List. Professor Patrick Sissons, Regius Professor of Physic, Head of the School of Clinical Medicine and Fellow of Darwin, has been knighted for services to research and education in clinical medicine. Dr Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Senior Research Fellow at Trinity, has been knighted for services to molecular biology. Dr Ramakrishnan works at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. Professor Geoffrey Hill, Honorary Fellow of Emmanuel, has been knighted for services to literature, while Professor Trevor Robbins, Head of the Department of Experimental Psychology, Director of the MRC Centre for Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute and Fellow of Downing was awarded a CBE for services to medical research. Honours were also conferred on Peter Carpenter, founder and Honorary Executive Secretary of Cambridge University’s Kurt Hahn Trust, who was awarded an MBE for services to Anglo-German relations and to higher education, and Matthew Moss, Private Secretary to the Vice-Chancellor, who becomes a Member of the Royal Victorian Order.
Royal Society Research Fellows Dr Richard Samworth
Seven Cambridge scientists have been appointed University Research Fellows by the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of science. The University Research Fellowship scheme aims to provide outstanding scientists with the opportunity to build an independent research career. The list of appointments is: Dr Edward Brambley, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics; Dr Kevin Chalut, Department of Physics; Dr Janet Deane, Cambridge Institute for Medical Research; Dr Andras Juhasz, Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics; Dr Stephen Morris, Centre of Molecular Materials for Photonics and Electronics, Department of Engineering; Dr Jerome Neufeld, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics; Dr Jason Robinson, Department of Materials Science.
lent term 2012 | UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE Newsletter | 13
advertisements Advertising on this page is open to University staff. The cost is £15 for a single insertion or £75 for six insertions. The deadline for the next issue is 16 March. Please send your copy – no longer than 70 words – to the Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org HOUSES TO RENT (UK) ➔ Butley, Suffolk Comfortable, spacious, wellequipped cottage with piano in Butley, Suffolk. Available for Aldeburgh Festival, weekends and short breaks throughout the year. Close to Orford, Sutton Hoo, Snape and Minsmere. Sleeps up to eight. Phone Miranda on (01223) 357035 or email info@butleycottage. co.uk. More information at www. butleycottage.co.uk. ➔ Cornwall Traditional granite cottage in peaceful countryside between St Ives and Penzance. Sleeps five in three bedrooms, with comfortable sitting room, kitchen-breakfast room and bathroom. Sunny garden and off-road parking. Close to beaches and coves, coastal path, sub-tropical gardens, historic properties. Email Penny on pb29@ cam.ac.uk or phone (01638) 507192. Details and photos at www. tinminerscottage.co.uk. ➔ North Yorkshire Moors Low Mill, Farndale, with sitting room, dining room, play room, kitchen, four bedrooms, two bathrooms and garden with lovely views. Sleeps seven. All mod cons. Fabulous walks in all directions. Near Rievaulx, Castle Howard, Runswick Bay. 2012 rate: £400/week. Phone Horace or Miranda Barlow on (01223) 366618/333867 or email email@example.com. HOUSES TO RENT (OVERSEAS) ➔ Algarve, Portugal Spacious, family owned apartment sleeps up to five in idyllic village. Private patio and roof terrace with shared pools. Picturesque beach five minutes walk. Restaurants within village. Tennis, golf, water parks and shopping close by. Faro airport 45 minutes. Stunning and quiet location. Short and long breaks available. Email Helen.floto@gmail. com, phone 01954 267291 or visit www.holiday-home-rentals.co.uk (property 4995). ➔ Amalfi Coast, Italy Small bed and breakfast in peaceful, traffic-free mountain village above Positano. Ideal for those seeking a quiet mountain retreat with modern conveniences. All rooms ensuite with panoramic sea views of the Amalfi coast. Situated on the famous Sentiero degli Dei (Footpath of the Gods). English speaking host. Double room and breakfast from 60 euros per night. easyJet flights to Naples from Stansted. Contact Penny Marrone
on 01954 210681. For further information and photos visit http:// ninobb.moonfruit.com. ➔ Florida Luxury four-bedroom, threebathroom villa ten minutes drive from Disney World. The villa is beautifully furnished and has its own pool and games room, highspeed internet, free international phone calls and BBQ. Can sleep up to ten people. Rate is £400 a week for any week of the year, extra days also available. For more information phone 01403 257662 or visit www. starvillaflorida.com. ➔ Lagos, Portugal Individual, superb four bedroom/ four bathroom villa with pool set among the tree-lined links of the western Algarve’s premier golf and leisure resort Parque da Floresta. Near Costa Vicentina Nature Reserve, historic port of Lagos, pristine beaches and quaint fishing villages. Luxury accommodation, sleeps eight to ten. Contact Graham on firstname.lastname@example.org or Lyn on email@example.com ➔ Nice, France Quiet apartment near the Promenade des Anglais and city centre. It is in the ‘Musicians’ area’ on the fourth floor, accessed by lift. Sleeps two, with living room, bedroom with double bed, separate, fully equipped kitchen, modern bathroom, separate w/c, small balconies front and back. Price per week, including linen, £350 October to March, £400 April, May, September, £450 June to August. Contact Robin Spence on rjs2@cam. ac.uk or 07808932943. ➔ Paxos, Greece The Amfitriti Hotel on the Ionian island of Paxos is a small, friendly, family run establishment of 17 rooms. It is set in front of a small, pebbly beach (sand when in water) with superb views. If peace and quiet, and terrific walks, is what you are after the hotel is ideal. For more information email sallywynne23@ googlemail.com or visit www. amfitritihotel.gr. ➔ Provence, France Large, comfortable flat in famous Côte Bleue resort of Carry-le-Rouet, close to the Camargue, Marseilles and Provencal places of interest. Seafront, beach and coves within 100 metres. Excellent for swimming, snorkelling, scuba diving, sailing, walking and cycling. Twenty minutes from Marseilles airport and 30 minutes from Marseilles TGV station. Sleeps six comfortably. Private parking. WIFI network. Contact Anita Ogier on ao10001@ cam.ac.uk.
14 | lent term 2012 | UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE Newsletter
➔ Sitges, Spain Located between the Garraf Massif and the sea, Sitges village is known for its good micro climate, gastronomy and a peaceful environment just 30 minutes away from Barcelona. Quiet apartment, comprising one double and one single bedroom, lounge/living room area, and fully equipped kitchen and bathroom. Close to the beach and a short walk to the centre and rail station. Nearest airport is Barcelona El Prat. Contact Azucena on firstname.lastname@example.org. ➔ St Malo, France Quiet holiday flat within ancient building in central St Malo, near beaches, shops and amenities. Excellent transport links by air, sea or train. Near to a range of interesting places for day trips, including Jersey and Mont St Michael. £375 per week or less depending on the time of year. Contact Kelley Green on 07885 686947 or email kelleyofcambridge@googlemail. com. ➔ Western Crete Stunning new villa, stone-built in traditional style, for rent in beautiful mountain and sea location on the outskirts of a pretty and upsoilt village. Two double bedrooms and a further mezzanine, sleeps four to six, Villa Adrasteia provides luxurious accommodation with large private swimming pool. Located 20 minutes drive from the airport in nearby Venetian port city of Chania, close to unspoilt beaches and superb mountain and gorgewalking and cycling. Rates for 2012 range from £500 to £900 per week according to season. Long rentals negotiable. Contact c.butler@ jbs.cam.ac.uk and visit www. villaadrasteia.com for information. property for sale ➔ Istanbul Furnished luxury villa for sale in Silivri, the idyllic harbour town near Istanbul. The property is in a secured housing complex and shares a 50-metre seawater swimming pool, private beach and jetty. It has four floors, four bedrooms, two bathrooms, three toilets, granite floors, a modern staircase, three balconies, a garden, BBQ, as well as a panoramic roof terrace with amazing views over the Bosphorus. Airport 30 minutes, centre of Istanbul 40 minutes, and golf and riding courses 20 minutes’ drive. Price £195,000. For further information email ed316@admin. cam.ac.uk.
SERVICES ➔ Lovely food, sensible prices The University Social Club (USC) in Mill Lane is the ideal place for lunch and to unwind after work. It boasts real ales, delicious, affordable food at lunchtime, and snooker, pool, darts and table tennis. The club has function and meeting rooms available for hire, and is open to all University staff, students and affiliates. The USC is open from 12 to 2pm and 5pm until 10.30pm Monday to Friday. Various dancing classes (salsa, tango and ceroc) are held most week nights. For further information phone 38090 or email email@example.com ➔ Knee clinic The Cambridge Knee Clinic provides specialist care for knee disorders for all ages of people, including arthroscopic surgery, ligament reconstruction, and joint replacement and realignment. The clinic is run by Mr Jai Chitnavis, consultant orthopaedic surgeon. Operations are performed by him at both private hospitals in Cambridge. For more information, call 01223 253763 or visit www.jai-chitnavis. co.uk. VOLUNTEERS ➔ Coton Countryside Reserve Cambridge Past, Present & Future, the local charity that champions enjoyment of green spaces and sustainable development of the city, is looking for people to help out at the Coton Countryside Reserve. Volunteers maintain the reserve, with assistance conducting wildlife surveys, practical conservation tasks and research on the history and archaeology of the site of particularly high importance. To find out more about volunteering, call (01223) 243830 or visit http:// cambridgeppf.org/volunteering. shtml ➔ Help with professional skills Cambridgeshire ProHelp has relaunched for professionals committed to making a difference in their local community by providing free advice and expertise. Expertise from marketing and businessplanning, to architecture and law is sought. Volunteering can be a great way to develop skills while benefiting the community. If you are interested in finding out more, please visit http://www.bitc.org. uk/east_of_england/programmes/ prohelp/ ➔ Local charity seeks trustees The trustees of Cambridge United Charities manage 29 almshouses
in the city, administer grants to local people in need of financial help and support organisations working with young people. Would you consider joining us? If you have an interest in housing for the elderly, experience of property or investment management, or practical concern for the welfare of others we would like to hear from you. For further information phone Chairman of Trustees Philippa Slatter on (01223) 701733 or visit www.cambridgeunitedcharities.org ➔ Blood cell study Would you like to help with a research project? Are you male, aged 45-75, or female, aged 55-75? We are seeking volunteers to help us with a research project looking into how specific white blood cells behave in the body. If you are healthy, or have mild or moderate asthma, and would like to help, please contact Ros Simmonds, Research Nurse on (01223) 762007 or 07525 803785 for further information. You will be compensated for your time and inconvenience. OTHER NOTICES ➔ House swap My wife and I will be spending a brief sabbatical in Cambridge this year from April to June and are seeking a nice, furnished two-bedroom apartment or house to rent for the period. We have a luxury three-bedroom apartment in Boston – near Harvard Medical School, MIT and Harvard University – that we might be willing to swap. To discuss further, please email me, Professor Alfred L Goldberg, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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lent term 2012 | UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE Newsletter | 15
Night comes quickly, a steady dimming of the light as crickets and frogs take over from the daytime chorus of birds and cicadas. I and my local guide, Kwesi, tuck into rice and fish cooked over a camping stove. On other occasions, I have accompanied hunters to the forest and eaten kusie (giant pouched rat) with cassava, cooked over a campfire. It was surprisingly good. Giant pouched rats reproduce quickly and their populations seem able to withstand hunting pressure, but other species are less resilient. The unique subspecies of red colobus monkey once found in Ghana has now been hunted to extinction, and other monkeys are not far behind. The concept of extinction is alien here. To the market women who sell bushmeat, animals are a gift from God, sent down for people to “chop”. Hunters will tell you that now-absent species have “run away deeper into the forest”. But try to push deeper into the forest and, after a few kilometres, you come out the other side into a patchwork mosaic of cassava and maize fields with plantains, chilli peppers and garden eggs; cocoa farms, many with a canopy of remnant forest trees; overgrown plots of oil palm; and dense thickets springing up on land left fallow for a few years to regain its fertility. My research in Ghana looks at the biological richness of such landscapes, comparing them with forests and oil palm plantations, in an attempt to get a better understanding of a contentious debate: should conservationists focus more of their efforts on preventing conversion of forests to mosaic farmlands, or on
preventing the homogenisation of those mosaics into uniform but high-yielding monocultures? Kwesi himself is a hunter, and I ask him about monkeys. He knows five kinds well, and I ask if he would be sorry if they “finished”. He says he would be happy to see one kind finish. He calls it kraa, and says it is a “very stubborn monkey” that raids farmers’ crops. I know it as the white-naped mangabey, globally endangered, which has declined by 50 per cent or more within my lifetime. I encourage Kwesi not to shoot those species he sees becoming rare but, as an outsider, my words don’t carry much weight. It will take far more dedicated efforts to regulate hunting, protect habitats and find culturally acceptable alternatives to bushmeat if declines of this and other species are to be reversed. It’s fully dark now. I go to “bath” in a forest stream. Little fish dart away from my light, and freshwater shrimps with long pincers peer up through the clear water. From the dark treetops, a rhythmic series of dreadful cries starts up. It sounds like an animal in pain, or perhaps in the throes of ecstasy, or both. It’s an owea, a tree hyrax, a dumpy, shaggy little creature with rather human-like toes. From further off, the quavering laugh of an African wood owl drifts through the trees. The night air is alive with the hum of insects, but mosquitoes are mercifully few. I retreat to my hammock, slung between two trees and covered over with mosquito netting. I’m not expecting a downpour so I’ve left the fly sheet pulled back, and through the dense foliage 40
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Cambridge research staff can find themselves bedding down in the most unlikely of places. Here conservation biologist and Churchill Research Fellow Dr Ben Phalan describes the sights, sounds and thoughts that greet him as the sun sets on a Ghanaian tropical forest
“Through the dense foliage 40 metres above my head I can see a few silvery stars”
metres above my head I can see a few silvery stars. I call out a good night to Kwesi, and soon fall into a deep sleep. Who knows what the morning might bring? Delicate butterflies drinking sweat from my shirt, new and unfamiliar bird sounds to be traced and identified, a blitzkrieg of driver ants, a bewildering diversity of trees to be measured and catalogued, perhaps a lucky sighting of a very stubborn monkey. One thing is certain: in a tropical forest like this there will always be something I have never seen before.
find out more Taken from the series ‘Extreme Sleepover’. For other features visit http://www.cam. ac.uk/research/category/features/