Climate emergency – what now? with Professor Rich Pancost

Professor Rich Pancost, Head of School – Earth Sciences, Cabot Institute for the Environment talks about the University of Bristol’s response to climate emergency.

On 17 April 2019 the University of Bristol became the first university in the world to declare a climate emergency. It enshrines our institutional obligation to address the climatic, ecological and wider environmental threats posed to our planet and our society.

The University has been at the forefront of exploring and solving these challenges for decades, both through our world-leading research exemplified by the Cabot Institute for the Environment and our education via the Sustainable Futures theme. Some of our environmentally focused Schools – including Civil Engineering, Geographical Sciences and Earth Sciences – are ranked among the very best in the world. Many of us contribute to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, including the most recent report that highlighted the dire consequences of failing to limit warming to 1.5˚C.

‘Rather than ignore what’s happening we can, in our different areas of expertise, work together on sustainable solutions for all.’

We must do more. Just like our pledges in 2015 when Bristol was the European Green Capital, the Climate Emergency Declaration recognises that our University’s impact on our city and planet transcends its research and educational mission. We are an employer, a procurer and a consumer; our academics fly across the world and our students fly to us; we consume food, energy, water and minerals. We are part of the problem and we must be part of the solution. In particular, the Declaration renewed our commitment to become carbon neutral by 2030. But what does that mean? How will we do that? We know it will be messy and complex, just as our decision to divest from fossil fuels was. Not all companies that hold fossil fuel assets are the same; in fact, many are critically involved with obtaining the resources needed for a post-fossil fuel electrical future. But then, we must ensure that our own efforts for carbon neutrality do not simply shift the environmental burdens to other countries nor hinder their own development.

We do not have all of the answers yet. Consequently, I consider the Declaration to be a call for a renewed, self-critical, demanding and collaborative conversation about the future of our University. It is an opportunity for dialogue between all of us – staff, students, alumni, partners and stakeholders across our institution, city and the world. It will embrace every aspect of our organisation and it will lean on our own world-leading expertise and potential for innovation.

Climate emergency – what now? with Dr Alix Dietzel

Dr Alix Dietzel, Lecturer in Global Ethics, School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies (SPAIS) and specialist in Climate Change and Global Justice considers the ethical dimensions of climate emergency.

In our bid to act now against the current climate emergency, we must not neglect the ethical dimensions of climate change. A focus on justice needs to be included in the conversation. Climate change will bring suffering to communities, individuals and ecosystems and those least responsible for the problem will suffer the most.1

Those least responsible include people living in the Global South and economically disadvantaged people living within wealthier countries, who have very low emissions and at the same time have little adaptive capacity to climate change. And, of course, future generations, who have done nothing to contribute to climate change. The fact that that these people will suffer more than the wealthiest individuals in the world, who contribute most to climate change, presents a profound case of injustice.

My research focuses on climate justice and the evaluation of the global political response to climate change. This approach allows me to understand and assess the complexities of state (UNFCCC, Paris Agreement) and substate (cities, NGOs, corporations, individuals) responses to climate change and make suggestions for reform that are grounded in both ethical considerations and policy analysis.

My work has a focus on human rights and where responsibilities for taking action actually lie.

I analyse policy documents, outcomes and negotiations taking place at the global level. I consider both state and non-state actors to get a sense of what responses are working, who’s doing best in terms of acting justly (protecting human rights, making fair decisions) and what can be adapted and replicated.

What my research is showing is that at the sub-state level organisations are more ambitious and creative and it’s this area which gives me hope. States have trouble making just decisions at the global level. For example, if you think about the Paris Agreement negotiations, we had over 200 parties trying to agree on a way forward for addressing climate change, so it was inevitable that any measures were going to be ‘watered down’ and somewhat conservative in their approach. Otherwise, not every state in the world could have come to an agreement.

‘We need to humanise the global climate change problem. We need to get away from the idea that we’re somehow separate and remember to include a focus on human rights as part of this debate.’

Cities, by comparison, have a much easier time implementing change than states. City mayors and councils can make decisions on transport, new buildings, food supply, and so on and all these changes can make a very big difference. So, for the University of Bristol and the City of Bristol to announce a climate emergency is a good thing, because it shows potential for movement forward at a local level at least.

Universities can also join together in their thinking as they have many aspects in common – such as academic travel and waste management.

You only have to look at the We Are Still In group in the USA to see how sub-state action can be effective. Despite President Trump declaring the USA no longer part of the Paris Agreement, We Are Still In signatories, including cities, corporations, and individuals, represent a constituency of more than half of all Americans and taken together they represent $6.2 trillion, a bigger economy than any nation other than the USA or China. That is a powerful sub-state group of people pressing for increased ambition on climate change.

However, we need to ensure that the voices from the Global South are also heard. We are not alone in Western countries in heading for a 3-4 degree Celsius rise in temperature.2 Countries and communities in the Global South will also need technology, funding and research and we need to understand the social systems that scientists are pushing technology into. A green transition will only be just if we understand the global effects of such a transition.

Those living in the Global South struggle to have their voices heard in global negotiations.

They often do not have the resources to send a large team of English-speaking representatives who can attend all of the important side-events and discussions. Even when they do, their voices are often overpowered by richer nations. In addition, activists in the Global South often don’t have the funds for the substate work they want to do. We also need to understand global supply chains and the repercussions of the so-called ‘green economy’. If we encourage people to switch to electric cars, what is happening to the scrap metal of the petrol ones?

Where are the lithium batteries for the electric cars coming from, where is it being mined and under what circumstances? What is extracting it doing to the earth? We can no longer look at ‘greening’ in isolation. Bad supply chains and slave labour conditions are unacceptable from a climate justice perspective.

Right now, we are at a critical crunch point with climate change and it can no longer be ignored. Paying attention to just decision-making and fair global action is a critical part of understanding how to move forward. I’m proud to work at a university that is willing to push boundaries and take ambitious action.

References
1. Dietzel, A. (2019). Global Justice and Climate Governance: Bridging Theory and Practice. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
2. CAT. (2019). The CAT Thermometer. Available online at: climateactiontracker.org/ global/cat-thermometer [last accessed 30 July 2019].

Why does global inequality in education persist?

International Development Ethnographer Tigist Grieve

International Development Ethnographer and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow, Tigist Grieve, is researching marginalised voices in rural Ethiopia in an effort to explain the ongoing difficulties in achieving education for all globally.

In a year where we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of men landing on the Moon, we still can’t achieve access to education for all across the globe.1 I continually ask myself, why not? How is it so hard? We make it complicated by not listening and by not understanding other people’s perspectives. Why is it the trend to look at people living in poverty from a deficit point of view? My work as a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow has given me the opportunity to build on my years of PhD research, which focuses on improving the educational outcomes and empowerment of adolescent girls in Ethiopia. I want to bring those voices of marginalised adolescent girls to the ongoing debate of gender and empowerment, while recognising the effort and resilience that goes unnoticed when we have a deficit-based perspective about certain categories of people.

I want to inspire people to go where others would never expect them to by engaging with relevant stakeholders in Ethiopia and beyond.

In particular, my work is about seeing the social, engaging and responding to local voices. In the words of the writer Arundhati Roy ‘There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.’

My inspiration for examining voice is the inspiring work of Robert Chambers, author of Rural Development: Putting the Last First. I am listening to the everyday lived experience of people. My work is about voice – the voices of children, of women, of the resources-strapped communities in rural areas. Really, international development policy to date hasn’t given adequate space to hear them, it’s not informed by their experiences or by their voices.2 Even where there is a claim for ‘voices of the poor’ it is proxy voices where the privileged few speak on their behalf from a position of assumption.

My work is focused on disseminating my research findings back to target communities in Ethiopia, to spark constructive debate about rural schooling and development. I want to do this in a way that challenges policy makers, development practitioners, donors, teachers, researchers and communities themselves.

I’m researching within two communities in Ethiopia, a peri-urban and rural, chosen because they are under the same local authority, but with considerable geographical differences. I believe there’s a misconception that certain communities don’t understand the value of education, but we need to research why, looking at policy, political economy, culture, social pressure. For example, despite the increasing enrolment, school attendance is very poor, not because education is not valued but because the expectation that children will be working around their homes and farms is greater. Girls’ attendance is much lower than boys because societal pressure is higher on girls. Boys have much better autonomy in how they use their time while girls in rural areas are time-poor. My work confirms the importance of recognising the difficulty of transforming gender relations through schooling alone.

We need to make informed decisions through lessons learned from quality research. The joy of being a researcher at the University of Bristol is the opportunity to collaborate with world-leading multi-disciplinary teams interested in developing ideas to meet the global challenges of development.

In analysing categories of children and childhood experiences, I’ve discovered that children are highly mobile in search of opportunities for them and their families, starting from a very young age. My research showed that the ultimate question in rural Ethiopia is ‘Who is this child to me?’ 16 per cent of children in households in my area of research are not in their biological families and relatedness matters in this culture. This context is so important in Sub-Saharan Africa, which has such a huge population of children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.3 The concept of family is a complex one and undertheorised in the context of Ethiopia. If you’re related to the head of the household, you have access to better resources.

I’m also looking at issues such as access to water and autonomy of reproductive health (or lack of). These also play a part in preventing girls from obtaining an education. A school without a water source or toilet facilities is not hospitable to children, even less so to adolescent girls dealing with menstruation. Climate change also has a part to play in water scarcity issues, with the African continent identified as one of the parts of the world most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.4

The University’s second cohort of 15 Vice-Chancellor’s Fellows started in the academic year 2018-19, joining the 12 from 2017-18. Alumni and friends have contributed funding for six of the Fellows to date. For more information on the Fellows see our dedicated web page.

References
1 UIS. (2018). One in Five Children, Adolescents and Youth is Out of School. [Available online at: uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/fs48-one-five-children-adolescents-youth-out-school-2018-en.pdf.] (last accessed 23.08.19).
2 Brock, K. and McGee R., (eds) (2002). Knowing Poverty: critical reflections on participatory research and policy. Earthscan.
3 Unicef. (2016). For Every Child, End AIDS: Seventh Stocktaking Report, 2016.
4 Serdeczny, O., Adams, S., Baarsch, F., Coumou, D., Robinson, A., Hare, B., Schaeffer, M., Perrette, M., Reinhardt, J. (2016). Climate change impacts in Sub-Saharan Africa: from physical changes to their social repercussions. Regional Environmental Change. 1-16.

 

 

Celebrating women: The first female lecturer at Bristol

To mark the 2018 centenary of the first British women winning the right to vote, we are honouring Bristol women who have changed our institution, and the world. From our first woman lecturer to the first British woman to have won a Nobel Prize, these activists, educators and agitators now take their rightful place on the walls of the Wills Memorial building – along with ten of the women in today’s University community to who continue to be inspired by their legacy.

Mary Paley Marshall, the first woman lecturer at University College Bristol, with Professor Sarah Smith, Head of the Department of Economics

“Mary Paley was a pioneer in the field of economics. She was the first woman to pass finals in political economy at Cambridge
(although barred from graduating due to her gender) and in 1875 she was invited to return to her former college, Newnham, as the first woman economics lecturer at Cambridge.

“Mary arrived at Bristol in 1876 with her husband, the economist Alfred Marshall, after being forced to leave Cambridge because of regulations preventing college fellows from marrying. Marshall became the first Principal of University College Bristol and Professor of Political Economy, while Mary became one of the first female lecturers. Although Bristol was the first higher education to admit women students on an equal basis to men, Mary’s salary was paid out of that of her husband.

“While at Bristol, Mary co-wrote The Economics of Industry with Marshall after being asked to turn her Cambridge lectures into a book. Her influence was evident from the book’s discussion about gender pay inequality, putting forward the argument that men and women may be equally productive but receive unequal pay because of “custom and general opinion”.

“Mary remained an active champion of women’s education and of the increase of their employment, particularly in the domains of teaching and business management. She herself continued to lecture and was an inspiration to many generations of her students. Given that Mary wasn’t permitted to graduate from Cambridge, it was very fitting that Bristol presented her with an Honorary degree in 1926 for her lifelong work as a teacher of economics

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The University of Bristol was the first higher education institution in England to welcome women on an equal basis to men, but our commitment to gender equality reaches far beyond this milestone. The wooden panels of the Great Hall in its Wills Memorial Building have been an all-male domain thanks to hosting portraits of its Vice-Chancellors. But now, thanks to a project specially-commissioned to mark 100 years since the first women in Britain won the right to vote, a series of ten portraits redresses the balance and celebrates notable Bristol women who have changed the institution – and, indeed, the world.

Celebrating women: A champion for people with learning disabilities

To mark the 2018 centenary of the first British women winning the right to vote, we are honouring Bristol women who have changed our institution, and the world. From our first woman lecturer to the first British woman to have won a Nobel Prize, these activists, educators and agitators now take their rightful place on the walls of the Wills Memorial building – along with ten of the women in today’s University community to who continue to be inspired by their legacy.

Norah Fry, champion for people with learning disabilities, with Beth Richards, researcher in the Norah Fry Centre for Disability Studies

“Norah, a member of the Fry family famed for its chocolate and cocoa, was born and educated in Bristol. Her family’s wealth meant she never needed paid employment, but throughout her life she committed herself to work on behalf of those less fortunate than herself.

“After completing her studies at Cambridge University and an apprenticeship with the Charity Organisation Society – a home-visiting
service that formed the basis for modern social work – Norah focused her attention on improving the lives of people with learning disabilities.

“She also had a very close relationship with the University, being a member of Council for over 50 years. When she died in 1960, Norah left money to the University to be used for teaching and for finding out more about the needs of people with learning disabilities and mental illnesses.

“The Norah Fry Research Centre was created in 1988 and has pursued a programme of research which has helped us to see people with learning disabilities in a new light and challenge our preconceptions about their identity.

“People with learning disabilities, like myself, now work as co-researchers in some studies – something which would have been unimaginable 100 years ago. The centre makes a positive difference in the lives of disabled children, young people and adults. We hope Norah would have approved of what we have achieved since she handed down the challenge.

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The University of Bristol was the first higher education institution in England to welcome women on an equal basis to men, but our commitment to gender equality reaches far beyond this milestone. The wooden panels of the Great Hall in its Wills Memorial Building have been an all-male domain thanks to hosting portraits of its Vice-Chancellors. But now, thanks to a project specially-commissioned to mark 100 years since the first women in Britain won the right to vote, a series of ten portraits redresses the balance and celebrates notable Bristol women who have changed the institution – and, indeed, the world.

Celebrating women: First British woman to win a Nobel Prize

To mark the 2018 centenary of the first British women winning the right to vote, we are honouring Bristol women who have changed our institution, and the world. From our first woman lecturer to the first British woman to have won a Nobel Prize, these activists, educators and agitators now take their rightful place on the walls of the Wills Memorial building – along with ten of the women in today’s University community to who continue to be inspired by their legacy.

Professor Dorothy Hodgkin, First British woman to win a Nobel Prize and former Chancellor of the University of Bristol, with Lara Lalemi, Chemistry PhD student

“Dorothy was the University’s fifth Chancellor from 1970 to 1988. She was a pioneer in the field of protein crystallography and was the first British woman to win a Nobel Prize, receiving it for Chemistry in 1964.

“Dorothy’s interest in chemistry started when she was just 10 years old and she was one of only two girls at secondary school who were allowed to join the boys as they studied the subject. She went on to achieve a first-class honours degree from the University of Oxford – only the third woman to achieve this distinction.

“She was awarded the Nobel Prize for her pioneering work on protein crystallography and the structures of vitamin B12 and penicillin. Her work helped to unravel the detailed 3D structures of proteins, including insulin, fundamentally shaping our understanding of living organisms. In Bristol, Dorothy is remembered as our second longest serving Chancellor. She proved to be a hands-on Chancellor, attending many University meetings and functions, public lectures and lunching with student officers in the Union.

“Dorothy remains the only British woman to have received a Nobel Prize in any of the three sciences it recognises. Not only was she an amazing scientist, but an icon for many women in science. As someone who has studied her work some 50 years later, I’m struck by its impact and how she managed to achieve such a major breakthrough at a time when so few women were even studying Chemistry, let alone supporting the growth of modern medicine.

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The University of Bristol was the first higher education institution in England to welcome women on an equal basis to men, but our commitment to gender equality reaches far beyond this milestone. The wooden panels of the Great Hall in its Wills Memorial Building have been an all-male domain thanks to hosting portraits of its Vice-Chancellors. But now, thanks to a project specially-commissioned to mark 100 years since the first women in Britain won the right to vote, a series of ten portraits redresses the balance and celebrates notable Bristol women who have changed the institution – and, indeed, the world.

Celebrating women: Leading epidemiologist and founder of the ‘Children of the 90s’ study

To mark the 2018 centenary of the first British women winning the right to vote, we are honouring Bristol women who have changed our institution, and the world. From our first woman lecturer to the first British woman to have won a Nobel Prize, these activists, educators and agitators now take their rightful place on the walls of the Wills Memorial building – along with ten of the women in today’s University community to who continue to be inspired by their legacy.

Professor Jean Golding OBE, Leading epidemiologist and founder of the ‘Children of the 90s’ study, with Professor Kate Robson Brown, Director of the Jean Golding Institute

“Jean overcame much adversity in childhood, including TB and polio, and – despite showing an aptitude for biology – went on to study the more sedentary subject of maths at Oxford University at a time when women were outnumbered ten to one by men. She developed a keen interest in epidemiology (the study of health in a population) and went on to do a PhD in Medical Statistics at
University College London.

“Jean started working here in 1980 and founded the now world-famous Children of 90s study (also known as ALSPAC) in 1989. It has been charting the health and wellbeing of 14,500 mothers and their children since the early 1990s. Almost 30 years later, the three-generation cohort is truly internationally and their data has given the world a wealth of practical wisdom that millions of
people now put into practice every day.

“Jean’s own research has amounted to over 350 peer-reviewed papers, covering a range of factors associated with pregnancy, childhood and parenthood. Although she retired in 2006, Jean remains an active and valuable member of the University community. Her pioneering spirit has shown us where thinking big can lead, which is why we’ve named our data institute after her. Bringing together experts from across the University, we are finding datadriven solutions to societal challenges – an entirely appropriate legacy for a research legend whose impact cannot be underestimated, both within the NHS and internationally.

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The University of Bristol was the first higher education institution in England to welcome women on an equal basis to men, but our commitment to gender equality reaches far beyond this milestone. The wooden panels of the Great Hall in its Wills Memorial Building have been an all-male domain thanks to hosting portraits of its Vice-Chancellors. But now, thanks to a project specially-commissioned to mark 100 years since the first women in Britain won the right to vote, a series of ten portraits redresses the balance and celebrates notable Bristol women who have changed the institution – and, indeed, the world.

Cybersecurity: Humankind vs machine

Specialist researchers at Bristol are investigating the security of systems and the inputs required from human users.

Most people, when asked what cybersecurity is, would answer by saying that it’s making sure we stay safe online, by using strong passwords and up-to-date software. But human behaviour also has a large part to play.

Awais Rashid, Professor of Cybersecurity, is researching both critical aspects. His work investigates the security of that which we might consider to be obvious: computers, mobile phones, Internet of Things devices, as well as systems that are embedded in our critical infrastructure such as water treatment plants and power grids. To understand how people might add value, he also looks at the human component of cybersecurity – how attackers attack our systems, how we detect such attacks, and how we respond to attacks.

One of the things he’s analysed is how people make decisions around security. Because a lot of these decisions are about critical infrastructures there is a lot of confidentiality around them, making it difficult to get the information required.

He and his team devised a game which allows people to discuss how they make security decisions in a general context, without referring to their organisation. The game is effectively a set of building blocks and it represents a utility infrastructure. A lot of the gaming around cybersecurity is about attacking systems and learning from attacks, but Professor Rashid asks people to play the role of defenders, and to collectively make decisions around how to deal with the attacks.

Good patterns included attempts to balance between security priorities, open-mindedness and adapting strategies based on inputs that challenged one’s preconceptions.
Bad practices included tunnel vision, that is, disregarding information given by the environment that did not fit one’s self-proclaimed ‘security expertise’ and focusing excessively on expensive technological solutions while neglecting basic security hygiene. ‘In some cases, you can have a very high-tech network monitoring device, but if your employees are falling victim to social engineering through email, then your network remains vulnerable to attack,’ Professor Rashid says.

In some cases, you can have a very high-tech network monitoring device, but if your employees are falling victim to social engineering through email, then your network remains vulnerable to attack.’ Professor Rashid, Professor of Cybersecurity. 

The human element

Professor Rashid is not alone in wanting to develop a better understanding of the human variable in cybersecurity. Dr Emma Williams, who has a background in psychology, a doctorate in deception, and a career that has included time spent working in both the public and private sector, is interested in what makes us engage in secure behaviour online. Dr Williams is conducting her research in her position in one of the newly created Vice-Chancellor’s Fellowships.

‘My research looks at how we can ensure that users are engaging in secure behaviour online,’ she says. ‘And understanding that means answering a range of questions, such as: are we more susceptible to so-called phishing scams at certain points in time? And can our devices adapt to these potential vulnerabilities? For example, if your device can detect that you’re busy or distracted, can it send a request to update important software at another, more appropriate, time?’ By looking at the ways in which people make decisions with regard to their own online security, Dr Williams aims to answer some of these questions.

One key issue is the simple idea that security must not be burdensome. Professor Rashid believes it is security experts who must lower the burden on the user. ‘We can’t have people changing passwords every few days, we can’t expect people to remember 30 passwords. Security is seen as a barrier, and as researchers we have to make it more seamless. We are looking at how the design of security systems acts as a barrier to usability and what can we do to empower users.’

Historically people think cybersecurity sits in the realm of Computer Science – that all you need to do is create an algorithm and everyone is secure. But a lot of these algorithms are based on mathematical ideas.’  Professor Oliver Johnson, Professor of Information Theory.

The mathematics

Bristol’s School of Mathematics will be offering a new MSc in Mathematics of Cybersecurity in autumn 2018. Oliver Johnson, Professor of Information Theory, says, ‘Historically people think cybersecurity sits in the realm of Computer Science – that all you need to do is create an algorithm and everyone is secure. But a lot of these algorithms are based on mathematical ideas. Bristol’s MSc programme will be unique in the UK because it is hosted in the School of Mathematics. Cybersecurity is a key area of emerging importance. With an Academic Centre of Excellence in Cybersecurity in Bristol, and our refurbished and expanded Fry Building giving us a lot more space for Mathematics, we have the platform for new, forward-looking courses.’

The new MSc will offer students the opportunity to prepare for future threats to encryption, such as quantum computers. Professor Johnson explains: ‘Encryption on the internet relies on the idea that factoring big numbers is hard. It’s known that quantum computers can do this efficiently, once somebody builds one. We’re not there yet, but when planning ahead, maybe the algorithms in use now aren’t secure long enough into the future. So, by including quantum computing on this course, students will be able to consider what the next generation algorithms could be.’

Professor Johnson goes on to add: ‘I don’t think it’s going to be a case of a quantum computer on every desk, but for certain high-level transactions, we need to have these quantum-secure protocols built in. But that’s part of the excitement, looking to the future.’

And it makes Bristol an exciting place to be, particularly with regard to the new Temple Quarter Campus and the Quantum Technologies Innovation Centre that will be hosted there, with cybersecurity one of the topics that has been identified for the new campus.

‘I think it’s clear that a lot of the exciting applications, driverless cars, 5G phones, healthcare, will be generating vast amounts of data and it’s going to be absolutely imperative to ensure that data is protected. It’s a huge challenge, and it’s also one of the exciting things about Temple Quarter: we’ll be looking at big problems that require a commonality between thinking and approaches,’ says Professor Johnson.

Alongside the benefits of collaboration between industry, government, and the University, is the opportunity to have an arena where not only technologists will look at cybersecurity. The new campus will have social scientists working alongside legal experts and ethicists, for example developing thinking around questions such as: if someone is hit by a driverless car, who’s responsible? The passenger, the person who wrote the code, the person who sold the car?

There’s a growing network of connected devices, so whereas in the past people may have thought ‘I can opt out of the internet’, now the internet is so ubiquitous, that’s not possible. Protecting that information is a huge challenge.’ Professor Oliver Johnson, Professor of Information Theory.

Though they may not conform to our preconceived notions around cybersecurity, these questions are becoming increasingly important. ‘It may have been in the past people thought of cybersecurity as the computer on their desk, but as the Internet of Things takes over it’s your fridge talking to your smart home hub,’ Professor Johnson says. ‘There’s a growing network of connected devices, so whereas in the past people may have thought ‘I can opt out of the internet’, now the internet is so ubiquitous, that’s not possible. Protecting that information is a huge challenge.’

And how is Bristol helping to keep all that information safe and secure? We’re working to better understand human behaviours around security, and decision-making processes. We’re developing new cryptography techniques, and working on stronger software engineering. We’re studying vulnerabilities across human and technological platforms. What’s more, the University has huge strengths in mathematics, computer science, cryptography, and engineering. And with our new MSc we’re making sure that the next generation has the skills to tackle the security risks we have yet to imagine.

Futuristic healthcare

Biologist Sara Correia Carreira plans to build robotic skin, conducting research into the combination of robotics with bioengineering – just one of the ground-breaking projects being investigated by the first cohort of Vice-Chancellor’s Fellows. These Fellowships highlight the spirit of innovation and collaboration that is taking us into the future.

As a child I remember being fascinated by the robotic hand of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and what he could do with it. Interfacing living tissues with non-living replacement parts seemed a tremendously exciting idea! But I never thought that today, as a biologist, I would get to work with an amazing robotics team in the realm of healthcare. I never imagined that human biology could work so closely with an area of engineering as complex and interesting as robotics.

As part of my research programme I am working on a way to engineer a living and moving robotic skin. Skin is something I became interested in very recently, while working on antimicrobial sprays and creams that can be topically applied to prevent infection of wounds. Through my work I discovered that it was impossible to test how well these creams and sprays would perform on the skin of an actual living, moving human – for example, would they slide off as the skin moves around? Would they penetrate properly as the body went through its natural motions? We cannot know, as there is simply no laboratory model of moving skin – the current models are flat and static, with skin grown as a sheet on a rigid plastic membrane.

My research aims to find a way to apply those mechanical stresses to engineered skin. Apart from making it a far more realistic model of skin, it could also improve the mechanical properties of the bioengineered tissue, so that it more closely matches the characteristics of real skin.

How am I going to make this work? Robotic skin! I plan to replace the rigid membrane with something stretchy, using soft robotics, to mimic the muscles that would be underneath real skin. The ability to bioengineer the skin exists and Bristol is making incredible progress with soft robotics. I will be collaborating with colleagues to create both. Then the biggest challenge of all will be finding a way of attaching the skin to the robotics underneath, which is what has never been done before.

Initially the robotic skin will be used to investigate whether the movement of medication across this model is different from the current static models. But it could improve people’s lives in other ways, for example burns patients who need skin grafts. With robotic skin we could test it under more lifelike conditions, making it less likely to rupture when grafted onto the patient.

To even attempt what I want to do I needed certain conditions in place – which Bristol readily fulfils. This project requires: an institution with a reputation for research excellence; world-renowned robotics and bioengineering facilities; and a willingness across faculties to work in an interdisciplinary and collaborative way. I will be working with some incredible colleagues here in different departments to make this project a reality.

When the call for applications to the new Vice-Chancellor’s Fellowships went out, I jumped at the chance to apply. My experience at Bristol doing both my PhD and my postdoctoral research had demonstrated very clearly what a unique collaborative experience could be had at this University. I did my first degree in Biology in Germany, where I’m from, and afterwards I was unsure if I wanted to continue with academia. My time at Bristol has shown me what wonderful opportunities are being afforded here, to researchers like myself who are excited about the advancements we can make for humanity. The research that I and other scientists are working on right now is uncharted territory. I’m grateful that Bristol is giving me the opportunity to do this research and make a real-world impact on healthcare.

Further information

The University’s first cohort of 12 Vice-Chancellor’s Fellows started in the academic year 2017-18 with one Fellow fully supported by philanthropy. Alumni funding for a further four Fellows for 2018-19 has been secured, to bolster the cohort of 14 funded by the University.

For more information about the Fellows see bristol.ac.uk/vc-fellows.

You can listen and download the audio version here (mp3).

Bristol’s top six discoveries in 2016

Some of the most important historical discoveries of the last century happened at Bristol, and this year has been no exception. From 3D printing human tissue to robots that feed on waste, Bristol continues to open doors to discoveries that will shape our future for the better.

  1. Dementia drug found to improve Parkinson’s symptoms 
    Bristol scientists have discovered that a commonly prescribed dementia drug could hold the key to helping prevent debilitating falls for people with Parkinson’s.
  2. Developing the world’s first battery from nuclear waste 
    New technology has been developed that uses nuclear waste to generate electricity in a nuclear-powered battery. A team of physicists and chemists from the University of Bristol have grown a man-made diamond that, when placed in a radioactive field, is able to generate a small electrical current.
  3. Antibiotic breakthrough
    Scientists at Bristol have developed a faster and cheaper way to produce new antibiotics that could treat resistant strains of MRSA and tuberculosis.
  4. Discovering why some obese people are protected from disease 
    Obesity is responsible for the deaths of over 3 million people a year worldwide due to its associated diseases such as diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease. However, a subset of obese individuals seems to be protected from such diseases and scientists at Bristol now know why.
  5. 3D-printing human tissue
    Bristol scientists have developed a bio-ink containing stem cells which can be used in a 3D printer – providing hope that human organs could one day be printed.
  6. A living robot that feeds on waste 
    A small robot that feeds on dirty water could one day play a major role in environmental clean-up efforts.

These six stories represent just a few of the pioneering projects researchers at the University of Bristol are working on in response to some of the most pressing challenges we face. For more, follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or sign up to our enewsletter by updating your details with us.