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PubhD Sheffield - Event #13 - Dec 2017

Weds 6th December 2017

The year is drawing to a close, and festive cheer is all around, so we are back to the
Old Queens Head for the final event of 2017, with mince pies, brownies and treats
galore – even a cosy fire to keep us warm for the night!

Our first speaker, Grace Manley, was a final year PhD student in the Department of Infection, Immunity and Cardiovascular disease at the University of Sheffield. She recently submitted her thesis and is eagerly anticipating her viva, but she took the evening off to come and share her research with us. At this time of year, it is increasingly common that many of us will suffer from a seasonal common cold. This is caused by something called the rhinovirus. This virus infects the cells that line your airways, known as epithelial cells. When this happens, the infection activates a cascade of signals inside the cells, causing them to release a danger signal which recruits immune cells to this location and produces inflammation. This is why it can be difficult to breathe when you get a cold. Grace’s research aims to understand how this cascade occurs and whether she could limit the amount of inflammation that is produced, to decrease the severity of symptoms. She works on a family of proteins called ‘DUSPs’. She hypothesised that these proteins could prevent the signal cascade from happening, which she referred to as AàBàC, which would normally allow the release of danger signal. However, she discovered that DUSPs unfortunately do not act on this specific pathway, but could potentially work on another one, activated by the recruited immune cells: DàEàF. Most of us will recover quite easily from an episode of the common cold, however, some people with underlying issues, such as asthma, can struggle to return back to health so quickly. Grace hopes that her research may help to find new treatments, to help dampen the inflammation seen in these patients, allowing infection to be cleared without such severe symptoms in these at-risk patient groups.

Our second speaker of the night was Luca Sortino, a PhD student in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sheffield. He started by asking us what we thought light was; Luca felt that the best theory can be summed up by quantum mechanics and that light is made up of photons – things that can act both as particles and waves! He explained how photons can be used to store binary information, and that this is the basis of new quantum technologies. It can be incredibly hard to isolate single photons, that said, single atoms are capable of emitting single photons, we just need to understand what materials are most suitable for this. Nanotechnology lets us change the properties of materials by reducing one of the dimensions down to the atomic scale. Luca asked us to image a single bee in an empty room, and that the bee would move around much more erratically when the room started to shrink. A similar idea can be applied to electrons in materials. Luca is studying the properties of 2D materials for use in the next generation of electronics. He has been isolating materials down to just a single plane of atoms – a bit like graphene – in the hope that he can manipulate their properties, to amplify their signal and information transduction abilities.

Our final speaker, Baptiste Ravina, was also a PhD student from the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sheffield. However, instead of focusing his talk all about his research, he instead opted to chat to us about a certain aspect of his work that he finds especially interesting – and almost controversial! Baptiste researches particle physics, an area that has boomed over the past 60 years, as scientists have built larger and larger colliders, to keep finding smaller and smaller particles. That said, the number of new particles found has started to slow, so an increasing amount of research now looks into understanding and modelling these entities. Baptiste explains that we mathematically model aspects of the universe, and that many parameters used are ‘natural’ numbers – those being in the order of 1. But he asks why we must make the assumption that 1 is the most natural number, or that the universe itself is even ‘natural’! He went on to explain that whilst the number 1 is very aesthetically pleasing to use in calculations, it hasn’t helped us solve anything, and we end up trying to play around with equations to accommodate for it! Baptise calls for physicist to challenge this dogma, and that more measurements and parameters are required before we might get close to solving equations – such as the ones that calculate the expansion of the universe. He’s also writing a book about all this, so keep your eyes peeled if you want to find out more!

We would like to say a massive thank you to our speakers, and also thanks to our audience for presenting such an array of questions – and for enjoying all our homemade mince pies! We look forward to seeing you all again in the New Year, with our next event taking place on Wednesday 7th February 2018.

Merry Christmas and have a happy New Year!

Devon and Emily =D

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