Research round-up 2019

“From academics and students working together to uncover a prisoner of war camp, to changing the perceptions of women in Latin America, 2019 has been an exciting year for research at the University of Sheffield. 

“Looking back at the last 12 months, the face of our research has evolved into something very different to what it was a year ago. In the last year we’ve been bold and ambitious, establishing ourselves in key areas of research in the form of the University research flagships. These four multidisciplinary institutes have flourished in their entirety since their establishment in April. This is alongside research which has prospered across our academic institution, with academics in all departments and faculties making outstanding contributions to their fields.

"I strongly believe research can solve many of the world’s greatest challenges, from neurological diseases to how we can provide enough food for our ever growing population. The outstanding research we’ve conducted in 2019 only serves to support my belief. Therefore, to round off a phenomenal year of impactful research, I’d like to highlight the 12 pieces of research I feel really showcase our capabilities as an institution to bring us closer to a safer, cleaner, better world."

Professor Dave Petley
Vice-President for Research

We’ve uncovered Britain’s largest prisoner of war camp 

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This story is a wonderful example of academics and students working together to uncover the forgotten history of our past. The two groups, from the Department of Archaeology, have worked together to reveal the remains of a WWII camp in the Yorkshire countryside, a camp which held more than 11,000 people at its peak. 

What makes this work so inspiring is the impact it’s had since the camp was uncovered. People from across Europe have been contacting the department offering to help with research into the camp - these are people whose family and relatives were either imprisoned or worked at the site. They have personal stories to tell as well as artifacts that were passed down to them, all of which they’ve offered to share to help our students piece together this forgotten part of history. 

The response has been incredible and serves as a reminder of the importance of uncovering the truth about the past no matter how tragic it might be. 

The researchers and students working together to uncover Britain's largest prisoner of war camp

We’ve proven that tomatoes can boost sperm quality

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Now this one surprised me - who’d have thought that something as simple as tomatoes could improve the prospects of parenthood? Like anything, it’s not as simple as that of course, it’s actually a compound found in cooked tomatoes which can improve sperm quality. 

It was only a small study so nobody was quite expecting the exceptional results we got including lead academic and world-leading expert in male reproduction, Professor Allan Pacey. When we spoke to him he told us that when they decoded the results he nearly fell off his chair. 

It’s amazing that something as simple as a compound in tomatoes could be the key to something as wonderful as being able to have a family. 

The dietary supplement in tomatoes boosting sperm quality

We’ve created an Industry 4.0 Digital Operating Theatre demonstrator 

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The University's Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) has created what I consider to be a truly fascinating approach to teaching medical students and advancing patient treatments. 

Researchers have developed a Digital Operating Theatre using the same technology used for CGI movies. The idea is that students can see exactly what the surgeon is doing in real time, unlike in a real operating theatre where there can only be a limited number of people present and everyone has to stand back. 

We’re forever researching ways to improve patient care through potentially life-saving treatments and this is a clear example of that innovation in action. In the future it would be great to see our own medical students using this kind of technology to ensure we continue to have a fantastic standard of education and therefore graduates going out into the world.

How CGI movie technology is being used to revolutionise medical education

We’ve discovered how the typhoid toxin works 

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Typhoid is a major killer in low- and middle-income countries, affecting 21 million people annually. If left untreated, it can be fatal. It’s a dreadful disease and results in people experiencing high fevers, headaches, coughing and diarrhea. 

Thanks to work completed at the University of Sheffield by Dr Daniel Humphreys and his team we now know that the bacteria responsible releases a toxin which damages our DNA. 

Tackling disease is one of the biggest challenges of this century and our academics are clearly working hard to do this. This is a fantastic piece of collaborative work between the Department of Biomedical Science and our new Healthy Lifespan Institute and I’m looking forward to seeing more from them in 2020. 

The Typhoid discovery that might just help us stop it in its tracks 

We’re engineering wheat so it can survive extreme weather conditions 

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Wheat is the most commonly consumed cereal grain in the world, it’s a staple for millions of people. However, I was surprised to learn just how much water goes into producing it. It takes more than 1,800 litres of water to produce just 1kg of wheat. 

As extreme droughts become more frequent farmers face the harsh realities of reduced yields. Altering the genetics of wheat so that it uses water more efficiently is no mean feat, yet somehow our academics are doing it. By altering the genetic makeup of the wheat we can ensure it requires less water per yield and can therefore continue to be a staple for many. 

In the face of climate breakdown, more resilient food systems are key and I’m grateful to have researchers in the University's Institute for Sustainable Food ensuring we have a safe and secure food system for years to come. 

What are scientists doing to ensure the future of our food?

We’ve designed a system to track the UK’s solar energy 

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We’re working towards being a more sustainable institution and this is reflected in the research taking place here. I was astounded to learn that the UK's solar energy was going unmonitored – until one of our researchers developed a system to track it. Solar energy was the UK’s invisible energy source. 

Professor Alistair Buckley from our Department of Physics and Astronomy and Energy Institute was able to develop PV_Live. It’s a very clever system for people across the country to input solar data from personal and commercial panels to give real time predictions of the UK’s solar output. Alistair has revolutionised energy management, allowing the National Grid to more accurately forecast energy demand, preventing waste power as well as power cuts. 

What fascinates me is that Alistair’s system is all online. You can access it from your sofa and see just how much solar power is being generated right now, which really helps to visualise just how useful this research has been. 

How we’re tracking an invisible energy source

We’re changing the representation of gender roles in Latin America 

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It’s always incredible to see academia coming together with the rest of the world to instigate real change and this is yet another example of that.

Latin America, like many countries, experiences gender inequality, with women’s contributions often being sidelined. What Dr Lauren Rea from the University's School of Languages and Cultures has done is to try to break down that barrier. Based on her research, Lauren has helped the longest running children’s magazine in the world, Billiken, to release a book that represents the diversity of women’s experiences, the challenges they’ve faced and their astounding achievements in Latin America. They’re showcasing women from all walks of life from sportswomen and activists to artists, scientists and entrepreneurs. 

Breaking down gender inequality is a key challenge around the world and I’m very proud of our academics for taking their research and using it to tackle such a pressing issue. 

How we’re tackling gender inequality in Latin America

We’ve produced a new gadget to aid recovery in stroke patients

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Our Neuroscience Institute is perfectly placed to work alongside the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust to develop new treatments with patients, for patients.

Our research is helping patients left with weakness after a stroke to regain control over everyday tasks such as eating and dressing. 

A small gadget clipped to the ear stimulates nerves connected to the brain and helps patients regain arm and hand control previously lost to a stroke.

Read journal article on Science Direct

We’ve designed a green barrier to protect Sheffield schools from pollution

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While it’s great knowing our research is solving problems all over the world, it’s just as wonderful knowing that it’s helping those a little closer to home. 

Pollution levels are relatively high in Sheffield, as they are for a lot of cities. But with many of our schools located on or near major roads, it’s becoming seriously damaging to our health. Thankfully we have academics such as PhD researcher Maria del Carmen Redondo Bermudez, from the University's Department of Landscape Architecture, coming up with innovative ideas such as a green barrier. 

It’s a barrier made entirely of plants with different capacities to reduce air pollution depending on the characteristics of their leaves and bark. I had no idea just how much plants can do to mitigate the impacts of pollution. A school in Hunters Bar in Sheffield has planted a mix of plant types together to form a barrier against the wind that brings contaminants into the playground. 

I really hope we see more of these popping up in schools all over the world creating a greener, cleaner environment for learning. 

The Sheffield school installing a green barrier against pollution

We’re developing manufacturing innovations to electrify the UK

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There is a huge global shift towards cleaner growth and being more resource efficient. Electric machines like cars and renewable energy forms like wind power are at the heart of this. But this is all still relatively new and presents some challenges, particularly around manufacture. 

Fortunately, the University's Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) and Faculty of Engineering are leading the way on new technologies to electrify our future. After receiving a £28m investment this year from the EPSRC, the research centre have begun designing new electrical machines that have much better performance and can contribute to lowering carbon emissions. 

Industrial partners are key to so much of the work we do and this is yet another opportunity to develop those relationships with the likes of Rolls Royce, Airbus, Siemens Gamesa and McLaren to provide crucial solutions to some of the key challenges facing our future.

How we’re electrifying the nation through manufacturing

We’ve discovered a new compound that kills antibiotic-resistant superbugs 

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I was astounded to find that antimicrobial resistance – the ability of a microorganism to resist medication like antibiotics – takes the lives of more than 25,000 people each year in the EU. Illnesses like pneumonia, urinary tract infections and bloodstream infections are just a few of the bacterial strains resistant to treatment. 

Antibiotic resistance is a major problem, particularly for healthcare systems and hospitals. If something doesn't change the death toll caused by these superbugs is going to rise. 

Which is why I’m very pleased that we have exceptional researchers in the University’s Department of Chemistry developing and testing new compounds that could kill superbugs and reduce infections worldwide. They’ve found a new drug compound that glows when exposed to light, which means its effect on the bacteria can be followed using advanced microscopes. Doctors haven’t had a new treatment for the last 50 years so this breakthrough is truly vital. 

Our new compound to kill antibiotic-resistant superbugs

We’re developing the next generation of lithium-ion batteries

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As we begin to move away from more traditional forms of energy production there will likely be a shift in the number of petrol vs electric vehicles we’ll see on the road. To enable this transition we need electric vehicles which hold more charge and are better suited to withstand prolonged use. 

The switch to electric vehicles is essential to helping to reduce global emissions. We as a university are already aware of this and have our own fleet of electric vehicles. It would be fantastic if these vehicles lasted longer between charging and could withstand more cycles of recharging making them a more viable option for people. 

This project is in collaboration between our Faculty of Engineering and the University of Oxford, and therefore a wonderful opportunity for us to develop our partnerships with another University whilst aiming to revolutionise the electric vehicle industry. 

Working to produce the next generation of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles

Flagship institutes

The University’s four flagship institutes bring together our key strengths to tackle global issues, turning interdisciplinary and translational research into real-world solutions.