Sheffield’s ten most fascinating research projects

By Joshua Hackett, 3rd year Biology studentFirth Court

The most recent Research Excellence Framework, published last month, picked out Sheffield as one of the top ten universities in the country for research. The REF identifies institutions which consistently produce a large volume of high-quality research in a wide range of subjects.

So what is this research? Let’s take a look at the most interesting, ground-breaking or simply bizarre projects university staff are involved in when they aren’t giving lectures. In no particular order, here they are.

Boulby Mine: At 1100 metres deep, it’s the furthest underground one can get without crossing the English Channel. Aside from being a working mine, Boulby houses a unique laboratory studying cosmic rays, dark matter, radioactivity and even the possibility of alien life.

The laboratory’s unique position is necessary to isolate the experiments from the background radiation; beneath a kilometre of rock, all but the most powerful radiation will be absent, leaving researchers in no doubt what their experiments detect.

DNA GPS: Dr Eran Elhaik can find out where you live from a blood sample, assuming your ancestors haven’t moved in a thousand years. His new technique, developed in partnership with scientists in California, uses DNA to pinpoint where one’s ancestors originate.

On the island of Sardinia, where families rarely move around, the technique accurately places nearly everyone within 50km of their home village, using only DNA. Dr Elhaik hopes the technique will help orphans explore their ancestry, along with helping to personalise drug therapies to particular patient groups for better results.

Computer-generated humans: The Insigneo Institute is simulating the human body in software, with the aid of data collected from labs and hospitals worldwide. They hope that their virtual model will let us better predict how patients will respond to therapies, without putting any real human beings at risk.

Medieval Google: Scientists at the Humanities Research Institute have digitised an unprecedented number of manuscripts written between the years of 1000 and 1500, and made them freely available online.

Users can scour this vast archive of historical documents in much the same way as any other search engine. Project leader Michael Pidd hopes that the archive will facilitate a new wave of collaborations, improving our understanding of these often obscure works of literature.

Advanced Manufacturing: The Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre is reinventing the Steel City’s industrial heritage for the modern age. The AMRC is constructing a “digital factory” which will include automated production lines, 3D printers and other state-of-the art technology. It’s hoped that the factory will herald a new age of flexible manufacturing, able to quickly switch to producing different products on demand.

Ethical machines: As robots are introduced to more and more areas of society, they will need strong codes of behaviour governing what they do in awkward situations. Inspired by Asimov’s famous laws of robotics, a group of Sheffield researchers is working on this very problem.

Professor Sandor Veres, of the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering, says that now self-driving cars are on the horizon, the work is vital; “an autonomous car might have to choose between two bad decisions: hit a car cutting across the street unexpectedly, or braking suddenly so that the car behind can’t stop.” The project is being conducted in partnership with Liverpool and Bristol universities.

Thatcher Tweets: When ex-PM Margaret Thatcher died in 2013, scientists at the Information School took the opportunity to study the response on social media; collecting thousands of images and hundreds of thousands of tweets. The aim of this “Big Data” project is to understand how people use the internet to express their opinions, react to news and how these opinions spread organically through social groups.

AdAM’s 3D Printers: While today’s 3D printers work mostly with plastic, the Centre for Advanced Additive Manufacturing hopes to introduce them to all areas of industry, producing cheap, personalised prosthetics and more efficient machine parts.

Replica sports kits stifle design: Dr Chris Stride recently attributed the lack of original football kit designs to the rise of the replica kit industry. Stride, a statistician in the Institute of Work Psychology, analysed the kits of teams and found that tradition now rules kit design, unlike in decades past. Goes to show that science can be applied in the most unlikely places with interesting results.

Festival of the Mind: While not strictly a research project, the Festival, which occurred for the second time in September is certainly ground-breaking in the way it communicates what the university does to the residents of the city.

Centred around a 1920s cabaret Spiegeltent in Barker’s Pool and a reopened Castle House – the disused department store in the city centre – the festival paired researchers with artists to communicate their work with the public. Meeting with very positive feedback, the Festival will surely be reappearing in years to come.