Interdisciplinary blog


An Ambient Display for Non-domestic Energy Consumption

July 20, 2015
by Edward Cater

Part of the EPSRC Vacation Bursaries Scheme 2015

Student name: Edward Cater

Student degree course: Computer Science

Year of study: 2nd

Supervisor: Enrico Costanza

Vacation Bursary Research project title:

Tell us a bit about you and your chosen research field:

Having recently completed my second year of Computer Science at Southampton, I am currently undertaking a ten-week internship with the University’s Agents, Interaction & Complexity (AIC) research group. I will be working primarily with the HCI-focused members of the research group, designing interactive systems based around reducing energy consumption.

Tell us about your specific research project:

My project focuses on helping building inhabitants become aware of the impact of intervening with the building’s heating system (by manually adjusting the thermostat). To accomplish this, I am developing an ambient, always-on display, suitable for deployment in non-domestic buildings such as libraries. For this reason, I will be developing a web-application for use with a tablet embedded in the environment.

The display will update regularly. Some of the display’s features may include:

  • Current temperature.
  • Today’s highest and lowest temperatures reached
  • Current expected cost of heating
  • Predicted cost of heating if the temperature were to be raised/lowered by 1°C.
  • Some way for the user to interact with the system. Possibly by giving emotional feedback.

Of course these are just examples. It is entirely possible that features will be removed or added as I iterate the display’s design.

The display is being developed using Django; a Python web framework.

Describe any future plans regarding on-going study/postgraduate research connected to your Vacation Bursary project:

I’m thoroughly enjoying my time here and I am now seriously considering post-graduate study at Southampton, perhaps in HCI or possibly even a field I’m yet to experience, such as Machine Learning or Computer Vision.

Before starting the project, web development was completely alien to me and I had minimal experience with Python. This internship has been an opportunity to dedicate myself completely to something new, and I have learned a lot in a very short amount of time. The post-graduates in the labs have been immensely helpful, and I have been exposed to real-world research for the first time. I look forward to working more closely with some of the researchers in the future.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime

July 20, 2015
by Jonathan Sandman

Part of the EPSRC Vacation Bursaries Scheme 2015

Student name: Jonathan Sandman

Student degree course: MEng Acoustical Engineering

Year of study: 3

Supervisor: David Simpson

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

It might seem odd to attribute such a quote to an engineering degree, but bear with me; it actually makes an awful lot of sense.

One of the things that I have found so rewarding about studying engineering is the wide range of problems to which it may be applied; over the past 3 years of my course (still 1 more to go!) I have found myself involved in projects ranging from bridge design to auditorium acoustics, from building a loudspeaker to assessing beat detection algorithms.

In many degrees, having such a broad subject area might weaken it’s value: not in engineering. It might seem that I have been culling opportunities with decisions as far back as GCSEs. On the contrary, the opportunities that I have seem greater than ever.

An area of engineering that I am interested in, but have never had the chance to explore, is biomedical signal processing; that is, the analysis of measurements using signal processing techniques in order to advise clinical decisions. My individual project involved a lot of signal processing, which is thoroughly enjoyed, and I feel that the next step for me is to now apply these skills to something more involved in human response.

Although I am going to be involved in a few different projects throughout my research placement in slightly different areas, I am currently familiarising myself with and editing cerebral blood flow measurements for the purpose of using it to assess the cerebral pressure autoregulation function in humans. I am also planning on taking part in future tests and liaising with MSc Audiology students in order to better understand the physical meaning of the data that I am working with, and how we might use it to investigate cerebral pressure autoregulation or develop better methods of measurement

I am hoping that my research placement will introduce me to, and develop my knowledge of biomedical signal processing ahead of the module that I am taking next year. It has also opened my eyes to the myriad of opportunities that are available in research, and although I do not consider myself a candidate for a PhD, I discovered during my individual project that I find research both rewarding and enjoyable, and would like to continue to explore this further.

Adaptive Sockets for Lower Limb Prosthetics

July 17, 2015
by Luke Stoneman

Part of the EPSRC Vacation Bursaries Scheme 2015

Student name: Luke Stoneman

Student degree course: Mechanical Engineering

Year of study: 4th Year

Supervisor: Dr Liudi Jiang

My chosen engineering theme is Advanced Materials, giving me versatility in terms of skills of numerous engineering disciplines and project choices.  I feel I have an affinity to studying fundamental materials and manufacture methods, such that the Advanced Materials theme has been an enjoyable one. Projects I have pursued include my extra-curricular work with autonomous robotic systems, as well as my Individual project based on analysis of high performance protective coatings for the aerospace industry.

Tell us about your specific research project:

This specific project further expands my knowledge of the potential applications of material properties. In lower limb prosthetics, the greatest challenge lies at the interface between residual limb (stump) and artificial socket. A prosthetic socket is an integral part of any prosthesis and provides an essential function in tightly joining the stump to the prosthesis. Ill-fitted sockets could cause daily discomfort, reduced prosthesis usage and soft tissue injuries in the form of stump ulcers. My project focuses on material development with a view to ultimately improving comfort and stump health for lower limb amputees.

Describe any future plans regarding on-going study/postgraduate research connected to your Vacation Bursary project:

From this research, I hope to benefit from the project skills used throughout. These include conducting comprehensive literature reviews, designing relevant experimentation methods, and materials characterization within a short time scale. Practising such processes will be a strong asset leading into my 4th year Group Design Project and Advanced Materials modules. This project also allows me to apply my advanced materials knowledge thus far to prosthetic research areas, which could help improve quality of lives of amputees. Therefore, providing successful research outcomes from this project will be personally very rewarding. I foresee myself with continued interest beyond the Vacation Bursary scheme, such that I may find myself affiliated with similar future research within the university.

Skyrmion-based data storage

June 30, 2015
by Alexander Marjoram

Part of the EPSRC Vacation Bursaries Scheme 2015

Student name: Xander Marjoram

Student degree course: Aeronautics & Astronautics/Spacecraft Engineering

Year of study: 3

Supervisor: Hans Fangohr

I’m a third- (going on fourth-) year undergraduate studying Aerospace Engineering, and some of the modules that I’ve studied over the last few years have been very enjoyable. I noticed that these modules all had something in common: they had strong computational themes, such as FEEG1001 Design and Computing, where we were given a thorough introduction to Python (this is also how I met my supervisor – Hans Fangohr – whose lectures I thoroughly enjoyed); FEEG2001 Systems Design and Computing, where I chose the UAV design, built and test project and was responsible for the programming of the on-board arduino flight computer in C++.

These experiences led me to choose a computation-based third-year Individual Project. The project involved magnetic skyrmions, simulations and plenty of coding. I definitely enjoyed it and by the time it finished I felt like I was only just getting started. My 10 week Vacation Research Project, based at the new Boldrewood Innovation Campus is a continuation of this project.

Tell us about your specific research project: Skyrmions are magnetic topological features found in nano-films and bulks of certain materials. This research project will continue my previous studies into determining the potential of skyrmions for use in energy-efficient, high-density data storage devices

Describe any future plans regarding on-going study/postgraduate research connected to your Vacation Bursary project:

I never really thought of myself as a person who would become a PhD candidate, as I could never think of a topic I’d be willing enough to research. However, this project has been both enjoyable and rewarding and I could certainly see myself continuing it in future. To what extend? I’m not sure. Fortunately I will have the whole of fourth-year to decide, and I’m hoping the module FEEG6002 (Advanced Computational Methods 1) which I am taking next year will provide further background to any future studies.

Wellcome Image Awards Exhibition

December 10, 2014
by Luke Goater

Scientists from the University of Southampton visit the Basingstoke Willis Museum to increase neuroscience understanding in the general public.

Glow in the dark, play doh and pipe cleaner neurons were three of the main attractions at the Willis museum this October. Using Welcome Trust images the Willis Museum together with neuroscientists from the University of Southampton took aspects of brain imaging and insights into neurodegenerative disease research to museum visitors. The public engagement involved two talks presented by Dr Jessica Teeling and Dr Diego Gomez-Nicola, lecturers at the University of Southampton. Jessica talked about degeneration of the retina and the research undertaken at Southampton to try and slow the disease. Diego informed the public on neurodegenerative disease research, taking the crowd through the history of neuroscience research from Cajal’s beautiful neuronal drawings to modern day fluorescent imaging techniques. The talks were well received with many probing questions.

Additionally, Mark Willet together with help from Matt Cotton, Prutha Patel and Joanne Bailey, third year undergraduate, PhD student and Research Fellow, hosted a brain imaging stand at the museum open to the general public. The stand was aimed at Primary and Secondary school children and included demonstrating the complex shapes and forms neuronal brain cells can take, how such cells can be probed and researched by growing them in a dish and made to ‘glow-in-the-dark’. Using the power of play doh and pipe cleaner straws approximately 80 adults and children had the opportunity to design and make their own ‘glowing’ neuronal cell and some of the best of these made it onto the board-of-fame. Approximately 27 people attended the talks by Jessica and Diego and all who visited the brain-imaging stand gained an insight into the beautiful world of brain cell imaging, and an appreciation for the complex architecture from which our brains are made.

Professor Guy Poppy – Final blog as Director of Interdisciplinary Research

August 5, 2014
by Guy Poppy

Guy Poppy was born in the East Midlands of the UK into a non-scientific family. He was the first member of his family to attend university, and he studied Biology at Imperial College (BSc 1987). His DPhil at Oxford (1990) introduced him to interdisciplinary research, an approach which has really influenced his subsequent career. He started his first lab at Rothamsted Research where he worked alongside inspiring colleagues such as John Pickett. Missing university life, he left Rothamsted for the University of Southampton in 2001. His research interests have spanned chemical ecology, multitrophic interactions, genetic manipulation (GM) risk assessment, and most recently Global Food Security and how to achieve Sustainable Intensification of Agriculture. Guy has served as Head of Biological Sciences at Southampton and Director of the University’s Interdisciplinary Research Strategy which has resulted in cross-university groups and institutes tackling some of the world’s grand challenges. He is currently on a part-time secondment as the Chief Scientific Adviser for the Food Standards Agency (a non-ministerial UK Government Department). His current research interests include leading an international interdisciplinary consortium using an ecosystems services framework for food and nutritional security in Malawi, Colombia, and Peru.
What influenced your path into plant biology?

In fact I went to university to study Zoology, but switched to Biology to take some plant courses. My DPhil at the Zoology Department of Oxford University was on insect pheromones. It was only during my first postdoc at Rothamsted with John Pickett that plant chemistry came to the fore, and the fascinating diversity and importance of plant secondary metabolites grabbed my attention. This led me to working on the environmental risks of GM plants, given my interdisciplinary training, and then a gradual shift towards food security – which is clearly a very plant-focussed research area and now dominates my research. Thus, despite being a late convert, I am now a strong advocate that plant biology should be part of every biologists’ education.
What would you be if you were not a plant biologist?

As a child I was fanatical about two things – natural history and sport. Thus, I dreamt of being the next David Attenborough travelling the world seeing fascinating things or of being a famous sportsmen competing on the international stage. However, my footballing and athletic career (I represented the County of Sussex and was offered a football trial with Crystal palace) took a back-seat and I became a scientist. Interestingly, this has allowed me to travel the world and compete on the international stage, although perhaps not being a household name. My recent research in the Amazon and Africa even allows me to develop ways to conserve biodiversity and improve human well-being – so I am satisfied with how it turned out.
Are there any issues in scientific funding you feel strongly about?

During my career I have combined a mechanistic approach with a more adaptive/ultimate approach to understanding biological systems. I believe this has worked well, as has the interdisciplinary approach which has involved me collaborating with social scientists, physical scientists, and health scientists. Such broader thinking and interdisciplinary approaches are heralded as the only way to really advance our knowledge, although it can be a challenge to raise funding for such research. There are specific calls for interdisciplinary programmes, but many funders struggle to assess these projects. Scoring the parts is commonplace, where each discipline needs to be world-leading – but surely it is the sum of the parts that matters, and using maths which is not cutting-edge to advance biological understanding of a system will not detract from world-class interdisciplinary research being undertaken. Addressing food security requires systems thinking and an interdisciplinary approach. There is no point developing a new crop plant without targeting the needs of an African farmer or considering how it could change the dynamics of the community in an undesirable way – the new crop plant could really improve the livelihoods of people, and social science embedded in the programme can help to make this happen. Food security requires interdisciplinary teams addressing the system, and the funders need to play their part to achieve this goal.
In hindsight, what in your research career has given you the most pleasure?

It can be hard to think of specific research outputs that have given me most pleasure because all research brings pleasure to me and my group. I am proud of being ahead of the curve in interdisciplinary thinking and in my research of tracking bee foraging using radar, adopting a systems approach to GM plant risk-assessment and, most recently, using the ecosystem services framework to deliver food and nutritional security – these have all been well received by my scientific peers and, importantly, are having a wide impact outside academia. As someone from a non-academic family, this is important to me. I have had the pleasure of training almost 30 PhD students, and also many postdocs and undergraduates experiencing research for the first time. I think this brings the most pleasure of all because these are the next generation of scientists. These people will contribute to areas similar to my own as well as contributing to completely unrelated issues. I feel that I have in some small way helped to shape their careers and outputs to society; I receive great pleasure from that and feel privileged to be working in a university.
What big questions interest you in the long term?

I have recently undertaken a part-time secondment from my university to be the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) for the Food Standards Agency in the UK. The role of a CSA in UK Government is to offer independent scientific advice of the highest quality and to ensure that evidence is at the heart of decision-making relating to that department. In the case of food safety and food standards, science is essential for ensuring that we have access to a sustainable supply of authentic, safe, and nutritious food. The food system is increasingly complex, and food security is a wicked problem and part of the ‘perfect storm’ described by Sir John Beddington when he was the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser. I am interested in addressing food security, which means that all the pillars required (access, availability, utilisation, and stability/resilience) are considered and addressed. Too often, scientists focus only on one small part of the system, resulting in little progress and time wasted arguing about relative importance. I see the challenge as taking the systems approach, making sure one knows which levers to pull and how best to ensure food security across the world today and tomorrow.
What are the future challenges in plant science?

I was fortunate to be an author on a paper which tried to identify the top 100 questions in plant science. Thus, I have a head-start on this one and recommend that you read this paper [1]. As someone who has tended towards more applied research, my challenges will focus on what I see as the greatest challenge of all – sustainably feeding the world. Thus, we need to really push for sustainable intensification (SI) of agriculture and ensure that it is more than a concept or philosophy. Much of our fundamental science needs to underpin how to achieve SI, and thus it is possible to undertake cutting-edge fundamental research which can have a wider impact in a reasonable timeframe. Funding plant science remains a challenge across the world because we need to recruit the best minds and best labs to address the food security nexus – food, water, and energy for an increasing population, changing demographics, and resilience to climate change. Finally, we need to attract young people into plant sciences – convincing young scientists that addressing hunger is as big a challenge and personal reward as addressing dementia or cancer.


SMMI – EPSRC Summer Bursaries 2014

July 14, 2014
by Rosie Hoare

Rosie Hoare – Decision-making in Complex, Multi-scale Displays’

I have just completed my second year on the Psychology BSc program. During my second year I worked with my supervisor on a number of eye-tracking experiments through the Psychology department’s Voluntary Research Assistant scheme (VRA). I learnt a great about visual search and attention research during lectures and through the VRA scheme. I found the subject fascinating and I was thrilled when I received the IDR Vacation Bursary and the opportunity to do research over summer.

This summer I am working on a visual search experiment where participants can zoom in and out to search for objects in a complex, cluttered display. I am examining how searching in displays of the type is influenced by target prevalence. Target prevalence refers to how often a target is presented to participants in a visual search, and it has been found that if a target item appears less often, then participants are more likely to miss that item when searching. This is an important factor to consider in complex, real-world displays such as those in the operation rooms of ships, where indicators of danger may be rare and difficult to detect.

Looking to the future, for my third year research project, I am hoping to examine behaviour in an eye tracking task, though I am not quite sure in which specific area, but I am confident that my summer of research in the psychology department will give me some ideas. I have already gained valuable skills in carrying out a literature review and collecting data, and these are skills that will be vital in my next year’s studies and research project.  I am also exploring potential routes that will enable me to engage in postgraduate study.

Complexity USRG – EPSRC Summer Bursaries 2014

July 10, 2014
by June Lovitt

June Lovitt – ‘Designing structured consortia for novel devices’

I have just completed my second year of Chemistry at the University of Southampton and will continue into my third year of a four-year Master of Chemistry programme after the summer. For my internship I am focusing on the area of complex systems, synthetic biology. My internship project is in collaboration with Professor George Attard. The field of research for this project is 3D microarchitecture.

This internship is focusing on developing 3D thixotropic gels and whether these can be exploited as a 3D growth matrix for bacteria. Thixotropic gels are attractive for the development of novel tissue-like devices as they flow freely when subject to sheer forces and set into rigid gels when not flowing. Gels with different compositions can also be fused together easily forming layers of different bacteria cultures. I have also been investigating the compositions needed for the medium to form a 3D thixotropic gel as well as culturing bacteria and designing minimal media for each. My next stage is to culture the bacteria in the minimal media and to investigate if this forms a gel.

The long term result of this project if it is successful is that the complex tissue like materials can be developed comprising of different species of bacteria organised on/interacting through 3D microarchitecture.

In my third year project I hope to continue with chemical biology.  By developing basic skills from culturing bacteria to developing gels and growth mediums and furthering my understanding of histoarchitecture, this will be very beneficial to my further studies within this field. I have also developed a good range of transferable analytical skills to other areas of practical chemistry.

This project is concerned with achieving preliminary results to support a funding bid to EPSRC and might represent the 1st step in developing a new technology.

Sustainability Science at Southampton EPSRC Summer Bursaries 2014

July 1, 2014
by Brittany Camp

Brittany Camp – ‘Using citizen science to evaluate the provision of cultural ecosystem services’.

I am about to start my third year in a Bachelor of Science, Biology, degree at The University of Southampton and am considering continuing my studies to a Master of Science (MSc) degree programme. Whilst my degree encompasses many aspects of the function and interactions of living things, from sub-cellular through global biosphere levels, I enjoy focusing on the ecosystem level. This internship project is in collaboration with Dr Simon Willcock, in the Centre for Biological Sciences. The field of research for this project is ecosystem services, specifically the somewhat understated division of cultural ecosystem services.

Cultural ecosystem services describe the non-material benefits people gain from nature, such as spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation and aesthetic experiences. These benefits commonly prove difficult to evaluate as they lack a common unit, e.g. money as with many material benefits obtained from nature. Because of this, quantitative approaches to evaluate cultural ecosystem services are controversial and somewhat lacking when compared to other divisions of the ecosystem services field. Therefore, the importance of cultural ecosystem services can often be under-estimated in land use planning.

It is easy to see how valuing cultural ecosystem services of an area of land can be complicated. The benefits of cultural ecosystem services are unique to each person, as people will appreciate different aspects of a landscape uniquely. Furthermore, the accessibility of an area of land must be considered as well, for example, if an area of land has the potential for many cultural ecosystem services in high value, but is inaccessible to most people, does its value in terms of cultural ecosystem services decline? This must therefore be considered in decision making.

Evaluating cultural ecosystem services is therefore often done using the public. Commonly surveys are carried out with the ultimate aim to quantify and assign value to cultural ecosystem services. The aim of this project is to adapt existing text-based cultural ecosystem service surveys into image-based surveys. VisualDNA has identified image based to provide higher response rates, and the success of image-based compared to text-based surveys will be assessed in this project. Furthermore, the project aims to assess whether the general public can be used as field scientists to collect data (citizen science) via the Imagini mobile phone app (created by VisualDNA) can be used to evaluate the effect green spaces have on peoples’ moods. Application of this information to future land use scenarios may provide information enabling decision-makers to better understand how to adapt future infrastructure to better coexist with future environmental change.

Data relating to cultural ecosystem services across the world are particularly poor. Results from this pilot study may aid on-going research by: 1) indicating the best method by which researchers can obtain survey data; and 2) using citizen science to obtain a global dataset on the relationship between nature and peoples’ moods. This information can be used to support PhD applications as well as allowing decision making regarding land use to be better informed.

Computationally Intensive Imaging EPSRC Summer Bursaries 2014

July 1, 2014
by Nathan Soper

Nathan Soper – ‘Application of X-ray Computed Tomography and advanced image processing for novel quantification of plant root growth micro-mechanisms’.

I’ve just finished my 3rd year of Electronic Engineering and am set to be beginning my 4th and final year this September. This internship is based within the Faculty of Engineering and the Environment and more specifically within μ-VIS and under the supervision of Dr Sam D Keyes. In many ways this project is far removed from my previous areas of study, however there is a surprising array of overlap of the skill sets required. This project involves taking many computer vision and engineering techniques and applying them to complex biological systems in order to better understand them.

Specifically this project will involve analysing data sets taken from X-ray images taken of root samples of wheat. With the use of very high resolution X-rays and a large amount of computing grunt, 3D data sets of plant root images can be obtained through a technique known as computer tomography (CT). By taking repeated snapshots through time, the growth of a root through various porous media can be observed and analysed.

As a root grows down through soil or whichever medium within which it is placed, it will move its way around air, soil, water, harder minerals in the ground as well as biological matter. This project will further investigate how this process happens and what factors affect the rate of growth both radially and along the length of the root.

Figure 1 3D rendered image of a root growing through soil, taken from a CT dataset.

Figure 1 3D rendered image of a root growing through soil, taken from a CT dataset.

A sizeable amount of this project will be located in the lab where the samples will be grown, providing plenty of hands on experience in the world of lab based botany. The apparatus for the experiments must also be devised through various CAD and 3D printing methods. All of this must be done before any CT can be done.

Digital Volume Correlation is a “novel technique” that is an extension of previous 2D techniques that allow a 3D volume to be analysed over time. Examining plant roots in 3D in this way is novel and has yet to be extensively researched.

This research could have some very well appreciated applications; being able to better understand how to grow crops such as rice, wheat and maize could vastly improve the yield of arable farms as we better understand how these plants grow. Hopefully this research will be a positive contribution to the field and while be the bedrock for future research projects.

In the future I hope to pursue postgraduate research and so I hope that this summer project will be a good insight into the world of research and I expect to learn many skills that will equip and prepare me for the diverse and complex challenges that this could present.