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Three ways institutions can support research partnerships

By Guest Blogger, on 4 November 2021

By Sam Mardell, UCL Strategic Partnership Manager (AHRI); Amit Khandelwal, UCL Senior Partnership Manager (South Asia); and Monica Lakhanpaul, UCL Pro-Vice-Provost (South Asia)

Human chain paper stock imageThe increasing globalisation of people and economies, the devastating impact of COVID-19 on societies across the world, the multifaceted problems caused by climate change and the ongoing global commitments to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) make this a crucial time to generate discussion on strengthening partnerships underpinned by first-class research.

Some of the highest profile scientific and research achievements have been accomplished through partnerships between UK universities and other institutions worldwide. The UCL Ventura-CPAP breathing aid and the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine are just two recent high-profile examples of what can be achieved through collaboration of this kind.

Yet, these partnerships are the exception — generated at a time of crisis — rather than the rule. We undertake partnerships, with all the additional effort and time that these involve, because they generate better outputs and outcomes. How can we create an environment in our institution where collaborations are encouraged and can flourish?

A successful research collaboration harnesses the strengths of each partner for greater impact. For example, academics can provide the evidence base for decision-making, but without industry partners to take ideas through to production, or the involvement of the third sector to ensure that solutions really meet societal needs, then good ideas remain just that — ideas.

For the purposes of this discussion, we define a positive partnership as one that achieves the explicitly stated goals of the research, while allowing all partners to learn and advance throughout the period of collaboration and beyond.

Research partnerships invariably work because of interpersonal relations. There is a great deal of literature on how to nurture these partnerships; frequently these are based simply on two individual academics who get along with one another.

Institutions do also play a role in generating an environment that supports and values academic collaborations. Here we outline the three key areas of institutional support to the creation and successful implementation of research partnerships.

1. Train academics in partnership building:

Academics are experts in their field — but that does not automatically generate the soft skills or knowledge needed to create a successful collaboration. There has been much discussion over the past few years about the need to recognise systemic and structural power inequalities and ensure that they do not feature in research relationships. Assume that you will provide the skills without learning from your collaborators, and you both miss the additional benefits collaboration can bring and belittle your partners’ contribution to the success of the project.

Institutions can provide a basic understanding of the dynamics and sensitivities that might influence how collaborators view the UK through provision of a basic history of the country and any historical inter-country linkages. This is particularly relevant when working with partners in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where unequal and lop-sided benefits frequently advantage the more powerful partners in a collaboration.

Signposting on how to navigate working intercultural collaborations can support academics in developing contacts who can advise on cultural sensitivities and expected behaviours. This can be immensely helpful in developing early relationships. Awareness that different cultures will approach a problem in a distinct way is essential, with differences in approach often generating better outcomes. This is equally valid for collaborations across the public-private-people-policy sectors and between larger and small universities as it is for national-international collaborations.

University policy can help to avoid the obviously exploitative activities — such as using in-country staff only for fieldwork, denying shared authorship opportunities, or ethics dumping — that characterised the relationship of a fair proportion of academics from the richer nations working in low-resource settings in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

For a truly positive partnership, thought should be given to addressing how academic partners ensure that local or traditional knowledge and expertise is a recognised, valued and rewarded part of collaboration. Good partnerships also have leaders with a suite of skills additional to their individual scientific expertise; this requires training on working collaboratively to help ensure partnerships work well and generate innovative and impactful results.

2. Provide resources to nurture nascent partnerships

Open communication is one element of a partnership that has been radically reconstituted and reformed over the past year during the COVID-19 pandemic, with Zoom and Teams calls now the norm. Whilst academics have been denied the opportunity to hold face-to-face conversations with partners overseas over the past year, virtual communication has put overseas partners on an equal footing with local colleagues. The provision of small travel grants and seed corn funding — such as those provided by UCL’s Global Engagement and Grand Challenges funds — can facilitate the initial conversations needed to begin building the trust and mutual respect that are so vital to positive partnerships.

3. Create an enabling institutional environment

Longer-term collaborations, which span multiple projects and years, require time, patience and understanding of the priorities and constraints of another organisation or individual. Copious amount of coffee, tea and food — sprinkled with an appreciation of another culture and sharing personal experiences — are the building blocks of relationships. Yet the current academic system generates rewards for being a Principal Investigator: for individuality and being first author or lead institution. Institutional recognition of the time investment needed to develop partnerships — listening to partners, respecting their challenges, and understanding the context within which they are working — is needed when assessing academics’ achievements at appraisals or promotion boards. This requires a shift from a quantitative review of academic achievement based on impact factors and grant income to one that recognises that nurturing partnerships can pay dividends in co-creating and delivering appropriate solutions and enhanced positive impact.

Partnerships are all about relationships: equitability, having a flexible mind-set and trust. If you get this right, you have the key ingredients to ensure that your project or activity will be a successful and impactful one.

But partnerships also require institutional incentives and structures that do not penalise academics for collaborative activity. Harnessing a variety of intellect and expertise, innovation and skills focussed on clearly defined goals can ensure that, through the power of partnerships, research generates positive outcomes and impact for all involved.


About the authors

If you would like to know more about developing partnerships and how we can help you, please contact us:

Sam Mardell is the Strategic Partnership Manager for UCL’s relationship with the Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI), South Africa. She also co-Chairs the UCL LMIC Research Operations Group.

Professor Monica Lakhanpaul is Professor of Integrated Community Child Health at the UCL GOS Institute of Child Health and Pro Vice Provost for South Asia. Her research promotes citizen science using structured and participatory methods to co-design interventions for the advancement of population science.

Dr Amit Khandelwal is Senior Partnership Manager (South Asia) within the Office of the UCL Vice-Provost (Research, Innovation & Global Engagement).

This piece was originally posted on the UCL Disruptive Voices blog

Apply now: Yenching Academy of Peking University 2022

By j.chua, on 24 September 2021

Applications are now open for UCL students wishing to join the September 2022 cohort of the Yenching Academy of Peking University (PKU)’s fully funded Master’s programme in China Studies. Successful applicants will have the opportunity to study in Beijing and develop their understanding of China and its role in the world.

Please note that there is a different application process for Chinese nationals (more details below).

The programme is for English speakers. At the core of the programme lies an emphasis on interdisciplinarity and the value it assigns to thinking about China’s past, present and future – from both Chinese and international perspectives.

Scholars are given the flexibility to customise their programme within the broadly defined fields of the humanities and social sciences. Working closely with their academic mentors, they create their own study paths by choosing courses from six research areas:

  • Economics and Management
  • History and Archaeology
  • Philosophy and Religion
  • Politics and International Relations
  • Law and Society
  • Literature and Culture

Virtual information sessions specific to each of the six research areas, to be held between 15 October and 26 November, are open for registration here. Students and alumni speakers will attend to share their experiences.

An additional information session, specifically for UCL students, will be hosted by Yenching Academy on 28 October at 11am (BST). Join the session on Zoom with Meeting ID: 832 8945 3847 and Password: yca. In the meantime, please complete this short survey to let Yenching Academy know what topics you would like covered in the sessions.

Application process

UCL will carry out a preliminary evaluation of applications submitted by their own students and alumni. Based on this assessment, UCL will nominate students for interviews conducted by the Yenching Academy.

How to apply: Applications should be sent to Professor Vivienne Lo (v.lo@ucl.ac.uk) in the first instance. Those nominated through UCL’s internal pre-selection process will then be directed to submit their application through the Yenching Academy admissions portal.

UCL alumni may choose to apply through the admissions portal directly but will still need to contact Professor Lo to have their application approved. Mainland Chinese applicants must apply directly through the portal.

The deadline to submit your application to Professor Lo is Monday 22 November 2021. The programme will begin in September 2022.

More details can be found at the admissions portal link above and the Yenching Academy’s FAQs page. You can also read about UCL graduate James Ashcroft’s experience on a Yenching Academy scholarship here.

UCL Pro-Vice-Provost (International) Professor Deenan Pillay on remaining focused on research impact

By Guest Blogger, on 21 September 2021

Deenan PillayThe world is burning – literally – and climate change has led to an increase in weather unpredictability. Meanwhile, the world is reeling from its latest pandemic, almost certainly caused by live animal trading, and the hugely beneficial impact of new COVID vaccines has been tempered by gross global inequity in access, leaving us all still at risk. And then there is the gross failure of international political governance to secure a peaceful outcome for the people of Afghanistan. This all comes on top of a distinct move to inward-looking and nationalist feelings here in the UK, and other parts of the world, which saw significant cuts to UK overseas development aid, including research funding.

It is easy to feel despondent and powerless to respond in a constructive manner.

However, despite these challenges, universities have an opportunity to make a change in their global impact and collaboratively contribute solutions to these critical challenges for the future. We at UCL are in a particularly strong position. We host an amazing and broad spectrum of research activities, and a truly international student and staff body. We also work within a longstanding UCL ethos of tolerance, inclusivity and a commitment to equity.

And there are many wonderful examples of how UCL and our partners contribute to global good, ranging from the Institute for Global Prosperity’s co-creation of sustainable energy provision with communities in Lebanon, through to the Institute of Healthcare Engineering releasing full design and manufacturing instructions, on a zero-cost license, for the local production of UCL-Ventura CPAP ventilators around the world.

Nevertheless, translating our academic strengths into global impact does not happen by accident. We need to continue to build an infrastructure, and incentives, to encourage more cross disciplinary (or rather, transdisciplinary) research, and support our staff to build their nascent or early-stage international partnerships into something capable of delivering benefit to peoples around the world. Equally, our students will not automatically become global citizens, despite our strapline of “London’s Global University” – there is a need to continue to proactively enhance their international experience at UCL. Our recent success in applying to the Turing Scheme – as replacement of the Erasmus programme – is excellent news.

How are we supporting the UCL community to achieve this? Firstly, we recently brought our Global Engagement team within the portfolio of the newly formed Office of the UCL Vice-Provost for Research, Innovation and Global Engagement (RIGE). This will help us to broaden and better coordinate the support we can provide to academics across the university, particularly with the emerging UCL institutional strategy and priorities for research, innovation, education and external engagement.

Secondly, by building on UCL’s existing strong international links and successes from the last five years – including global institutional partnerships with academic institutions and other organisations around the world – we aim to ensure the work of Global Engagement will be even more strongly guided by academic staff and their faculties’ priorities. We are delighted to work closely with UCL’s Vice-Deans (International) to ensure this alignment can maximise our research and education impact globally.

And thirdly, we aim to ensure that our global perspective and the support Global Engagement provides will be better integrated into new cross-institution initiatives such as those targeting the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the climate emergency, and equity and inclusion. We also want to continue supporting global opportunities for students, enhance our support with faculties for PhD and early- and mid-career researchers, and ensure seamless and better coordinated internal funding processes. This includes building on the highly successful Beyond Boundaries conference we held with UCL Grand Challenges in late 2020.

Most importantly, whatever your role and position at UCL, I invite you to let us know of your own plans and aspirations for creating global impact. It is important to share our activities across the institution and beyond, and it helps us in the UCL Global Engagement team to continue to adapt our activities to support you in achieving the global impact we all wish for.

Overseas Research at UCL – Routes to Impact

By j.chua, on 17 June 2021

5-minute Survey to complete, deadline 31 July 2021

UCL would like to increase the support available for its research community wishing to engage or who are already undertaking research internationally. To do this in a meaningful way, OVPRIGE, in collaboration with VPHealth, wants to hear your views on what resources or in-house training you need to achieve impact creation from research in international settings. Please take five minutes to answer a few questions via our online form. Then, over the summer we’ll analyse the results, turn them in to an action plan so we can provide a tailored programme for the UCL community.

Survey link

Q&A with PAHUS founder Dr Kartik Sharma

By j.chua, on 24 March 2021

Dr Kartik SharmaDr Kartik Sharma is an alumnus of the UCL Health Humanities Centre, filmmaker and founder of Public Arts Health and Us (PAHUS), an interdisciplinary organisation undertaking public engagement and evaluation initiatives to raise awareness of health and social issues through the medium of film and the arts.

PAHUS was conceptualised in Bangkok, Thailand and is based in New Delhi, India. It comprises of a board of international academics, artists and activists and frequently collaborates with universities, government agencies, research institutes, legal firms, filmmakers and arts-based organisations both in India and the UK. With support from the Hatchery, UCL Innovation & Enterprises’s startup incubator, PAHUS will soon begin operations in London.

Here, Kartik tells us how he’s been collaborating on a range of different UCL projects including a documentary and upcoming global arts and science exhibition opening on 26 March 2021, as well as his future plans and vision for PAHUS .

Can you tell us a little bit about the documentary you’re currently shooting?

I’m shooting a travel documentary called Myths and Beliefs in Rajasthan, a very colourful, diverse and culturally rich state in India approximately the size of France. It’s a UCL-led project from Pro-Vice-Provost (South Asia) Professor Monica Lakhanpaul and it is our latest collaboration together. I have travelled through six to seven cities scattered all across Rajasthan to film this documentary. I’ve had the opportunity to interview many different people from all walks of life, including royalty living in forts and regular people wandering upon camels. It will be another five or six months before the film sees the light of day but I’m really excited about it. I love filmmaking and using it to make public health and social issues more accessible, digestible and enjoyable for a regular audience. Today’s my last day in Rajasthan and tomorrow I’m flying back to Delhi to continue work on another UCL-led project, The Early Years: A Global Art & Science Exhibition.

How was the idea for The Early Years exhibition born and what will it involve?

The process started about a year ago when Professor Monica Lakhanpaul approached me with the idea of putting on a global art and science exhibition about the first 1000 days of a child’s life. I had previously worked with Monica to design a coffee table book for the PANChSHEEEL Project and directed a film for the NEON project. The upcoming exhibition is led by Monica and UCL Great Ormand Street Institute of Child Health, in collaboration with PAHUS and our India-based partner India Alliance.

Initially we wanted the exhibition to be held in-person at a popular art gallery in Delhi, but our plans shifted when COVID-19 struck and we decided to hold it virtually. On 26 March we’ll unveil the virtual platform with films, paintings and photographs collected from an India-focused art campaign. These will be showcased in an immersive way and later housed within the PAHUS web portal. We’ll also have a panel discussion on “The Power of Arts in Public Health.” Panellists will include Professor K. VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India; award-winning photographer Mr Raghu Rai; Sir Mark Tully, former Bureau Chief of BBC New Delhi; and senior members from the World Bank, Save the Children, India and UKRI India.

How will the UCL Hatchery programme support your vision for PAHUS?

I was granted an entrepreneurial visa from the UCL Hatchery programme, which I’ll be using to set up a new base for PAHUS in London. It was very competitive and I’m very grateful for the opportunity. I hope it will help further expand my vision of making research more accessible and interesting for the general public! I hope to strengthen the link between my work in India and the UK, and eventually expand to South East Asia and East Asia. I envision PAHUS growing to be a public relations and engagement agency that crosses boundaries and acts as a bridge between the public and research – this has become all the more important as we have seen so much misinformation flying about during the pandemic.

When you build a bridge you need a strong concrete foundation with dependable pillars and UCL has been that foundation for me over the years. I am very grateful to my Health Humanities tutor, Professor Sonu Shamdasani, who allowed me to make my course as eclectic as possible. I was able to complete my dissertation, The Story of Madness in Indian Cinema, with first class honours thanks to Professor Sonu’s patience and guidance. I must also thank Mr Jivko Hristov from the UCL Hatchery who really helped me hone my business idea to make it work in a UK setting. Last but not least, I must thank Professor Monica Lakhanpaul for her continuing mentorship – I feel very lucky to have met a UCL professor who is equally passionate about using the arts and filmmaking in research settings.

As a line goes in Cinema Paradiso, “whatever you end up doing, love it”. I somehow found myself founding PAHUS – and to be honest I am truly loving this journey.

Apply for a BSA Media Fellowship 2020/21

By j.chua, on 30 September 2020

Behind the camera shot of an interview

The Global Engagement Office is pleased to invite UCL scientists, social scientists, clinicians and engineers*, with an interest in helping us tell UCL’s global story, to apply for the opportunity to take part in the BSA Media Fellowship Scheme 2020/2021.

The successful applicant will spend two to six weeks, starting in November 2020, working at the heart of a media outlet such as the Guardian, BBC Breakfast or the Londonist.

You can read more about the scheme and who is eligible on the British Science Association website and you can watch a short film on their YouTube channel. You might also find it useful to read about the experiences of previous Fellows by reading this blog post or this one.

Ready to apply? Please submit your application via this online form. It will ask you a few questions about your interest in the media, your experience of global engagement and what you hope to gain from the scheme.

Extended deadline for applications: 23 October 2020.

*If you are a UCL academic but do not work in these fields and are interested in media training opportunities, please contact vpi.global@ucl.ac.uk.

The BSA are committed to transforming the diversity and inclusivity of science. BSA will work with Media Fellows to ensure they have a positive experience on the scheme and can accommodate requests for part-time, remote, or flexible working for people who would otherwise find it difficult to take part. Applications from researchers who are typically underrepresented by the scheme are encouraged, including from those who:

  • have a disability, defined as a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term effect on someone’s ability to do normal daily activities (Equalities Act 2010) 
  • do not have an academic family background (e.g. parents did not go to university) 

Please note, diversity statistics are anonymised and collected separately from the main application form. If you belong to one or more of the above groups, you are welcome to mention it in your form and it will be taken into account when assessing your application.  

Any questions? Contact mediafellows@britishscienceassociation.org

Ask an Academic: Tim Baker on the UCL-Ventura breathing aid

By j.chua, on 15 September 2020

Tim Baker working on the UCL-Ventura breathing aidAt the end of March, just days after the UK went into lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, Professor Tim Baker (UCL Mechanical Engineering) played a vital role in the UCL team that produced a breathing aid to help keep COVID-19 patients out of intensive care.

The interdisciplinary team of mechanical engineers from UCL, clinicians from University College London Hospital (UCLH) and Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains, brought together by UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering (IHE), worked around the clock to reverse engineer the Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device, called UCL-Ventura. On 7 April, UCL freely released the designs and manufacturing instructions to aid world-wide response to the COVID-19 public health emergency.

So far, the UCL-Ventura design license has been downloaded more than 1,900 times in 105 countries spanning Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas and Australasia. At least 30 teams have manufactured prototypes for testing in Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Germany, India, Iran, Peru, Pakistan, Australia and more.

Most recently, a team in Baja California, Mexico made 100 devices for local hospitals and a team of Ecuadorian researchers, based in Ecuador and abroad, are collaborating to produce the devices for coronavirus patients in their country.

[See here for an interactive map of international distribution]

Professor Tim Baker tells us more about the global impact of the project and what it was like to lead the remarkable team of UCL engineers and partners.

Tim Baker headshotHow did you get involved in the UCL-Ventura project?

I worked in the motorsports industry for many years, which involves fast-paced precision manufacturing to tight deadlines. So although I’m not a medical expert, when I watched the announcement of the government’s ventilator challenge on Sunday 15 March, I was thinking to myself that creating something as complicated as a mechanical ventilator from scratch takes a long time and we needed something that could be built more efficiently. I didn’t realise that less than 48 hours later I’d be involved in creating the CPAP device. Rebecca Shipley, Director of IHE, reached out to me on Monday 16 March and the next day the project to create the CPAP took off. When I left for work that Tuesday morning, I told my wife I wasn’t sure what time I’d be home, referring to that evening, but I actually didn’t come home for four weeks because things moved so quickly. We spoke to the intensive care team at UCLH and knew we needed to create something simpler than mechanical ventilators, so that’s how the idea to reverse-engineer the CPAP was born.

Did you collaborate with colleagues in other countries in the development process? 

Yes. Very early on, Mervyn Singer, Professor of Intensive Care Medicine at UCLH, talked to colleagues in Italy and China, which at that time were dealing with the highest number of COVID-19 cases, to get their perspective and find out what treatment was working. This was a disease we hadn’t come across the likes of before so we were trying to research and learn as much as we could from our associates in those countries before the first wave of infections really took off in the UK. We learned that trying to keep patients off mechanical ventilators was the most successful approach and that meant using CPAP devices, which essentially splints the lungs open to allow greater oxygen absorption.

How did the project move so quickly from development to approval and distribution?

Existing personal relationships with the likes of Mercedes AMG HPP meant when something like this happened, we could ask for their help and that foundation of trust was already there. They joined our team on Wednesday 17 March and we quietly got on with the engineering side of things. Meanwhile we gained credibility thanks to the relentless efforts of Vice-Provost (Health) David Lomas and Rebecca Shipley who put a lot of work into changing NHS guidance to include CPAP devices. We got the first devices built and in hospitals for testing in 100 hours, within 10 days we got the approval from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and very soon after that the order came from the cabinet office to manufacture to scale. We then had to secure the supply chain to build the CPAP and breathing circuits in quantity at a time when there were massive global disruptions and shortages. We spoke to companies like Intersurgical, a global supplier of medical consumables, and managed to build a convincing case for them to support us. We’re still working with them now on other COVID-related projects and that relationship will likely continue to grow for years to come.

How have you been working with international teams since freely releasing the designs for UCL-Ventura?

We’ve spent a lot of time talking to organisations that have downloaded the designs to help them manufacture the devices for themselves. Something we learned when trying to secure our own supply chain is that in times of crisis like this, countries are naturally going to prioritise their own needs so we wanted to give international teams the ability to be self-sufficient. We have lots of resources on our website, including guidance and instructions in multiple languages like Spanish and Portuguese. We’ve also been holding Q&A webinars to offer support on the engineering side, answer technical queries and offer advice on things like alternative or locally available materials they might use. We’ve also held similar webinars for international teams about clinical use of the CPAP. The MHRA has really helped support our international collaborations by helping teams deal with their own local approvals and satisfy their own regulators. I remember it feeling slightly surreal to keep getting the updates about how many people around the world were contacting us and it’s been incredible to watch the global distribution grow as much as it has.

Invitation to collaborate on the UN75 Initiative

By j.chua, on 3 June 2020

Wind turbine fields in CornwallThe UN is marking its 75th anniversary at a time of great disruption, so they are taking the opportunity to gather inputs from across the world on people’s priorities for the future. They are especially keen to hear from young people, teachers, researchers and professors, regardless of their disciplines.

UCL staff and students are invited to complete this short, one-minute survey available in 47 languages.

The data gathered through the survey will be presented by the UN Secretary-General to the General Assembly at the 75th anniversary commemoration in September, and will moreover serve to inform future UN strategies and approaches through a concluding UN75 report early next year. This is therefore a unique opportunity to contribute to the future of global governance, where UCL can help shape the agenda for the future.

Apply for a 2021 Yenching Academy Scholarship

By j.chua, on 27 May 2020

yenching academy of peking universityUCL students wanting to develop their understanding of China and its role in the world can apply to study in Beijing on a fully funded Master’s scholarship at Peking University (PKU). Applications are now open for scholarships beginning in September 2021.

The Yenching Academy of PKU offers a highly customisable Master’s program in China Studies for English speakers with varied levels of Chinese language competency. At the core of the program lies its emphasis on interdisciplinarity and the value it assigns to thinking about China’s past, present and future – from both Chinese and international perspectives. It also aims to push the study of China beyond the boundaries of traditionally defined humanities and social science disciplines, and is designed to incorporate the experiences and intellectual training of its diverse student body.

Scholars are allowed flexibility in the design of their study programmes and can choose courses from any of six research areas, one of which they will choose for their theses. A wide range of electives offered by the Academy and other Peking University schools and departments supplements core courses. Our interdisciplinary approach encourages dialogue across academic disciplines, and creates an environment conducive to innovative and fruitful exchanges of ideas.

Yenching Academy hosted a virtual information session on Zoom for interested UCL candidates on 26 October 2020. You can view presentation slides from the session here. To register for upcoming virtual information sessions on 16, 18, 23 and 25 November 2020, please see here.

Application process

UCL will carry out preliminary evaluation of applications submitted by their own students and alumni. Based on this assessment, they nominate students for interviews conducted by the Yenching Academy. Please note that this route is not open to Chinese nationals.

How to apply: Applications should be sent to Professor Vivienne Lo (v.lo@ucl.ac.uk) in the first instance. Those nominated through UCL’s internal pre-selection process will then be directed to submit their application through the Yenching Academy admissions portal. UCL alumni may choose to apply through the admissions portal directly but will still need to contact Professor Lo to have their application approved.

Extended deadline for UCL applications: Friday 27 November 2020

More details can be found at the admissions portal link above and you can read about UCL graduate James Ashcroft’s experience on a Yenching Academy scholarship here.

Developing New Methods to Study Thermal Perception

By Guest Blogger, on 3 April 2020

By Ivan Ezquerra Romano, PhD student, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience

The sun is shining and the waves are breaking on the shore. Kids are splashing sea water. The air is warm but the ice-cream you’re eating feels pleasantly cold. Now you feel too hot, so you run to the water with the sand burning beneath your toes! The experience of submerging your body in the sea water is incredibly refreshing…

How does your mind represent all these thermal sensations you experience on a summer day at the beach? The research project that I am working on will help answer this question thanks to the development of novel methods to study thermal perception.

CpP facilitates international collaboration

For my PhD, I am studying how the mind represents the perception of temperature in space and time. The UCL Cities partnerships Programme (CpP) facilitated the project that is now at the core of my PhD research. UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience Professor Patrick Haggard kickstarted the project before I joined and started working on it a year ago.

The project is a collaboration between Professor Giandomenico Iannetti’s lab and Professor Haggard’s. When I joined, Professor Iannetti had recently moved his lab to Istituto Italiano Di Tecnologia. The Guardian reported that almost 11,000 EU academics had left UK universities since the 2016 referendum, so the timing of the CpP project was perfect as the programme is key in facilitating collaborations with international academics post-Brexit.

Using a syringe containing dry ice and a CO2 laser

Dr Caterina Leone and I brainstorming ideas with a syringe containing dry ice and a CO2 laser.

Thanks to CpP (and way before the COVID-19 pandemic), researchers from both labs were able to visit each other several times to have fruitful discussions and brainstorm ideas. I also had the invaluable experience of working hand-in-hand with senior researcher Dr Caterina Leone from Sapienza University of Rome at such an early stage of my PhD. Other than the science, it was fun to have ramen and sushi while exploring London’s international food scene, and also ice-cream and pizza in Rome!

Luckily, our project has been awarded funding for another consecutive year.

New methods to study thermal perception

CpP has not only supported our traveling expenses, but it has allowed us to buy equipment to develop novel methods to study thermal perception in a way no one has done before. Classically, scientists studying thermal sensation use tactile thermal simulators. These are metal bars connected to a system of water pumps. This system is connected to a computer and scientists can easily control the temperature of the metal, which is measured by a thermometer.

However, we know that touch and thermal changes of the skin interact with each other to build our perception of the external world. For example, a coin that is cold feels heavier than an identical coin that is warm. When our skin is simultaneously stimulated by touch and temperature, the perception of those inputs is different than if we experience the touch or the temperature in isolation.

dry ice

Dry ice composed of CO2. Here it is at roughly -70C. At room temperature, it goes from solid to gas (sublimation).

In our project, we are developing novel methods to study cold and warm perception without tactile input. Scientists can already warm the skin without touch by using a laser or an infrared bulb – that’s what the sun does after all! However, until now there were no means of accurately cooling the skin without touch. This project involves devising a reliable and repeatable method of doing this using dry ice. We are developing the cooling method in London and we plan to develop the warming method in Rome (when travelling and social restrictions are lifted). We will then combine them to study thermal perception in different ways.

Scientific impact

The methods developed in this project will allow us to study temperature perception in new ways. Right now, scientists do not understand well how perception of temperature changes with tactile inputs. In particular, spatial and temporal projections are poorly understood because of the use of tactile thermal stimulators. The results of our CpP project and other experiments will allow us to develop computational models of how the brain builds thermal perception. Excitingly, these developments will inform the development of new technologies such as thermal displays for use in gaming, robotics and remote sensing devices.