School Winner: Why does the Earth hum?

Winning Entry LancasterSchool2C Ankita Hajara with model

On Earth, there is a constant low frequency vibration resounding through the planet. These vibrations are inaudible to most people but a very small percentage of people can hear them. This strange sound is often referred to as ‘The Hum’ and has made the headlines on newspapers in the UK many times. The most famous example in Britain is the Bristol Hum which occurred in the late 1970s. 800 people claimed to have heard the sound and some suffered from nosebleeds and severe headaches as a result. In the 1990s, doctors at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge blamed patients being able to hear the hum on tinnitus until someone confirmed that the cause was an external factor. The hum is said to be heard more prominently when indoors and during the night and many people describe the sound as “a diesel car idling in the distance.” The hum has also been felt in many other parts of the world such as in New Zealand, America and Australia.

So, what causes the hum?  Scientists have been speculating the cause of the hum for many years and according to a recent study in Geophysical Research Letters, this micro-seismic activity is mostly due to ocean waves. Previously, it was thought that the vibrations were caused either due to giant ocean waves moving along the sea floor or the interaction between two colliding ocean waves but these theories each only accounted for a few of the many types of vibrations within the hum.

Recently, these two models were combined together and it was found that both these theories put together explained the complete spectrum of vibrations. The colliding waves generated seismic waves with longer wavelengths whereas the giant waves on the ocean floor generated waves with a longer range of frequencies and the hum is mostly a result of these latter types of waves.

Understanding this micro-seismic activity can help scientists chart more detailed maps of the Earth’s interior as well as helping them to be able to predict faraway earthquakes.

Ankita Hajra
Year 12 student
Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School 

I am Ankita and I represent Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School. I have always been very interested in science, especially in the human anatomy and the science behind natural phenomenons so writing an entry for the blog was perfect for me as it allowed me to research some current scientific issues and focus on one in detail. I also have a strong interest in music and play the violin and the piano and enjoy playing these in my spare time.

Science issue: Using non-beating hearts to transform lives

News2B Rebecca Simmons PhotoThere are 263 people waiting for a heart transplant in the UK (1). Many die in the three years it can take to wait for a suitable donor. Transplant hearts usually come from people who are brain dead, but whose hearts are still beating. To try and save more people, researchers at Papworth Hospital have worked out a way to re-start hearts in people who have died. They re-start the heart and keep it nourished to reduce muscle damage before transplanting it. The technique could increase the number of available hearts by at least a quarter.

This story first caught my interest because it is local. Papworth Hospital is the largest cardiothoracic hospital in the country and includes the UK’s main heart and lung transplant centre.  It is just 11 miles down the road from Murray Edwards and in 2018, will move to the Addenbrooke’s Biomedical Campus, making it even easier for our students and postgraduate researchers to gain exposure to cutting-edge research and clinical practice. 

The story of non-beating hearts also reminded me of the need to increase efforts to prevent heart disease and reduce the number of people needing a transplant. Cardiovascular disease is still the UK’s biggest killer. I previously worked as an epidemiologist, finding patterns in disease among large groups of people. My research involved building statistical models to predict who was at high risk of a heart attack or stroke, and then developing and evaluating ways to prevent this from happening. The solution seems simple: eat less, exercise more and quit smoking. But health campaigns usually try to get people to change their behaviour. And they are not very successful. Unhealthy behaviour has become the norm and working with individuals is not enough. We need to shift from focusing on individuals and create strategies for whole populations. My research encouraged different academic, government, industry, and health care experts to collaborate, and it looked at the impact of issues such as food supply, transport policy, advertising, and labelling. Not at all what I thought I’d be involved with when I attended my first epidemiology lecture!

Studying a STEMM subject at University can open up a huge range of careers that you never even knew existed. Cambridge will soon host Europe’s largest biomedical campus, filled with world leading scientists and clinicians, where you can work on ground-breaking surgical techniques or tackle epidemics of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. We need biologists, chemists, engineers, medics, social scientists and economists to tackle the health problems facing the world today.

I’ll be talking more about this within our College’s new one-day STEMM conference ‘She Talks Science: Aiming High’ in April 2016. (Booking will open via this site in the Autumn.) Do come, visit the College, join in the discussions and learn more about the role of science in transforming lives.

To find out more about organ donation, please visit:

Dr Rebecca Simmons

Dr Rebecca Simmons is a Fellow at Murray Edwards and teaches epidemiology and biostatistics to first year medical and veterinary undergraduates.


Career Path: Creating new drugs

Career2A Sarah Aves photo

Last time you were ill and the GP prescribed you some medicine to help you get better did you wonder about the people who discovered and developed that treatment? I am one of those people – a drug hunter. I work as a medicinal chemist in a small company in the pharmaceutical industry.

The company I work for specialises in what’s known as “structure based drug design”. This means we use our knowledge of the 3D shape of certain proteins in the body (receptors) to design drugs that have a specific shape and functionality to interact specifically with the target of interest. The type of receptors I work on (GPCRs) are involved in passing biochemical messages from outside to inside the cell and it is by influencing this that we are able to treat illness and disease.

At university I obtained a PhD in synthetic organic chemistry – this taught me both the theory and practice of how to build carbon containing molecules (essentially what most drugs are). As a kid I loved building things out of Lego and Meccano and I saw this as the same thing just on a molecular level. Now that I’m in industry I use the skills I learnt in doing synthesis in combination with what I’ve learnt about drug design. It’s very satisfying coming up with an idea that looks like it should work on the computer screen, designing a route towards it, making the molecule and it being an active compound in screening.

Please don’t be under the misapprehension that scientific research is a lone pursuit; I remember arts students at uni being jealous of the social interactions I had in the lab, whereas they were holed up in the library all day by themselves. I work with a large team of people across a broad range of disciplines and a good working relationship with colleagues is key to a project going smoothly. Whilst one must be disciplined and analytical as a scientist, my role also allows me to be creative, which is perhaps not a description which first springs to mind. Also, one of the reasons I chose to become a medicinal chemist was because it gave me the opportunity to care for people. Potentially an idea that I have could lead to the discovery of a drug that treats thousands of people, making a difference to them and their families.

The overwhelming majority of the projects that we work on in R&D never make it to market. The challenge going forward is for us to improve the number of new drugs making it into the pharmacy. This will be achieved by advances in in our understanding in molecular biology, biochemistry, pharmacology and organic chemistry – but only if we have a stream of inquisitive, creative and enthusiastic people choosing to study science.

Sarah Aves

Science at Cambridge: Mathematics


My name is Naomi Arnold and a few weeks ago I finished my second term at Murray Edwards College studying Mathematics. Amazingly I now have just the ‘exam term’ to go to complete my first year of study.

I first developed an enthusiasm for maths when I was studying it at GCSE level. Our class frequently went to the ‘Maths Inspiration’ events where mathematicians would give fun, engaging talks about aspects of maths that interested them or about the maths involved in their field of work. Until then I had always been very good at maths but I’d always just seen it as necessary and functional – I hadn’t realised the breadth of its applications, and it had certainly never occurred to me how fun and rewarding maths could be.

Going from studying Maths at A level to degree level has been quite a big transition but one that was made a lot smoother with the help of the supervisions system and having a really supportive community at Murray Edwards. It took a while adjusting to how much time I had to spend just thinking about how best to tackle questions – often, especially in Pure Mathematics topics, there can be multiple ways of looking at a question, all of which are valid, but not all of which lead you in the right direction. Sometimes just choosing the right method; figuring out what you actually need to prove, breaking a hefty problem into more palatable steps and choosing the order in which to carry them out can be the most difficult part of the problem. Whilst adjusting has been very challenging, it’s also been incredibly rewarding – the feeling you get when you crack a problem you’ve been working on for ages is truly refreshing.

One of the topics I’ve enjoyed this year is ‘Analysis’. It could be described as a course that proves and makes more rigorous the maths that you cover at A level, as well as some other interesting theorems of course! For example, we define differentiation properly and starting from that basic definition we go on to prove the common results covered at A level like the Chain Rule, Product Rule and that integration is, under certain conditions, the reverse of differentiation etc. On the surface it can sometimes seem tedious – why do we need to bother proving things we already know to be true? Why is it necessary to understand the proofs when we can just use the results? I think firstly some of the techniques that mathematicians have used in the past are quite universal and are useful to add to your problem-solving toolkit. Secondly it can offer insight into why certain mathematical processes work in the way that they do and can help when it comes to actually applying relevant results.

What I would say to anyone who’s interested in studying maths is simply to be really inquisitive about the maths that you’re currently doing. In this respect, I found the Nrich website a great resource, with plenty of problems to try.  And if the harder the problems get the more you find yourself engrossed, you are well on the road to enjoying maths at degree level.

Naomi Arnold
Undergraduate student