School Winner: Teaching the Blind to See with Sound

rayna-koshy-boston-grammar-school16c-rayna-koshy-bostonThe amount of times I’ve tripped over or hit something while walking around in the dark is unfathomable; it’s got to the point where I’ve somewhat accepted my incapability to manoeuvre around in the dark. However, I am fortunate enough to be able to eliminate this problem by simply turning on a light switch.

Yet what about the people who live in constant darkness? Would they ever truly be independent if they cannot see any of their obstacles? Perhaps if you had asked me this before, I would have agreed that blind people wouldn’t able to achieve true independence without some sort of technological advancement allowing them to see. Of course, that’s where my thought process was flawed. I had reduced the idea of spatial awareness to simply using the eyes.

Many animals e.g. bats and dolphins use echolocation or Biosonar as a way to locate and identify different objects.  They do this by emitting a call and then listening out for the echoes produced that return from the various objects around them. Dolphins use this technique to see better underwater.

Blind humans have also been known to use echolocation. By making a sound of some sort e.g. making clicking noises with their mouth etc., they are able to accurately locate where and how big an object is by interpreting the sound waves that have been reflected off of these objects.

If one side reflects much louder sound waves than the other, the sound has bounced back faster, therefore taking a shorter route. This indicates the presence of an object or obstacle on that side.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) studies on the brain were conducted on blind echolocation experts with sighted humans as control. The study demonstrated that the primary visual cortex is activated during echolocation in these blind people while there was no activation in the control subjects. This is unusual because the primary visual cortex is normally used to process visual information in sighted people.

Moreover, the parts of the brain that are associated with processing auditory information didn’t show much of a difference in activity during echolocation, in either group. This implies that the parts which process auditory information in the brain are not necessarily vital when blind people carry out echolocation.

Since the original function of the primary visual cortex is not very useful in blind people, it seems to have rearranged itself so that it can process spatial information from echolocation.

 This ability to rearrange and adapt the functions of different parts of the brain is known as neuroplasticity.

Daniel Kish is a blind echo locator who teaches other blind people to use echolocation so that they can be ‘active participants in society’; here is a link to his Ted Talk where he explains how he uses echolocation to achieve independence and how even sighted people can be trained to use it too.

Rayna Koshy
Year 12 at Boston Grammar School

My name is Rayna Koshy and I am in Year 12 studying Chemistry, Physics, Biology and Maths at A level. I enjoy the science subjects and an affiliate of the Royal Society of Biology. I’m very passionate about healthcare and volunteer at a local care home. In the future, I’m hoping to study medicine.

School Winner: Hormones or Instinct – Do babies need to earn parental love?

phoebe-clargo-headington-school16c-headington-phoebe-clargoThere are three types of love. In order of increasing strength, these are: ‘Eros’ (or erotic) love; ‘Philos’ (or friendship) love and ‘Agape’ (or unconditional love). Thus, ‘Agape’ is the highest form of love, which neither depends on the love being returned or any benefits being bestowed on the lover, but is utterly selfless. ‘Agape’ is the kind of love felt between parent and child. Unlike the other forms of love, ‘Agape’ is not earned or lost, it just is. For example, when two people become a couple, they do not love each other immediately, but rather have to learn to love each other. However, if they go on to have a child, they will love that baby from the second that he/she enters this world.

I was really interested in what the cause of this love is, so I decided to look into it further.

‘Agape’ is often said to be an evolutionary instinct that leads to the continuation of a species, by making the parents go to extreme lengths to protect their (often vulnerable) offspring. Whilst parental love like is this is shown in all animals, it is particularly evident in species who tend to produce less offspring (K-strategists according to the r/K selection theory), and less so in animals who produce many offspring throughout their life (r-strategists). Again, this supports the idea that parental love is an evolutionary instinct, as K-strategists (eg. humans) have to protect their children more carefully, as they do not have the ‘safety-net’ of such a vast number of offspring to ensure the continuation of their genes. Therefore, they feel a much stronger bond to their young, to ensure the offsprings’ survival by increased nurturing.

Another biological reason for parental love is that during pregnancy, levels of oxytocin dramatically increase, allowing the mother to get through the exhaustion and pain of labour, whilst also providing a feeling of intense love when she finally sets her eyes on her child. However, it is not only the mother that experiences the effects of oxytocin. It has been shown that the levels of oxytocin in the father spikes upon first sight of the child (so parental love is quite literally ‘love at first sight’). Hormones continue to affect father’s’ love for the first few months of their baby’s life, as the levels of their testosterone plummet, whilst their estrogen levels increase. Experts say that this increase allows the oxytocin to have a greater  effect on the brain, increasing their love and attentiveness even more! The pleasure hormone, dopamine, also plays a part in the ‘Agape’ between parent and child. It is not only released in both parties when there is physical contact (eg. holding, rocking or feeding), but also just from spending time with each other.

Studies have even shown that dopamine can be released in mothers just by getting them to look at a photo of their child.

Dopamine also helps babies to bond with their parents, as shown by a study into baby mice. Those that were unable to sense dopamine did not mind whether or not their mother was near them, unlike mice that could experience the positive effects of the dopamine that was released when the mother was near.

To conclude, I believe that both parental instinct and hormones play a huge part in parental love and explain why we never had to earn our parents’ love.

Phoebe Clargo
Year 12 at Headington School

Science issue – Big Data: Friend or Foe?

16b-rebecca-stanley-standingWhen studying phenomena outside the controlled conditions of the lab there are a whole host of variables that can affect your results. How an animal population behaves one season to the next, or why one set of patients responds well to a drug while others don’t, can come down to a number of factors that are difficult to control for in experimental design. This is why sample size is such a key factor in research, ensuring that you have enough data points, covering a variety of different scenarios, can help to smooth out background noise and identify the key trends you’re looking for.

The era of “Big Data” we are now living in has helped with this problem of sample size as the vast amount of data available allows us to investigate different problems and ideas using rich and varied datasets.

Big Data is a exactly that, extremely large datasets – the threshold is a moving target but is generally considered to be in the petabytes, for context, one petabyte worth of MP3-encoded music would take 2,000 years to play! The types of data we can now bring together is only limited by the type of sensors we have; from all the different apps on a smartphone to heart monitors, weather stations and CCTV cameras. This vast and varied data requires new ways of thinking and new analytical tools to reveal relationships between variables and conduct predictive analysis of what might happen in the future.

The applications of this analysis are endless, from translation: Google Translate is based on Big Data statistical analysis of text, to personalised medicine: exploring healthcare data to see which drugs are most effective in which types of people.

I work for a company called Carbon Credentials and our mission is to use data to drive sustainable practices. By connecting carbon emissions data to operational data from buildings you can work out what is consuming the most energy and why. Is it a cultural issue: do people just need to get better at switching their equipment off before they leave for the day? Or is it an operational issue with the building: is the air conditioning and heating on at the same time? (This happens more often that you’d think). We work with large datasets from universities, businesses and hospitals to create tailored sustainability performance programs to optimise the use of buildings to reduce energy wastage and increase user comfort.

This type of data analysis may seem overwhelming, complicated or just dull! But it is revolutionising our lives for better or worse. We can expand scientific research, improve healthcare and reduce carbon emissions but our personal information is no longer our own – if you want to use pretty much any app on your phone you have to give access to your location, photos, contacts and more.

How many sites do you go on that make you accept the “cookies” that personalise your content and ads?

A University of Cambridge research group hit headlines in 2015 for creating an online tool that can predict your relationship status, intelligence levels, political & religious beliefs and sexual preferences just by analysing your Facebook likes. We offer up a lot of this information readily to Facebook but this analysis demonstrates how what you like, what you search for and what you buy can generate a profile which can determine factors such as what news articles will appear in searches. How this information is being used is helping to confirm existing biases and narrow our experience of the online world.

In a world that is increasingly polarising to the extremes of left and right I think it’s important that we consider how data can improve and connect the world rather than isolate and divide it.

Rebecca Stanley

Career Path: Understanding dark matter – a collaborative venture

16a-sarah-williamsAs a researcher on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, one of the things I love about my job is that on a day-to-day basis I get to interact with scientists from different backgrounds all around the world. The ATLAS collaboration includes around 3000 physicists from over 175 institutes around the world, all working together to answer fundamental questions about the elementary particles and interactions in the universe.

My work focuses on searches for new particles at the LHC, and in particular those that could help explain what makes up Dark Matter in the universe.

Astrophysicists now believe that dark matter makes up nearly 25% of the mass energy content of the universe (with only 4% being normal `baryonic matter’ which we can explain and the rest being dark energy, a mysterious substance that actually causes the expansion of the universe to accelerate). Although we don’t currently know what dark matter is made of, there is strong evidence that it could constitute a “weakly interacting massive particle” (or WIMP) which could thus be searched for in the high energy collisions at the LHC.

The LHC collides bunches of protons together around 40 million times a second, and recording these collisions requires enormous detectors (the ATLAS detector is around half the size of Notre Dam Cathedral in Paris and weighs as much as the Eiffel tower). Most particles produced in collisions decay instantly so we can only indirectly infer their existence by trying to reconstruct information from their decay products. The data is read off the detector, reconstructed and stored at large computing sites all over the world waiting to be analysed offline by particle physicists.

It is very rare to perform a LHC search on your own, it normally takes a group of a dozen or more physicists working together to produce the final result.

For example, I tend to work a lot on the statistical analysis, which considers quantitatively the level of agreement between the observed data and the prediction based on the Standard Model (which encapsulates our current understanding of the elementary particles on the universe).

Another aspect of my work that I appreciate is the variety of skills that I have gained and used over the years in carrying out my research. The large volumes of LHC data makes computer programming unavoidable, so I have had to learn a variety of programming languages including c++ and python. In addition to that, working in such a large collaboration requires strong communication skills. Before I started my PhD I had very limited experience of public speaking however I very quickly became accustomed to presenting on a weekly basis. I have also had the opportunity to present at international conferences around the world, including in Taipei, Moscow and later this month in Adelaide.

There are so many fundamental questions within the sciences that are waiting to be answered.

Challenges range from finding alternative energy sources that can be exploited on a global scale, to developing new techniques for the diagnosis and treatment of life-threatening diseases.  We need young women (and men) with a passion for new knowledge, the creativity to solve problems and the personal qualities to engage effectively in interdisciplinary teams.  It’s an exciting and rewarding field and can provide you with many unexpected opportunities along the way.

Sarah Williams