Writing a History of History

by YPU Blog on January 8, 2015, Comments. Tags: history, holocaust, judaism, manchester, memory, museum, poland, Research, and Sociology


Hi, I'm Janek and I'm a historian, sort of. I specialise in memory studies. I research how people remember the past and why the way they imagine it changes. You could say I write a history of history. After all, what we write as historians changes the perception of the past the most. You could also say that what I do is not history at all, that it's sociology or cultural science. It's very confusing, even for me!

But let’s pretend I'm a historian. After all, I did graduate in history from Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. Then, two years ago, I moved to Manchester to do a PhD here. I do memory studies and, in particular, I look at how the Holocaust was remembered in my home town, Krakow.

In Depth

But what does it really mean? One of my case studies is an old Jewish Town in Krakow. For years, it lied neglected but, in the past couple of decades, it has turned into one of the most popular and fashionable spots in the City. Think Castlefield. It's like Castlefield without the canals and with synagogues instead. In my research, I try to find some traces of Jewish heritage in this now fashionable area. I look at how the Jewish relics have changed over time and how they have contributed to making the place so popular.

My other case is the local history museum, like the Imperial War Museum. The History museum in Krakow has always had an exhibition about Jewish history, but, only a couple of years ago, it was turned into the most important part of the museum and its biggest attraction.  How did this happen? What did curators tell us about Jewish history at the old exhibitions and what do they tell us now? And my favorite set of questions: Why do we believe them? What do they do to back up the story they tell? How do they convince us that what they say is important?

The best part of my project is that it can actually make a difference. People often think that writing about the past is not important for the present; Scientists change lives, not historians. But with a project like mine it’s different. I get to talk to museum curators and  planners and show them my findings. So there is a good chance that next time when you go to museum in Krakow you will see an exhibition with my ideas in it!

Going Further

If you're interested in history museums: or here

And if you want to read more about the cool old Jewish District:,artykul,zydowski_krakow.html


Researching the Squishyness of Foam

by YPU Admin on December 25, 2014, Comments. Tags: algorithms, applied, business, computer, cycling, finance, foam, helmets, industry, maths, model, patentlaw, pressure, and syntactic


My name is Maria Thorpe and it's now only 10 months until I have to submit my thesis for a PhD in applied maths.

My route to a PhD

I moved up to Manchester 7 years ago really excited to be going to university and studying for an undergrad masters in maths for the next 4 years. I loved every minute of my undergrad, but by the beginning on the fourth year still didn't really know what type of job I wanted when I finished. I was still enjoying my subject and I'd really enjoyed a research project I'd been sponsored to complete over the summer between third and fourth year, so I decided to apply for a PhD on a similar topic in applied maths. 

In Depth

Since then I've been trying to mathematically model the way in which a specific type of composite squashes under pressure. I work with a material similar to syntactic foam, similar to the  sort of foam cycling helmets are made from, however instead of creating small cavities within the material by injecting air into it, tiny hollow balls (called shells) are mixed into the foam before it sets, forming a composite. These micro shells are created from very stiff, glass-like materials and help stiffen the material under low pressures, but under high pressures they crumple like a coke can. I want to understand whether having shells close to each other changes the way the composite reacts to pressure: do the shells reinforce each other and allow the material to withstand higher pressures? Or do they have the opposite effect and cause the composite to squash more than if they were far apart?

The company sponsoring my research wants to understand how their material works so that they know how to improve it. It would take too long to try out all the different ways the shells could be mixed into the foam, and might involve buying new machinery, so it makes sense to model the material instead. Creating a very flexible model means that the same model can be used for many different applications, so I try to model the material theoretically, by extending the models previous generations of mathematicians have created. This means that most days are spent making very small steps forward with my research, but when a whole section comes together it can be really rewarding.

Aside from working on my thesis my PhD has enabled me to travel to some really great places: I spent a month in New Zealand with a company having a go at the more experimental side to my research; I've traveled to conferences all across Europe; and I've spent three months working in parliament to learn how science influences policy.

Moreover these last three years have allowed me to discover all the ways maths is used in industry and business, from patent law and government policy to computer algorithms and financial trading, so that this time round, when it comes to looking for post PhD careers, I have a much clearer idea of where I could go from here.

Going Further

If you'd like to read more about my research and that of the group I work with, the waves in complex continua group, check out our webpage:

There’s also an interesting article on the use of syntactic foams for deep sea exploration here:


Mending a broken heart

by YPU Admin on December 11, 2014, Comments. Tags: britishheartfoundation, cardiovascular, cells, heart, medicine, Research, and treatment


Hi! My name is Abi Robertson and I am a second year PhD student in the cardiovascular group at the University of Manchester. After finishing my A Levels I started an Anatomical Science degree at the University of Manchester. This was where my love for the heart began! Following my undergraduate degree I completed an MRes in Cardiovascular Health and Disease here and this enabled me to apply for a PhD funded by the British Heart Foundation. You can find more information on my PhD and the other cardiovascular courses available here .

My PhD project is called ‘Targeting the Hippo signalling pathway to enhance the protective effects of iPSC-derived cardiomyocytes’ (A bit of a mouthful!). In short this means I am looking at how cells signal within themselves to divide and to see if we can target this to help stem cells become heart cells and survive.

But why?

In Depth..

During a heart attack the blood supply to the heart is stopped. Lack of blood and oxygen damages the heart cells. This can result in a severe loss of cells in sections of your heart. Unlike other tissues in your body, such as your skin, cells in the heart cannot heal themselves. This leaves an area in the heart that cannot beat like the surrounding tissue. This is called an infarct area.  If the infarct area is quite large it can affect how your heart functions, leads to health problems and even heart failure.

For the heart to be able to function normally again the heart cells need to be replaced. Attempts are being made to heal the heart by creating heart cells in the lab from stem cells. Using new technology we can re-programme skin cells into stem cells. The skin is an excellent source of cells as they are easily available. These stem cells are called Induced Pluripotent Stem cells. These cells can then be turned into any cell type in the body including the beating cells in the heart. The hope for this therapy is that these cells can be used to make patches and be placed on the heart like a plaster.

Before this is possible we need to make sure the heart cells we are using are able to survive in the challenging environment of the infarct area. Firstly, the infarct area has low oxygen and nutrients, so the cells need to be able to cope with this. Secondly, it is estimated over a billion cells are lost after a heart attack so a lot of heart cells are needed!

This is why my PhD project is looking at the signalling within cells and seeing if we can create cells which survive but also divide in tough environments. We hope to create super heart cells!

Going further..

I really enjoy working in this area of research. It’s a relatively new area so there are always lots of exciting discoveries! Hopefully one day using stem cells as a therapy will become the treatment of choice for people who have suffered a heart attack!

Here are a few links if you would like any more information on the area:

The Stem Cell Network has created some excellent videos on ‘What are stem cells?’

Explore an interactive comic about stem cells:

An excellent TED talk by Susan Soloman on the use of induced pluripotent stem cells:

The National Institute of Health has an excellent website that covers pretty much everything you could want to know about stem cells:

A stem cell story:

YouTube user John Schell has some great videos of beating heart cells that have been derived from Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells:

This BBC article discusses a clinical trial that is underway to see if stem cells can heal broken hearts:


You might be a cyborg!


My name is Scott Midson and I'm in the third year of a PhD in Religions & Theology (R&T). In my research, I look at how technology changes the way that we think about ourselves. More specifically, I explore the idea of ‘creation’, which is an important religious idea, and ask what it means to re-create ourselves or to create things like robots.

In depth

I didn't always know I was going to be studying robots and religion, though! Going back a few years, I came to university (at Manchester) with an interest in the sociology of religion. I didn't study religion at A-Level but was given a place on the ‘BA Religions & Theology (Religion & Society)’ programme because of my interest in the subject. Here, I looked more and more at ideas about technology and how new media technologies influence our beliefs. I then took a year out and did some travelling, but when I returned to the department as a postgraduate, I came across a very interesting essay by Donna Haraway called ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, and I loved it so much that I ended up writing a PhD thesis on it!

In the essay, cyborgs are used as metaphors for the ways that we interact with technology and how we cannot separate ourselves from the technologies that we use everyday. Think about the technologies you use everyday: could you live without your computer, for example? Or your mobile phone? Or what if you had no access to a clock – how would this affect you and society? We are cyborgs, the argument goes, because we live so closely with our technologies.

But not everybody likes the idea that we are cyborgs. For some people, there is a limit to how much we should embrace technology – think here of dangerous robot-like cyborgs in ‘The Terminator’ or ‘Star Trek’. Or, imagine that a new technology becomes available that would surgically implant your phone in your body. Would you want it? Would it be any different to always having your phone with you in your pocket?

A lot of people fear invasive technologies like this, and a big part of my research is finding out why. This is where I link what I study to religion: in Christian theology, humans are described as created in the ‘image of God’. Although what the ‘image of God’ means is unclear, there seems to be a link between the ‘natural’ state of humans (i.e. when they were created by God) and the use of ‘unnatural’ technologies. I thus question religious ideas about the ‘natural’ human and the ‘image of God’ in order to look at how we can use the cyborg metaphor better and not fear it so much.

Going further

One of the best things about what I study is how frequently these themes and topics appear in popular culture. Most sci-fi films and books make reference to how technology changes the human, and you’d be surprised at how many of them involve religious and theological ideas in some way! If you’re interested in this topic, then a good place to start exploring further is to ask how technology is portrayed next time you watch a (sci-fi) film.

 Other useful sources to get you started are:

Charlie Brooker’s TV miniseries ‘Black Mirror’ ( – all episodes are available online (but many do contain some shocking images and offensive language)

I keep a research blog where I post intermittently on films, programmes, and even billboards that catch my attention ( (I also tweet some stuff about my research - @scadhu)

This ‘cyborg anthropology’ site ( gives a fairly good and accessible overview of the metaphor of the cyborg

If you’re interested more generally in the sort of stuff we get up to in Religions & Theology at Manchester (we don’t all want to be priests or vicars!), then check out this page ( Alternatively, the Lincoln Theological Institute (LTI) page ( shows some of the more specific work that some people in the department do. The LTI is a think-tank that does its own projects but is connected to the University of Manchester R&T department. 


Applying mathematics to real-world problems

by YPU Admin on November 13, 2014, Comments. Tags: aerodynamics, appliedmaths, manufacturing, mathematics, maths, and Research


I'm Phil, a student at the University of Manchester in the final year of a PhD in Applied Mathematics, which means I apply mathematical ideas to solve physical problems. I started out doing a Mathematics MMath (a four year undergraduate course) here in Manchester and my A-levels included Maths and Further Maths. You might think that all this studying would make me feel like I know a lot of mathematics, but in fact the more you learn, the more you realise there is left to learn.

In Depth

So, what do I actually mean when I say I “apply mathematical ideas to physical problems”? Well, imagine you’re a car manufacturer who wants to test how aerodynamic a certain part of a new car is going to be. You could build a prototype of this part, using your current knowledge of how to build something that’s really aerodynamic, and test this prototype in a wind tunnel. During this experiment you could measure all sorts of useful data such as the drag caused by the wind as it flows past the part.

Now, what if you want to slightly change the shape of the part and test it again? You could, of course, build a slightly different prototype and test this again in the wind tunnel. But this would cost both the time and money necessary to build the prototype all over again. If you want to test a lot of different prototypes, the investment of time and money (on just this single part) could really start to mount up.

This is where an applied mathematician could come in. With mathematics, you can build a model of the prototype in a wind tunnel using all of the physical laws that we know it would obey. You can then write down the equations that the object would satisfy and either use clever mathematical tricks to solve them on paper or put them all into a computer to solve them (essentially using a computer to perform a virtual experiment). This can gain you a crucial advantage; once you’ve built the model, you can (hopefully) solve it for many different versions of a part much faster than the time it would take to build a whole set of prototypes and test them in a real wind tunnel. And, best of all, solving the model doesn’t cost you anything at all!

This kind of thinking can, of course, be applied to an almost limitless array of physical problems. In my specific research, I investigate how flames propagate through gaseous mixtures of fuel and oxidiser. Since my work is all in the form of solving equations on paper or simulating the physical system on a computer, I never have to get burnt or accidentally set myself on fire (you might see this as a positive or a negative, depending on your viewpoint). I’m hoping that this will lead to a post-doctoral position at a university, where I can continue to both research mathematics and teach the mathematicians of tomorrow.

Going Further

The website for the School of Mathematics at the University of Manchester can be found at

Information on the applied mathematics research at the University of Manchester can be found at

It’s not specifically about applied mathematics, but if you’re interested in maths I’d strongly recommend reading a book called “Euclid in the Rainforest” by Joseph Mazur – it’s both interesting and very readable.

Finally, I recently wrote a blog on cryptography for the Young Persons University, which can be found at

Find me on twitter @pearce_maths