Undergraduate Research

by YPU Admin on February 21, 2014, Comments. Tags: material science and undergraduate research

Our ‘Undergraduate Research’ section will provide an insight into research conducted at an undergraduate level and feature case studies of undergraduate researchers at the University of Manchester.


Hi, my name is Rhys Archer and I graduated from the University of Manchester in 2013. I studied Materials Science and specialised in Textile Science and Technology, and had to undertake around 4 research projects a year based on lab work or industry examples. My 20,000 word final year project was in the form of an extended lab report and looked at the UV degradation of sail cloth material.

My research

I became interested in Textile Science and Technology (TST) as I have always had an interest in both Textile manufacture and Maths and Physics. I decided to study TST at university as I had worked at the government Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) in the materials engineering department as part of my work experience and had used laboratory methods to find faults in materials that had caused fatal accidents. These reports were then used in court as evidence for neglectful practice. I enjoyed the practical side to science, as well applying scientific knowledge to real world situations.

 Before my final year project, I undertook research in areas such as carbon fibre braiding, the use of Kevlar and other specialised materials in space material engineering, the structure and construction of body armour and the use of carbon fibre for the new Airbus design. I decided to concentrate on sail cloth material for my final project as I enjoy sailing, and have always been interested in the materials used for sails and sailing equipment and their resilience to natural factors such as wind abrasion or water damage.

The purpose of the project was to compare 3 different types of sail, subject them to different amounts of UV and then test their strength, tear and colour properties to see if there was any difference, and if so, if there was any trend in what type of material was the most susceptible.

In sailing, UV damage is the biggest commercial issue that affects everyday sailors as well as yacht racers, and so finding a UV resistant material would be ground breaking.

As I had decided to pursue my own research project, I found an industrial sponsor who supplied the material I tested and the specifications to test by. This was a great way to focus my research project, and meant that my research had commercial value. I used the equipment in the labs at The University of Manchester, including a light fastness machine, a tensile testing machine, a spectrophotometer and a scanning electron microscope.


Since completing my final year research project, my interest has been focussed more on the colour properties of materials and how these can be measured accurately. This field of study is referred to as Colour Physics or Colour Chemistry, and looks at what colour is, how it is measured, and the chemistry and math behind it. I enjoy it as there is a creative element with colour and textiles, which relates to design and photography, but with some complex math, chemistry and physics to understand.

Going further...

Find out more about studying Materials Science at The University of Manchester here.

Materials at Manchester – Graphene! Click here for more information.

Link to my final year project proposal presentation can be found here.

Click here for information on carbon fibre.

An interesting journal on textile composites used for space exploration can be found here.

A look at historic sailcloth can be found here.

For more information on modern sailcloth created by my sponsors, click here.

The Health and Safety Laboratory.


From vascular physiology to student recruitment

by YPU Admin on February 14, 2014, Comments. Tags: careers, PhD, Research, and science

As part of our Thinking Careers section, we explore the non-academic career options taken by those who have completed their PhDs. In this entry, Fiona Lynch discusses how she went from researching vascular physiology to working in student recruitment at the University of Manchester.



My name is Fiona Lynch and my current role is Student Recruitment and Widening Participation Coordinator in the University of Manchester.  I have always been interested in science and studied Biochemistry in University College Galway, Ireland.  Following this I moved to Dublin and did a PhD in vascular physiology in University College Dublin.  After this I moved to the UK to start my first academic job or post-doctoral job in the University of Manchester.  Originally I was supposed to stay for a three year contract but fast forward 14 years and I am still happily in Manchester, married with three young children.  


Current job

I work in the Directorate for Student Experience in the Student Recruitment and Widening Participation Team.  My job involves organising presentations and tours for schools who wish to visit the campus and get a taste for University life, organising the university open day and supporting the widening participation and other recruitment activities.  The job has a lot of variety and I am constantly learning new skills and drawing on transferrable skills I used when I was a researcher. 



My research

My first taste of serious research was during my PhD in Dublin where is studied how our pulmonary arteries behave to changes in carbon dioxide and pH levels as they would if challenged by various  pulmonary disease.  This interest in vascular physiology and a drive to broaden my horizons led me to the University of Manchester to start a three year post-doctoral research position to try and understand the behaviour of the body’s smallest arteries, the resistance arteries, to changes in blood pressure.  I studied human coronary arteries using pressure myography.  This allowed me to replicate very closely the environment these arteries would be exposed to in the human heart.  I was fortunate to be offered further contracts to continue my research and eventually settled into a project studying how the fat which surrounds our blood vessels affects their behaviour.  One of the highlights of this for me was being allowed to witness open heart surgery.  Others included trips to international conferences and the opportunity to convey my research and findings to peers, not to mention the chance to see parts of the world I wouldn’t normally go to.  Low points included experiments not working after endless hours in the lab (although this is par for the course for a researcher!) and grants being rejected (another normal occurrence in academic research). 



So how do you go from the lab to my present job?  The key message I would give is to develop your transferrable skills.  Crunching stats in Excel and creating presentations for conferences and writing papers are all excellent skills which can be used in many non-academic roles.  While I was a PhD student and Post doc I undertook lots of public engagement activities.  Some just involved going into schools talking about my work and career path, others involved working closely with teachers to develop academic enrichment activities and workshops.  I won funding from The Physiology Society and ran two big outreach events in the Museum of Science and Industry and I became a Widening Participation Fellow.  I also took advantage of all the staff/student development courses on offer and obtained a diploma in management.  When the time came for a career change I knew I wanted to work with schools in some way and continue with outreach work so all of the above helped me secure my current role, which I enjoy immensely.


Going Further

To find out more about research and heart disease, click here.

For more information about the world of Physiology, click here.

You can find more information about public engagement activities in the University of Manchester here.

The YPU's previous entry in the Thinking Careers section can be found here.


Ring the alarm!

by YPU Admin on February 7, 2014, Comments. Tags: Audiology, PhD, and Research


My name is Hannah Brotherton and I am a second year PhD student in Audiology. After finishing my A Levels in 2007, I studied Biomedical Science-Neuroscience for my first degree at University. I then did a Masters in Research of Biomedical Sciences Neuroscience in 2010, followed by another Masters in Abnormal and Clinical Psychology in 2011. In 2013, I began a PhD in audiology at the University of Manchester.

My PhD involves investigating a mechanism in the brain that may be involved in the development of tinnitus, also known as ‘ringing of the ears’. The majority of individuals that suffer from tinnitus usually have a hearing loss which causes less sound to reach the brain. The mechanism tries to compensate for the hearing loss by turning the ‘volume up’ and increasing the brain activity. A side effect of this over-amplification of brain activity is tinnitus.  

In Depth

What is tinnitus? Tinnitus comes from the latin word ‘tinnure’ meaning ‘to ring’. It is a hearing related condition where the sufferer hears a buzzing in their ears when no actual sound is present. The ringing can take the form of a high-pitched whining, electric buzzing, hissing, humming, tinging or a whistling sound. It has also been described as a ‘whooshing’ sound. For some, tinnitus can come and go, but for others it can be persistent and can cause a great deal of distress.

What do we think causes tinnitus?

There are many theories regarding the development of tinnitus. One theory is there is a mechanism in our brain that when a hearing loss is present, increases the brain activity which can be heard by the individual. 

Our brains are extremely ‘plastic’, which means the brain is able to adapt to any changes in the environment. For example, if the brain is damaged because of a head injury, it will adapt its function to try and compensate for the damage. This also happens when a person has a hearing loss because less sound than normal is reaching the brain, causing the brain to adapt and compensate for this change in function. A mechanism in the brain tries to compensate for the hearing loss by turning the ‘volume up’ i.e. increasing the brain activity.  However, a consequence of this ‘over-amplification’ of brain activity is that it can be heard by the person as a ‘ringing’ sound, which causes the condition tinnitus.

What do I investigate?

My aim is to understand this mechanism in more detail. I do this by getting normal hearing individuals to wear an earplug. The earplug simulates the hearing loss and the mechanism increases the brain activity to compensate for less sound reaching the brain. I measure a reflex of the muscles in the ears that reflects changes in brain activity.

When these participants remove the earplug at the end of the study, this mechanism detects there are normal levels of sound now reaching the brain again and the brain activity returns to normal. If more is understood about where and how this mechanism works, it might be possible to target this mechanism and reduce the brain activity as a treatment for tinnitus. Therefore, it is exciting to be part of research that could lead to an improvement in other people’s lives.

Going Further

You can visit this great website that introduces you to the basics of hearing.

To find out more about audiology and what the course involves, click here.

If you are interested in finding out about other research we do, have a look at this.

Also, have a look at a previous Young Person University blog about Audiology.


Analysing Laughter

by YPU Admin on January 31, 2014, Comments. Tags: literature and Research


Hi, I am Alfie, a final year PhD student completing a thesis in Literature and Philosophy at the University of Manchester. My thesis discusses the social and political effects of laughter in various contexts, and the way that laughter can be used and deployed in texts such as literature and film. My other main project is a editing a collective blog and a series of books called Everyday Analysis, which attempts to bring together philosophy and everyday life in new and interesting ways.

I have been at the University of Manchester for eight years, having done an undergraduate degree and a Masters before my PhD.  I teach philosophy, literature and poetry at the University, and also at Manchester Metropolitan University and Liverpool John Moore’s University.

In Depth

Having studied my literature degree at Manchester, I became interested in comedy and laughter, not just in literature but in film, TV, and in general social life.  My interest is in the various ways that laughter can be used to produce things and affect people – the way it can be used to make people think and act in certain ways. Take someone like Boris Johnson for instance – and the way that we are all supposed to think of him as a silly old fool:

Newspapers and media productions which see themselves as liberal and critical of Boris and his right-wing ways all love to mock and joke about what an idiot he is. Take this example from The Huffington Post.

I look at how these approaches are often more complex than they seem. In Boris’s case for instance, he knows exactly what he is doing in painting himself in this way. Much like George Bush, who made jokes about his own silly Bushisms, Boris is ‘in on the joke.’ What Bush and Boris are doing is making a split – a split between the silly old sod who makes stupid mistakes and embarrasses himself publicly and the clever politician capable of seeing the funny side and doing serious and intelligent thinking and policy making. The sillier and stupider Boris makes himself seem to us, the most we are forced to assume that there must be another Boris – the serious and real politician. His silliness and use of joking makes it appear as though he is really a serious and successful man. Analysing the role of laughter in our world can reveal important political tricks and realities like this.

The other side of my work is a project to bridge the gap between academia and the rest of the world.  I run a collective project called Everyday Analysis which analyses everything from Justin Bieber to Angry Birds and The Gruffalo. On the blog and in our books, we analyse books, TV, film, toys, games, posters, signs, political acts and literally anything which can tell us something about the way we live in our society. We think some of the most important texts of our world are not those considered ‘highbrow’ or ‘art’ but are popular and everyday things that we engage with, usually without thinking  about critically.

Going Further

Have a look at the blog and follow us on Twitter or Facebook

My main project is available here.

There is also a book available here

You can see a bit more about studying laughter and jokes in a literary context here at the Journal of Victorian Culture. 

And you might also find the Everyday Sexism project interesting.


Cryptography and the Alan Turing Cryptography Competition

by YPU Admin on January 24, 2014, Comments. Tags: maths and Research


Hi, I'm Phil, a mathematics Ph.D. student at the University of Manchester. As part of my position as a Widening Participation Fellow, I've recently been learning about cryptography and its history. In this post, I'd like to give a short introduction to cryptography and publicise the Alan Turing Cryptography Competition, run by the School of Maths here in Manchester.

Cryptography is the practice of "encrypting" a message so that it can (hopefully) only be read by the person it’s being sent to, who is usually given a key to "decrypt" the message.  There are many different ways to encrypt messages and just as many ways for a nosey person who intercepts the encrypted message to try and crack the code. A method of encryption is called a "cipher".

Roman Cryptography

One of the earliest known users of cryptography was the Roman general Julius Caesar (100BC-44BC), who liked to encrypt his messages by shifting each letter of the alphabet by a certain number of places. For instance, if he wanted to encrypt a message by shifting the alphabet 23 places, his message alphabet (or "plaintext") would be replaced by a cipher alphabet (or "ciphertext"):

Then, the message "ATTACK AT DAWN" would be encrypted as "DWWDFN DW GDZQ". The recipient of the encrypted message would be told the number of places that the alphabet had been shifted (the decryption key), and would decrypt the message by simply shifting each letter backwards by this number of places. Due to its famous proponent, this cipher is commonly called the "Caesar cipher".

The Caesar cipher is pretty much as simple as it gets when it comes to cryptography; there are only 25 possible shifts of the alphabet (since the 26th shift sends the alphabet back to its original form). So, if a rival general were to intercept the message "DWWDFN DW GDZQ", with the knowledge that it had been encrypted using the Caesar cipher, they would just have to try out all the different shifts of the alphabet until the decoded text gave a coherent message. For this reason, the Caesar cipher is not a very secure method of communication.

More Complicated Ciphers

A cipher similar to the Caesar cipher can be created by scrambling all the letters of the alphabet in a more general way, for example:

There are over 400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 different ways that we could scramble the alphabet using this kind of cipher, so it seems like it must be much more secure than the Caesar cipher – it would take a very long time to try out all the different combinations. However, there is a relatively simple way to crack this kind of cipher. The trick is to count how many times each letter appears in the ciphertext; if the language is English, the most common letter is most likely to be “e” once the message has been decrypted. The other letters can be decrypted in similar ways by looking at which is the second most common, which is the third most common, and so on. This method is known as “frequency analysis”.

A way for a cipher to defeat this kind of frequency analysis is to use a different cipher alphabet for each encrypted letter. One example of such a cipher is the fearsome Enigma cipher used by the Nazi army in the Second World War. Messages were encrypted using an Enigma machine set up in a certain way (the way the machine was set up provided the key to decryption) and then decrypted by the recipient using another Enigma machine set up in exactly the same way. So, if you intercepted a German message and were in possession of an Enigma machine, you'd be able to decrypt a message easily, right? Wrong. There are 158,962,555,217,826,360,000 different ways to set up an Enigma machine, so checking all of the different settings would be effectively impossible, and frequency analysis wouldn't work because each letter is encrypted using a different cipher alphabet.

The Competition

The Enigma code was eventually cracked (with the help of many others) by Alan Turing, an ingenious codebreaker for the British government and the man that the Alan Turing Cryptography Competition is named after. This competition provides a chance to compete to break ciphers as fast as possible. It is open to anyone who is in year 11 or below, working together in teams of 4 or less. Visit the website and give codebreaking a go!

Going Further

The Alan Turing Cryptography Competition website, which also contains a more detailed introduction to cryptography.

The official website for the Bletchley Park National Code Centre (Bletchley Park was the home of British codebreakers such as Alan Turing during the Second World War):

A YouTube video explaining how the Enigma machine worked.

A simulator of the Enigma machine - click here.

An excellent and very well-written introduction to cryptography is given in Simon Singh's book The Code Book

The life and work of Alan Turing is documented in the biography Alan Turing - The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. 

A dramatic account of the Battle of the Atlantic and the “pinches” of Enigma keys from U-boats and weather ships that enabled the Naval Enigma code to be decrypted is given in Seizing the Enigma by David Kahn.

Find me on twitter @pearce_maths