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How we think, and how we think we think, and what does it have to do with financial regulation?

by YPU Admin on April 20, 2017, Comments. Tags: Banking, Behavioural Economics, Humanities, Law, PhD, Policy, Research, and UoM

Introduction

My name is Elena and I’m a second year PhD student at the University of Manchester School of Law. I research the ways in which the ideas of how people think and make decisions impact regulation of banks and banks’ handling of risk. This is an important matter because banks have a significant place in the economies of most countries, and their behaviour is key to the economic and financial welfare of society.


How I got here

I completed a 4-year law degree in Russia, after which I decided to continue my education in the UK. After a law conversion course (GDL) I enrolled on an International Business and Commercial Law Masters programme at the University of Manchester. I was particularly attracted to the financial regulation module because of the enormous impact financial services have on society – the crisis of 2008 being a stark example. One of the lectures included a small bit about behavioural economics – a study of how our psychological traits influence our purchasing, investing, and other economic decisions. I thought that that was a fascinating topic – and after reading more about it, decided to do a PhD on it even though I had never considered becoming a researcher before.

In Depth

To make any (not necessarily economic) decisions, our brain needs to process large amounts of information in a short amount of time. Processing all of it in a comprehensive manner would require a lot of mental effort. Considering the amount of decisions we make on a daily basis, if every one of them required a lot of time and effort we would not be able to function normally. To rectify that, our brain developed thought patterns that help us to process information quicker. One of those thought patterns is called ‘availability heuristic’. When thinking about a certain topic or the probability of an event happening, our mind immediately refers to the most prominent belief or a vivid piece of information in our memory. This can cause a mistake in judgement. For example, people start worrying about a possible earthquake a lot more if they recently saw an earthquake report in the media. Another example is people estimating the crime rate in the area a lot higher after seeing a murder report on TV. And these are just a couple of examples – there are many thought patterns, or heuristics, that make our decision-making easier but also make us make mistakes along the way.

For a large part of the 20th century, the common academic opinion was that people tend to be rational, process all available information in a comprehensive way, and only make the most beneficial decisions for themselves. This approach became popular with governments as well, particularly in the US and the UK. This view resulted in designing policies and regulations that were aimed at those perfectly rational individuals. When confronted with human irrationality, government regulations and policies failed because people did not act as they were expected to. This was a part of the reason for the 2008 crisis.

Now that academic and government circles have largely accepted inherent human irrationality, policies can be adjusted to reflect the reality of human behaviour. In some areas – for example, consumer protection – there is a lot of progress. But others, such as financial regulation, require a lot of modification to reflect the true nature of human decision-making. My research aims to make regulation of banks more effective by designing a behavioural framework of board-level financial decision-making that can be used as a policy foundation.

Going Further

I enjoy my research because I find learning about how humans make decisions, and how the way our brain works influences the law, fascinating. Here are some interesting websites where you can learn more about this area:

https://www.behavioraleconomics.com/introduction-to-be/ - a comprehensive introduction to behavioural economics, including the primary research in the field.

https://hbr.org/2009/07/the-end-of-rational-economics - a Harvard Business Review article explaining the role of the presumption of rationality played in economics.

https://www.ft.com/content/9d7d31a4-aea8-11e3-aaa6-00144feab7de - a Financial Times article on applications of behavioural insights in public policy.

http://www.behaviouralinsights.co.uk - Behavioural Insights Team’s website. It’s a social purpose company partly owned by the UK government that is dedicated to devising ways to apply the insights of behavioural science to public policy.

http://nudges.org - a blog about choice architecture.

 

The Search for Alternative Energy Sources

by YPU Admin on March 16, 2017, Comments. Tags: chemical engineering, energy, Fuel Cells, PhD, Research, STEM, and UoM

Introduction

My name is Romeo Gonzalez and I am a 1st year PhD student at the School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Sciences. After graduating from my Bachelor degree, also in Chemical Engineering, from my home county, Mexico, I successfully applied for a scholarship from my Government to come and study here in Manchester. I started on a Masters degree called an MPhil. This is sometimes a PhD preliminary year where you research a specific field before starting a full PhD in the same research area and is the path I took to becoming a PhD student.


My PhD focuses on applying new materials, such as graphene and reduced graphene oxide, into fuel cells. Fuel cells are devices capable of generating electricity through a chemical reaction, making my speciality electrochemistry.

In Depth

Currently most of the devices we use in our daily lives require a power supply, from the kettle we use for our morning coffee to the bus we use to get to work or school. This demand of energy is increasing every single day and is one of the most worrying problems humanity is facing.

So far, the solution to this problem hasn’t been found, but, most people believe that the solution lies in the use of multiple types of alternative energy sources. One of those alternative sources are fuel cells, more specifically, PEM fuel cells (proton exchange membrane fuel cells). These are small devices that can generate electricity through a reaction that takes place in the heart of the fuel cell, the Membrane Electrode Assembly. This is comprised of two electrodes stuck together with only a thin membrane separating them. The chemical reactions split a fuel - such as hydrogen, methanol or formic acid - into protons and electrons, which releases the chemical energy trapped inside that goes on to form electricity and water, thus generating power at a high efficiency with a low impact to the environment.

They are similar to batteries in the sense that both are electrochemical devices. However, in the case of batteries, they contain a set amount of power storage within them, whilst fuel cells produce a constant flow of energy as "fuel" flows through it.


So, why are we not already using them? Well unfortunately, fuel cells face different kinds of problems that need to be solved before they become as commonly used as batteries. In the case of hydrogen or formic acid, storage and handling of the fuel is a major safety issue, whilst low power production is an issue facing methanol fuel cells. Another problem this technology is facing is the use of expensive materials as a catalyst (a material used to kick start the chemical reaction), without which the fuel cells would not function. This problem is being tackled by finding alternative materials to try to improve the performance of the device. I’m looking specifically at using graphene in a number of different varieties.

So, what’s Graphene? Graphene is a relatively newly discovered two-dimension material that is known to possess multiple qualities, such as being highly conductive, highly resistant, ultra-light, transparent and is the thinnest material possible that could improve our daily life devices, including fuel cells. The objective of my PhD is to explore the use of this material in formic acid fuel cells to improve its power generation and efficiency, making it an excellent alternative source of energy.

Going Further

If you'd like to know more about fuel cells, visit this page:

http://americanhistory.si.edu/fuelcells/basics.htm  

If you want to know what kind of research is being carried out into fuel cells, visit:

https://energy.gov/eere/hydrogen-fuel-cells-blog  

If you're keen to know more about Graphene, visit the University of Manchester, the home of Graphene: http://www.graphene.manchester.ac.uk/  

Or if you want to know what you can do as a chemical engineer and how to become one, visit:

http://www.whynotchemeng.com/  

 

Story-telling and identity through film in Spain

by YPU Admin on March 3, 2017, Comments. Tags: film, Humanities, Identity, PhD, Research, Spain, and UoM

Introduction

Hi! I’m Nikki Tomlinson and I’m in my second year of a PhD in Spanish Studies. My project involves analysing films made in Spain in the past 10 years to see what they can tell us about regional identity. Spain is made up of 17 autonomous regions, a bit like counties in England, but they are often much larger as there are not as many of them. I’m researching two autonomous communities: Andalusia, the largest region in the country, in the south of Spain; and Catalonia, in the north-east.


In Depth

The two regions of Andalusia and Catalonia have very different histories and cultures, but over the course of Spain’s history, they have often been unable to express an idea of what constitutes their own regional identity. Film is an incredibly powerful story-telling tool that can reach a huge number of people, so I use film to investigate what these stories can tell us about how each region perceives itself – and wants to be perceived – today. I do watch a lot of films for my research, but I find my project so interesting because I see it as combining several disciplines – cultural studies, politics, history, and even law and economics..!

At a time when debates surrounding national identity and what it involves are in the news on a daily basis, my topic feels exciting and relevant, and the field is certainly fast-paced! I have recently come back from fieldwork in Spain, where I have so far attended four film festivals in Andalusia and Catalonia. Film festivals play an important role in my research, as they can determine how many people see a film, or which countries those films are distributed to – often, if a film wins an award, it means that it can reach an international audience. I was able to see a huge number of recently-released films, as well as to meet filmmakers and discuss their work with them. I find it highly enjoyable seeing the changing shape of the film industry in the regions and the innovations that professionals are devising to continue making the films they want to make. I am able to keep in contact with the people I met at the events in Spain, and it’s very interesting to see people winning awards for their work. There are new developments every day, so it’s certainly a dynamic project to work on!


How I got here

I completed an integrated Masters in Modern Languages (specialising in French and Spanish) at the University of Manchester, which I loved. I then worked in a range of fields, from managing the development of a start-up business in Spain, to marketing, to teaching English as a foreign language! I had always thought that I wanted to take my studies of Spanish culture further, and while I was working in Andalusia as an English teacher, an idea for a proposal came to me. I finally bit the bullet and wrote to my previous lecturer at Manchester, explaining my idea. I put together a proposal and applied for funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I was delighted to receive the funding, and have never looked back!

Going Further

Manchester is very lucky to have a branch of the Instituto Cervantes, a Spanish language centre with a library, dance and culture courses and lots of activities: http://manchester.cervantes.es/en/default.shtm

There are a number of Spanish film festivals around the UK throughout the year, which are great for seeing a range of films from Spain and the Spanish-speaking world. One of these is the ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Festival, held at Manchester’s HOME arts centre around the Easter holiday: https://homemcr.org/event/viva-spanish-latin-american-festival-2017/

For more news and information about the Catalan film and television industry: http://www.catalanfilms.cat/en/index.jsp

And for Andalusia: http://www.fundacionava.org/

 

Fats, blood and DNA! Is there a link?

by YPU Admin on February 17, 2017, Comments. Tags: Blood, BMH, DNA, Fats, Genetics, PhD, and Research

Introduction

Hi, my name is Kathryn McGurk and I am a cardiovascular genetics researcher – I study DNA changes that lead to heart attacks and strokes. My PhD is with the Division of Cardiovascular Sciences here at UoM, funded by the Medical Research Council.



How I got here

At secondary school I loved Biology and Chemistry, and after working as a medical receptionist, I knew I wanted to be in healthcare. I studied Natural Sciences for my undergraduate degree at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland – a general sciences course which allows you to specialise in the last two years in a science of your choice. I joined thinking I would become a chemist, but fell in love with DNA studies and therefore specialised in genetics. My final year project was trying to find out what animal an unknown 8,000 year old piece of bone can from, using DNA analyses (it was a sheep!). After this project and work experience reading DNA for a breast cancer testing kit, I knew I wanted to do a PhD in genetics and aid in cures for disease.

In Depth

For my Ph.D., I use mass spectrometry to measure fats in blood. A mass spectrometer is a machine that can measure substances at really low concentration in blood. These fats are not like cholesterol, as they can kill cells, change the size of blood vessels, and cause pain. I am trying to find out if the levels of these fats in families with high blood pressure are passed down from parents to children through DNA. I will also find if their concentrations in blood are linked to DNA – if they are increased or decreased with changes in DNA. Changes in DNA change proteins which are formed from DNA. If a DNA change makes a protein which cannot produce a fat anymore, the fat might be at low levels in the blood of people with this DNA change, which could be good or bad for heart attack and stroke risk. I hope that by identifying fats which are important in cardiovascular disease genetics, they can be used to make new tests and treatments for heart attacks and strokes.

A typical month for me involves extracting fats from blood samples in the lab and running these on the mass spectrometer. I then go through the data the mass spectrometer produces and work out the concentrations of each fat in each family member. After some important data checks, I can use computer software to see if these fats are passed down through families and if DNA has a role in their levels in blood. I love how many different activities my work involves; lab work, mass spectrometry, and computer programming. Alongside research there is a lot of fun activities that I can get involved in – I am a student representative to help students with any troubles they have and I am a widening participation fellow, so I get the opportunity to teach A-levels students research skills and produce science workshops for students thinking about university. A PhD allows a lot of travel; I trained twice in Cambridge last year and I was given the opportunity to travel to Cape Town, South Africa this year to meet students there and learn more about genetics. With this Ph.D. I can stay in a university setting in the hopes of setting up my own lab someday, become a teacher, or work with industrial labs to help drugs being developed.

Going Further

Read: An obvious choice, but a great scientific read: http://www.nature.com/

Search: The Google of medical research: www.pubmed.com

Watch: David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8aFcHFu8QM

Study: http://www.manchester.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/courses/2017/00585/bsc-life-sciences/

More: Women in Science Blog: https://womenareboring.wordpress.com/

 

What is Graphene and what can it do?

by YPU Admin on January 31, 2017, Comments. Tags: graphene, PhD, Research, STEM, and UoM

Introduction

Hi, my name is Rory Brown and I’m in the second year of a PhD in theoretical physics. Specifically, I’m a part of the Graphene NOWNANO CDT at the University of Manchester, a programme that takes in students from all STEM backgrounds and trains them to do research in different areas of nanotechnology, mostly related to graphene and other similar materials – I use computer modelling to study how graphene behaves when we combine it with other materials to make electronic devices, and try predict if anything unusual will happen. I’ll tell you a little bit about what graphene is and hopefully explain why it’s so exciting, then what a PhD is like and how you can get there.


In Depth

Graphene was discovered here in Manchester in 2004, through an experiment so simple you can do it in 5 minutes at home. We start with graphite, the same material that we use in pencils. If you’ve ever held a piece of graphite, you might notice that it feels slippery and waxy – this is because graphite is made of layers of carbon atoms, organised in hexagons and stacked together like a deck of cards. Each layer is strongly held together but can freely slide over one another, and when you write with a pencil you break these layers apart, leaving some behind on the page. Graphene is a single one of these layers, and for a long time people argued that a single layer couldn’t actually be separated from the others, thinking it would be too unstable. It’s actually surprisingly easy to make – reaching in with a piece of scotch tape, the Manchester team was able to pull these layers apart over and over, until they finally had flakes of single layers of graphene, a material 10,000 times thinner than a human hair. Given that it’s only one atom thick we say it’s a ‘2D’ material, and since its discovery we’ve found a whole family of materials that can be made 2D.


Picture a: a sheet of graphene. Picture b: how graphene stacks are weakly bonded to make graphite.

So now that we’ve made it, what can graphene do? As well as being incredibly thin it has some remarkable properties, being incredibly flexible as well as the world’s strongest material: if you had a sheet big enough it would take the weight of an elephant balanced on a pencil to break through it! Industries are already looking into using graphene to make stronger, lighter materials for e.g. cars and aerospace travel. I’m interested in its electronic properties: electricity in graphene travels without any resistance, only 300 times slower than the speed of light, which gives it a lot of potential for energy-efficient electric devices.

One of the ways to make these devices is to combine graphene and other 2D materials, making thin sandwiches of different materials. What we’re left with is a stack only a few atoms thick, and the atoms in each layer can have different properties – one can be an LED, or a sensor. This is where I come in, making computer programmes to try and describe what happens in these layered materials. Working as part of this big group effort to improve our understanding of this new technology is very exciting and rewarding.

How I got here


My path to doing my PhD was fairly straightforward – I studied an MPhys in Physics here in Manchester, and my interest in graphene led to me staying. This isn’t always the case, and the NOWNANO CDT is a great example of how this can work: the people I work with come from a variety of backgrounds across all of STEM, some having spent time in industry beforehand. I’d love to continue with research, but there’s a lot of potential in PhD studies beyond that: you can go into scientific research or work in industry, or if that’s not your thing the skills that you learn (independent research, problem-solving, numeracy, presenting…) can lead to just about any job you can name. It’s a fascinating position to be in that’s full of opportunities all around the world.

Going Further

If you’re interested in some of the cutting-edge graphene research facilities that we have in Manchester, I recommend looking at the National Graphene Institute and NOWNANO websites:

http://www.graphene.manchester.ac.uk/

http://www.graphene-nownano.manchester.ac.uk/

The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester also has an exhibit on graphene and other ‘Wonder Materials’ running until June 2017 that’s worth a visit:

http://msimanchester.org.uk/whats-on/exhibition/wonder-materials

Graphene also tends to pop into the news every now and then because of the promising factors just mentioned, so keep an eye on the science sections!


The National Graphene Institute.