Profiles: earth science and sustainability

As one of the world’s leading sustainability-minded universities, Plymouth engages in research focused on terrestrial science and issues relating to societal change and stability. Earth science and sustainability represents a broad range of work, including agriculture and rural affairs, robotics, transport, ecotoxicology and advanced engineering, as well as key areas of business, such as tourism, governance and policy, and workplace ethics.

Profile: Professor Jon Shaw

We love flying; we love riding on trains; we enjoy driving and we want to continue to do them, as hallmarks of a civilised society, but we need to do it in a way that is more environmentally friendly, economically beneficial and socially just.

A Professor of Transport Geography, Jon Shaw has been on the fast road to national recognition thanks to a research portfolio that has sought to understand the true costs and benefits of travel to people and planet.

It’s an approach encapsulated by his most recent book, The Transport Debate, (his eighth!), which brings together nearly 20 years of research on travel and mobility, and frames it through the experience of the people undertaking those journeys.

“Since 1996, I’ve being trying to understand holistically where travel, transport and mobility fit into the economy, society, and the environment,” Jon says. “This book brings together those perspectives but considers them from that experiential viewpoint.”

It is, says Jon, a question of ‘smarter choices’; you can’t expect people to leave their cars at home and use ‘sustainable’ public transport if the service that is offered to them is poor. And the answers to travel and mobility conundrums are not always provided by further investment in transport infrastructure – they require a deeper assessment of cultural and social factors.

Having researched transport systems around the world, Jon’s expertise has been drawn upon by influential bodies such as the House of Commons Transport Select Committee. And as Director for the Centre for Sustainable Transport, he leads an acclaimed research group that is winning millions of pounds worth of research grants and is working across genuinely impactful projects, from the introduction of smart ticketing on public transport to assessing the transport needs for an ageing society.

Profile: Associate Professor Mohammed Zaki Ahmed

Voyager is communicating with us from interstellar space, billions of miles away using the equivalent of a 100-watt light bulb. That’s inspirational!

“The energy we received from Mars when the exploration Rover beamed pictures back to Earth was less than that generated by a snowflake landing in your hand,” says Dr Mohammed Zaki Ahmed, Associate Professor of Information Technology in the School of Computing and Mathematics.

The impact of Dr Ahmed’s research, however, is anything but as gossamer light thanks to his world-leading insight into the way communication and code can transform energy efficiency.

A renowned expert in digital signal processing, error correction coding, and communication theory, he’s been a key member of the Centre for Security, Communications and Network Research. Working alongside his mentor Professor Martin Tomlinson, Zaki has lent his expertise to a range of projects, from signalling systems in the rail industry to near-field communication technology in the housing market, and has been integral to the centre’s generation of more than 300 of the best-known error correction codes.

“We have become addicted to energy, we can’t get enough of it,” he says.

“All around us we see computers, phone chargers, flat-screen televisions, and they’re only using half of their power efficiently; I think we can do better than that.”

It’s an aspiration that has coursed through Zaki’s life and work from a formative age. Growing up in a university environment in Nigeria, he experienced both the frustration of extended periods without electricity, as well as the illumination of being involved with his father’s research on soil fertility and crop yield.

An outstanding student and courted by some of the top universities in the United States, Zaki came to Plymouth in 1996 to complete the final year of his degree. He was so inspired by his teachers that he turned down the likes of Georgia Tech to remain in the city and study a masters and PhD, becoming a permanent member of staff in 2001.

His work on solar power and energy efficiency in computers is now attracting serious commercialisation interest, and is currently cloaked in confidentiality to protect its intellectual property. It is, he knows, a chance to tackle the energy problem, reducing the amount we consume and increasing that which we can produce from renewable sources.

Profile: Professor Angelo Cangelosi

If we look at the way nature has evolved human cognition it can be used to build machines that act like humans in a safe manner, bringing together neuroscience and psychology to push robotics in a new direction.

If there is one face that has come to personify the University’s rapid rise towards world-class status for robotics research it is iCub, the baby robot who is learning and teaching scientists in equal measure about language acquisition.

The man behind that face, however, is Angelo Cangelosi, Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Cognition, and the Director of the Centre for Robotics and Neural Systems (CRNS). Together, Angelo and his team in the CRNS are leading some of the most profound research projects in the University - and beyond.

From the development of robots as companions for children in hospitals and home-helps for the elderly, to the re-mapping of computer cognition itself along biologically inspired lines, the centre is calling upon the principles of human cognition to test whether robots can ‘learn’ and develop like children.

“It is relatively easy to build robots for factories and production lines where they carry out autonomous tasks with little variation,”

says Angelo, who joined the University in 1997 as a lecturer in AI and moved into robotics nine years later. 

“But how do you go from that constrained environment to an open one? What we are trying to do is design robots that interact in open and complex environments like residential homes or hospitals.”
It is a question that began to formulate with the pan-European ITALK - Integration and Transfer of Action and Language Knowledge – the project that made iCub the poster child of robotics research. And it has gathered pace with subsequent projects, such as the £3.4 million Marie Curie international training network, and the ongoing £1.2 million BABEL: Bio-inspired Architecture for Brain Embodied Language, alongside the revered Professor Steve Furber, designer of the BBC Micro and the ARM microprocessor.

Profile: Professor Camille Parmesan

I think it is tremendously important that the University has created this type of role in which scientists are rewarded for actively engaging in communication to the public and policy makers. I think those universities that do not will become dinosaurs.

Renowned for her research on the impact of climate change upon wildlife, and the first scientist to demonstrate that an entire species had shifted its natural range in response to changes in temperature, Camille Parmesan, Professor of Global Change Biology, has a truly international focus - and an international profile.

In her role as Chair in Public Understanding of Oceans and Human Health, Camille engages with bodies such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature and policy makers in governments around the world, to raise awareness of climate change and global warming.

It is a position based upon years of research and thought-leadership in the field, as evidenced by her contribution as a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2007, which won the Nobel Prize. It afforded her recognition to the level that she was selected as one of the 27 ‘Brave Thinkers of our Time’ by Atlantic magazine alongside the likes of Barack Obama and Steve Jobs.

“This area of science has such an immediate relevance to society, and that motivates and inspires me,” Camille says. “It has genuine impact, and it is vital that we as an academic community engage with policy makers and make them aware of the changes that are happening to our global systems.”

Camille took up the role, jointly funded by the Marine Institute and the National Marine Aquarium, in 2011, joining from the University of Texas (where she still retains a lab). She’s been involved with a variety of projects since, including the first global meta-analysis of the effect that warming oceans are having upon marine species, and the pulling together of scientific evidence on levels of emissions that define ‘dangerous climate change’.