Inaugural professorial lectures 2017
'Moor to Sea without the Car' book cover. Illustration by Lucy Pulleybank

Noisy Embryos: why variation early in development matters

Inaugural professorial lecture by Professor Simon Rundle, School of Biological and Marine Sciences on 14 December 2017.

There has been a prevailing view in biology that the way in which organisms ‘put themselves together’ is genetically controlled and fixed. Any variation during development might be viewed as ‘noise’ - a nuisance that prevents a clear interpretation of how genetic control works and that, ultimately, can lead to the death of the embryo.

In this inaugural lecture, Simon presented recent research on the embryos of aquatic animals, which demonstrates that variation in developmental itineraries can in fact be substantial, and increase when embryos experience stressful environmental conditions. He proposed that, rather than being a bad thing, such variation could be important in driving evolution and in enabling species to survive the current rapid changes to the Earth’s environment.

Technological advances in bio-imaging have been central for revealing variation in the developmental itineraries of microscopic embryos, reiterating a long-standing link between image making and embryology. In the second part of his lecture, Simon explored this connection, on a journey that included ‘idealised’ embryo drawings and accusations forgery, the computer automation of embryological measurement, and contemporary installations that draw on the scientific videos of embryonic development.

Strong and Stable Structures: tiny details and sustainable solutions?

Fibre pullout in a composite fracture surface

Inaugural professorial lecture by John Summerscales, Professor of Composites Engineering, School of Engineering on 30 November 2017.

This inaugural lecture explored how fibre-reinforced polymer matrix composites enable lightweight, stiff, strong and stable structures with wide application across, amongst others, the transport and energy sectors.

The talk focused on three research highlights:

  • how changes in fibre distribution can significantly affect the strength of the composite: the work reduces each microstructure image to a single real number (fractal dimension) then correlates data to that parameter,
  • how the fibre area correction factor allows accurate prediction of the 'highly variable' strengths for natural fibre composites, and
  • whether natural fibre reinforcements are truly the 'green' option relative to glass fibre?

John is a Chartered Engineer, Chartered Environmentalist and Chartered Scientist. His career outside academia has included indexing patents and five years on a high-profile defence research project. His experience has evolved through chemistry, physics, material engineering and sustainability issues initially in polymers with a long-term focus on fibre-reinforced composites. His publications include 4 (co-) edited books, 12 chapters in other editors’ books, 3 patents, 72 refereed journal papers and well over 100 conference papers.

Citizen Geographies, Citizen Geographers

'Moor to Sea without the Car' book cover. Illustration by Lucy Pulleybank

Inaugural professorial lecture by Richard Yarwood, Professor of Human Geography from the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences on 3 November 2017.

Ideas of citizenship are widely used in daily life. ‘Citizenship tests’ are used to determine who can inhabit a country; ‘citizen charters’ have been used to prescribe levels of service provision; ‘citizens’ juries’ are used in planning or policy enquiries; ‘citizenship’ lessons are taught in schools; youth organisations attempt often aim to instil ‘good’ citizenship; ‘active citizens’ are encouraged to contribute voluntary effort to their local communities and campaigners may use ‘citizens’ rights’ to achieve their goals.

In this talk, Richard drew upon his work on volunteering to argue that an appreciation of geography is crucial to understanding citizenship and its dilemmas. At the same time, he suggested that ideas of citizenship have the potential to draw together aspects of social, political and cultural geography to deepen understandings of people and place. Finally, he argued that citizenship should not just be an object of study but, rather, a way of engaging geographers with the world.

The making of the European landscape: people and pollen in the past

Inaugural professorial lecture by Professor Ralph Fyfe from the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences on 26 October 2017.

The landscapes we inhabit today have been greatly transformed over millennia of human actions. Understanding the processes, timing and scale of change caused by society has long been of interest to a wide variety of researchers, from archaeologists to conservation ecologists, and increasingly climate scientists who seek to explain the role of land cover change in global climate. Pollen records from lakes and bogs underpin much of the reconstruction of past landscape change.

In this talk Ralph offered his perspectives of working with pollen records across a range of scales, from individual sites associated with archaeological excavations in south west Britain, to continental-scale syntheses that draw upon hundreds of records to describe the impact of the development and spread of agriculture across Europe.

The science of big boulders

Inaugural professorial lecture by Anne Mather, Professor in Geomorphology, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences on 30 June 2017.

As outstanding features in the landscape, boulders have long captured the imagination of humans. We have exploited them for shelter, weaponry and gold exploration. We have included them in our mythology and recreational pursuits and featured them prominently in cinema entertainment.

The name ‘boulder’ is thought to originate from the Scandinavian ‘bullersten’ (‘noisy stone’), with reference to large stones in rivers, and in the early stages of the development of the geosciences in the 18th century, large boulders were thought to be synonymous with biblical flood origins. As the science developed into the 19th century their linkage to ice transport was established.

As the geosciences progressed into the 20th and 21st centuries so too our appreciation of the possibilities for landscape interpretation offered by the humble boulder developed. Today the presence and properties of boulders have been used to understand and reconstruct extreme flood events, glacial environments, landslide activity, tsunami events, storm-generated waves and earthquake activity on Earth as well as understanding processes on comets and planetary bodies such as Mars. Recent developments in geochronology have highlighted them as valuable archives for constraining how quickly our landscape evolves using techniques such as Cosmogenic dating.

In this lecture, Anne examined how her field-based research involving boulders from tsunami, landslide and flood landforms and their deposits has contributed to our understanding of landscape change on a variety of temporal scales.

These timescales include geomorphological processes on geological timescales in exceptionally preserved landscapes of the Atacama Desert and High Atlas Mountains of Morocco through to historic flood events in Spain. Consideration was given to how this research can help us understand the engineering challenges of the future on our changing planet.

Evidence-based Practice in Education: Inspiration and Frustration

Inaugural professorial lecture by Garry Hornby, Professor of Education and Associate Head (Research), from the Plymouth Institute of Education on 31 May 2017.

The lecture focused on the development of evidence-based teaching practices for improving student outcomes, the identification of which has provided inspiration throughout Garry's career.

Eight key evidence-based teaching practices were identified from the literature and Garry's own research. Brief accounts of their theoretical and research evidence bases were provided, along with brief guidelines about their usefulness. Common barriers to the use of evidence-based teaching practices that are frustrating their implementation were discussed. Finally, guidelines were presented for ensuring that evidence-based teaching practices are embedded in the daily practice of educators.

Of crabs and men: the evolution of ritualised fighting in animals


Inaugural professorial lecture by Mark Briffa, Professor of Animal Behaviour, School of Biological and Marine Sciences on 11 May 2017.

Animals must compete with other members of the same species over ownership of limited resources such as food, shelter, territory and mates.

The resulting animal contests involve a range of aggressive behaviours from displays of strength through to outright fighting. Given its near ubiquity in the animal kingdom, the evolution of aggressive behaviour has been the subject of intense research interest, with a particular focus on an evolutionary puzzle at the heart of the topic: If Natural Selection produces selfish individuals, why do they typically show restraint during fights? Rather than fights being resolved through fatalities or serious injury, in most examples we see ritualised contests that allow losers to end the contest by deciding to give up.

Mark's research group tests hypotheses about this giving up decision, focusing on the roles of assessment, motivation and energetic costs, and drawing on ideas from the related areas of animal communication and animal personality research. Mark reviewed their work on non-injurious fighting in hermit crabs and fights that can involve injuries in sea anemones and red wood ants. As well as looking at the evolution of fighting Mark also considered how the way we study fights has ‘evolved’: Many of the ideas used to study animal contests are actually based on concepts from human behaviour, so can studies of aggression in other animals tell us anything about aggression in humans?