Current Science Group Programme 2021/22

Click here to go back to the Science page

Science Group meetings will, until further notice, be virtual only. A link to the hosting Zoom meeting will be posted to members by email in the week before the meeting. The meetings start at 19.15, but will be open for joining from 19.00. If you plan attending it would be usful if you could inform us by emailing science@edinburghu3a.org.uk beforehand.

Recording of Science Group lectures are often available. Links to these can be found in the Previous Lectures section below.

July 21
Engineering Yeast to Produce High-Value Chemicals
Dr Tessa Moses, Metabolomics Specialist and Facility Manager, EdinOmics, The University of Edinburgh

Synopsis: There is an ever-growing consumer demand for environmentally friendly, sustainably
produced ingredients for application in everyday products. This includes the demand
for surfactants derived from renewable and sustainable feedstock to reduce
environmental impact and the reliance on surfactants obtained from petrochemical
sources. Saponins are naturally occurring surfactants produced by a variety of plants
and constitute a structurally diverse group of glycosylated triterpenoids and sterols.
Plants rich in saponins have been used for millennia as natural cleansing agents and
have potential for broad product applications. However, saponin extraction from plants
is often variable in composition and is not cost effective or commercially scalable for
mass market industrial application. Therefore, a microbial production platform for
saponins is required to offer scalable volume, competitive price point and a consistent,
optimised product specification of saponin material. We are tackling key challenges
restricting the broader commercial application of saponins, by producing them in yeast
to enable a sustainable scalable supply. I will introduce the world of high-value
chemicals in plants and explain the various strategies

Previous lectures

June 16
Co-evolution of Mineralogy and Life
Dr Rachel Walcott, Principal Curator, Earth Systems, National Museums Scotland

• Earth's surface harbours at least 5809 known minerals, but when Earth first formed 4.65 billion years ago, it had about 420. Moreover, what is common on the surface today was uncommon then. Many rocks and minerals have come into being while others have become extinct.
• The overall increase in the number and types of minerals through time arose from a sequence of interactive geological and biological events.
• Minerals helped life get a foot hold on Earth. Two billion years later biological processes were key to the forming two thirds of the mineral diversity we have today.
• Bob Hazen's 2008 paper landmark paper introducing the Evolution of Mineral Diversity has grown into a whole branch of research on biological-mineral interactions. A cabinet of rocks and minerals in the Restless Earth Gallery of National Museum of Scotland is devoted to explaining this fundamental concept and was one of the first public displays to do so.
• I will introduce the key components of co-evolution of mineralogy and life, linking theory with examples on display.

19 May
This meeting has been cancelled due to illness. We hope to re-schedule it in the autumn
Energy, Environment and Sustainable Chemistry
Dr Caroline Kirk, School of Chemistry, The University of Edinburgh

17 February 2022
Weather Matters
Alex Hill, Chief Adviser to Scottish and NI Govts, retired, and former Head of London Weather Centre

Weather in context:

• how weather has impacted on our history

• how it impacts now

• why it is more important than you think.

How the science of meteorology has developed and some of the key players.

How the atmosphere works and the science therein, from simple thermodynamics, through data gathering, to some of the complexities of modelling.

What the model outputs look like.

A recording of tbis talk can be viewed here:

16 December 2021
What lies beneath?
How we can use genome sequencing to uncover the unseen dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 epidemic waves in the UK
Dr J T McCrone, Institute of Evolutionary Biology, Molecular Evolution, Phylogenetics and Epidemiology, The University of Edinburgh

While useful, simple epidemiological models do not account for the diverse causes of epidemic spread. Understanding the causes of pathogen spread requires a detailed model of how transmission happens within and between communities. SARS-CoV-2, like most RNA viruses, quickly evolves as it spreads through a population. Virus epidemiology and virus evolution are linked, and understanding one helps us to understand the other. We can use SARS-CoV-2 genomes to reconstruct the virus's evolution and its epidemiological spread.

I will discuss how we have used the huge, international sequencing effort to characterize SARS-CoV-2 spread in the UK, with a focus on the first wave and the recent Delta wave. We will discuss how these findings inform our expectations of Omicron in the UK.

A recording of this lecture is available here:

18 November 2021
Applications of Synthetic Biology
Dr Louise Holyoake, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Edinburgh.

Louise will give an introduction to Synthetic Biology in general then cover a couple of examples of its application. She will also talk about some of the issues that are faced in Synthetic Biology, such as the use of genetically modified organisms.

A recording of this lecture is available here:

17 September 2020
A New Musica Universalis: The Birth of Gravitational Wave Astronomy
Presented by Dr Daniel Williams, Institute for Gravitational Research, The University of Glasgow

When gravitational waves were detected for the first time five years ago on 14 September 2015 by the goliath LIGO detectors in the USA the world was shaken. The publication of the detection became frontline news not only in scientific publications, but mainstream news outlets around the world.
At the centre of one of the most truly international efforts in the history of astronomy were scientists from Scotland and the UK.
In this talk I'll introduce some of the background about what gravitational waves are, how we detect them, and how some of the major local contributions to this effort have been vital in the development of the field.
Over the last five years we've gone from making the first detection, to making regular detections of gravitational waves, and I'll talk about some of the highlights from what we've seen so far, and what we expect to see in the future, and the challenges we face to continue to improve our detectors and analysis techniques as the field matures.

A recording of this lecture can be viewed here:

15 October 2020
Towards Transparent and Responsible AI
Presented by Dr Vaishak Belle, Chancellor's Fellow in Human-like Computing, School of Informatics, The University of Edinburgh

Artificial Intelligence (AI) provides many opportunities to improve private and public life, and it has enjoyed significant investment. Indeed, discovering patterns and structures in large troves of data in an automated manner is a core component of data science. Machine learning currently drives applications in computational biology, natural language processing and robotics. However, such a highly positive impact is coupled to a significant challenge: when can we convincingly deploy these methods in our workplace? We will briefly cover history of the field and then discuss some take steps taken towards a commonsensical, transparent, fair and responsible AI.

A recording of this lecture can be viewed here:

19 November 2020
Regenerative Neurology – the Future
Presented by Professor Siddharthan Chandran, MacDonald Professor of Neurology and Director of Edinburgh Neuroscience at The University of Edinburgh

Disorders of the ageing brain are a major public health threat. Our brains are the most complex organ we have – the last area of human discovery – which explains why in over 40 years we’ve failed to find cures for neurological diseases like Parkinson’s, MS and motor neurone disease. Now disruptive technologies including stem cell creation are offering opportunities to accelerate the discovery of new medicines and we are on the cusp of a revolution for regenerative neurology.
A recording of this lecture can be viewed here:
(Note that the recording starts about 30 seconds into the lecture)

17 December 2020
Probing the Dark Side of the Universe with Weak Gravitational Lensing
Presented by Dr Ben Giblin, Research Cosmologist at The Royal Observatory, School of Physics and Astronomy, The University of Edinburgh

In my talk I will describe
• how we use gravitational lensing to map the large-scale structure of the Universe;
• what this technique tells us about dark matter and dark energy;
• the challenges facing this method;
• and the tensions which have recently arisen between the results from weak gravitational lensing and those from the cosmic microwave background.

A recording of this lecture can be viewed here:

21 January 2021
CCS: A Technology in Waiting!
Presented by Allan Mathieson, Science Group Member, formerly CCS Team Leader, Senergy and Lloyds Register

Global Climate Change caused by significant increases in greenhouse gas emissions (largely Carbon Dioxide) since the start of the Industrial Revolution and subsequent global temperature increases is considered by many to be a major issue for life on Earth. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has been identified by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) as one of the key technologies to mitigate the effects of increasing greenhouse gas emissions and global temperatures. The talk will discuss the technical aspects and status of the long term secure geological storage of CO2.

A recording of this lecture can be viewed here:

18 February 2021
Sorry, no meeting in Frebruary

18 March 2021
Memory, how it works and why it sometimes fails
Dr Paul Hoffman, Psychology and Language Sciences, School of Philosophy, The University of Edinburgh

Our memory can be at times remarkable and at other times infuriating. One moment, we vividly remember a house we’ve not seen since childhood; the next, we fail to recall the name of someone we met five minutes ago. Why are some memories so persistent and others so fragile? To try to answer that, I’ll present some of the highlights of the last 50 years of memory research. I’ll show that memory is supported by multiple brain systems interacting with each other and that, contrary to popular belief, some of these systems actually become stronger as we get older.

A recording of this lecture can be viewed here:

15 April 2021
Dangerous neighbours: finding ways to live with active volcanoes
Prof Jenni Barclay, Professor of Volcanology, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia

Globally some 800 million people live within 100 km of the world’s 1431 active volcanoes. In developing countries alone some 722 million people are exposed to volcanic hazards. A strong challenge associated with volcanic eruptions is their longevity - the median length of an eruptive episode is 6-7 weeks and some have carried on for decades and even centuries. Activity during these episodes can change rapidly and landscape and infrastructure devastation resulting from volcanic activity can be locally complete or partial (within the footprint of tephra fallout). Learning to live alongside volcanic activity presents many challenges and this talk describes some of the solutions available, even in resource constrained settings. It makes the case that working in partnership and collaboration with affected populations can even markedly improve the strength of our scientific insights into how volcanoes work.

A recording of this lecture can be viewed here:

20 May2021
Studying senescence in Soay sheep on St Kilda
Prof Dan Nussey, Chair in Evolutionary Ecology, Institute of Evolutionary Biology, University of Edinburgh

While it is often thought that wild animals don’t live long enough to show signs of deterioration in old age (senescence), long-term field studies now show that senescence is ubiquitous and important in natural populations.

Evolutionary theory provides us with an important framework for understanding the ageing process in nature, while genetic and molecular studies in the lab have identified pathways which may regulate the ageing process.

I will present work which attempts to integrate these perspectives by measuring physiological markers linked to ageing (immunity, telomere length) in a thirty-five year study of Soay sheep on the remote St Kilda archipelago.

A recording of this lecture can be viewed here:

17 June2021
Phage Therapy
Dr Josh Jones, Division of Infection Medicine, Edinburgh University Medical School

Viruses. We’ve all just about had enough of them.
Viruses are all dangerous and disruptive, right?

Bacteriophage – literally ‘bacteria eaters’ – are viruses of bacteria. Discovered in the UK in 1915, bacteriophage (usually just called ‘phage’) have been used somewhere in the world to treat bacterial infection since 1919.
This talk will introduce to you phage, walk you through the intriguing history of phage therapy and explore the modern renaissance of phage therapy.
By the end of this talk, I hope you’ll agree, that some viruses are good after all.

15 July 2021
High Throughput Approaches to Engineering Biology; The Edinburgh Genome Foundry
Dr Rennos Fragkoudis, Manager, Edinburgh Genome Foundry, The University of Edinburgh; and
Dr Peter Vegh, Computational Biologist, Edinburgh Genome Foundry, The University of Edinburgh

This talk will explore Engineering biology, in particular High Throughput Approaches to Engineering Biology. The Edinburgh Genome Foundry at the University of Edinburgh has recently purchased some exciting new equipment, which when added to our existing facilities, make Edinburgh capabilities unique and really revolutionise the work we are able to do.
Hear about the unique engineering biology facilities at Edinburgh, which transform traditional ways of working. We present an overview of our unique capabilities for high throughput engineering biology and use case studies to illustrate the potential.

A recording of this event can be found here:

20 August 2021
We're all on holiday!

16 September 2021
Animal Welfare
Prof Michael Appleby OBE, Visiting Professor in Animal Welfare, Scottish Agricultural College

Many people care for animal welfare, but defining, assessing and improving it is a challenge, particularly in livestock farming with its economic pressures. Yet improvements have been achieved in many countries, and further progress is important to increase the sustainability of agriculture and other animal uses.

A recording of this event can be found here:

21 October 2021
The feathered revolution — the last 20 years in theropod palaeobiology
Greg Funston, Royal Society Newton International Fellow, Grant Institute of Earth Sciences, The University of Edinburgh

In this talk, Dr. Funston will overview the major advances in the field of theropod palaeobiology in the last 20 years. He will introduce the major research themes, discoveries, and paradigm shifts that have led us to our current views of feathered dinosaurs, the evolution of flight, and the wonder of the Mesozoic world. Drawing from his own work and the latest science, he will provide an accessible but up-to-date account of the cutting edge research palaeontologists are undertaking to understand the colours, behaviours, and growth of feathered dinosaurs—and how innovative young scientists continue to push the envelope. From toothless beaks to tiny tyrants, his talk will show how our views on theropods have radically changed, painting a new picture of dinosaurs as successful, birdlike animals rather than the doomed, mal-adapted beasts often portrayed._

A recording of this event can be found here: