Science Week 2017: fungi in heritage buildings

Dr Clare Sanson, Senior Associate Lecturer in Biological Sciences, writes on Sophie Downes’ talk on fungi and conservation in heritage buildings.mushroom-2198010_1920The Department of Biological Sciences’ contributions to Birkbeck Science Week 2017 focused on ‘Microbes in the Real World’. Apart from that over-arching theme, however, the two sessions could hardly have been more different. The Week kicked off with a lecture by PhD candidate Sophie Downes on the interactions between fungi and heritage buildings. As far as I am aware, Sophie is the first Birkbeck student to have given a Science Week lecture; she spoke with confidence and clarity, and held her audience well.

Nicholas Keep, Executive Dean of the School of Science at Birkbeck, introduced Sophie as a graduate of the University of Lincoln who had worked in textile conservation before moving to Birkbeck to study for a doctorate in Jane Nicklin’s mycology lab. She began her lecture by explaining the context of her research: her job had been based in a large Elizabethan house that had problems with pests and condensation, particularly in the show rooms. The need to find out how best to preserve and repair organic material in buildings like this one led directly to her PhD studies.

In the UK we have a huge number of historic buildings, many of which are popular tourist attractions and play an important role in the local economy, particularly in rural areas. A large number of these are maintained by the National Trust or English Heritage, and many are open to the public for the majority of the year. The thousands of visitors drifting through properties will affect the number and types of micro-organisms, particularly fungi, found there. Sophie’s project included a year-long survey, starting in the autumn of 2013, of fungi found in 20 historic buildings in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. These included cottages and wartime tunnels as well as the more usual castles and mansions, so the survey could be expected to provide a snapshot of fungi and fungal damage in a wide range of historic properties in the UK.

When we think of fungi, we tend to think of so-called ‘macro’ fungi: this category includes the mushrooms we eat and poisonous toadstools, but also dry rot. Micro-fungi are harder to spot, but they are at least as pervasive and colonise an enormous range of organic matter, producing spores. For example, they are responsible for the blue colouration often found on stale bread and preserves. Micro-fungi will colonise almost any organic object that they find in their way, which, in the context of a historic building, might include wood, tapestry, leather book bindings and silk wall hangings. Sophie used air sampling and sterile swabs to obtain representative fungal samples from one outdoor and four indoor locations at each building and recorded the position of and features in each room or area selected, with its temperature and relative humidity.

Sophie landed up with a total of 4,000 samples to analyse, which, given her limited time, was too many for wholescale sequencing. She started by separating these according to colour and morphology and then selected representative samples for DNA extraction and ‘barcode screening’, and fewer for DNA sequencing.  A total of 158 different fungal species from 77 genera were identified, with the most abundant genera being Aspergillus, Cladosporium and Penicillium. Some of the organisms found in smaller quantities, including fungal plant pathogens probably from the outside air and bacteria, were shed from visitors’ skin scales. Both the number of colony forming units and the diversity of fungal species recorded increased during the summer months.

Resident fungi can carry a small risk to human visitors to the buildings and perhaps a slightly higher risk to curators, given their higher exposure times. Fortunately, only a small fraction of the fungi identified were ‘nasty’ human pathogens, and all but one of these were classified in the lowest-risk group, Category 2. A larger number were recognised as of potential risk to particularly vulnerable individuals with damaged immune systems, and more still are only hazardous to the external environment.

The temperature, the height of the building, the type of room and amount of furnishings were found to be the most important factors in determining the extent of fungal growth within buildings and if high colony forming units would be observed, and the three most common fungal species in both the air and the swab samples – Penicillium brevicompactum, Cladosporium cladosporioides and Aspergillus versicolor – have frequently been reported in organic material in historical collections worldwide.

Fungi damage textiles and other organic materials by secreting enzymes that break down polymers, forming secondary metabolic products that cause further degradation. This process has important effects on the physical, chemical and mechanical properties of the materials. Sophie described how she had evaluated each of these, starting with the effect of fungal growth on the physical properties of cotton. Cladosporium infestation is known to cotton fibres, causing an unattractive colour change that cannot be removed by cleaning. She incubated new cotton strips with several fungal species and monitored them for 12 weeks using a technique known as colorimetry. Each fungus caused a gradual colour change, with Cladosporium causing by far the darkest stains. She also reconstructed images of fungi colonising woven cotton fibres in 3D with confocal fluorescence scanning microscopy.

Most fungi have long, filamentous structures called hyphae that secrete enzymes at their tips as they grow. These enzymes break down large and small organic molecules into nutrients; it is the breakdown of large molecules – polymers such as collagen, cellulose, fibroin and keratin – that cause chemical damage to heritage materials. Chitin and keratin are among the most complex organic substrates that fungi can digest and require several enzymes to break them down. Nevertheless, the three commonest species of fungi all managed to reduce the protein content of protein-containing fibres significantly, with Penicillium causing particularly serious damage to collagen. Fungal digestion also changed the local structure of protein fibres. And one net result of this chemical degradation is a change in the mechanical properties of the materials; for example, fungal infestation tends to cause silk to become more brittle.

But what are the implications of these results for the conservation of objects in historic buildings? All the test were conducted on modern materials, and aged ones, which are already worn, are bound to be more vulnerable. Sophie ended a fascinating talk by suggesting that this research will help to inform conservation protocols for the handling, treatment and risk factors involved with fungal contamination of historic collections.

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CIMR Workshop – Engaging with Impact

This post was contributed by Lucy Tallentire from Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics

impact2How can academic research generate impact? What support structures are in place to promote and support impact? And how can impact be measured? These were just some of the questions up for debate at a unique workshop on “Measuring the Impact of Academic Research”, hosted by Birkbeck’s Centre for Innovation Management Research (CIMR) on 2 December 2016.

Research Councils UK defines research impact as ‘the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy’. This can involve academic impact, economic and societal impact or both. Academics are increasingly called upon to provide evidence of research impact, sometimes as a requirement to secure research funding and sometimes as part of formalised evaluation processes, which might involve providing quantitative evidence. As impact becomes increasingly important for academic visibility and even for the purposes of funding allocation, it is vital for the research community to better understand how it occurs and how it might be utilised to add value to the economy and society. Events such as the CIMR workshop provide a platform for collaboration and discussion, and Birkbeck was delighted to welcome experts, academics and policymakers from across the European research communities to join the debate.

The complex nature of impact

A much discussed theme of the workshop appeared not so much as, how can we generate impact, but crucially, how can we define impact, and how researchers benefit from a more concrete definition of what impact means in the context of their study.

Loet Ledesdorff, Professor in Dynamics of Scientific Communication and Technological Innovation at the University of Amsterdam, opened the first session with an insightful presentation on linear impact models and articulating societal demand. This provided an excellent starting point for participant discussion; he stressed the importance of understanding what impact is before it can be measured – after all, measuring is easy once we are aware of what and why we are measuring. While there are many definitions of ‘impact’, we must bear in mind that the way in which we choose to define it influences the measurements we obtain. Therefore it is paramount to establish a clear theoretical question to which researchers can refer back, after which an appropriate system to measure impact can be developed.

Talks by Martyna Śliwa from the University of Essex, Anne-Wil Harzing from Middlesex University and Fernando Galindo-Rueda from the OECD, brought further perspective on how impact can be measured by the results of the Research Excellence Framework 2014 (REF), from academic impact metrics and from key data indicators. They explored how research might be organised in order to generate greater impact; one key advantage of using impact case studies to assess the impact of research, for example, is that they allow a shift in focus from the impact of a single piece of research to the impact of a whole research programme. A research programme could be considered a more appropriate unit of analysis to assess the way in which research makes an impact on society, and probably on the development of science itself.

Promoting Engagement and Narrative

While all in attendance agreed that measuring impact must remain a high priority, both Loet Ledesdorff and Johnathan Adams, Chief Scientist at Digital Science, warned that current policy debate has too narrow a focus on measuring impact, at the expense of promoting it. A key issue for leading-edge university research is to identify “articulation points”, at which points different communities can meet. The workshop provided an opportunity to share tested methods and case studies to create a system of incentives that encourages researchers to generate impact. Rick Delbridge and Tim Edwards from Cardiff University showcased two of their projects designed to tackle societal “grand challenges”: the Social Science Research Park (SSPARK) and the Responsible Innovation Networks (RIN). These initiatives build on the view that in order to generate impact, the social sciences need to engage with stakeholders and allow them a part in identifying the problems universities could be focusing on. Stakeholders want a voice throughout the process of generating and showcasing impact – in the deliberation, evaluation and dispute of research.

Narrative has become a crucial instrument to showcase the impact of these kinds of processes, which also emerged from the case study presented by Federica Rossi from Birkbeck, Ainurul Rosli from the University of Westminster, Nick Yip from UEA, and Muthu de Silva from the University of Kent. This research group interviewed participants in Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTPs) and found that impact is achieved through sustained interactions within and outside the KTP, which result in knowledge co-production. The mutual benefits of the KTP start an organic ripple – the benefit of the KTP cannot be immediately established by stakeholders, but unfolds over a longer period of time. Broader economic and societal impact of knowledge co-production can be captured by asking key stakeholders to narratively reconstruct their interactions with academic research and how this, over time, has led to a change in their perspective – of the actors involved, and of their roles.

The CIMR workshop provided a space to consider and evaluate successful cases of academic impact, and to share ideas that might offer particular potential for impact academically and socially. The final panel discussion helped to draw out the key messages of the event:

  • It is important to keep the definition of impact broad, as research impact can take many forms;
  • Universities must make space for impact by creating a system of rules and incentives that encourages academics to seek impact;
  • Must also implement incentives that encourage interdisciplinary research because this kind of research is the most impactful;
  • The impact of teaching must not be neglected, since, particularly in the social sciences, one of the key avenues for generating impact is by teaching students how to think about the world in different ways

Thank you again to our Workshop Panel Chairs and Speakers:

  • Emanuela Todeva, BCNED
  • Loet Leydesdorff, University of Amsterdam
  • Jonathan Adams and Martin Szomszor, Digital Science
  • Martyna Śliwa, University of Essex
  • Anne-Wil Harzing, Middlesex University
  • Fernando Galindo-Rueda, OECD
  • Rosa Fernandez, NCUB
  • Rick Delbridge and Tim Edwards, Cardiff University
  • Nola Dundas-Hewitt, Queens University of Belfast
  • Steve Roper,University of Warwick15:00-15:30
  • Federica Rossi Birkbeck
  • Ainurul Rosli, University of Westminster
  • Nick Yip, University of East Anglia
  • Muthu de Silva, University of Kent
  • Jeremy Howells, Kellogg College Oxford
    Suma Athreye, University of Essex
  • Steven Hill, HEFCE
  • Gino Martini, Roche Innovation and King’s College

You can find out about future events on the CIMR website.

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19th Uddevalla Symposium: Is the Future Open?

This post was contributed by James Fisk, graduate administrator at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics. Here, James reports from the 19th Uddevalla Symposium, held at Birkbeck from 30 June to 2 July 2016. Read James’s first blog on the symposium.

Delegates attend the Open Innovation session at the Uddevalla Symposium hosted by Birkbeck

Delegates attend the Open Innovation session at the Uddevalla Symposium hosted by Birkbeck

The future is, and has always been, a contested space. A space in which hopes and fears of the present are projected and embellished, a destination we’re heading toward without having quite figured out all of the co-ordinates yet.

In a world changing as rapidly as ours, as new data streams emerge and we’re able to map the world in ways never thought possible before, attention must turn to the historic driver of change: innovation. Indeed, as odd as it sounds, innovation itself, or rather the mechanisms of innovation, must keep up with the times. The concept of Open Innovation, coined by Henry Chesbrough in his book ‘Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology’, takes this proliferation of data as its core consideration and asks that innovators remain open to a newly communicative world of research, ideas and data. So, what will a world invested in Open Innovation look like and is it the right model for innovators today?

Uddevalla and Open Innovation

A glimpse of this possible future arrived at Birkbeck between 30th June and 2nd July 2016 as the topic of Open Innovation was explored at the 19th Uddevalla Symposium. The annual symposium, held in the UK for the first time, invited over 150 academics, business leaders and practitioners from 27 countries to Birkbeck’s Bloomsbury campus to discuss, share and ruminate on the topic of Open Innovation – as part of this year’s ‘Geography, Open Innovation, Diversity and Entrepreneurship’ theme. The three day symposium saw keynote lectures in the morning and parallel paper sessions in the afternoon bring together diverse strands of research, with the Bloomsbury campus alight with fervent discussion and debate.

A keynote lecture from Professor Jennifer Clark, Director of the Centre for Urban Innovation at Ivan Allen College in the US, gave a tantalising insight into how Open Innovation is changing the dynamics of both private and public sector innovation. Her lecture, ‘Smart Cities and Social Entrepreneurship: Remaking Markets and Manufacturing Open Innovation Spaces’ discussed how future cities that best utilise advances in technology, particularly advances in logistics and data, will benefit the public, private and third sectors mutually. However, such advances are reliant on open platforms for software and effective, equitable technology diffusion. An attendant commitment to Open Innovation from both the private and public sector would be necessary too; the task of reengineering cities as sites of both innovation and sustainability is a challenging one with implications for all businesses, public services and third sector parties. Professors Clark’s timely lecture comes as the US city of Columbus has just been awarded $40 million dollars by the U.S Department of Transportation, to create innovative solutions for the future of urban mobility, undoubtedly a tentative first step toward the actualisation of Smart Cities.

Are we open or closed?

CIMR logoA utopian ‘internet of things’ however, is perhaps not as close as advances in technology suggest. The question of which model of innovation actually produces the greatest benefit is one fiercely debated and was the subject of the best paper award winner ‘The Paradox of Openness Revisited: Collaborative Innovation and Patenting by UK Innovators’.  The paper, written by  Professor Ashish Arora (Fuqua School of Business, Duke University), Professor Suma Athreye (Brunel Business School, Brunel University) and Dr. Can Huang, (Institute for Intellectual Property Management, School of Management, Zhejiang University), explores two seemingly contradictory strands of contemporary thought: should businesses innovate openly or protect themselves from ‘knowledge spill over’ and patent?

Their findings suggest that the answer is contingent on a number of factors, most notably the relative size of the business and whether it leads or follows in its chosen market. Their research edifies an ongoing debate among innovators, are we open or closed?

For more information about the 19th Uddevalla Symposium, you can visit their website. To see future events hosted by the Centre for Innovation Management Research, please visit their webpage.

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‘Geography, Open Innovation, Diversity and Entrepreneurship’: 19th Uddevalla Symposium at Birkbeck

This post was contributed by James Fisk, graduate administrator at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics. Here, James reports from the 19th Uddevalla Symposium, held at Birkbeck from 30 June to 2 July 2016.

Delegates network at the 19th Uddevalla Symposium held at Birkbeck this summer

Delegates network at the 19th Uddevalla Symposium held at Birkbeck this summer

“Silicon Valley is a mind-set, not a location” Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, once said. Indeed, his emphasis on ethos over geography is an interesting one, but successful entrepreneurial ecosystems, in an age of innovation increasingly dominated by monoliths such as Google and Microsoft, can be far more challenging and problematic than his assertion suggests. Can, and should, an innovation system such as Silicon Valley be replicated elsewhere?

This was just one of many questions up for discussion as Birkbeck hosted the 19th Uddevalla Symposium between the 30th June and 2nd July, the first time the symposium has been held in the UK. The three-day symposium which looks to bring together cutting edge research from leading academics, researchers and practitioners invited attendees to consider this year’s themes of ‘Geography, Open Innovation, Diversity and Entrepreneurship’.

Invited by Birkbeck’s Centre for Innovation Research Management (CIMR), researchers from across the globe came together for the annual symposium, with over 50 papers up for discussion, over 150 attendees arriving from 27 countries and expertise from fields as diverse as Canadian aerospace and Swedish E-Government.

Master of Birkbeck, Professor David Latchman CBE, conducted the formal opening of the event and welcomed an array of scholars, entrepreneurs and researchers to the college. Over the following three days, attendees heard keynote speeches from leading scholars in the morning, before parallel paper sessions saw fervent debate spread across Birbeck’s Bloomsbury campus in the afternoon. With at least four parallel sessions available on each day, it was a productive and busy few days for those interested in entrepreneurship and innovation.

As the latest research from across the world was to be found at Birkbeck, the symposium offered the chance for not only sharing papers, but for formulating new ideas and cultivating collaboration across industries, disciplines and national borders.

Speaking at the event, Birkbeck Professor of Entrepreneurship Helen Lawton Smith said: “It’s a huge privilege to host this event and bring together diverse and important strands of research in one place.”

CIMR logoSo, can, and should, we look to replicate Silicon Valley? The answer is, unfortunately, not as straight forward as the question. With Keynote speeches such as Professor Wim Vanhaverbeke’s (Hasselt University) ‘Open Innovation in SMEs’ and Professor Gary Cook’s  (University of Liverpool) ‘Cities and International Entrepreneurship: Towards an Integration of International Business, Economics, Geography and Urban Economics Perspectives’ attesting to the many complex regional and international factors that make-up often delicate entrepreneurial ecosystems across the planet.

The annual symposium ended on Saturday 2nd July, with PhD candidate Tina Wallin (Jönköping International Business School) winning the best PhD candidate paper award for her paper ‘Labour Knowledge Complementarity and Firm Innovativeness’. Professor Ashish Arora (Fuqua School of Business, Duke University), Professor Suma Athreye (Brunel Business School, Brunel University) and Dr Can Huang (Institute for Intellectual Property Management, School of Management, Zhejiang University) won the best paper award for their work ‘The Paradox of Openness Revisited: Collaborative Innovation and Patenting by UK Innovators’.

Those wishing to read more can find a wealth of information on the Uddevalla symposium website, where you can find working papers, previous winning papers and keep track of upcoming events. For similar events looking at innovation and entrepreneurship, check out Birkbeck’s Centre for Innovation Management Research (CIMR) webpage.

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