Graduate Research Seminars

The Graduate Research seminars are held fortnightly on Monday lunchtimes during Term time and bring together St Catharine's Fellows and Graduates in an informal setting. Seminars last about 30 minutes, with 15 more minutes afterwards for discussion.

Lively discussion usually takes place after each seminar, bringing together St Catharine's Fellows and Graduates in an informal setting. All are warmly invited to attend.

About the seminars

The College’s Graduate Research Seminars are an opportunity for St Catharine’s Graduate students of all disciplines to present their research to a non-specialised audience comprising Fellows, other research students and interested guests.  Once each term, a Research Fellow is also invited to give a talk. This is because Research Fellows are typically similar to graduates in age and research experience. Furthermore, Research Fellowships form a possible next step in a Graduates' career.

Seminars are held in the SCR where a free buffet lunch is available starting at 12.45pm and seminars start at 1pm and last about 30 minutes. A further 15 minutes lively discussion takes place after the talk, with seminars concluding at 1.45pm.

2017/18 Seminar Series

The dates and speaker for this year's seminars are given below. 

Monday 16 October –  Michael Rivera (PhD in Biological Anthropology): “There’s plenty of fish in the sea: coastal living and eating in the prehistoric Baltics”
Monday 30 October – Basile Wicky (PhD in Chemistry): "Take it with a pinch of salt: revisiting a century-old phenomenon in the context of protein disorder"
Monday 13 November – Natasha Watts (PhD in Geography): Investing for impact: finance and farming in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania
Monday 27 November – David Battersby (PhD in Chemistry) "High-throughput Chemistry: The art of doing more with less"        

 Monday 12  February–  Sarah Foley (PhD in Sociology) Great Expectations?  Do Mothers' and Fathers' Prenatal Thoughts and Feelings about the Infant Predict Parent-Infant Interaction Quality? A Meta-Analytic Review” 
Monday 26 February – Etienne Fodor (Junior Research Fellow in Mathematics): “Statistical mechanics of active matter: dynamics and structure of self-propelled particles”
Monday 12 March– Anca Serban (PhD in Geography):  “Can we have it all?  Feeding a hungry world while conserving biodiversity”

Monday 7 May – Alejandro Jimenez-Sanchez (PhD in Medical Science/Cancer Research UK) “Heterogeneous Tumor-Immune Microenvironments among Differentially Growing Metastases in an Ovarian Cancer Patient ”
Monday 28 May–  Rachel Seary (PhD in Geography) “Mangroves, fisheries and community livelihoods - Case studies of Indonesia and Cambodia”



16 October 2017
Michael Rivera – PhD in Biological Anthropology

“There’s plenty of fish in the sea: coastal living and eating in the prehistoric Baltics”

This seminar explores the evolution of human diet and behaviour in the context of prehistoric Estonia and Latvia. Anthropologists and archaeologists answer questions about the lives of people, both in the past and living today. A vast literature has focused on the beginnings of farming, and what life was like in the first permanent, large-scale settlements roughly 10,000 years ago. Much of human behaviour and biology has been influenced by the particular technologies and changing environments to which people were exposed. Communities in Northeast Europe underwent a unique transition into agriculture, as they also lived near ample amounts of water-based sustenance, and relied on such food as fish, waterfowl, shellfish and aquatic plants.

Since the most direct way of studying people in the past is to study the actual remains of those people, my results highlight the strengths of bioarchaeology in painting a comprehensive picture of prehistoric life. For this PhD project, I examined the skeletons of 159 individuals dating to the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages (11th millennium BC ‒ 1st century AD). First, measurements of the skull, jaws and teeth were taken to study how human head shape responds biologically to dietary change, and track a greater reliance on softer foods in later periods. Second, laser scanning techniques were used to interpret human behaviour. The cross-sectional shape of 3D limb bone models revealed patterns about how much and how frequently people worked their arms and legs, with more physical activity detectable at the onset of agriculture. Third, recordings of pathologies and defects that appear on the teeth allow us to evaluate general health levels and the quality of diet experienced by the inhabitants of these riverside and seaside regions. These last results reflect unusually low rates of caries and enamel growth disruptions, plus a high-protein, sand-laden diet in these coastal settings. My research focusing on the Baltics contributes a unique case study to the greater body of scholarship concerned with recent human adaptation and evolution worldwide.

30 October 2017
Basile Wicky – PhD in Chemistry "Take it with a pinch of salt: revisiting a century-old phenomenon in the context of protein disorder”

DNA is the blueprint of Life, coding for the robots that sustain living organisms: proteins. From structure to catalysis, these biopolymers perform the molecular tasks at the heart of cells. Since the first structure of a protein was solved by Kendrew and Perutz in the 1958, the field of biology has widely adopted the structure-function paradigm; protein perform their tasks by adopting well-defined three-dimensional structures.

However, it has recently been recognised that protein lacking a shape can still be functional. These so-called intrinsically disordered proteins have challenged this paradigm, and raised questions about the functional consequences, and advantages, of protein disorder.

I will start by discussing fundamental aspects of protein biophysics, followed by a presentation of my findings on the effect of salts and ions on intrinsically disordered proteins. I will revisit a discovery from Franz Hofmeister, and show that a peculiarity from more than a century ago might be of biological significance in the context of protein disorder..

13 November
Natasha Watts - PhD in Geography “Investing for impact: finance and farming in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania””          

African agriculture has attracted increased global policy attention over the last 10 years due to concerns over both food security and economic growth. In this context, social impact investing (SII)—where investors use financial models to achieve positive social impacts as well as financial returns—is presented as a viable means of financing agricultural development in the context of reduced public funding. My findings show that SII is being driven by the pursuit for new profit frontiers and concerns over business risks, and also by a belief that a more moral capitalist economy can be built. How exactly 'social impact' is being defined, implemented, and measured, however, differs widely within SII.  

This paper is concerned with how SII (and its understandings, assumptions, and models of agricultural development) interact with smallholder farming in Tanzania. I unpack how the concept of SII takes shape, how it is translated into the Tanzanian context, and how it interacts with farmer livelihoods through a case study of Cheetah Development in Lower Kilolo District. Cheetah is an American social impact investor that provides agricultural inputs on credit to smallholder farmers and attempts to involve them in new maize value chains. Cheetah's model is based on a distinct moral economy. It identifies existing maize value chains centred around middlemen as features of an immoral capitalism. It also views smallholders as not only lacking market access and inputs, but also lacking in business-orientated mindsets. The Cheetah model builds various mechanisms to discipline farmers and render them bankable. Through examining farmer livelihoods, however, I find that farmers conduct diverse income-generating activities, and maize plays a variety of roles in village life. Farmer livelihoods are underpinned by a moral economy involving flexible relations of borrowing and lending. I conclude that moral economic assumptions embedded in the Cheetah model clash with farmer livelihoods and their conceptions of just socio-economic relationships, especially in a time of environmental disruptions..

27 November
David Battersby (PhD in Chemistry) - “'High-throughput Chemistry: The art of doing more with less”

Over the past three decades, synthetic organic chemists have longed for a platform to efficiently optimise reactions for high yielding routes to drug targets. Traditionally, reaction optimisation involves manually weighing each reactant followed by solvent addition and mechanical stirring for a given time, logically evaluating each variable. Other than being a laborious task, this process can be inefficient and can result in a low yielding reaction for your drug target. If we can find a way to ameliorate these issues, we could potentially access new and more potent drugs quicker and easier than we can now.

To address these issues, automated machinery can be leveraged to facilitate reaction setup and analysis. Robots are; 1) far more accurate than the human eye or hand; 2) cheaper than a Ph.D. or Post-doc student and 3) faster and thus can set up and assess more reactions in a single day. Automated robots are used daily in pharmaceutical industry and biological sciences yet, this technology hasn’t been applied in synthetic organic chemistry. Therefore, if organic chemistry could adapt to use automated robotics it would revolutionise an otherwise old-fashioned field.

Using liquid handling robotics, we have developed the first quantitative, high-throughput platform for reaction optimisation and discovery. We started with a simple copper catalysed carbon-nitrogen bond forming reaction as this class makes up >70% of all industrial R&D reactions. The liquid handling robot was programmed to transfer reagents into a 1536-well microtiter plate with a total reaction volume of 2.5 μL. Our optimisation protocol easily optimises four different parameters simultaneously: catalyst, base, ligand, and substrate. This unique simultaneous multi-parameter screening platform allows for rapid identification of ideal combinations and can quickly generate high yielding reaction conditions for different substrates.



12 February 2018
Sarah Foley – PhD in Psychology “Great Expectations? Do Mothers' and Fathers' Prenatal Thoughts and Feelings about the Infant Predict Parent-Infant Interaction Quality? A Meta-Analytic Review”

Prenatal parenting classes rest on the assumption that people can think about their infant during pregnancy and that the nature of these thoughts, feelings and behaviours are important for post-natal parenting.  Drawing on data gathered from 14 studies involving a total of 1,862 mothers and fathers, this meta-analysis reviews the measures that are used to tap into thoughts and feelings about the unborn infant during pregnancy and examines links between these prenatal measures and parent-child interaction quality.  Questionnaire scores for parental-fetal attachment and interview ratings of expectant parents' representations of the infant showed modest but robust associations with directly observed parent-child interaction quality.  Moderator analyses showed that these associations were significantly stronger for mothers than for fathers.  Key lessons for future research include the need for greater consistency in study measures, sample diversity, and the examination of associations with child outcomes. 

26 February 2018
Etienne Fodor  – Junior Research Fellow in Mathematics: 
“Statistical mechanics of active matter: dynamics and structure of self-propelled particles”

At thermodynamic equilibrium, a system does not allow for any net exchange, neither mass nor energy transport, with its surroundings.  As an example, the motion of grains of pollen in water is due to thermal agitation, yet there is no energy transfer between pollen and water on average.  In contrast, active matter comprises systems made of a large number of agents which can extract energy from their environment [1].  This energy leads to a directed motion of the particles. Examples of such self-propelled agents can be found at different scales.  Bacteria and self-catalytic colloids are canonical examples at the micro-scale [2].  Groups of animals such as bird flocks, fish schools or even a human crowd can be regarded as an active system at a larger scale [3].

As a novel class of nonequilibrium systems, active matter has been at the centre of numerous studies during the past decade.  I will review some of the most striking emerging phenomena, such as the transition to collective directed motion, as observed in bird flocks, and the possibility of a phase separation between dilute and dense regions even when the interactions between agents are purely repulsive [4].  I will discuss some recent attempts to build a unified description of active systems based on what can be saved from concepts of equilibrium thermodynamics, such as the definition of temperature and pressure [5].  Finally, I will present how one can exploit the nonequilibrium properties of the dynamics to design new engines able to outperform the ones based on equilibrium settings.


[1] M. C. Marchetti et al., 'Hydrodynamics of soft active matter', Rev. Mod. Phys. 85, 1143 (2013)

[2] J. Palacci et al., 'Living crystals of light-activated colloidal surfers', Science 339, 936 (2013)

[3] A. Cavagna and I. Giardina, 'Bird flocks as condensed matter', Annu. Rev. CMP 5, 183 (2014)

[4] M. E. Cates and J. Tailleur, 'Motility-induced phase separation', Annu. Rev. CMP 6, 219 (2015)

[5] A. P. Solon et al., 'Pressure is not a state function for generic active fluids', Nat. Phys. online (2015)

12 March 2018
Anca Serban – PhD in Geography
“Can we have it all? Feeding a hungry world while conserving biodiversity”

Can food security be guaranteed for all, while also shrinking agriculture's environmental footprint? Some argue that an important component for achieving this balance will require a landscape where the land for nature and agriculture are segregated (land-sparing), while others argue that integration of the two (land-sharing) is a better option. Assessments of land-sharing, land-sparing have largely failed to assess the broader socio-economic impacts of their implementation. Using role-playing games and agent-based model three land-sharing land-sparing scenarios were tested in rural India and assessed for their comparative merits. Benefits were reported under both strategies but with different implications for local livelihoods.


7 May 2018
Alejandro Jimenez-Sanchez – PhD in Medical Science (Cancer Research UK)
“Heterogeneous Tumor-Immune Microenvironments among Differentially Growing Metastases in an Ovarian Cancer Patient “ 

We present an exceptional case of a patient with high-grade serous ovarian cancer, treated with multiple chemotherapy regimens, who exhibited regression of some metastatic lesions with concomitant progression of other lesions during a treatment-free period. Using immunogenomic approaches, we found that progressing metastases were characterized by immune cell exclusion, whereas regressing and stable metastases were infiltrated by CD8+ and CD4+ T cells and exhibited oligoclonal expansion of specific T cell subsets. We also detected CD8+ T cell reactivity against predicted neoepitopes after isolation of cells from a blood sample taken almost 3 years after the tumors were resected. These findings suggest that multiple distinct tumor immune microenvironments co-exist within a single individual and may explain in part the heterogeneous fates of metastatic lesions often observed in the clinic post-therapy.

28  May 2018
Rachel Seary – PhD in Geography
"Mangroves, fisheries and community livelihoods - Case studies of Indonesia and Cambodia"

 Mangrove forests (trees that grow in saline environments on the land-sea interface) provide vital economic, ecological and societal benefits to coastal communities. Mangrove forest extent worldwide however continues to decline due to human activities such as land conversion for aquaculture, agriculture and coastal development, to name a few. This study focuses particularly on the role that mangroves play in supporting fisheries, an ecosystem service that many fishing communities rely on for both food and income. This value to mangrove-fisheries can often be overlooked and risks the interests of groups being under-represented in coastal management plans. Research in Bali, Indonesia has therefore developed a framework to describe mangrove-fisheries in a local context, arguing that mangrove-fisheries are multi-dimensional and variable even in close proximity. Following this framework, measurements of mangrove-fishery production are conducted for communities in Koh Kong Province, Cambodia.