Oxford Science Blog | University of Oxford

Oxford Science Blog

Holding back the rising tide

Luke Jackson from the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School explains how achieving the Paris Agreement could help to slow sea-level rises.

Achieving the aim of the Paris Agreement, to hold the rise in global average temperatures to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, by the end of this century could dramatically reduce potential sea-level rise compared to projections based upon business-as-usual scenarios.

A lot of research on sea-level change had previously focused upon high future Global Warming. Since the Paris Agreement was signed in late 2015, there has been a switch in focus to think carefully about how the climate (including sea level change) will respond if we succeed in achieving Paris’s aims.

Future sea-level rise has the potential to affect millions of people and billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure world-wide by increasing the vulnerability of coastlines to flooding from tides, wind-driven waves and storm surges.

In our own study published this month - 21st century sea-level rise in line with the Paris accord - we apply a novel method to project future sea-level rise at a global and a regional level for the two temperature levels stated in the Paris Agreement.

The new research shows that achieving a 1.5 °C or 2 °C temperature rise by 2100 could result in a global sea-level rise of 44 cm and 50 cm respectively. This is in contrast to a rise of 84 cm for a business-as-usual scenario if temperature rises around 4 °C by 2100. The difference between achieving Paris and a business-as-usual scenario is even more marked when comparing low-chance (1-in-20), high impact projections. In this case, the global projections are 67 cm versus 180 cm for 1.5 °C and business-as-usual respectively, a difference of more than 1 metre.

Differences of this size are significant for decision makers regarding Climate Change mitigation (achieving the Paris Agreement will require rapid, deep emissions reductions) and coastal adaptation strategies.

The full paper, ‘21st Century Sea-Level Rise in Line with the Paris Accord’, by Luke Jackson, Aslak Grinsted and Svetlana Jevrejeva, can be read in Earth’s Future.

Image credit: Shutterstock

Thursday 8 March marks International Women's Day, a global commitment to honouring the cultural, social, economic, political and academic contributions of women. Over the next few weeks, Science Blog will start the celebrations by shining a light on the incredible women of Oxford and some of their achievements. 

Despite the different backgrounds, motivations and journeys that brought them to the University, each of the women featured have one important thing in common: success. In a field where women are still woefully underrepresented, they are rapidly carving their own niche, inspiring budding scientists of tomorrow in their own way.

Science Blog meets Layal Liverpool: 'I can't wait until there are no more firsts'

Representation is often discussed in today's society, but it means something different to everyone. Its impacts though are undisputed, taking hold from a young age and rippling out to shape the rest of our lives. Lack of representation can distort our understanding of people who are not like us and prevent some from imagining themselves in a situation - blocking their talent from developing into an opportunity in the process.

One person who understands this well is Layal Liverpool, a 24-year-old DPhil student investigating virus-host interactions at the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine. In addition to her studies, Layal is a committed science communicator and STEM ambassador. She shares her experience as a young woman of colour navigating the world of academic science.

 I've been to a few career seminars, but only ever seen one woman of colour presenting. I can't wait until that changes and there are no more firsts.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
Even at the age of five I had a natural interest in learning new things and solving problems, to the point that I was obsessed with encyclopaedias - my parents were worried I wouldn't read anything else.

I also had a great A-level biology teacher, who had a PhD and happened to be a woman. Having her in my life meant that I never saw science as not being for girls.

  

Image credit: OULayal (left) hard at work in the lab with her teammate, at the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine. Image credit: OU

How did you come to specialise in infectious diseases?
My parents are originally Ghanaian, so as a child I spent a lot of time there. Ghana was significantly affected by the HIV pandemic and growing up I saw marketing about using condoms and how to stop the spread of HIV. I was just a kid and had no idea what it was, but I was curious and wanted to find out more. During my bachelor's degree at UCL, I took a brilliant course on infection and became absolutely fascinated by viruses in particular. I find the way the human body works - particularly disease and why things go wrong - fascinating. I chose to study immunity against viruses in general, to learn about multiple infections. 

Viruses are not even alive and yet they can cause such complicated diseases - that fascinates me.

What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I am building on a lab project established by a previous researcher, aiming to better understand how viruses are detected when they first invade our cells. You can read more about our research in this blog post.

Do you think diversity is an issue in STEM?
Absolutely. Just the other day I attended a career seminar - I've been to a few of these, but this was the first time I had ever seen a woman of colour presenting. I felt so inspired and was really struck by the fact that she was the first highly successful woman of colour that I had seen giving one of these seminars. I can't wait until that changes and there are no more firsts.
It was really interesting to hear from her about how much the world has changed since she first started working - for example, she shared some past experiences of overt discrimination in the workplace.

My advice to anyone considering a career in science is don't let self-doubt stop you. The only way you definitely won't get in is by not applying.

Would you say that role models are important in science?
I've been fortunate to have wonderful role models so far that I truly appreciate, but very few have looked like me and I hope that changes. I think that would be really great for the younger generation because representation matters. 

I love my field and feel very fortunate to be here at Oxford, but if I could change one thing about my experience it would be to have and interact with more women like me at different stages. The University has a mentoring scheme, and I think it would be great if that ran across all levels. For example, as a doctoral student I could be mentored by someone more senior, but equally I could mentor new applicants and people just starting and help them navigate the University. 

How would you describe your experience at Oxford?

I am constantly grateful to be here, and get to work alongside world-leading researchers, but I think university is still a very elite environment, and there is a way to go to improve diversity - especially at my level. I have noticed that the higher you go within the University, the diversity decreases, which is a shame. There are a lot of talented people working in STEM who I think could be there, but the opportunities need to be available to get them there.

If I could change one thing about my experience it would be to have and interact with more women like me at different stages.

Are there any changes that you think would make a difference?

More representation is not easily achievable, unless more young people are inspired to pursue science careers. I have volunteered at Saturday Science Club, a science activity programme for families run by Science Oxford, and my hope is that when the children in the group are asked 'what does a scientist look like?' they will say 'anything'.

What does being a woman in science mean to you?
I view my studies as an important step along the road of using scientific research to benefit society. It wasn't that long ago that women didn't have these opportunities. I like to reflect and recognise how far we've come, but also how far we still have to go. There are some incredible women doing incredible things in science and I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to work alongside them and contribute.

How did you first get involved with science communications?

I actually auditioned for FameLab, where you have to explain a scientific concept of your choice in three minutes to a general audience. I spoke about HIV and made it to the regional final. A key element of understanding something is being able to explain it in simple terms, and the experience really improved my science communication - I really enjoyed it. 

Why is communication so important in science?
Perhaps they have always been there, but nowadays there seem to be more misconceptions around science that can lead to dangerous ideas, such as the anti-vaccine crusade. Better communication about science would give people an understanding, so that that they can hopefully appreciate the benefits of vaccines and other important interventions.

What has been your biggest learning curve so far? 

I learn a lot from my outreach work with children - they are so smart. As you grow older you have more to lose, so you develop a sense of fear and stop asking important questions. I think they ask more probing questions than adults, and I find they inspire me to change my approach to my work.

A key element of understanding something is being able to explain it in simple terms. A good scientist should be able to explain their work to anyone.

Who inspires you?
I've been fortunate to have lots of great role models - male and female - but my parents are my biggest inspiration. They are both immigrants that have overcome their own share of challenges to build a life for my sister and me. Education was a privilege that they worked hard for so that we could have more opportunities than they did. Both are half Ghanaian, but my mum is half Lebanese and immigrated to the UK. My dad is half Dominican and immigrated to the Netherlands - which means that I am fortunate to have claim to five nationalities.

What gets you up in the morning?
In the world of science things don't always work the first time, but I love the feeling of carrying out an experiment and getting an unexpected result. Often that is where new discoveries are made.

What are you most proud of?
Honestly, I am just proud to be here. We often doubt ourselves, particularly if there aren't role models that look like us. But my advice to anyone considering a career in science is don't let that stop you. The only way you definitely won't get in is by not applying.

WATCH LAYAL EXPLAIN HER PHD IN THE PUB:

Strontium atom

An image of a single positively-charged strontium atom, held near motionless by electric fields, has won the overall prize in a national science photography competition, organised by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

‘Single Atom in an Ion Trap’, by David Nadlinger, from the University of Oxford, shows the atom held by the fields emanating from the metal electrodes surrounding it.

The distance between the small needle tips is about two millimetres. When illuminated by a laser of the right blue-violet colour the atom absorbs and re-emits light particles sufficiently quickly for an ordinary camera to capture it in a long exposure photograph.

The winning picture was taken through a window of the ultra-high vacuum chamber that houses the ion trap. Laser-cooled atomic ions provide a pristine platform for exploring and harnessing the unique properties of quantum physics.

They can serve as extremely accurate clocks and sensors or, as explored by the UK Networked Quantum Information Technologies Hub, as building blocks for future quantum computers, which could tackle problems that stymie even today’s largest supercomputers. The image, came first in the Equipment & Facilities category, as well as winning overall against many other stunning pictures, featuring research in action, in the EPSRCs competition – now in its fifth year.

David Nadlinger explained how the photograph came about: “The idea of being able to see a single atom with the naked eye had struck me as a wonderfully direct and visceral bridge between the miniscule quantum world and our macroscopic reality," he said.

"A back-of-the-envelope calculation showed the numbers to be on my side, and when I set off to the lab with camera and tripods one quiet Sunday afternoon, I was rewarded with this particular picture of a small, pale blue dot.” 

Image credit: Tamsin Mather

Professor Tamsin Mather, a volcanologist in Oxford's Department of Earth Sciences reflects on her many fieldwork experiences at Massaya volcano in Nicaragua, and what she has learned about how they effect the lives of the people who live around them. 

Over the years, fieldwork at Masaya volcano in Nicaragua, has revealed many secrets about how volcanic plumes work and impact the environment, both in the here and now and deep into the geological past of our planet.

Working in this environment has also generated many memories and stories for me personally. From watching colleagues descend into the crater, to meeting bandits at dawn, or driving soldiers and their rifles across the country, or losing a remotely controlled miniature airship in Nicaraguan airspace and becoming acquainted with Ron and Victoria (the local beverages), to name but a few.

I first went to Masaya volcano in Nicaragua in 2001. In fact, it was the first volcano that I worked on for my PhD. It is not a spectacular volcano. It does not have the iconic conical shape or indeed size of some of its neighbours in Nicaragua. Mighty Momotombo, just 35 km away, seems to define (well, to me) the capital Managua’s skyline. By comparison, Masaya is a relative footnote on the landscape, reaching just over 600 m in elevation. Nonetheless it is to Masaya that myself and other volcanologists flock to work, as it offers a rare natural laboratory to study volcanic processes. Everyday of the year Masaya pumps great quantities of volcanic gases (a noxious cocktail including acidic gases like sulphur dioxide and hydrogen chloride) from its magma interior into the Nicaraguan atmosphere. Furthermore, with the right permissions and safety equipment, you can drive a car directly into this gas plume easily bringing heavy equipment to make measurements. I have heard it described by colleagues as a ‘drive-through’ volcano and while this is not a term I like, as someone who once lugged heavy equipment up 5500 m high Lascar in Chile, I can certainly vouch for its appeal.

Returning for my fifth visit in December 2017 (six years since my last) was like meeting up with an old friend again. There were many familiar sights and sounds: the view of Mombacho volcano from Masaya’s crater rim, the sound of the parakeets returning to the crater at dusk, the pungent smell of the plume that clings to your clothes for days, my favourite view of Momotombo from the main Managua-Masaya road, Mi Viejo Ranchito restaurant – I could go on.

But, as with old friends, there were many changes too. Although in the past I could often hear the magma roaring as it moved under the surface, down the vents, since late 2015 a combination of rock falls and rising lava levels have created a small lava lake visibly churning inside the volcanic crater. This is spectacular in the daytime, but at night the menacing crater glow is mesmerising and the national park is now open to a stream of tourists visiting after dark. Previously, I would scour the ground around the crater for a few glassy fibres and beads of the fresh lava, forced out as bubbles burst from the lava lake (known as Pele’s hairs and tears after the Hawaiian goddess of the volcano – not the footballer) to bring back to analyse. Now the crater edge downwind of the active vent is carpeted with them, and you leave footprints as if it were snow. New instruments and a viewing platform with a webcam have been put in, in place of the crumbling concrete posts where I used to duct-tape up my equipment.

This time my mission at Masaya was also rather different. Before I had been accompanied solely by scientists but this time I was part of an interdisciplinary team including medics, anthropologists, historians, hazard experts and visual artists. All aligned in the shared aim of studying the impacts of the volcanic gases on the lives and livelihoods of the downwind communities and working with the local agencies to communicate these hazards. Masaya’s high and persistent gas flux, low altitude and ridges of higher ground, downwind of it, mean that these impacts are felt particularly acutely at this volcano. For example, at El Panama, just 3 km from the volcano, which is often noticeably fumigated by the plume, they cannot use nails to fix the roofs of their houses, as they rust too quickly in the volcanic gases.

The team was drawn from Nicaragua, the UK and also Iceland, sharing knowledge between volcano-affected nations. Other members of the team had been there over the previous 12 months, installing air quality monitoring networks, sampling rain and drinking water, interviewing the local people, making a short film telling the people’s stories and scouring the archives for records of the effects of previous volcanic degassing crises at Masaya. Although my expertise was deployed for several days installing new monitoring equipment (the El Crucero Canal 6 transmitter station became our rather unlikely office for part of the week), the main mission of this week was to discuss our results and future plans with the local officials and the communities affected by the plume.

Having worked at Masaya numerous times, mainly for more esoteric scientific reasons, spending time presenting the very human implications of our findings to the local agencies, charged with monitoring the Nicaraguan environment and hazards, as well managing disasters was a privilege. With their help we ran an information evening in El Panama. This involved squeezing 150 people into the tiny school class room in flickering electric light, rigging up the largest TV I have ever seen from the back of a pick-up and transporting 150 chicken dinners from the nearest fried chicken place! But it also meant watching the community see the film about their lives for the first time, meeting the local ‘stars’ of this film and presenting our work where we took their accounts of how the plume behaves and affects their lives and used our measurements to bring them the science behind their own knowledge.

Watching the film it was also striking to us that for so many of this community it was the first time they had seen the lava lake whose effects they feel daily. Outside the school house there were Pele’s hair on the ground in the playground and whiffs of volcanic gas as the sun set – the volcano was certainly present.  However, particularly watching the film back now sitting at home in the UK, I feel that with this trip, unlike my others before, it is the people of El Panama that get the last word rather than the volcano.

Should flu symptoms be treated with antiviral drugs in primary care?

Professor Chris Butler of the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, and GP in the Cwm Taf University Health Board in Wales, is the lead investigator in the world’s largest clinical trial in the community of the controversial flu drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu). He explains the background to the trial and what the team are looking to achieve.

There is widespread uncertainty over whether people with flu symptoms should routinely be treated with antiviral drugs like oseltamivir – also known as Tamiflu - in the community, with a debate raging in the media about the drug’s use each winter. To help us get some answers about whether to treat, and if so, who might benefit most, we’ve so far recruited 2,000 people into a clinical trial to test the clinical and cost effectiveness of oseltamivir in primary care and provide some much-needed real world evidence about this treatment.

Led in the UK by our team in Oxford University’s Primary Care Clinical Trials Unit, and coming together with colleagues across Europe, the ALIC4E trial investigates whether oseltamivir is cost effective and beneficial to patients consulting their general practitioner with flu symptoms. In particular, it will understand if older people, infants, people with other health conditions, those treated early, or those with particularly severe flu can benefit from the treatment.

ALIC4E is the first publically funded randomised controlled trial of its kind to assess antiviral treatment for influenza in primary care and is a collaboration between researchers in the UK, The Netherlands and Belgium. Overall we aim to recruit at least 2,500 participants across 16 countries and, like most of our clinical studies in primary care, we do this by working closely with GP practices.

Since launching in 2015, 324 participants have been recruited across England and Wales - 138 in Oxford, 86 in Southampton and 100 in Cardiff, with the trial as a whole reaching the milestone of 2,000 participants this week.

The trial is an initiative of the Platform for European Preparedness Against (Re-) emerging Epidemics (PREPARE) consortium. Funded by the European Commission’s FP7 Programme, PREPARE was set up to support research organisations to respond rapidly to pandemics with clinical studies that can provide real-time evidence to inform the public health response.

The antiviral oseltamivir is a member of a class of drugs called neuraminidase inhibitors. These drugs are stockpiled and recommended by public health agencies worldwide for treating and preventing severe outbreaks of seasonal and pandemic influenza, yet some experts suggest the evidence supporting their use is lacking. The drug was widely used during the ‘swine ‘flu’ pandemic, for example, but no trial was done of its clinical and cost effectiveness.

Having reached the milestone of recruiting 2,000 patients into the critically important ALIC4E study is an incredible international achievement that is worth celebrating. Especially when there seems to be a particularly widespread flu outbreak, it’s a real shame that we don’t confidently know which people with symptoms of the flu should be prescribed antiviral drugs, and the cost-effectiveness of this treatment in terms of helping people return to their usual activities.

The resource implications for the health service and implications for patient well-being are considerable, especially given the debate around the effectiveness of antiviral treatment for influenza. By providing evidence through a study of this scale, the results will be of great interest to governments, policy makers, companies, practitioners, and members of the public.

We urgently need studies like ALIC4E embedded in everyday general practice to guide care for common and potential serious conditions, and address the questions that matter most to patients. We are working towards making it possible for people to participate in clinical trials within two weeks of a pandemic emerging, so evidence from these trials can then inform care during the pandemic itself, rather than those much needed answers coming along once the pandemic is over.