Oxford Science Blog

Professor Nathalie Seddon was inspired by Diane Fosse's work in the rainforests, rather than envi

Some people are so energetic, dynamic and enthusiastic, they make you feel as though you do nothing but watch box sets while eating ice cream. But Nathalie Seddon’s passion for protecting nature and addressing climate change, makes you want drop the remote and follow her into the rainforest or the corridors of power, wherever she is going next. And you would not be alone.

Some people are so energetic, dynamic and enthusiastic, they make you feel as though you do nothing but watch box sets while eating ice cream. But Nathalie Seddon makes you want drop the remote and follow her

Oxford’s Professor of Biodiversity, from the university's Zoology department and Wadham college, is rightly something of a celebrity in the eco world. She is an official ‘friend’ of the COP26 climate conference. She has the ear of leading politicians and policymakers and she has been a determined force in the move to give ‘nature’ a place at the climate change top table.

Such concerns, plus expertise and leadership in climate and biodiversity has brought together key scientists and researchers, including Professor Seddon, from across Oxford's different departments and disciplines to deliver cutting-edge research, information and policy advice. The team includes Zoology, the Environmental Change Institute and the Smith School and initiatives such as Oxford Net Zero, the Oxford Martin School Programme for Biodiversity and Society and the Nature-based Solutions Initiative (Ever busy, Professor Seddon is a co-PI of the first two and directs the last).

But, in 2017, when Professor Seddon established the Nature Based Solutions Initiative at Oxford, few were talking about how nature fitted into discussions about global warming.
‘As a term, nature-based solutions wasn’t really in the lexicon,’ she says. ‘Now, it’s gone mainstream, viral even; now everyone seems to be talking about them – not just the conservation organisations, but those working in development, health, local businesses, banks, international corporations and governments.’

As a term, nature-based solutions wasn’t really in the lexicon. Now, it’s gone mainstream, viral even; now everyone seems to be talking about them

Professor Nathalie Seddon

Indeed, enter the words ‘nature-based solutions for climate change’ into Google, and a million results seem to pop up. It is one of the main themes for the UK-hosted climate change meeting in Glasgow in November (COP26) and at the forefront of discussions around climate change. And Professor Seddon, the doyenne of NbS [as they are known] is one of only 30 ‘friends’ of COP26, of whom just a handful are scientists. 

But, until recently, Professor Seddon’s career involved far more hard science than scientific lobbying – although it also demonstrated the sort of single-minded determination which is proving so useful in pushing nature up the climate agenda. Her supportive parents encouraged her passion for nature but were not academics. Instead it was her headmaster who suggested that nature-mad Nathalie apply to study Natural Sciences at Cambridge. She won a place – and, to underline his conviction, did not leave until she had completed a doctorate and a junior research fellowship.

During the next 15 years, she travelled the world to study the lives of unusual birds and their songs. But this was not birdwatching as we know it [don’t mention the word twitcher].Then, as now, enthusiasm was her watchword. In her first year, the young student found a piece of paper on a noticeboard, asking for a birdwatcher for an expedition to Peru. It was a life-changing moment for a girl who had been mapping bird territories in her back garden since her family moved to the country when she was eight.

The Peruvian rainforest, by Chris Abney, Unsplash.The Peruvian rainforest, by Chris Abney, Unsplash.

Determined to go, she removed the paper from the board and a few months later found herself on a quest to find the Long-Whiskered Owlet while hiding from Shining Path guerrillas near the Peruvian border with Colombia. It was, perhaps, not the best way to start a life of scientific investigation. But her adventures did not stop there. That trip marked the beginning of a long passion for tropical wilderness and a fascination for understanding its unparalleled diversity.

To undertake her doctorate on the social behaviour and conservation of a threatened species of bird, the Subdesert Mesite (see below right), Nathalie had to drive solo across Madagascar in an ancient ex-military Land Rover she had transported by boat from Southampton. It might have been better had it never arrived since she spent more time trying to repair it than collecting data. And she says, ‘It turned out to be very challenging to study Mesites, as they live in the dense undergrowth of prehistoric spiny forests.’

The Subdesert Mesite, Credit: Shutterstock. The Subdesert Mesite.
Nonetheless, a PhD resulted and, after three years in Madagascar, she embarked on a decade studying the origins of biodiversity in the remote forests of the Andes and Amazon as a Royal Society University Research Fellow (which is when she came to Oxford).
She says, with considerable feeling, ‘I loved being in those places....I am hugely privileged to have had worked there and those experiences enrich my every day and inform so much of the work I do. '

'Back then I was motivated by wanting to understand tropical diversity; now I am motivated by wanting to save it for future generations.’

Initially, she built up a research group, looking at the biodiversity of forests, focused on tropical birds. But, after years with binoculars and sound recording equipment in hand, the academic underwent a conversion.
She had a family, which does often particularly affect a woman scientist’s ability to spend months in the jungle. She also took a year out of teaching and worked in a development organisation.
 
For the first time, the researcher found herself among non-scientists, talking to people of different disciplines and working in a different way. It became clear there was very little natural science in climate change policy and planning, ‘I discovered that hardly any of the rich knowledge we have about ecosystems and biodiversity was influencing big decisions that affect our futures.’
 She realised she needed to be at the interface of science and policy, translating science for decision-makers and communicating policy needs to the science community. So she founded the Nature-based Solutions Initiative - and has been doing this for the last four years.

Baobabs in Madagascar,Baobabs in Madagascar - by Haja Arson, Unsplash.

I discovered that hardly any knowledge we have about ecosystems and biodiversity was influencing big decisions that affect our futures...I found I could add value as a scientist to the policy environment...having children made me want to focus on the existential challenge that is climate change – and the intergenerational injustice we are perpetuating with our desecration of the natural world.

 

But what are NbS?
‘They are actions that involve working with nature for societal good,’ she says.

They involve community-led restoration and protection of mangroves, kelp forests, wetlands, grasslands and forests, bringing trees into working lands and nature into cities and much more.

It is now accepted that such actions can bring multiple benefits from storing carbon and protecting us from extreme events, to supporting biodiversity and providing jobs and livelihoods.

Critics sometimes argue that the potential contribution of nature to arresting climate change is tiny, compared with stopping fossil fuel use. But she insists, ‘Our work shows that nature has a role to play...and although new technology [to address climate change] might not be fully scalable until the end of the century, nature is here now, ready to be revitalised and can make a significant contribution to cooling this century.’

This is not mere dewy-eyed affection, although Professor Seddon clearly takes loss of biodiversity very personally.
‘Nature motivates, calms and grounds me,’ she says. But, she maintains, ‘We need nature because it is our life support system, because we are a part of it, not separate from it. There is huge value in the natural world, economically and ecologically, and huge risks of ignoring it...we have built our economies as if nature has no value; climate change and pandemics are showing us this not sustainable and that it is now time to repay our vast debt to nature.’

It is not just politicians, though, who have heard the call for nature – businesses too have made bold pledges. Everyone has heard about tree planting as an NbS. But this has not always been a positive move and some have planted trees to ‘offset’ their continued use of fossil fuels.


There is huge value in the natural world, economically and ecologically, and huge risks of ignoring it...we have built our economies as if nature has no value; climate change and pandemics are showing us this not sustainable and that it is now time to repay our vast debt to nature

Professor Seddon is concerned so-called ‘greenwashing is a really big issue’. She adds, ‘We need wood, and commercial planting can sometimes take the pressure off biodiverse native forests...also, in some parts of the world, where the land is badly degraded, tree plantations can help bring back soil health and are a step towards natural regeneration.’
But she warns, ‘Plantations are really bad news when they replace native habitats and violate human rights, and when they delay or distract from the urgent need to decarbonise.'

Professor Seddon is emphatic, 'Tree planting is not alternative to keeping fossil fuels in the ground...if we don’t, the resultant warming will undermine nature’s capacity to support us.'

She insists we cannot afford to ignore the harm we do to nature, ‘Covid shone a light on the risks of continued disrespect of the natural world. It also showed us that we cannot continue to travel and consume as much without paying severe consequences.’

But Professor Seddon has high hopes of the climate summit this year, where nature is a key theme.  

‘For the UK,’ she says. ‘This is a real opportunity to show leadership. But to do that that, we need to get our own house in order and to shine light on good practice on nature-based solutions in our own country to inspire action globally.

‘We also need to end all the harmful subsidies that encourage land degradation and over-fishing and instead properly incentivise the careful stewardship of nature.’

We need to get our own house in order and shine light on good practice in our own country to inspire action globally...we also need to end all the harmful subsidies that encourage land degradation and over-fishing 

 

Professor Seddon acknowledges the enormous role the great polluters need to play in reducing carbon emissions, but she sees considerable room for personal action, although it will mean substantial change for individuals, starting with moving, if possible, to a plant-based diet.

And, says the former globe-trotter, she could not quite bring herself to get on a plane again, unless there were a very good and urgent reason. And she says, ‘Scientists need to work with businesses and government to help them set realistic and robust evidence-based targets for climate and nature, and advise on how to reach those targets without compromising other goals for food security or economic recovery.’

Treading the corridors of power is a new path for Professor Seddon. But climate concerns have brought together scientists, looking for solutions, doing the hard-science to inform policy. She says, ‘There is a lot of really exciting fundamental research to be done to shore up the evidence around the value of working with nature in a warming world.’
She adds, ‘At Oxford, to address these knowledge gaps and meet policy needs, we’ve gone up a gear, we are working together more.’

And Professor Seddon is very much engaged in university life - delivering lectures, as Admissions Coordinator for Biology, interviewing candidates and working with young researchers and students.  She says, 'Young people come asking what they should study to be part of it – to help. It’s our job to show them there is much they can learn and do, that they have real agency in their futures.'

At Oxford, to address these knowledge gaps and meet policy needs, we’ve gone up a gear, we are working together

She adds, ‘I am excited to be getting back into the science and to be working with colleagues from across the University and country to address fundamental questions about how we scale-up NbS...

'The next 10 to 20 years are going to be critical...Now is when the world needs us all to collaborate to enable transformational change.’

She concludes with hope for the future, ‘There is such a lot of good work going on around the world. Thousands of communities across the globe are implementing nature-based solutions to deal with climate change impacts, protect nature and support livelihoods. It is really inspiring. We all have a say in our futures...and as we work with nature we will heal ourselves.’

Illustration of concept of measuring time using mathematical formula

By Dr Natalia Ares

Clocks are essential building blocks of modern technology, from computers to GPS receivers. They are also essentially engines, irreversibly consuming resources in order to generate accurate ticks. But what resources have to be expended to achieve a desired accuracy? In our latest study, published in Physical Review X, we answer this question by measuring, for the first time, the entropy generated by a minimal clock.

Humans have mastered the art of timekeeping to an accuracy of approximately one second in every one hundred million years. However, the thermodynamic cost of timekeeping, i.e. its entropy production, has up to this point been unexplored.

Clock experiment detail

Our experiment reveals that the hotter the clock, the more accurate the timekeeping, a prediction only expected to hold for quantum systems. Understanding the thermodynamic cost involved in timekeeping is a central step along the way in the development of future technologies, and understanding and testing thermodynamics as systems approach the quantum realm.

In a collaboration with Prof Marcus Huber at Atominstitut, TUWien, Dr Paul Erker and Dr Yelena Guryanova at the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information (IQOQI), and Dr Edward Laird at University of Lancaster, my colleagues, Dr Anna Pearson and Prof Andrew Briggs, and I designed a classical clock, with tuneable precision, to measure entropy production.

Our clock consists of a vibrating membrane integrated into an electronic circuit: each oscillation of the membrane provides one tick. The resources that drive the clock are the heat supplied to the membrane and the electrical work used to measure it. In operation, the clock converts these resources to waste heat, thus generating entropy. By measuring this entropy, we can therefore deduce the amount of resources consumed.

For the first time, we’ve shown a relation between the accuracy of a clock and its entropy production

By raising the energy, or “heat,” in the input signal, we were able to increase the amplitude of vibrations and in turn improve the precision of the membrane measurements. Our team found that the entropy cost - estimated by measuring the heat lost in the probe circuit - increased linearly with the precision, in agreement with quantum clock behaviour.

Our experiment reveals the thermodynamic costs of timekeeping. There is a relation between the accuracy of a clock and its entropy production; there is no such thing as a free minute - at least if you want to measure it.

For the first time, we’ve shown a relation between the accuracy of a clock and its entropy production, which although derived for open quantum systems, holds true in our nanoelectromechanical system.

Our results support the idea that entropy is not just a signature of the arrow of time... but a fundamental limit on clock's performance.

Our results support the idea that entropy is not just a signature of the arrow of time, or a prerequisite for measuring time’s passage, but a fundamental limit on clock's performance.

The relation between accuracy and entropy might be used to further our understanding of the nature of time, and related limitations in nanoscale engine efficiency.

Our device could allow us to investigate the particular trade-off predicted between clock accuracy, which as we showed is linked to available thermodynamic resources, and tick rate. This trade-off means that, for a given resource, a clock can have low accuracy and high tick rate or high accuracy but low tick rates.

Dr Natalia Ares is based at the Department of Materials.

Read the full paper 'Measuring the Thermodynamic Cost of Timekeeping' in Physical Review X.

Illustration of globe against city lights

By Ben Fernando

A recent article published in the journal Nature Geoscience has highlighted the shocking under-representation of students from ethnic minority backgrounds in the Geosciences.

The analysis indicates that Geology, Physical Geography and Environmental Science are the three worst Physical Science subjects for representation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic students in full-time undergraduate study in UK higher education, with poor progression into postgraduate research. In our paper, we lay out steps to address this diversity crisis and make the discipline more equitable.

Infographic representing the racial diversity crisis in UK Geosciences

In the 2018/19 academic year just 5.2% of Physical Geography postgraduates identified as Black, Asian, or minority ethnic, despite these groups comprising 18.5% of the UK 18-24 year old population. Over the past five years on average just 1.4% Geology postgraduate researchers identified as Black, compared to 3.8% of UK 18-24 year olds.

These data show that Geoscience subjects, which are crucial to developing the UK’s more sustainable future, have not adequately dealt with the legacy of the past when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

We hope that our work will galvanise the UK community into action and encourage other science disciplines to take similar steps.

Dr Natasha Dowey of Sheffield Hallam University, who led the analysis, commented: 'It’s about time these data are scrutinised. We see the lack of diversity every day in our university corridors. Our subjects are built on a legacy of imperialism and are impacted by structural barriers that discriminate against minority groups. It’s up to the entire geoscience community to make anti-racist changes and be positive allies to Black, Asian and minority ethnic students and colleagues.'

Professor Chris Jackson of the University of Manchester, a co-author on the piece and recently the first Black scientist to give a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture, said: 'Some people will only act against discrimination if they are presented with hard data. Here are those data, starkly outlining an issue that has been known for a long, long time. Those in power, who are invariably in the white majority, must now act.'

We recommend a range of interventions, including decolonisation work, ring-fenced opportunities for ethnic minority students, and meaningful reform of discriminatory recruitment and accreditation practices. 

This analysis makes it undeniably clear that the geosciences in the UK has a serious diversity problem. Our hope is that by proposing concrete actions that institutions can take, this article will help form the basis for a solution.

Read the full paper: 'A UK perspective on tackling the geoscience racial diversity crisis in the Global North' in Nature Geoscience.

Ben Fernando is a PhD student at the University of Oxford and campaigner for racial equality in STEM subjects.

Bilayer lithography figure

By Yu Shu

With the increasing demand for high-tech devices such as smart phones, wearable watches and portable health monitoring devices, the semiconductor manufacturing industry faces a big challenge of fabricating these devices in a sustainable and cost-effective way.

The current semiconductor manufacturing process releases a large amount of hazardous chemical waste in the fabrication process, which poses a great threat to human beings

The current semiconductor manufacturing process releases a large amount of hazardous chemical waste in the fabrication process, which poses a great threat to human beings (e.g., toxic chemicals may contain carcinogens) and the environment (e.g., resulting in water, oil and air pollution).

Compared to chemical waste management after the production, minimisation of the use of hazardous chemicals at the source is a more effective and sustainable approach to reduce the negative impact on the environment in long term. Thus the development of a water-based manufacturing technology becomes essential to the semiconductor industry.

Recently we have proposed an environmentally friendly mechanical bilayer lithography approach that just uses water in the fabrication process. A nanoscale tip is employed to write patterns on the bilayer resist coated on the substrate of which one layer of resist is water soluble. This enables the water to act as the resist developer and remover and greatly reduces the use of chemicals at the source.

Recently we have proposed an environmentally friendly mechanical bilayer lithography approach that just uses water in the fabrication process

Compared to conventional photolithography techniques that use a lot of organic solvents in the fabrication process, the water-based process shows great sustainability with reduced influence of chemical wastes on the environment. Based on the fact that the key parts of smart devices are complex integrated circuits, this approach has the substantial potential to be utilised in semiconductor manufacturing as it is capable of writing various patterns in both nanoscale and microscale. The highest achievable resolution is 310 nm, with the scope of further improvement.

The water-based approach is applicable to a wide range of materials especially sensitive materials such as polymers and two-dimensional materials. This also brings a lot of opportunities in flexible and wearable technologies. Polymers with low cost, light weight and flexibility are promising flexible substrates, while two-dimensional materials that have atomic thickness and great electronic and photonic properties can be seamlessly integrated with flexible substrates.

The water-based approach is applicable to a wide range of materials especially sensitive materials such as polymers and two-dimensional materials

However, they both have the disadvantage of low resistance to chemical and radiation damage. This research gives a demonstrator of a flexible MoS2 photodetector fabricated by the water-based mechanical bilayer lithography technique. Due to the protection from chemical and radiation damage, the flexible photodetector shows a rather rapid photoresponse of 42 ms to the red laser diode with the wavelength of 633 nm, validating the superior functional applicability of the water-based process.

This research work is led by Professor Harish Bhaskaran in Department of Materials at Oxford University and is funded by EPSRC Wearable and Flexible Technologies programme. More information about the work can be found in the full paper published in Nano Letters - 'Nanoscale Bilayer Mechanical Lithography Using Water as Developer'. 

Yu Shu is a DPhil student at the Department of Materials and co-authored the above paper.

Newborn baby feet held by adult

By Professor Laurent Servais

Every year, thousands of babies around the world are born with rare genetic diseases leading to death or lifelong disability. With technological advancements in the fields of genetics and medicine, the rate of introduction of treatments for these rare conditions has grown remarkably.

Interestingly, new treatment costs can range from very little to several million pounds. A recently approved Spinal Muscular Atrophy gene therapy has been priced in the UK at ~£1,8m. Several devastating diseases affecting children can be treated with very cheap drugs and even vitamins. For example, Congenital Myasthenia may cause deep hypotonia (decreased muscle tone) and respiratory insufficiency, where the body is not provided with enough oxygen. It is a rare disease, and the patient’s journey to diagnosis can be extremely long. Nevertheless, Congenital Myasthenia can be dramatically improved with salbutamol or pyridostigmine, two very cheap drugs.

All of this could have been avoided with an early diagnosis and a simple drug costing about £7 a month.

Before moving to the UK, I diagnosed three patients with DOK7, causing muscle weakness, in my hometown of Liège, Belgium. The three patients spent 60 years collectively in a wheelchair, had six muscle biopsies that were not helpful, and spent 45 years with invasive ventilation. All of this could have been avoided with an early diagnosis and a simple drug costing about £7 a month.

Last week I diagnosed a child with a neurotransmitter disease. This baby boy, now 18 months old, is in a severe condition that would have responded quickly to L-dopa, folic acid and serotonin, all cheap medications. Today, after several long and severe epileptic seizures, it is likely too late. A variety of severe epileptic disorders of newborns, leading to irreversible damage to the brain, are readily treatable with pyridoxine, or pyridoxal phosphate, two cheap vitamins.

There are many more examples like these. Many more stories of lifetimes spent in a wheelchair, many more stories of patients connected to a respirator long term, families exhausted by diseases that we could have diagnosed and treated much earlier.

Timing is of great importance

Early diagnosis is of primary importance both to obtain the best effect of innovative medications and to accelerate their development.

In nearly all of these rare diseases, timing is of great importance for medication administration. The benefit for a patient who has already suffered from a long, irreversible disorder is small and, sometimes, hardly justifies the cost and the burden of the treatment. Early diagnosis is of primary importance both to obtain the best effect of innovative medications and to accelerate their development. Early diagnosis is easily achievable by universal newborn screening (NBS).

NBS has existed for more than 40 years, but has focused on metabolic diseases like phenylketonuria. All the diseases mentioned here are probably even better candidates for newborn screening than phenylketonuria, which is the “archetype” of diseases that warrant newborn screening. The only difference is the methods that are now used.

In 2018, we pioneered an innovative genetic NBS programme in Southern Belgium for Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) that has, so far, allowed nine children to be diagnosed and treated early and avoid the terrible fate of the disease. The programme was rolled out in 16 countries, including public dissemination and health-economic analysis from the beginning. Very recently, SMA officially entered the NBS programme in Belgium.

Being much more efficient in the diagnosis of treatable conditions and in the treatment of these diseases is feasible. It needs funding and open minds. 

In the UK, we have designed and funded a pilot study that aims to screen 24,000 newborns/year and for which we are currently seeking approval. When you know that every five days a child is born in the UK with this disease and will at best spend their life in a wheelchair, rather than being able to walk if diagnosed at birth, the waiting is difficult.

Being much more efficient in the diagnosis of treatable conditions and in the treatment of these diseases is feasible. It needs funding and open minds. We need to ask ourselves the basic question, “Why not?”. We must place ourselves in the shoes of parents and ask ourselves: if there is a test to find if my child has a treatable disorder and to fix it immediately, rather than taking the risk of waiting for the disease and irreversible damage, why would I not take it?

Further information can be found at:

Undiagnosed Children’s Day

NHS information of newborn screening

Laurent Servais’ research

Sun May Arise on SMA

Professor Laurent Servais is Professor of Paediatric Neuromuscular Diseases at the MDUK Oxford Neuromuscular Centre and Invited Professor of Child Neurology at Liège University. He leads numerous clinical trials in neuromuscular diseases and has a special interest in newborn screening programmes.