Belfast Telegraph

Making a world of difference: Queen's University scientists showcase innovative projects

BY ANNA MAGUIRE

What do 'pop-up' concrete bridges and Earth-bound asteroids have in common? They will all feature at an event showcasing Queen's University's life-changing research today.

Researchers behind the latest advances in cancer care, dementia treatment, prevention of heart disease and tracking near-Earth asteroids will discuss their work at the event in the university's Whitla Hall.

The showcase follows the publication of The DNA Of Innovation, Volume 3, which compiles the work of 30 academics and their teams. It features the research of young pharmacist Dr Ryan Donnelly, whose tiny microneedles penetrate the skin painlessly and could revolutionise the way drugs are delivered to premature babies.

Professor Alan Fitzsimmons – who is trying to change the direction of comets on a collision course with Earth – will showcase his work, alongside Professor Su Taylor, one of the key researchers behind the 'pop-up' concrete bridge.

"Today's showcase highlights how Queen's connects with society. It features gifted academics from across the university, the ways in which they exchange knowledge with industry, their partnerships with major commercial companies, with hospital trusts and government agencies – and how their work is influencing major societal change," professor James McElnay, Queen's acting vice-chancellor, said.

North Antrim MLA Robin Swann, chair of the Assembly's employment and learning committee, will open the showcase. "This event highlights the leading research carried out on our own doorstep.

"From health to education, engineering to the arts, researchers at our universities are changing lives in Northern Ireland and further afield," he said.

"I would like to congratulate Queen's on its many flourishing connections with business, healthcare providers and Government agencies.

Northern Ireland's universities are central to its economic health and societal well-being, and it is important that they continue to receive the support and funding necessary to allow their important work to continue."

Today's free event, Queen's Researchers Are Changing Lives, is in Queen's University's Whitla Hall from 12-2.30pm.

'Freedom' for stroke victims

Dr Brenda Winter-Palmer:

In 2012, actress and writer Brenda Winter-Palmer asked her drama students to create a fictional project. One approached the charity Chest Heart and Stroke, which decided to roll out the initiative.

Weeks of training followed in the physical effects of a stroke.

Eight stroke victims, aged between 53 and 75, were the first to try the programme of improvisation and storytelling.

Patients who have participated since describe the sense of freedom of being someone else.

"You're not feeling that you're just sitting in a corner as a stroke person," one said.

"We're always trying to be innovative when helping people recover from a stroke, and this project was the first of its kind in Northern Ireland," Andrew Dougal, chief executive of Chest Heart and Stroke said.

Revolutionary 'pop-up' bridge good for environment

Professor Su Taylor:

Su Taylor is one of the key researchers behind the 'pop-up' concrete bridge, which can be transported flat-pack across the world and erected within a day.

The flexi-arch bridge was developed following nearly six years of research and working in collaboration with Macrete, a concrete company in Toomebridge. Thirty of the bridges are now dotted across the UK and New Zealand, including one tucked away in the Sperrins and three in Newtownabbey. The average flexi-arch bridge can be manufactured within a fortnight. The speed of the bridge's construction makes the technology revolutionary.

But by using polymeric, a type of polyester, and other products, the bridges cut out the need for CO2-intensive cement, reducing their carbon footprint significantly.

Keeping Earth safe in space

Professor Alan Fitzsimmons:

One researcher is trying to change the direction of comets bound for Earth.

Alan Fitzsimmons' work takes him across the world to study what lies beyond it.

He is part of a team working with the world's largest astronomical camera in Hawaii, identifying comets which could hit Earth. He is also involved in a three-and-a-half-year €4m (£3.3m) project to devise the best way to redirect an asteroid likely to hit Earth.

"We've never tried to change the path of an asteroid in its orbit," he said.

"So we are now working on both space mission designs and choosing potential test targets."

Solidifying benefits of bone cement

Dr Nicholas Dunne:

On a shelf in Dr Dunne's office is an old copy of Gray's Anatomy. It might seem a strange volume to find in Queen's School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, but it comes in useful.

That's because he develops injectable bone cement, which supports implants used in hip and knee replacements and can be used in spinal surgery to repair damaged or diseased vertebrae.But there are problems. The cement is largely dormant in the body. Other materials can help but are quite brittle.

With the University of Leeds and the Blood and Transplant centre in Liverpool, Dr Dunne has started to explore how collagen (body protein), extracted from human bone and tissue, could boost the effectiveness of bone cement.

Eliminating background noise to clear things up

Professor Ji Ming:

Professor Ming sits at his computer and clicks on the mouse. There is loud noise – like stones rumbling round a washing machine on full cycle. But in the midst of the confusion, there is the hint of a human voice.

This is the raw material professor Ming works with. He will somehow eliminate that noise so that the voice can be heard clearly.

The example he has just played on his computer has been supplied by the Home Office, just one of the organisations which seek his expertise.

"I didn't ask them what kind of noise this was. It might be a car travelling at speed with the window open. They wanted to know what the person in the background was saying," he said.

The techniques developed are now being used to solve problems within industries.

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