Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Oilseed rape crops under threat


Professor Bruce Fitt
New strategies are needed to manage oilseed rape diseases, according to Bruce Fitt, professor of plant pathology at the University of Hertfordshire’s Crop and Environmental Protection Research Group. In his presentation at last week’s HGCA Agronomist conference, Professor Fitt urged industry and academics to work together to protect genes for resistance against diseases in oilseed rape.

Disease resistance genes in oilseed rape crops are often effective when initially introduced into commercial crops, but new pathogen races arise that are able to overcome them in a relatively short period of time – causing crop losses.


Phoma stem canker was responsible for more than £140m of oilseed rape crop losses in England in 2010.  And with current production methods putting a great strain on those crop varieties that are disease resistant, the crop losses can only get bigger – putting our future food security at risk.

Field of Oilseed rape
Image credit: Baum im Feld von Petr Kratochvil
With the range of diseases and their pathogens under constant change, there is a need for good resistance against these pathogens.  We need to exploit new genetic information to improve resistance as well as devising new strategies to manage and control oilseed rape disease.

In Australia, the oilseed rape industry is working together to protect their disease resistance genes.  By monitoring the regional distribution of the races of phoma stem canker pathogen, the farmers are then advised to grow the oilseed varieties which have effective resistance in their area.  Similar schemes operate in France and Canada.

A study to better understand the disease resistant crops in the UK is currently underway.  The ongoing BBSRC LINK project is investigating factors affecting resistance against phoma stem canker under field conditions. The UK oilseed rape production industry, including farmers, breeders and researchers, needs to work together to protect our disease resistance genes in oilseed rape.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Common myths about Online Distance Learning*

Studying a degree by distance learning isn’t a new concept- it’s been going on for decades. Our perceptions about distance learning can be a little dated though. So here’s some of the common misconceptions dispelled…

Common myth #1 “An online degree is not a ‘proper’ degree”

Not true. Distance learning degrees go through the same rigorous academic quality standards as campus based degrees. And if there is a campus-based equivalent to the online degree, the entry requirements are the same. You also join all the other University graduates at a lovely cathedral in St Albans when you graduate (or at the University if it's a postgraduate degree).

Common myth #2 “Online degree- can’t I just buy one of those off the internet?”

We suspect these are not real. The same goes for the ‘free’ ones. Remember, if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Common myth #3 “I will just be reading textbooks and writing essays”

UH ONLINE TEAM edtech no AP
Some of our eLearning Technologists at UH Online
Online distance learning or ‘eLearning’ presents materials in an engaging way, and is accompanied with interactive activities to test your understanding.

Enter a team of eLearning Technologists. These specialists have the technical expertise as well as a firm understanding of online pedagogy (the science behind teaching) to develop the distance learning materials.

eLearning Technologists work with University teaching staff to develop engaging online study materials and activities. (We actually run an online eLearning Technology Master’s degree that teaches all about this).

We’ve got a little example on our website you can register to try, to see the sort of activities students can undertake.

Common myth #4 “It’s so isolating- I’ll be studying on my own”

There is, like on campus degrees, independent study involved with your distance learning qualification, but students also benefit from collaborative study so we encourage and actively make provisions for it. Discussion forums form a great way to share ideas with colleagues from all sorts of professional backgrounds - giving a richer experience to you.

Common myth #5 “It’s not really 100% online- I need to turn up for workshops and exams”

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Unless otherwise specified, the degree is studied 100% online. Teaching is online, the materials are online (of course we may post you a physical textbook as well as your electronic materials), assessment is also completed online.

Common myth #6 “It’s easier to cheat on an online degree”

Plagiarism, collusion and cheating can happen anywhere - online or when studying on campus.  The methods of assessment and verification for online distance learning moves away from the traditional ‘one exam at the end of the year’ to ongoing assessment throughout the course instead.  Tutors online get to know their distance learning students at a deeper level than they tend to on campus, which makes any ‘out of character’ behaviour prominent.

To find out more about studying by distance learning visit: go.herts.ac.uk/online

 *Well, they’re myths at UH Online, we can’t speak for other guys...

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Hertfordshire psychologist reviews psychology exhibition on BBC Radio 3Night Waves

The new “Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology” exhibition, based at the Science Museum, was reviewed on BBC Radio 3 Night Waves programme.  Keith Laws, Professor of Cognitive Neuropsychology at the University of Hertfordshire was invited to join the show hosted by Philip Dodd and give his expert review of the new exhibition.

The exhibition, supported and set up by the British Psychological Society (BPS), explores how mental health conditions have been diagnosed and treated over the past 250 years – looking at key breakthroughs in scientists’ understanding of the mind and the tools and methods of treatment that have been developed.

During the Night Waves programme, Keith described how it was a great exhibition which was more about the technology and tools that were used to apply electrical and magnetic stimulation to various parts of people’s brains, rather than about people’s experience of the various therapies.  It tries to convey the notion that we are more humane in our treatments.  Towards the end of the exhibition, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and the idea of avatar therapy is introduced which is more about engaging with the person undergoing treatment and less about doing things to the person.

The “Mind Maps: Stories from Psychology” exhibition, opened yesterday (10 December 2013) and runs until 12 June 2014 at the Science Museum in London.

Listen to Professor Keith Laws on Night Waves here.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Experts recommend Ketamine should be a Class B drug

Ketamine. Image is licensed under the 
Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal 
Public Domain Dedication
The increase in recreational use of the drug ketamine is a cause for concern.  So much so that in the latest report published today (10 December 2013), the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) is recommending that the drug ketamine should be upgraded from a Class C drug to Class B.  Under this new classification, illegal possession of ketamine could lead to a five-year jail sentence and suppliers could face fourteen years.


The new report, “Ketamine: a review of its use and harm”, builds on the evidence of a previous report published in 2004, and covers public health issues – in particular new evidence on severe damage to bladders which, in the most serious cases, users have had to undergo surgery to have their bladders removed.

Ketamine, best known by the street names K, KET, Special K and Vitamin K, is widely used in veterinary medicine and in some areas of human medicine as an anaesthetic and analgesic.    But it is also a drug of misuse and it’s estimated that in 2012/13 around 120,000 people had misused ketamine.

Professor Fabrizio Schifano, John Corkery and Dr Ornella Corazza from the University of Hertfordshire’s Centre for Clinical Practice, Safe Medicines and Drug Misuse Research, have been studying the use and impact of ketamine, providing evidence to support the ACMD’s recommendations to the UK government.

Professor Schifano and John Corkery are part of the national programme on Substance Abuse Deaths (np-SAD) which is based at the International Centre for Drug Policy, St George’s University of London, and which contributed data to both the 2004 review and the report published today.

Dr Corazza and Professor Schifano have researched the recreational use of ketamine and its new derivative methoxetamine.  Ketamine abuse is often associated with physical and psychological side effects, of which the worst is the effect on the bladder.  More recently methoxetamine, known on the streets as Special M or MXE, provides the same effects as ketamine but slower onset and longer duration but without the bladder damage.  However, it is also associated with worse side effects than ketamine, ranging from mood disturbances and suicidal attempts to acute cerebellar toxicity. The paper  ‘From “Special K” to “Special M”: The Evolution of the Recreational Use of Ketamine and Methoxetamine’ was published in CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics.

Mediterranean diet is key in the battle against dementia

In an open letter to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and UK Prime Minister David Cameron, leading clinicians and health researchers including Dr Richard Hoffman from the University of Hertfordshire’s School of Life and Medical Sciences, have called for people to be urged to convert to a Mediterranean diet.

One of the lead authors of the letter and of an acclaimed book on the Mediterranean diet, Dr Hoffman, with his expertise and research into the effects of the diet, is calling upon the Government to improve public health as an effective weapon in the fight against dementia.  To persuade people to eat fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, fish and olive oil is ‘possibly the best strategy currently available’ for preventing Alzheimer’s and other memory-robbing diseases.

There is no effective treatment for dementia, but a healthier Mediterranean diet is possibly the most effective way of helping to prevent dementia and may have a far greater impact than pharmaceutical and medical interventions.

Dr Hoffman’s research included collating and analysing information from colleagues and contacts from across Europe.  The letter comes ahead of a crucial meeting in London on Wednesday this week where dementia experts from the G8 group of countries convene to plan a new approach in the research and treatment of the disease (G8 Dementia Summit).

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

“GORDON'S ALIVE!” – Brian Blessed talking about Flash Gordon

Guest blog: Howard Berry, Social Sciences, Arts & Humanities Research Institute

Brian Blessed at the screening of Flash Gordon
When The Elstree Project launched in September 2010, I had no idea I would be sitting on stage three years later listening to Brian Blessed doing an impersonation of the Queen.  However, that’s exactly where I found myself following the opening screening of the third Elstree Film Season.


Brian was in attendance at the Weston Auditorium, at the University of Hertfordshire’s de Havilland campus, to talk to the audience about his role in the making of Flash Gordon, in which he played the memorable character Prince Vultan - complete with a gold Viking-style helmet and giant bird wings.  The film was partly filmed at the nearby Elstree Studios, which was also home to Star Wars and The Shining at the time of production.

Conducting research into the history of classic productions, such as Flash Gordon, is always rewarding because you never know quite what information you are going to find.  Oral history interviews are a wonderful way to connect with the past, and each interview is unique because it is a personal memory being shared.

This summer I interviewed Brian on behalf of The Elstree Project, in the preview theatre of the studios, and he told me about how the Hawk Men were winched up into the roof of the soundstage against a blue backdrop in order to achieve the flying sequences.  Many crew members would feel ill from the heat of the studio lights or from having just eaten lunch, and toilet breaks involved having to winch everyone back down again.  The process apparently took ages!

One of the most interesting stories Brian told me was about how - after being an actor for the BBC - working for “the other side” (ITV) was always seen as disloyal and frowned upon.  When Brian first started to make guest appearances in The Avengers and Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) at Elstree, he was told off and felt guilty.  However, he enjoyed the freedom and soon came to regard Elstree as a hugely enjoyable place to work; he would even cycle to the studios if the car to collect him didn’t arrive.

The video of Brian talking to The Elstree Project can be found online here.

Brian was a fascinating interviewee, and the added bonus of having him launch our third Elstree Film Season was a wonderful treat for our audience.  Next week we get to screen an episode of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) and I have the joy of sharing a new interview we have recorded with Kenneth Cope before the screening.