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Surrey researchers step out of their comfort zone

The University’s four faculties got together on 16 January to celebrate the achievements of the three-year MILES programme and the launch of its successor, Collaboration Surrey.

Can ballet helps us age better? What effect does colour have on our mood? Could traffic cameras assist the police in predicting organised crime? These are just a few of the questions tackled by collaborative projects under the MILES (Models and Mathematics in Life and Social Sciences) programme.

Funded by EPSRC (the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) under its ‘Bridging the Gaps’ initiative, MILES was conceived as a way of encouraging academics from different disciplines to step out of their comfort zone and collaborate. Since its launch in October 2010, MILES has inspired 116 collaborations from 26 academic departments and research centres at Surrey, bringing together people from mathematics, computing, physical sciences and engineering with those from life sciences, social sciences and beyond.

On 16 January, researchers from across the University gathered for an event that both celebrated the conclusion of MILES, and announced the launch of Collaboration Surrey, an internally funded programme that will continue Surrey’s culture of collaboration.

Academics were treated to talks, performances, films and presentations showcasing the highlights of the MILES projects in an afternoon compered by comedian James Sherwood. They also got the opportunity to explore ‘InterPlay’, an exhibition of interactive experiences inspired by projects on brain and behaviour, microbial communities and sleep and circadian rhythms. Designed to spark curiosity about the research themes and questions, these included a giant petri dish showing the relationship between microbes and a blue light machine analysing how pupils react to blue light. Creating a lasting legacy of MILES, an interactive installation called ‘Light Bridge’ by artist Tine Bech will shortly be unveiled on campus.

Since its launch, MILES has used a range of tactics to get academics talking, including fun activities from forming a choir to building a yurt, speaking at the MILES Collaboration Café, and ‘Behind the Scenes’ tours of different research environments. Groups of academics wanting to explore an idea were invited to apply for small grants to enable them to develop their projects to the point where external grants could be applied for.

In many cases, the collaborations have reaped impressive results. A project by researchers in Nutritional Science and from the Centre for Vision, Speech and Signal Processing has used visualisation techniques to successfully identify changed proteins in people with fatty liver disease. This is a discovery with interesting implications in the context of our increasing obesity epidemic. In another example, academics from the Department of Computing and Department of Hospitality and Tourism have developed an app for visitors to art galleries and exhibitions. Knowing where the user is standing at any one time, the app gives them instant access to information about each exhibit, and has already been trialled at the Watts Gallery in Compton and The Lightbox in Woking.

Rebecca Hoyle, Director of MILES, said: “Interdisciplinary collaboration is becoming increasingly important in many areas of research. I am immensely proud of what our academics have achieved under the MILES umbrella. The programme has animated the University of Surrey research community, inspiring a culture of collaboration and creativity, which will continue with Collaboration Surrey.”

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