Discipline hopping across the environmental sciences

In late 2021 The University of Manchester received funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to develop its interdisciplinary research capabilities. Manchester Environmental Research Institute (MERI) has distributed these funds through the NERC Discipline Hopping call, inviting Early Career Researchers (ECRs) to complete short research projects in a discipline outside their own. 

Through these 'hops', ECRs will develop inter, multi, and trans-disciplinary research collaborations across the University to address the Sustainable Futures Platform Challenges, and facilitate partnerships across its institutes that deliver environmental solutions. 

Three projects were successful in this round: 

Tropical influence on the changing climate of Northwest Africa 

In this project, Dr Benjamin Bell, a postdoc in the Department of Geography working on Quaternary palaeoecology with Dr Will Fletcher and Professor Phil Hughes, will 'hop' to the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (EES) to work with Dr Luis Garcia-Carreras from atmospheric sciences. 

While there he will be looking at tropical-extratropical climate interactions and their influence on the climate of Northwest Africa. A deeper understanding of tropical-extratropical interactions in a changing global climate is central for reducing uncertainty and providing improved predictions of future climate impacts on natural systems and society. 

The project will bring together strengths across two faculties in palaeoclimatological proxies, such as tree-rings, lake sediments, pollen records and glacial geomorphology from the Department of Geography and atmospheric sciences in EES, leaving a fertile test-bed for larger grants. 

We are delighted to develop new connections between geography and atmospheric sciences. There is a lot of common ground, in this case shared research interests in the climate of Northwest Africa, including the dynamics of the Saharan and monsoonal systems. It makes a lot of sense to bring together perspectives from palaeo and modern climatology to share expertise and examine climate changes across a wide range of timescales. 

Ben Bell, the ECR discipline-hopper, is looking forward to developing new skills and experience about resources and analytical methods in atmospheric sciences that will lead to exciting new possibilities for hypothesis-testing in his palaeoclimate research. It's great that MERI is promoting this type of interdisciplinary working within the University that can help expand the research horizon and stimulate new approaches. 

Dr Will Fletcher, Reader in Physical Geography and Quaternary Science

Microbial Molecular Mechanism of ISA Degradation (M3ISA) 

In this project Dr Naji Bassil will be 'hopping' from EES to the Division of Evolution, Infection and Genomics to work on radioactive waste management. Chemical hydrolysis of cellulose in radioactive wastes releases isosaccharinic acid (ISA), which is a harmful by-product – but bacterias exist that can degrade it. 

To explore this further the enzyme needs to be purified and the function of the genes identified, so Dr Bassil is going to use the discipline hop to collaborate with experts in molecular microbiology and biochemistry. This project will form a research hub connecting biological sciences, Manchester Institute of Biotechnology and EES, and bring collaborators from other disciplines to projects, who will bring new ideas and points of view. 

Spatio-temporal analysis of the immune system of wild mice 

In this project Dr Iris Mair is 'hopping' from the Lydia Becker Institute of Immunology and Inflammation to the Department of Geography to look at the immune system of mice in their natural environment. 

Laboratory studies show that factors such as diet, age and condition influence immune responses, but it is not known how these factors combine to shape the immune system in an uncontrolled natural environment. 

These individual traits are tied to ecological variables such as seasonal changes, climate, habitat and local population density, so Dr Mair will collaborate with geographer Dr Angela Harris and ecologist Professor Susanne Shultz to use remote sensing and create spatio-temporal models to understand individual and population level variation in immune function, and for the prediction of responses to environmental change that will form the basis for potential future predictive models, allowing the simulation of a population's response to environmental change.

This award is an incredible personal opportunity that will help me move closer to establishing myself in the interdisciplinary research area of ecoimmunology. As a postdoc with a strong background in mechanistic immunology, it will provide dedicated time and expert guidance to hone my skills in ecological data analysis while opening up a new network of potential cross-faculty collaborators.

Dr Iris Mair, postdoc in the Division of Immunology, Immunity to Infection and Respiratory Medicine

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