The 2020 Review of the Year - Part One

It has undoubtedly been an extraordinary year in every sense of the word. From the pandemic to the Black Lives Matter movement via the US Elections and Brexit, 2020 has seen political, social, and cultural upheaval across the world. These issues have been reflected here at Manchester and across the higher education sector.

It has as also been an extremely challenging year for our staff and students. But, despite everything that has happened in the past 12 months, our entire University community has come together to produce the amazing stories and research that make up The Review of Year 2020…and there is much to be proud of and celebrate.

January: Mummy Mystery

To kick off the new year, our researchers found two reasons why it’s important to get a good night’s sleep. That’s because our body clocks affect how the immune system works and beauty sleep could actually be a real thing. We also started the year with some important local and national political figures visiting our campus, with Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, and the then Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Chris Skidmore, visiting our materials experts. We also named a New Chair in Materials Physics and Innovation Policy.

Our students weren’t to be outdone, as some from our law department took part in a new BBC series whilst one of our medical students joined the England netball team. There was more good news for students and graduates as Manchester was named the most targeted university by the UK’s top 100 graduate employers for the third year in a row. As if all that wasn’t enough, there was a £5m boost for new world-class cancer centre in Manchester; our poets and psychologists joined forces to save school playtime and, in true Scooby Doo style, some of our Egyptologists solved a genuine mummy-mystery by revealing the “shocking truth” behind Takabuti’s death.

February: A trip to Buckingham Palace

February saw our cancer researchers find a way to stop breast cancer cells from spreading whilst identifying risk factors for endometrial cancer. It was also a busy month for our political researchers as they found ethnic minority candidates face bias during UK elections as well helping produce a report that called on our leaders to “think big” when tackling the UK’s severe regional inequality.

University leaders made first (and last) overseas trip of the year as a delegation went to India and gave an honorary doctorate to one of the country’s most famous philanthropists. As well as giving out awards, the University was also on the receiving end of a special one, as the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB) collected the Queen's Anniversary Prize at a Buckingham Palace ceremony. And, of course, February wouldn’t be complete without a Valentine’s Day story (of sorts).

March: Pandemic response

March was the month where COVID-19 really took hold in the UK and, in an unprecedented move, scientists and clinicians from across Greater Manchester formed a rapid response research group in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Away from the pandemic, our astronomers shed new light on black hole ejections whilst two more researchers were awarded the first Stephen Hawking Fellowships.

In the month the National Graphene Institute celebrated its fifth birthday there was also a unique collaboration between a clinical psychologist, robotics engineers and a robotics entrepreneur that improved the way robots can walk like humans. In Humanities, renowned broadcaster Sir Peter Bazalgette joined the University as our first ever Honorary Professor of Creative Industries, whilst important but varying research in the Faculty found that older women are facing greater financial problems and underwater avalanches were trapping microplastics in the deep ocean.

April: An army of volunteers

Coronavirus-related activity at the University increased massively in April as, like many people across society, our staff, students and alumni came together to combat the pandemic. We had an army of student volunteers helping the NHS on the ground as well as sewing their scrubs. Our staff joined forces with colleagues at Manchester Metropolitan and Salford Universities to 3D print safety equipment for front-line NHS workers whilst our health academics were key leads in setting up Manchester’s Nightingale Hospital. On the research side of things, our data and health scientists combined to create a COVID-19 “heat map” whilst another team from MIB helped developed a simple COVID-19 home-test. Our psychologists and social scientists were also busy as well, asking questions like can talking, sharing on social media or writing about lockdown help people cope with it? That’s because our researchers also found social distancing was already having a significant impact on our mental health.

Away from COVID-19, April was also a big month for sustainability and environmental research at our University. Not only did our researchers demonstrate the environmental cost of ‘fast fashion’ and find the highest ever level of microplastics on the seafloor, we also received £5million to launch a sustainability Hub to support Greater Manchester SMEs with plastics innovations at the Henry Royce Institute. And, last but not least, our University was named top in the UK (according to latest world rankings) for our social and environmental impact.


May: Making a difference

As the world, and the University, adapted to the ‘new normal’ our students and staff continued to help with a whole host of pandemic-related problems, both in Manchester and overseas. These ranged from publishing a ‘staying healthy in lockdown’ guide for older people and testing 150,000 pieces of PPE for Manchester City Council to helping tackle coronavirus in Kenya whilst students from our law department volunteered to help people affected by the pandemic. To help with home schooling and general lockdown boredom Professor Brian Cox launched the University’s ‘Lockdown Lectures’ series.

It was also another busy month for coronavirus-related research at our University. This included some sobering studies that found the North will be hit harder and the UK’s racial inequalities are likely to worsen due to the pandemic. But Manchester researchers also launched a project capturing how BAME people with mental illness were coping with the pandemic and developed an app for older people to help reduce the risk of falls during and after lockdown.

Away from COVID-19, we investigated dead Sea Scroll fragments and brought two of our annual stalwart events, the Great Science Share and the Making a Difference Awards online for the first time ever. It was another big month at an institutional level too, as we announced we were decarbonising our investment portfolio and our President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell was named the first female Chair of the Russell Group. There was also more big news for our cancer researchers who discovered a new method of detecting endometrial cancer whilst others received major funding for urine testing that may transform cervical cancer screening.


June: Black Lives Matter

Following the death of George Floyd in late May in the US, June saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Our Vice-President for Social Responsibility, wrote a personal letter to all staff and students about BLM and what it meant to him and for our University which was followed up with our Race Matters report. Researchers published a timely study that showed ethnic minorities’ employment prospects lag behind due to ‘persistent racism’ and a report into racism in schools criticised increased police presence. Our coronavirus work continued unabated, as our scientists produced a new tool that computes the risk of getting COVID-19, and led a programme to assess instant testing. Away from research, our staff answered the NHS call for 3D printed parts for COVID-19 ventilators. June was a big month for our astronomers and astrophysicists as the ‘sleeping giant’ Jodrell Bank ‘awoke’ after its historic lockdown. They also managed to confirm a cornerstone of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and prove Earth’s nearest supergiant is cooling down at the end of its life. Not to be outdone by astronomers and physicists, some 11 of our chemists won prestigious Royal Society of Chemistry awards. At an institutional level we had another good result in the QS World University Rankings, maintaining our highest ever position.

And that's just the first six months. You can read the rest of what we got up to in 2020 in Part Two of our End of Year Review

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