The 2021 Review of the Year

At the risk of sounding repetitious…2021 has been (another) extraordinary year globally, in society and here at the University. The pandemic has once again dominated the lives of our students and colleagues as we continually found ways to adapt to our ever-changing reality.  

Whilst it is always important to look forward and not dwell on the past, this retrospective look at the last 12 months shows just a snippet of the amazing work that goes on throughout our University community and the resilience it continues to show. There is plenty to be proud of, and there is much to celebrate. Here is The Review of Year 2021. 

January: New year, new world record! 

The New Year started in record-breaking style as a team of our chemistry scientists secured a Guinness World Record for creating the ‘world’s finest fabric’ by weaving molecules! January also saw a University-led consortium launch the new multimillion pound Christabel Pankhurst Institute for Health Technology and Innovation. The University’s extensive research and work into COVID-19 continued unabated, with experts producing a new film about teenagers’ experiences of lockdown and an accompanying toolkit for educators. Beyond that, our researchers also mapped the pace of language development and human innovation over thousands of years; asked the big questions like ‘could playing games help us discover intelligent alien life?’ And revealed huge health inequalities for ethnic minorities following the most extensive ever study of its kind. Not a bad start to the year.

February: Greater Manchester unites for World Cancer Day 

Every February marks World Cancer Day and 2021 saw doctors, researchers and patients from across Greater Manchester come together with homegrown poet Tony ‘Long Fella’ Walsh with brilliant but emotional results. At the University, our cancer experts found that shorter radiotherapy courses reduce the risk of bladder cancer returning and developed a urine test that could potentially detect womb cancer. In the fight against COVID, Manchester led an ambitious project to measure the impact of coronavirus on ethnic minorities.  

Issues around climate change were also a theme in February as scientists found a way to lower the cost of solar panels, whilst others reported that spring snowmelt in the Alps is happening faster due to rising global temperatures. There were also some staff awards to boast about – as a Manchester scientist was an Alzheimer’s research challenge winner – and some rankings success to celebrate in form of the Financial Times ranking of the world’s best full-time MBAs. Perhaps our most useful research of the month (many parents will agree) was a study that found the ideal routine for a child’s bedtime

March: Rare toads and rare meteorites are just the start... 

From breeding rare toads at Manchester Museum to helping find rare meteorites, March was an eclectic month for research and news stories…and the following doesn’t even cover half of it! One student began a study on one of the most remote islands in the world whilst researchers developed a potential nanotechnology-based test for early Alzheimer’s and others ‘graphene foam’ for trainers.  

There were also some big partnership announcements this month, both at home and overseas. We signed a historic deal with the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) to help accelerate progress toward net zero carbon and launched a ‘£7billion blueprint’ for the North as part of Innovation GM. On the international stage, we joined forces with IIT Kharagpur University in India for a new Dual Doctoral Programme. Closer to home the oral histories of Black and Asian midwives were published in a new book and a graduate campaign led to hate crime recording legislation changes. There was even time for awards, as some social scientists were named Fellows of the Academy of Social Sciences.  

April: The best in the world  

In April there was a huge celebration, as we were named the best university in the world by the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings. Manchester topped a table of more than 1,200 global universities for action taken towards the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But we didn’t rest on our laurels following the rankings, and continued to work within our local community by signing the Care Leaver Covenant and teaming up with Greater Manchester Police for an interactive workshop about sexual assault.  

In other big news, we collaborated with the Universities of Leeds and Sheffield to launch Northern Gritstone, a new investment company to help boost the commercialisation of university spinouts and start-ups. Renowned scientist and venture capitalist Dr Gerald Chan was made an Honorary Professor. Our researchers continued to be busy with interesting studies as they solved a 2,600 year old ancient Egypt murder mystery, used 3D imaging to crack ‘the Brazil nut puzzle’ and helped develop a 'game-changing' treatment for the skin disorder psoriasis.

May: From SpaceX to T. rex 

The sci-fi future and prehistoric past met in May as our scientists led a multi-million pound project to launch a satellite into orbit as part of a SpaceX mission whilst others looked at fossils of fighting mammoths and a sick T. rex. Back on present-day earth construction was completed on UK’s largest engineering campus at the University. Our researchers developed a more efficient method to produce medicines for the treatment of COVID-19, cancer and other diseases and found water companies are the main cause of microplastic pollution in the UK’s rivers. The University also announced it would be working with colleges and universities across Greater Manchester to address the region’s skills and economic challenges, as well as launching a separate ‘pioneering partnership’ to boost regional innovation. Following an amazing fundraising effort that raised £1.2million the University helped launch the #BeeWell campaign which addresses the challenges facing young people in the post-COVID world. There was also more to celebrate as one of our academics was named one of the UK’s leading female data scientists, and a University healthcare initiative won a global citizenship award.  

June: Covid can’t stop Community Festival   

As the days got longer and summer got underway, we were named the 27th best University in the world and there was an OBE for Chancellor, Lemn Sissay, in the Queen’s Birthday honours list. Another huge partnership announcement saw Bruntwood SciTech named as our preferred bidder to deliver the £1.5 billion Innovation District. We didn’t let ongoing COVID restrictions stop some of our biggest community events from taking place as we engaged around 200,000 pupils with the Great Science Share; opened our ‘virtual doors’ for the annual Community Festival and hosted an international photography competition. It seems like boasting now, but there were even more academic awards as seven researchers won prizes from the Royal Society of Chemistry. We were also recipients of a research grant from Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity (GOSH Charity). June was a big month for our energy research cohort who launched the Nuclear energy for net zero strategy and asked ‘Is the UK government’s clean air approach good enough

July: Investment and critical conversations  

As summer got into full swing the University was awarded key roles and funding in two major multimillion-pound projects. The first saw the Northwest named an ‘advanced manufacturing hub’ thanks to around £23million of government funding, and the other was a £9million plan to convert CO2, waste and sustainable biomass into clean and sustainable fuels. Lord Jim O’Neill was named a Non-Executive Chairman of Northern Gritstone. 

Away from funding and business engagement, there was more unusual amphibian activity at Manchester Museum with the first scientific description of an extremely rare tadpole; we shared our expertise in Kenya for a cancer care revolution; launched a project to combat modern slavery and called for a ‘critical conversation’ about statues in the context of Black Lives Matter. The University also developed unique research teams to help cure humanity’s increasingly complex future health and societal challenges using Artificial Intelligence (AI).  

August: A silver lining in Tokyo 

Following the Euros disappointment in July – which led to our students helping to preserve the Marcus Rashford mural tributes (more on Marcus later!) – it was time for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in August. The University had representation on Team GB at both games with immunology student Grace Harvey swimming her way to silver in the Paralympics, and anatomical sciences student Aimee Pratt running in the 3,000m Steeple Chase in the athletics. 100 years earlier, however, our research found that women’s sporting rights were very different.  
As well as student sporting triumphs, August was a month of institutional celebrations. The University topped the table for both UK Knowledge Transfer Partnerships and UK Research and Innovation funding, as well as moving up in latest world academic rankings. Our archaeologists also revealed the origins of a famous Stone Age monument.  

September: Supernovas and cosmic concrete  

As the new academic year began the £105m Henry Royce Institute Hub Building officially opened at the University and there was a major funding boost for UK’s open research agenda. It was also a month of collaborations and partnerships aimed at making our local region and the world a better place. These included joining forces with the Association of Commonwealth Universities for Sustainable Development Goals; signing the first ever civic agreement with all five higher education institutions of Greater Manchester and mayor Andy Burnham; and collaborating with Massive Attack to publish a ‘Roadmap to Super Low Carbon Live Music’. Is it any wonder Manchester was revealed as a northern humanitarian powerhouse?  

Amongst all of this some of our astronomers found time to solve a 900-year-old cosmic mystery  whilst other developed ‘cosmic concrete’ from space dust and astronaut blood. Oh, and there was yet more rankings success and Bluedot announced Bjork would be headlining the 2022 festival at Jodrell Bank.    

October: Honorary award at Old Trafford 

In October Marcus Rashford MBE received his Honorary Degree at a special ceremony at Old Trafford. The accolade is the highest honour our University can bestow and, at just 23 years old, Marcus is the youngest recipient of an honorary degree in our history. This followed the annual Foundation Day celebrations at the University. As part of Black History Month, Professor David Olusoga chaired a discussion on diversity of statues whilst medical student, George Obolo, 20, was named at number five in the top 100 list of most Outstanding Black University Students in the UK. Also that month, the University launched a comprehensive report which highlights how we will tackle the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. It was also a record breaking year for the Innovation Factory and the University was part of £9m research programme to develop new technology that could save hundreds of millions of tonnes of CO2 emissions.  


November: Awards, awards and more awards! 

November was a month of even more awards and accolades! Three researchers were honoured by The Institute of Physics; two were named Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and one psychiatrist won a lifetime achievement award. It wasn’t just our academics who were winning awards either, as three University projects were crowned winners at the North West Regional Construction Awards and a volunteer project in the Faculty of Biology Medicine and Health won a Heath Service Journal award. Beyond our award-laden activities, the University launched a new ‘alliance for the post-COVID university landscape’ with the Universities Melbourne and Toronto. Manchester also became a European centre for leading AI research, whilst our experts led a £7m project to develop a pioneering digital hub for access to the UK’s environmental data. November also saw the University and Students’ Union together take part in North West Sexual Violence Awareness Week and our students raise money for a homelessness charity in a 24-Hour relay. 

December: You never stop... 

If you thought we’d be winding down for Christmas in December, well you’d be wrong. In the first few weeks of the month our colleagues have already helped conduct a 16-year long experiment to challenge Einstein’s theory of general relativity; helped develop new app that reduces hospital visits for pregnant women; shed new light on the dinosaur-killing asteroid 66 million years ago and launch a new spin-out company aiming to find a treatment for drug-resistant TB. There was also another new academic partnership – this time with GCHQ.  

Not to be left our students have planted over 100 trees to help fight climate crisis; And (yes you guessed it) even more academic awards as the British Academy gave their highest honour, the President’s Medal, to Professor David Olusoga and Dr Ciara McGrath was named the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s (IET) Young Woman Engineer of the Year.  

So, there you have it. Another exceptional and extraordinary year at The University of Manchester that really could not have been achieved without our exceptional staff and students. Thanks to everyone in our community who has contributed to this impressive list of achievements and all the colleagues who continue to work behind the scenes to support students and keep our university functioning. Have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. 

President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell
As we approach the holiday season, I want to thank all our staff for the incredible efforts you have all made over the past very difficult 12 months.
President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell

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