The HR Strategy for Researchers (HRS4R) is an ongoing project aimed at improving the working conditions and recruitment processes for researchers, including resident academics and Research Support Officers (RSOs). THINK recently interviewed Dr Karen Cacciattolo to walk us through the work conducted by the HRS4R committee at the University of Malta (UM), the significance of this project, past actions taken, and upcoming plans.Continue reading
Author: Dr Raquel Medialdea-Carrera
When was the last time you heard about the Ebola virus? Many of you may recall Ebola dominating headlines in global news throughout 2014 and 2015 when it spread explosively across West Africa, claiming more than 11,300 lives.
For the last few years, Ebola has been my focus, passion, and dreaded nightmare rolled into one. In 2015, I joined a wonderful team of physicians, nurses, and scientists, that were leading the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone. We worked in Ebola hospitals isolating patients and supporting survivors of the virus’ worst epidemic in history. Then, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the outbreak was over in 2016. News stations stopped covering our progress. Discussions about the disease dwindled. But the fight to eradicate Ebola was far from over.
Since August 2018, an Ebola epidemic has spread across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), affecting over 2,000 people and becoming the second largest epidemic ever recorded. Over the last few weeks, I have joined the WHO to support the fight against it in Africa.
The latest Ebola outbreak in Congo is affecting people who were already suffering from a major humanitarian crisis. People in the DRC are devastated by years of violence and conflict, resulting in the largest displacement emergency in Africa. Four and a half million are currently fleeing their homes. With over 100 different armed groups in the country, the challenge of ending this Ebola outbreak is on a whole new level. But still, there is hope.
Over the last few years, researchers have toiled hard and developed a powerful vaccine against the Ebola virus. This vaccine is still under evaluation, however, the preliminary results show a wonderful efficiency of over 97.5%. Even so, we have to remain aware. Ebola is a cruel, painful death sentence for most people who get infected, and leaves in its wake a trail of broken families, hundreds of orphans, and shattered hospitals. It decimates economies and destroys societies, leading to even more poverty and hardship. This is why we cannot forget about Ebola.
People are living longer than ever. But a long life has its price. With age come more diseases and health issues, such as hip problems that can limit a person’s mobility.
Hip replacement procedures have become common, although implants have a lifespan too. It might happen that a hip replacement you get at 60 needs to be replaced at 75. This is not the ideal scenario.
To minimise these cases, researchers are testing new materials and designs to prolong prostheses’ lifespans. These potential solutions need to be tested, but each test costs tens of thousands of euro. Enter, the University of Malta’s hip joint simulator.
The hip joint simulator is a machine that replicates the joint movements and loads imposed on the human hip. To do so, the simulator uses three stainless steel frames, each of which can be controlled independently using motors. These motors act as the ‘muscles’ of the hip, programmed to replicate the walking cycle during testing.
When it comes to simulating load and forces, a mechanism can load the implants with weights of up to 300kg in a fraction of a second. This emulates what happens while walking, when the weight of the body rests on one leg due to the body’s shift in the centre of gravity. While running, inertial forces can cause the hip to sometimes take five times a person’s body weight.
Finally, to simulate the environment inside the human body, researchers use a specialised solution that mimics the bodily fluids surrounding the hip joint. They even warm the fluid to imitate body temperature.
The hip joint simulator forms part of the MaltaHip project that intends to radically redesign hip implants to give them the longer lifespan patients want and need. Watch this space for more.
As the call for a cleaner, more sustainable future becomes louder, what impact do our individual choices make? Nika Levikov writes.
Gene sequencing for disease treatment
A staggering amount of diseases can be traced back to a genetic cause. Dr Rosienne Farrugia talks to THINK about her team’s efforts to use genome sequencing to eventually secure timely treatment for some very serious conditions.Continue reading
Living on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean, chances are that fish are an integral part of your diet. But do you think about how the fishing industry actually works? Kirsty Callan talks to Dawn Borg Costanzi about the need for safer, more ethical practices.Continue reading
Relationships are based on trust, communication, and mutual respect. The same can be said of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). Behind all the new ideas, it all boils down to a group of people, hailing from different walks of life, coming together to try and create a better future for everyone. At the fourth annual NUCLEUS conference, researchers, academics, science communicators, creatives, and business people flocked to the tiny isle of Malta to share their stories and attempts to embed RRI into their institutions and communities. As everyone settled in, dialogue flowed among delegates and the room was abuzz. University of Malta pro-rector Prof. Godfrey Baldacchino opened the conference with a question: How similar are universities and Valletta, the fortified capital that was hosting the conference? Having been constructed following Malta’s infamous Great Siege, the Knights encased Valletta in massive bastions, allowing only four small entry points. ‘Valletta is an island on an island,’ Baldacchino said. ‘Are universities the same? Are we trying to protect our own?’ The question had many heads nodding in response.
Most people in the room expressed a feeling of obligation to render knowledge more accessible, more relevant, and more digestible to a wider audience. But they encounter a myriad of challenges. Engaging with publics or policy makers isn’t easy. It means addressing different needs in different ways, sometimes even pandering to whims and flights of fancy. Most people noted issues with time, funding, and resources, calling for processes to be formalised. Others pointed to a lack of creative skills and, sometimes, general interest across the board. What also quickly emerged was frustration with the term RRI itself, creating confusion where there needn’t be any.
With all of these difficulties, however, came solutions. Dr Penny Haworth from the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, said that in her experience ‘we need to look at what universities are already doing and work smart. Win hearts and minds.’ University of Malta’s Nika Levikov also pointed out that ‘there are a lot of people practicing RRI who are not conscious of it.’ And for those who do not believe it to be a priority, for those who do not want to engage? ‘You have to set them aside and show them it is possible in a way they understand,’ says Zoran Marković from MISANU, Serbia.
Picking up Baldacchino’s thread on bringing down the walls of universities and research institutions, Dr Annette Klinkert from Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences in Germany summed up her main takeaway from all the discussions. ‘What we can learn here is that it’s time to burst the bubble in which we work. Especially this field of RRI. It is time to leave our cosy little community with our results.’ The results are the various projects that NUCLEUS has been championing over the past years, bringing research to its audiences. ‘All the projects are useless if they can’t merge and get out [into society and communities],’ she emphasises. ‘If they don’t merge, they’re pointless. It is time to burst the bubble.’
Author: Cassi Camilleri
Food is one of life’s constants. Yet, what we eat has major ramifications on global climate. Food production uses up major resources: it accounts for more than 70% of total freshwater use, over one-third of land use, and accounts for just shy of 25% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, of which 80% is livestock. Yes, that steak you just ate has had a direct impact on the world’s climate! There is something of an oxymoron in the world’s food ecosystems. Overconsumption is linked to major health problems like obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and certain cancers that together account for up to 71% of global deaths. On the other hand, there are around one billion people in the world who suffer from hunger and underconsumption. All of this is compounded by problems of food loss and waste. This raises important questions related to the ethics of worldwide food production and distribution.
Food production and consumption is determined by many factors: population numbers, incomes, globalisation, sex (biology), and gender (socio-cultural) differences. The combination of a sedentary lifestyle and an unbalanced diet, high in red, processed meat, low in fruits and vegetables, is a common problem in many developed countries. And this impacts not just human health, but also biodiversity and ecosystems.
Supervised by Prof Simone Borg, I chose an exploratory research design with embedded case studies. The aim was to analyse the dietary patterns of men and women. I wanted to critically question the power relations that feed into socio-economic inequities and lead to particular food choices. I used both quantitative and qualitative methods, modelling the life cycle assessment and scenario emission projections for 2050 in Malta, Brazil, Australia, India, and Zambia among males and females aged 16 to 64.
The four dietary scenarios I took into consideration were present-day consumption patterns (referring to the 2005/7 Food and Agriculture reference scenario), the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended diet (300g of meat per week and five portions per day of fruit and veg), vegetarian/mediterranean/pescatarian diets, and the vegan diet. From there, I measured ammonia emissions, land use, and water from cradle to farm gate, with a special focus on gender.
The findings were alarming, indicating that none of the five countries are able to meet emissions reductions under current dietary patterns. If we were to adopt the WHO recommended diet, GHGEs would be cut by 31.2%. A better result would be gained from a vegetarian diet, which would slash emissions by 66%, while a vegan diet comes out on top with a projected 74% reduction.
Some interesting points that arose were that the Global Warming Potential is higher in men in all countries due to higher meat consumption. Zambia and India would benefit the most from the proposed dietary shifts in absolute terms, while Australia, Malta, and Brazil would feel the positive impacts on individual levels in per capita terms, reducing carbon footprints considerably.
Reduced meat consumption substantially lowers dietary GHG emissions. We need to prospectively consider the interplay of sex and gender, and develop climate change, health, and microeconomic policies for effective intervention and sustainable diets. Adopting a flexitarian diet that is mostly fruits and vegetables, with the occasional consumption of meat, can save lives, the planet, and economies—some food for thought!
This research was carried out as part of a Master of Science (Research) in Climate Change and Sustainable Development at the Institute of Climate Change and Sustainable Development, University of Malta.
Author: Precious Shola Mwamulima