This summer, I was fortunate to experience the rigorous process of academic research and publishing. Under the supervision of Dr Sandro Lanfranco, I examined the efficiency of using a drone to obtain large-scale vegetation maps, which resulted in a paper in the journal Xjenza Online. The study shows how influential technology has become, even in traditionally ‘low-tech’ fields like ecology.
Despite being one of Malta’s hottest attractions, a lot of what Comino has to offer is covered by the cool blue waters that fuel its popularity. Prof. Alan Deidun and his team have embarked on a journey to bring what’s hidden beneath to the surface, tentacles and all.
Have you ever googled Comino? Approximately 10,900,000 results pop up, and the vast majority of them relate to holidaymaking tips and weather information, with a sprinkling of research projects. Once the hideout of pirates and smugglers, the little island’s crystal-clear waters have now made it a paradise for travellers. But despite the suffocating love and attention Comino gets during the summer months, many of its wonders remain hidden underwater, unattainable to most.
This was the motivation behind Prof Alan Deidun’s most recent documentary, Comino: A Secret Paradise. An academic at the Department of Geosciences (University of Malta), Deidun is an avid diver, environmentalist, and advocate who wants ‘to bring the underwater world to people who don’t normally venture beyond the swimmer’s zone.’
Deidun’s first foray into documentary filmmaking came with Dwejra (2012), a film that featured the long-lost Azure window. Soon after were Rdum Majjiesa (2012) and Mġarr ix-Xini (2013). His big break came with Filfla (2015) which went viral and continues to do rounds on social media today. Even in 2012, the aim was always to highlight the beauty and importance of local Marine Protected Areas. In 2019, this has not changed.
Behind the scenes
The team met to film the first documentary in the series back in 2012 with Monolith Limited. The experience was so positive and fruitful that the team has remained practically unchanged since. Film after film, they all keep coming back to work together. Directed by Pedja Miletic and funded by the Malta International Airport Foundation, Comino is the fifth film in the series.
Filming took place throughout 2018, focusing on everything: marine to terrestrial, shallow to deep, diurnal to nocturnal. Deidun admitted that the team struggled with finding and filming enough organisms. ‘It took around 50 trips to Comino and back to get the footage we needed,’ he says. But the result speaks for itself.
Helping them achieve the sheen they needed for the final work, Deidun and his colleagues used a state-of-the-art 8K underwater camera. Hardware of this calibre is the sort you find on big budget productions like the BBC’s beloved Blue Planet. The camera enabled the divers to film animals from a different perspective, providing audiences with a new experience. Take, for example, the Common Octopus, Octopus vulgaris, a documentary staple whose camouflaging skills got some well-deserved attention in Comino. The camera also came in handy with more delicate, elusive creatures. The weird and wonderful Berried Sea Anemone and the Flying Gurnard, species the team hadn’t been able to capture in previous work, could now be seen in all their complexity.
Science & art for the environment
The motivations behind this documentary are complex, but one big factor Deidun mentions is a lack of science communication—a global issue.
Deidun emphasised that academics need to share their findings. ‘You can’t just publish in a peer-reviewed journal and stop there,’ he says. ‘You need to engage, start a dialogue with society.’ Because despite all of us choosing different walks of life, we share one home, and scientific findings should influence how our environment is treated. To move from research to societal action, communication is key. Scientific findings on their own quickly become stagnant, but through discussion and dialogue, they can thrive in the different layers of our communities: from quick, friendly conversations to formal government conferences. A conscious understanding of our environment leads to its conscious use.
In this case, Comino can help engage people with marine diversity and show them this complex micro-realm that ‘is not just Blue Lagoon.’
Most people know about the Damselfish (Ċawla in Maltese) or the Mauve Stinger (BRAMA! in Maltese). This might make people think that Maltese waters are safe from overexploitation, but this is far from the truth.
The animals that are difficult to see are those that need the most attention. Fauna such as the endangered Rough Ray, the protected, crimson purple Echinaster sepositus starfish and the Striped Prawn all face man-made threats.
‘This has resulted in an alarmingly low fish biomass [amount of fish] for the Maltese waters,’ Deidun says. ‘But that’s not surprising. Maltese waters are constantly fished. Overfishing is a reality.’ Even Comino, a Marine Protected Area (MPA), is surrounded by nets and fishing lines. It seems that while most of us are proud of our crystal-clear waters, we are not paying attention to the problems ailing it. ‘This is what we hope to change,’ Deidun adds.’
Comino’s future; our future
Deidun has plenty of hope. He tells us that ‘our MPAs are paper tigers for now, but the Environmental Resource Authority (ERA) is working on having approved management plans’ which need to be ready and presented to the European Commission by the end of 2019—a step towards a healthier sea with a sustainable future.
As for the future of these documentaries, Deidun has big plans, and they involve Netflix. He also wishes to add the films to digital libraries of local schools. In time, this will all feed into his vision of establishing a local ocean literary centre, a space where people of all ages can learn about our sea through science, arts, and new technology.
The Maltese are an island people. The sea is part of our heritage, a part of our identity. And we must work harder to preserve it for future generations. It is through documentaries like this one that we can appreciate and protect our home. As biologist Jane Goodall once said, ‘Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, we will help. Only if we help, we shall be saved.’
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.
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.’
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.
With all the cranes strewn across the Maltese landscape, it appears that the construction industry is one of Malta’s primary economic drivers. But there are other, less polluting ways of generating income. Dr Ing. Marc Anthony Azzopardi discusses MEMENTO, the high-performance electronics project that could pave the way for a much-needed cultural shift in manufacturing.
Swiss artist, documentary filmmaker, and researcherDr Adnan Hadzihas recently made Malta his home and can currently be found lecturing in interactive art at the University of Malta. He speaks to Teodor Reljic about how the information technology zeitgeist is spewing up some alarming developments, arguing that art may be our most appropriate bulwark against the onslaught of privacy invasion and the unsavoury aspects of artificial intelligence.
What if I told you that I could explain why the sky is blue through dance? All I would need is a fiddle player, a flautist, and a guitarist. By the end of it, we would all be dancing around like particles, hopefully with a better understanding of how the world around us works. This is exactly what neuroscientist and fiddle player Dr Lewis Hou does on a daily basis. Sitting through a boring science class with a teacher blabbing on about how important the information is might be a scene way too familiar for all of us. The science ceilidh (a traditional Scottish dance) aims to combat this misconception that science is all about memorising facts. Bringing people together to better understand and represent the processes within science through interpretative dance and other arts, the ceilidh has been proving a fruitful way of engaging people who would normally not be interested in science or research. ‘For us, that’s a really important guiding principle— reaching beyond those who usually engage,’ says Hou.
It all starts by bringing everyone together in one room. Researchers, musicians, and participants all get together. Researchers kick off the conversation by explaining what their work is and why it is relevant. Hou then helps the rest of the group break the scientific process down into its fundamental steps, be it photosynthesis, cell mitosis, or the lunar eclipse. The next step is translating each of the steps into a dance. And this is where everyone gets involved.
For us, that’s a really important guiding principle— reaching beyond those who usually engage.
Thinking back on how the idea came together, Hou says his first motivation to combine dance and science came when he was playing music and calling ceilidhs, all while attending as many science festivals as he could. ‘I realised there’s a big crossover with the spirit of folk music and dance—it’s all about participation and sharing. Everyone takes part even if they aren’t experts—and that is what we want to achieve in science communication. We want to encourage more people to feel able to participate without being scientists.’
‘Importantly, the nice thing about ceilidh dance is that they might be simple, but it also means that many people can join in and dance,’ emphasises Hou. Back in the studio, aft er having understood the science and its concepts, everyone works together to create the choreography. The science merges with their artistic interpretation. It is no longer something out of reach; it is now owned by everyone in the room.
‘I’d sell a kidney for that!’ Most of us have been guilty of using this expression when faced with something desirable. But do we fully appreciate the real value of what we are offering before the words escape our lips?
Kidneys are our body’s oﬃcial waste disposal system, filtering out toxic build-up from our blood, which can poison us if left unchecked. With kidney failure posing such a threat, renal research has become an ongoing global goal.
A team of scientists from the University of Malta is currently honing in on what may cause children to be born with ‘CAKUT’, or Congenital Anomalies of the Kidney and Urinary Tract.
With between three and six cases recorded per 1000 live births worldwide, CAKUT is the most common cause of end-stage kidney disease in children. Since early identification of these anomalies may reduce kidney damage later in life, the LifeCycle Malta Foundation has raised funds for a renal research programme which targets CAKUT and its causes.
‘We know that a number of children are born with a kidney defect, but in many cases, we are not sure why,’ explains the programme’s principal investigator, Dr Valerie Said Conti . ‘There are many factors that can affect the development of the kidney, both genetic and environmental. We are trying to understand those influences so that we can carry out preventative strategies, diagnose issues earlier, and target personal therapeutic interventions.’
A number of children are born with a kidney defect, but in many cases, we are not sure why.
For this team of renal researchers, the first three years of initial research has been the first step in a far longer journey. ‘We hope to contribute our data to the international literature pool,’ continues Prof. Alex Felice, consultant and supervisor on the programme. ‘We will need a massive amount of data to create a robust theory with which to progress. We hope that our findings regarding CAKUT will be useful when we come to the stage of creating new interventions.’
It’s an end-game that has kept the small team focused as they approach the programme’s expected completion date this year. Having had to start literally from scratch, they collected biological samples from patients with a range of kidney diseases, including CAKUT, nephrotic syndrome, and Bartter syndrome. This allowed them to build the renal disease collection at the Malta BioBank, a vital storehouse for scientists.
‘For research projects like this, you see what material is available and you work with it,’ explains Said Conti . ‘A big part of it so far has been sourcing the samples from families attending the clinic with their formal consent for the material to be used in this project. We are hugely grateful to those who accepted to take part in the research. Without them, it would have been impossible.’
This project has set the groundwork for renal research in Malta to continue. ‘Without funding, projects such as this one simply could not exist,’ Said Conti remarks of the €100,000 donation LifeCycle Malta Foundation made to RIDT. ‘It enabled us to employ a full-ti me Research Support Oﬃcer, involve other laboratories, attend international meetings to share insights, perform ultrasound tests, and invest in ‘Next Generation DNA Sequencing’, genetic technology that maps out genes, revolutionising our world.’ But there is much more to come.
The Founder of the LifeCycle Malta Foundation, Personal Fitness Consultant Alan Curry, agrees. ‘Renal failure is an ever-increasing problem with figures going up every year, and LifeCycle is the only NGO that is actively supporting renal patients and their families in Malta. Our annual LifeCycle Challenge, which this year is routed from Dubai to Oman, aims to raise €150,000. It’s a huge responsibility, but we are sure that, by funding research programmes such as this, we will significantly improve the lives of kidney patients.’
Do scientists need to have a clear end-goal before they dive down the research rabbit hole? Sara Cameron speaks to Dr André Xuereb about the winding journey that led to the unintended discovery of a new way to detect earthquakes.
Some of science’s greatest accomplishments were achieved when no one was looking with a purpose. When studying a petri dish of bacterial cultures, Alexander Fleming had no intention of discovering penicillin, and yet he changed the course of human history. Henri Becquerel was trying to make the most of dwindling sunlight to expose photographic plates using uranium when he stumbled upon radioactivity. A chance encounter between a chocolate bar in Percy Spencer’s pocket and the radar machine that melted it sparked the invention of the household microwave.
One would think that with this track record of coincidental breakthroughs, the field of science and research would continue to flourish by embracing curiosity and experimentation. But as interest piques and funding avenues pop up for researchers, there has been a shift in mindset.
Money changes things. And while it does allow people to work hard and answer more questions, it has also fostered expectations from stakeholders. Investors want fast results that will improve their business or product. We, the end-user, want to see our lives changed, one discovery at a ti me. We’re no longer satisfied with research for research’s sake. At least for the most part.
Quantum physicist Dr André Xuereb (Faculty of Science, University of Malta) is all too aware of this issue and its effects on scientific progress. Xuereb explains scientists’ frustration: ‘A lot of funding, in Malta and elsewhere, is dedicated to bringing mature ideas to the market, but that is the ti p of the iceberg. There is an entire innovation lifecycle that must be funded and sustained for good ideas to develop and eventually become technologies. The starting point is often an outlandish idea, and eventually, sometimes by accident, great new technologies are born,’ he says.
Over the past few years, Xuereb has been exploring new possibilities in quantum mechanics.
The field of quantum mechanics attempts to explain the behaviour of atoms and what makes them. Its mathematical principles show that atoms and other particles can exist in states beyond what can be described by the physics of the ordinary objects that surround us. For example, quantum theorems that show objects existing in two places at once off er a scientific basis for teleportation.
Star Trek fans know exactly what we’re talking about, but for those rolling their eyes, the reality is that many things in our everyday lives wouldn’t exist without at least some understanding of quantum physics. Our computers, phones, GPS navigation, digital cameras, LED TV screens, and lasers are all products of the quantum revolution.
The starting point is often an outlandish idea, and eventually, sometimes by accident, great new technologies are born
Another technology that has changed the way we live and work is modern telecommunications technology. When you pick up your phone to message a friend overseas, call a loved one, or email a colleague, telecoms networks spanning the earth carry the data across continents and under oceans through thousands of kilometres of optical fibres.
The 96-kilometre submarine telecommunication link between Malta and Sicily was Xuereb’s focus in 2015. He organised a team of European experts to begin investigating the potential for building a quantum link between the two countries.
The Austrian, Italian, and Maltese trio were particularly interested in a strange property called ‘entanglement.’ This is a curious property of quantum objects that can be created in pairs of photons, connecting them together. This entanglement can be distributed by giving one of these photons to a friend and keeping the other for yourself, establishing a quantum link between you and this friend—an invisible quantum ‘wire,’ so to speak.
Through this connection, you and your friend can send data faster than over ordinary connections; by modifying the state of the photon at your end, you can instantly affect the state of your friend’s photon, no matter how far apart you are in the universe. Using quantum links such as these, all manner of feats can be performed, including super-secure communications. ‘We wanted to demonstrate that quantum entanglement can be distributed using a 100km-long, established telecoms link, using what was already available, with no laboratory facilities in sight,’ explains Xuereb. His team also wanted to demonstrate that entanglement using polarisation of light was possible. Previously it was thought impossible in submarine conditions, even though it has some very technologically convenient properties.
Two years and several complex experiments later, Xuereb and his team have indeed proven the possibility of quantum communications over submarine telecommunication networks. And with one question answered, a slew more lifted their heads.
The Italian subteam, led by Davide Calonico (Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica, INRIM), now turned their attention to a different set of questions for the Malta-Sicily telecommunication network.
MORE TO COME…
Atomic clocks keep the world ticking by providing precise timekeeping for GPS navigation, internet synchronisation, banking transactions, and particle science experiments. In all these activities, exact timing is essential.
These extremely accurate clocks use atomic oscillations as a frequency reference, giving them an average error of only one second every 100 million years. Connecting the world’s atomic clocks would create an international common time base, which would allow people to better synchronise their activities, even over vast distances. For example, bank transactions and trading could happen much faster than they do at present.
This can’t be done by bouncing signals off of spaceborne satellites, since tiny changes in the atmosphere or in satellite orbits can ruin the signal. This is where the fibre-optic network comes back into the picture. Researchers have recently been looking at the telecoms network as a way to make this synchronisation possible. Scientists can use an ultra-stable laser to shine a reference beam along these fibres. Monitoring the optical path and the phase of the optical signal of the beam can then allow them to compare and synchronise the clocks at both ends.
Whilst Calonico and his team were testing this idea on the submarine network between Malta and Sicily, a few thousand kilometres away, meteorology expert Dr Giuseppe Marra was monitoring an 80km link in England. On October 2016, everything changed. One night, he noticed some noise in his data. Unable to attribute the noise to misbehaving equipment or a monitoring malfunction, his gut told him to turn to the news from his home country, Italy. There, he saw that the town of Amatrice had been devastated by an earthquake of 5.9 magnitude.
Further testing confirmed that the waveforms Marra saw in the fibre data matched those recorded by the British Geological Survey during the earthquake. His system even recorded quakes as far away as New Zealand, Mexico and Japan. This was huge news.
In simple terms, the seismic waves from an earthquake tremor cause a series of very slight expansions and contractions in fibre-optic cables, which in turn modify the phase of the cable’s reference beam. These tiny disturbances can be captured by specialised measurement tools at the ends of the cable, capable of detecting changes on the scale of femtoseconds: a millionth of a billionth of a second.
The majority of seismometers are land-based and so small that earthquakes more than a few hundred kilometres from the coast go undetected. Conventional seismometers designed to monitor the seabed are expensive and don’t usually monitor underwater seismic activity in real time. Telecoms networks could offer a solution that would allow us to observe and understand seismic activity in the world’s vast oceans. They would open up a new window through which to observe the processes taking place underneath Earth’s surface, teaching us more about how our planet works. In future, it may even make it possible to detect large earthquakes that cause untold devastation earlier.
The beauty of this discovery is that the infrastructure already exists. No new work is needed. All that is required is to set up lasers at either end of these cables, using up a tiny portion of a cable’s bandwidth without interfering with its use.
THREADS COMING TOGETHER
Marra got together with Xuereb and Calonico, who were already working on the undersea network between Malta and Sicily, to conduct some initial tests. The underwater trial, published in the world-leading journal Science this year along with the terrestrial results, was able to detect a weak tremor of 3.4 magnitude off Malta’s coast. Its epicentre was 89km from the cable’s nearest point, which reinforced the idea that cables can be used as a global seismic detector. ‘We would be able to monitor in real time tiny vibrations all over the planet. This would turn the existing network into a microphone for the Earth,’ Xuereb explains.
If we don’t fund the initial few steps of the innovation lifecycle, how will we ever develop new technologies?
The system hasn’t been tested on an ocean cable. An interesting target would be a cable that crosses the mid-Atlantic ridge, where the drifting of Eurasian and African tectonic plates creates an area of high seismic activity. Based on the results so far and on conservative assumptions, trials are being planned for the near future on a larger scale, which will give us a better idea of the possibilities.
FURTHER DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE…
In many ways, it is understandable that agencies that fund science favour smaller, more goal-driven research programmes. They seek tangible results in a timely manner to reap quick rewards. But as this story goes to show, a change in mentality is needed.
‘If we don’t fund the initial few steps of the innovation lifecycle, how will we ever develop new technologies? This is a problem that affects scientists from many countries and comes from a mismatch in timescales. A year is a long time in politics, but a decade is often a short time in science,’ Xuereb comments.
Innovation has to start from somewhere, and it often starts from ideas which may have no apparent relevance to our everyday lives. We need to support researchers by keeping an open mind to unknown long-term possibilities—or the world might not only miss the next earthquake but also the next life-changing discovery.