Blockbuster research

The University of Leicester has been making headlines worldwide for its groundbreaking discoveries for decades. From science to archaeology, its research findings are not only of academic significance but have a real-world impact. Here are four ‘blockbuster’ research areas that are continuing to make a name for the university globally.

Space

Space, the final frontier … you know the rest, but what you might not know is Leicester University has been boldly going where no scientist has gone before since the 1960s and is now a world-famous space research institution.

It was the work of Professor Ken Pounds, and the newly-established Rocket Group, that really put the university on the map. Not only was he one of the first to pioneer scientific instruments to go aboard rockets and satellites for space research in the UK, but his study of black holes and active galaxies with the X-ray Astronomy Group has been instrumental in furthering the field of astrophysics.

Ken Pounds (right), Ken Edwards (Vice Chancellor), Ken Baker (Minister for Education) at the opening of the Space Centre, 1988.

The University has continued to build on Professor Pounds’s legacy and in recent years, Leicester’s planetary scientists have captured the imagination of millions with its cutting-edge missions to explore the distant worlds of our solar system. Projects such as Cassini’s 13-year exploration of the Saturn system, NASA’s Juno mission to Jupiter, and the James Webb Space Telescope which promises glimpses of the distant solar system. The research team is also playing a key role in the next big mission to explore Jupiter’s collection of moons – Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – with the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, launching this year.

Planetary scientist Dr Leigh Fletcher joined the university in 2015, researching the atmospheres of other planets in the solar system, with a particular focus on Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. He is particularly proud of his work on the Cassini mission to Saturn, which allowed them to take a record of observations in a way that he claims no human being had ever been able to do before.

“It was the first real reconnaissance mission of the planet Saturn,” he explains. “We made a series of discoveries related to enormous storm systems that would erupt within the atmosphere, for example. We found that Saturn has similar seasons to Earth, lasting for seven and a half years, and we observed the meteorology and climate shifting over that period. 

“We're doing the same thing today with the Juno mission, but Cassini held a special place in my heart because that's where I really got started in planetary science.”

He adds that colleagues at Leicester are also studying phenomena like Saturn's gigantic magnetosphere and how that changes over time. He believes the university will lead the way in understanding the magnetic field of the giant planets and how it creates the northern and southern lights on Saturn, similar to what we see on Earth.

While at first these discoveries may seem quite niche and appear to have little relevance to life on Earth, Fletcher claims space research has had a huge impact on our understanding of our own world.

What we are trying to do as a department, as a university, is first understand the fundamental rules that govern the world. If we can understand that, we start to build a picture of how all our planets, this fragile climate that we know to exist here on Earth, relates to those more distant or inhospitable, more alien environments that we see elsewhere.

Dr Leigh Fletcher, Associate Professor in Planetary Science

He says: “What we are trying to do as a department, as a university, is first understand the fundamental rules that govern the world. If we can understand that, we start to build a picture of how all our planets, this fragile climate that we know to exist here on Earth, relates to those more distant or inhospitable, more alien environments that we see elsewhere.”

Technological advances resulting from the exploration of our solar system have also had a direct impact on our everyday lives.

Fletcher adds: “When you look at the technology that has been developed over many years for space exploration, such as imaging or power systems, these ultimately will be used to make people's lives a better place on Earth. We as astronomers and planetary scientists are therefore taking our discoveries and using them to address real-world problems.”

DNA

DNA research has come a long way since it was first discovered in 1869 by Swiss researcher Friedrich Miescher. While scientists’ understanding of the material which contains the genetic blueprint of all living organisms has grown exponentially, so has its applications in not only modern medicine, but crime and even archaeology.

The University of Leicester has been at the forefront of research in the field for decades now. One of the institution's most famous achievements was the invention by Sir Alec Jefferys of DNA fingerprinting in the 1980s. It was a discovery that inspired Mark Jobling to join the University, where he is currently Professor of Genetics in the Department of Genetics and Genome Biology.

Jobling, who has been at the university since 1992, says Jeffreys’ work was hugely important because of its practical applications.

Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys in his lab with a set of illuminated DNA fingerprint charts.

[Sir Alec Jefferys’] invention changed the world…

Mark Jobling, Professor of Genetics in the Department of Genetics and Genome Biology

“His invention changed the world in two ways,” he explains. “Firstly, it could be used to identify individuals, which is very valuable in criminal cases where somebody is accused of a crime, but you can’t be sure it was them. And secondly, you can identify family relationships unambiguously. For example, in immigration casework where people claim to be the child or close relative of somebody else.” 

Jobling says Jeffreys’ work paved the way for research which he is involved in today on the Y-chromosome - male DNA that is passed down from father to son. He claims being able to identify genetic material from the man has a powerful application in forensics, where crime scenes may have mixed DNA samples and investigators need to identify the male. He says they are currently collaborating with the forensic science regulator and forensic service providers to improve how that work is carried out.

Another interesting study conducted by the University looked at whether a man who shares the same surname is more likely to also share the same Y chromosome. By collecting the DNA of men who thought themselves to be unrelated but who shared surnames, that they were in actual fact genetically related. It was one piece of research that had a broad impact and it also impacted on the commercial use of DNA testing for members of the public.

One of the most important research projects currently being conducted by Jobling and Professor of Criminology, Lisa Smith, is the Global Justice and Forensic Science programme, which focuses on addressing sexual and gender-based violence in settings where there is a lack of resources. For example, conflict zones or refugee camps where survivors may have no mechanism to report the crime properly, have it investigated and, most importantly, hold someone to account.

After hearing stories of injustice from Kenyan NGO, the Wangu Kanja Foundation, they worked together to develop a new DNA evidence collection kit which they are now piloting in a number of clinics across Nairobi.

“The hope is that the new kit will increase confidence in the criminal justice response in Kenya, hopefully encouraging survivors to come forward more often and report the crimes that have been committed against them,” reveals Smith.

Jobling says it is an incredibly exciting field to be involved in. One of the next big discoveries, he predicts, will be handheld technology which can help doctors collect and analyse DNA at a patient’s bedside to identify a viral or bacterial infection or even cancer.

“It has the capacity to transform healthcare and lots of other areas that people care a lot about,” adds Jobling. “This also tied into ethical and socio-political issues that really need a lot of thought. I therefore think it’s a stimulating area for any bright student to get into.”

King Richard III

The grave of King Richard III was always a mystery. No one really knew where his body was laid to rest after he lost the Battle of Bosworth, his life and crown to Henry VII in 1485. So the discovery of his remains underneath a Leicester car park was a watershed moment for historians and archaeologists.

The University of Leicester, in collaboration with the Richard III Society and Leicester City Council, began their dig for the last Plantagenet King on the site of the medieval Greyfriars complex in August 2012. And finally, after months of scientific tests, it was announced in February 2013 that the body really was Richard’s.

 

Identifying the remains

But scientists and archaeologists at the university were able to do more than just confirm the body’s identity. They were able to paint a more accurate picture of how the king, popularised by Shakespeare as a villain, lived and died.

After careful examination of the bones, Dr Jo Appleby, Associate Professor of Human Bioarchaeology, was able to speculate on the cause of death. The base of his skull was sliced off by one terrible blow, believed to be from a halberd, a fearsome medieval battle weapon with a razor-sharp iron axe blade weighing about two kilos, mounted on a wooden pole, which was swung at Richard at very close range. The blade probably penetrated several centimetres into his brain and would cause death instantaneously.

Appleby says it’s definitely a “good candidate” for fatality. But, she adds, there were two further injuries on the skull. One to the cheekbone and another cut mark on the mandible, the lower jaw of the skeleton. These injuries would only cause fairly minor facial disfigurement and she believes that was intentional so the corpse was still identifiable as King Richard. 

She explains: “It was important for Henry's side to be able to show that Richard actually was dead. There's always a potential with these things that somebody is going to turn up six months down the line with an army at their back, claiming to be that person. So it was very important that Henry VII could show that Richard was never going to be able to come into power again.”

Several other stab wounds were identified. One on a rib and another on the pelvis.

Injuries to the remains

“The trouble with conducting your analysis of the skeleton is that you can never be certain about what happened to the rest of the body,” says Appleby. “There are many ways of killing an individual that do not involve any damage to the bones. For example, you can stab someone through the heart, or rip their guts out.

“So we cannot say that we have found the blow that killed him. But we can say for certain that we have found somebody who died a violent death.”

The popular belief that King Richard had a humpback was also, surprisingly, confirmed to be true. Appleby says that when they looked at the spine, it became very clear that this was a condition that had affected individual vertebrae, as well as the shape of the spine as a whole, and likely developed during adolescence. 

To really prove they had found their king, DNA evidence was needed. But extracting it from ancient remains is easier said than done. Turi King, Professor of Public Engagement and Genetics at Leicester, explains:

“Getting DNA out of ancient remains is a very tricky and long-winded process,” King says. “First of all, you never know whether or not you're actually going to be able to get DNA out at all. It really does depend on the conditions of the burial and what the soil is like.” 

The best place to extract it is the inside of teeth, she says, where DNA is protected by a hard outer coating and is not in direct contact with the outside world. The next best part of the skeleton to go for is the femur. Fortunately, it was a success and they were able to match the DNA to a distant descendant living in Canada at the time.

The DNA analysis and conclusion

It’s an incredible discovery, but it didn’t happen overnight. It was the culmination of years of tireless research and collaboration between the University and Ricardian historians - from finding the right site to identifying the body and solving the complex puzzle of his legendary death. It’s a story as worthy of the history books as the legendary King himself.

Hate crime

While it often dominates headlines and fills newspaper column inches, hate crime is, in fact, an underexplored topic. Within the UK, it’s only in the past 20 years that researchers have started looking at it as a theme, but it’s relevant not just to criminology, but to society more broadly.

Leading this field has been the University of Leicester, which has a centre in its school of criminology dedicated to researching hate crime. Its director, Professor Neil Chakraborti, says “mainstreaming” the subject, making it relevant, and explaining why it matters to the academic community is central to the work they do.

Dr Neil Chakraborti talks about hate crime

The Leicester Hate Crime project, for example, was started by Chakraborti in 2012 and remains to be the most prolific study of hate crime victimisation ever conducted, anywhere in the world. During the two-year project, commissioned by the Economic Social Research Council, the school reached out to a diverse range of victims who'd never taken part in research studies before or spoken about their experiences of everyday hate and hostility.

“It was a remarkable study,” explains Chakraborti. “Not just in terms of its innovation - the methodologies that we undertook in order to shine a light on their stories - but also what we did with those findings had ripple effects in terms of transforming local policy within the city and council but also nationally. It led to changes within the college of policing guidance and the Law Commission has used our work to guide its reforms to hate crime legislation. So in terms of a single piece of research, that's probably the most significant work that we've undertaken so far.

“Being at the forefront of debates and shaping those conversations, whether it’s within the academic community or within the policy world, that's a significant achievement. I think there's more to do, but we're very proud of the work we've done in that context.”

For Dr Chris Allen, Associate Professor at Leicester’s School of Criminology, one of the biggest achievements has been his participation in the establishment of the working definition of Islamophobia by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims. It was the result of research that Allen has been involved in since the mid-2000s but was officially launched and published until 2018. The impact has been huge, he says, with the majority of political parties accepting the definition, as well as many local authorities and the higher education sector.

The school continues to conduct research with a real-world impact. For example, Allen is currently working on a project in the Birmingham, Black Country and West Midlands region which is looking at what people at a grassroots level, in local communities, understand by the term extremism. The findings, he claims, will challenge the idea of how we conceive extremism at the policy and political level, and he hopes to present the study to the Commission on Counter Terrorism, as well as the Home Office.

Students who join the school, therefore, are being taught by experts that are at the coal face of cutting edge research.

We are working with politicians, the police, talking at mosques and within the community - actually engaging with real people. What you get from the research we do here is more than just evidence - you are enriched by the stories that go with it.

Dr Chris Allen, Associate Professor at Leicester’s School of Criminology

Allen explains: “We are working with politicians, the police, talking at mosques and within the community - actually engaging with real people. What you get from the research we do here is more than just evidence - you are enriched by the stories that go with it.”

Back to top
MENU