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Hughes Hall during COVID-19: research, resilience, response

Hughes Hall Senior Members’ Symposium 2021

November saw a very welcome opportunity for our senior membership to come together in person to share insight and learning from the past eighteen months. We were able to showcase the best of our academic community: its impactful research, its resilience at a personal and professional level, and its responsiveness in a time of crisis.

Dr Anthony Freeling, President, hosted and was delighted to focus on positive outcomes of such a turbulent time: “It is clear that at Hughes Hall we have continued to fulfil our academic mission whilst doing our best to prioritise the needs of our students and protect the well-being of those amongst us.

“Thank you to everyone in our community who has worked so hard to ensure we continue to do more than just survive the pandemic and that we are able, simultaneously, to look to the future in our strategic planning, our research ambition and our desire to make a difference around the world.”

Hughes Hall during COVID-19: research, resilience, response

The Symposium programme grouped speakers thematically: COVID-related research; Education in a pandemic; Global issues; and Personal perspectives. Capturing the College ethos of impactful multidisciplinary collaboration, we heard about research spanning the subject areas and the globe, touching policy, professions, practice and personal experience along the way.

Dr Stephen Axford, who led proceedings, found the return to dynamic discussion rewarding: “What was particularly valuable were the shared interests we identified and the many clear synergies between seemingly diverse research projects, many of which we will be following up.

“This is Hughes Hall at its best: these seeds of collaboration can and do grow at the College, becoming the highly impactful research translation Bridge Centres that are increasingly recognised as leaders in their fields – locally, nationally and globally.”

A summary of the research and learning discussed follows:

COVID-related research

Dr Ellen Higginson – The removal of airborne SARS-CoV-2 and other microbial bioaerosols by air filtration on COVID-19 surge units

The pandemic has overwhelmed the respiratory isolation capacity in hospitals; many wards lacking high-frequency air changes have been repurposed for managing patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 requiring either standard or intensive care. Hospital-acquired COVID-19 is a recognised problem amongst both patients and staff, with growing evidence for the relevance of airborne transmission. Ellen reported on a study examining the effect of air filtration and ultra-violet (UV) light sterilisation on detectable airborne SARS-CoV-2 and other microbial bioaerosols. Conclusions demonstrate the feasibility of removing SARS-CoV-2 from the air of repurposed ‘surge’ wards and suggest that air filtration devices may help reduce the risk of hospital-acquired COVID-19. The research was covered more broadly here: https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/air-filter-significantly-reduces-presence-of-airborne-sars-cov-2-in-covid-19-wards.

Dr Mark Kroese – A summary of the PHG Foundation contribution to the COVID 19 response and other key policy outputs during the pandemic

Hughes Hall partner, the PHG Foundation, is a health policy think tank focused on genomics and related technologies and how they can be used for better, more personalised healthcare. Mark gave an overview of their work during the pandemic, a time of critical relevance and impact for the team. During the pandemic, work has included significant publications on the use of Next-generation DNA sequencing techniques for SARS-CoV-2 analysis and diagnosis, and a SARS-CoV-2 variants review, as well as a range of other expertise provision across multiple platforms from policy to blogs, and through the international media.

Dr Chantal Babb de Villiers – Global genomic surveillance of SARS-CoV-2: how sequencing technologies are used globally to understand and mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic

Genomic surveillance, the systematic sequencing of viral genomes, has become an important tool in combating the pandemic. Coupled with other epidemiological and clinical data, it is proving invaluable to creating a complete picture of how the pandemic is evolving. Genomics data is being used in real time to inform and consolidate national outbreak investigation and response strategies, and is being used to determine the effectiveness of public health measures. As the pandemic has unfolded the importance of genomic surveillance has been further enforced. There have been calls globally, including from WHO, to increase SARS-CoV-2 sequencing efforts to also support detection of new variants and monitor their spread. Genomic surveillance for outbreaks and the monitoring of pathogens is key in combating and managing future outbreaks and for moving forward with COVID.

 Dr Caroline Trotter – COVID-19 and meningitis

The pandemic has disrupted many routine health services including immunisation. We measured the impact of drops in meningitis vaccination coverage in two settings, the UK and the African meningitis belt, by adapting existing epidemiological models. In Africa, we predict that a short disruption to routine immunisation activities is unlikely to increase epidemic meningitis risk. In the UK, effects of social distancing far outweighed lower uptake in teenagers and may suppress transmission of meningitis bacteria for many years.

Education in a pandemic

 Ian Steed – Rapid digital peer learning to support routine immunisation workers during the pandemic

The early days of the pandemic saw lifesaving routine immunisation work under threat or put on hold in many developing countries. With support from the Gates Foundation, the Geneva Learning Foundation deployed digital peer learning capabilities to engage thousands of national and subnational immunisation professionals in reflecting on the challenges they were facing, creating and implementing peer-reviewed action plans and case studies, and developing a sustained peer support network spanning national and organisational boundaries. The presentation described some of the dynamics associated with digital peer learning in this group of professionals, and examples of the data gathered and analysed relating to digital learning and immunisation practice.

Professor Sara Hennessy – Turning to technology: A global survey of teachers’ responses to the pandemic

This talk presented headline findings from a global survey of over 20,000 schoolteachers’ experiences of teaching with technology during the pandemic. The survey examined what technology was available and used, students’ learning losses through school closures, and related teacher professional development experiences and needs. The survey was designed and analysed by an EdTech Hub team in partnership with T4 Education. The full survey report is available at https://t4.education/t4-insights/.

Professor Neil Mercer

Neil led an interactive discussion on communications in the pandemic and how meeting online rather than in person has affected our professional lives, including the effects of Zoom meetings on professional communication and collective thinking during lockdown. There were strong positives: being able to meet anyone anywhere, and people on different continents on the same day; easy playback; an equalising effect on teaching. However, disadvantages included the absence of pre- and post-meeting conversations, the unreliability of IT, and the development of unhelpful etiquette such as turning screens off throughout meetings.

The wider conversation raised further pros and cons of Zoom meetings, such as the absence of commuting, the possibility of frequent short meetings, the ease of co-ordinating many colleges or departments, and the possibility of real-time private messaging, but tempered by the loss of eye contact, the difficulty of encouraging non-participants, and the pressure to attend every meeting. There was also a productive discussion of the potential synergies between the peer-learning approaches described by Ian Steed and DEFI’s CamTREE project.

Global issues

Professor Ian Hodge – Nature beyond the time of COVID

The pandemic has focussed attention on the importance of nature, both in terms of green spaces for recreation and in terms of the significance of the natural environment more generally. This is a key moment for both international and national policy on the environment. Internationally we have the COP26 climate conference and the forthcoming COP15 UN Biodiversity conference next year. Nationally we are in the process of renewing our environmental and agricultural policies after Brexit. At a macro scale, we have consistently missed biodiversity targets and there seems to be an appetite for new statutory targets. Does this strengthen or compromise our ambition? At a micro scale, more people are walking in the countryside, often without any legal right to do so. How should we manage this? Should we have a general right of access to the countryside or pay landholders under the new Environment Land Management scheme?

Emily Farnworth – Did COVID detract from tackling climate change?

Many wondered whether COVID would eclipse concern about the growing climate emergency. It didn’t. In fact, most of the discussions about economic recovery post-pandemic included a recognition that financial support was needed to ensure a green recovery was part of ‘build back better’ plans. The Centre for Climate Engagement also experienced continued growth through lock-down – the team grew, key partnerships grew and new opportunities for student engagement have sprung up. With much welcomed face-to-face time with colleagues and partners, the Centre is looking forward to driving increased climate action on boards at an international, national and local level. For more information, see https://www.hughes.cam.ac.uk/about/news/the-centre-for-climate-engagement-turns-two/.

Dr Amit Bhave – Universal Digital Twin for sustainable smart cities

Universal Digital Twin is a semantic dynamic Knowledge Graph approach that accounts for the connected nature as well as the context of the cross-domain data to enable holistic decision support. The research involves the application of the Universal Digital Twin in the context of Smart Cities, and in particular three user cases focusing on the deployment of air source heat pumps as well as resilience against increased flood risk due to climate change and large variations in natural gas prices. This collaborative research into decarbonisation and digitalisation was performed by the team comprising CMCL Innovations, the CoMo Group at Cambridge University and Cambridge CARES (Singapore).

For a related publication on Knowledge Graphs, see: https://doi.org/10.1017/dce.2021.10 and a live version of the linked/connected data for UK Digital Twin is at https://kg.cmclinnovations.com/.

Personal perspectives

 Dr Matteo Zallio – Transatlantic, professional engagement during the pandemic

Matteo’s plans to come to Cambridge were in place since mid-2019, but he managed to arrive here in November 2020, after a disruption for the entire world happened, COVID-19. He was at Stanford University as a Fulbright fellow and on a sunny early spring day got an email from the European commission saying: Dr Zallio, you’ve been awarded a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship at the University of Cambridge. Then COVID-19 hit.

This was an open conversation with the audience on the challenges of the pandemic, from Brexit and uncertainty to friendship in times of anxiety.

Dr Kate Kincaid – Tropical Mangroves and Hughes Hall: connected, rooted and resilient

This short talk introduces research on nature conservation and restoration and how Kate ended up relocating here in the middle of COVID times. It compared a Mangrove ecosystem with Hughes Hall and discussed the connections under the theme of resilience. It provided a moment to think together about how we personally slowed down and connected to nature during this time. Finally, Kate looked at how this connection can drive the response to the conservation of our natural world for a sustainable future through the care for each other, and the natural world.