University of Edinburgh takes part in ‘Explorathon’ science festival

The University of Edinburgh took part this weekend in the city’s ‘Explorathon’ activities, a celebration of science to recognise the European Commission-sponsored, continent-wide European Researchers’ Night on Friday 25 September. 

While the festivities are an exciting way to share research with the Edinburgh community, it is also an important way to highlight the importance of European funding for the university’s research, according to Dr Adam Kirrander of the university’s School of Chemistry.

European research funds are vital to the operation of the School of Chemistry, explains Sheryl Vickery, Finance and Research Administrator.  According to Vickery, the current active budget for European Research funding is £8.5 million. There are individual grants within the school which total more than one million pounds. 

One group that benefits from the funding is Kirrander and his team, who spoke to The Student. For ‘Explorathon’, Dr Kirrander and his students developed a video game for their exhibit, called Excitune, to be played by members of the public in the National Museum of Scotland over the weekend. 

According to the co-developers of the game, Edinburgh chemistry PhD student Andrés Moreno and University of York physics PhD student Marta Estarellas, the game transforms vocal pitches sung or whistled by players to frequencies that move to “kill” the “alien molecules invading Earth”.

While Moreno explains that for him, video game development is just a hobby, the idea behind the video game correlates with their real-world research.

School of Chemistry work involving the European X-Ray Free-Electron Laser (X-FEL) is one of the research projects that the University of Edinburgh takes part in.  It also benefits from European funding.

The project, a 3.4 kilometer-long Hamburg facility, is set to be completed in 2017, according to European X-FEL.

The idea behind the X-FEL, Kirrander explained to The Student, is to “make molecular movies”, and study how atoms move within molecules during chemical reactions.Just as the players of Excitune make vocal noises to act as “lasers” that pierce “alien molecules”, the 1.22 billion European X-FEL uses magnets and lasers to access the inner workings of real molecules. 

The research that Kirrander and his students perform with X-ray free-electron lasers has the potential to affect a range of disciplines: “If you know the mechanisms of chemical reactions”, Estarellas told The Student, “you can control them. 

“The X-FEL can give you a big amount of information, which can help trace how the body works, and it helps in fields of drug design, medicine, industry, and other applications.”

Kirrander said: “Being a proud member of the University of Edinburgh, I have to point out our unique contributions to human knowledge, from the Scottish Enlightenment, through important historical breakthroughs in Chemistry, to the recent Nobel Prize awarded to Peter Higgs.”

The ‘Explorathon’ is just another way to show off research at Edinburgh, Kirrander says: “There is so much exciting and varied research going on within the walls of the School of Chemistry, and it would be a shame not to share it with the public.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed the university of Marta Estarellas, co-creator of Excitune.  She is a physics PhD student at the University of York, not the University of Edinburgh.

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