Researchers in Norwich are leading the way

Sarah BrealeyFrom the importance of family mealtimes to research into glaucoma and even creating biofuels from rubbish, researchers at UEA are discovering things that could help to shape our futures.Sarah Brealey

From the importance of family mealtimes to research into glaucoma and even creating biofuels from rubbish, researchers at UEA are discovering things that could help to shape our futures. Sarah Brealey went along to a showcase of some of their work.

Most of us value the idea of a family mealtime - even if it sometimes falls by the wayside amongst the pressure of busy lives, uninterested teenagers or something good on television.

But one researcher at the University of East Anglia is studying the family mealtime to find out what families actually do in 2010 - everything from how often they manage it or why they do not eat together to what they talk about and if they try to get time together in other ways.

Kamena Henshaw's research was on show at the Forum in Norwich yesterday as part of a showcase of the work of 40 PhD students to mark the first Universities Week.

She said: 'I am interested in how we bring up children, how do you bring up children well, and how family life is changing, is it changing to become faster-paced and how does that affect children?

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Mrs Henshaw, who lives in Beccles, has a son of 13 and a daughter of 11, and says they 'try to' have a family meal together. 'Sometimes we don't because the children have particular sporting activities or clubs, but I always try to make sure we have some time in the day to touch base.

'I think time is one of the most important things you can give your children, so I always try to have time with them individually to chat about the day, whether that is in the car on the way to athletics, or at the end of the day as they're getting ready for bed.'

A group discussion session in Caf� Bar Marzano at the Forum threw up reasons why families are less likely to eat together, including more working mothers, busier and more fragmented lifestyles, and meals in front of the television.

Peter Jordan, a lecturer in social work at UEA, said during the discussion: 'There is a powerful presentation of family meals as a time to talk and share and everything is wonderful, but actually they are quite stressful.

'One of the things that used to unite families is television. Even my family were united around must-watch events like Top of the Pops or the Chart Show. Now there aren't any must-watch events because we have recording devices, or you can watch them later on the BBC iPlayer.'

Mrs Henshaw is finishing the first year of her PhD, and plans to speak to 12 local families in depth, including the mother, father and child. She may even watch some of them having a meal. She said: 'The research that there is at the moment is mostly American-based questionnaire data, which has found a strong link between family meals and better social skills, higher academic achievement and lower rates of high-risk behaviours like drug and alcohol abuse.'

She added: 'There is quite a lot of pressure from the data, and from campaigns from celebrities like Jamie Oliver for families to eat together, but not much recognition of the stressful side of eating together.'

Sight is something most of us take for granted - until it starts to fail.

Which is why Andy Osborne is trying to make people realise the importance of donating corneas to transplant. They are the most commonly transplanted organs, because the lack of blood supply means they will not be rejected by the recipient's body, and they can be donated up until the age of 90. But despite this they are the least commonly donated organs, and 500 patients a year miss out on the chance to improve their sight.

Mr Osborne, 23, from Three Score, Norwich, said: 'A lot of people won't donate corneas because it is an external part of the body and it is not life-saving. But it is life-improving.'

After the event at the Forum yesterday, he went on to an evening event at the UEA raising awareness of the importance of cornea donation.

He is also studying glaucoma and ways of improving treatment. Using donated eyes, he is looking at possible treatments in the lab. Glaucoma is usually linked to raised pressure in the eye, so he increases the pressure in the eye and then adds different chemicals to see how they affect site.

He said: 'Glaucoma affects 4.5 million people in the world. I am trying to prevent glaucoma having such a devastating effect on vision. It kills cells in the retina which cannot be replaced.'

He and his colleagues are also looking at drugs to reduce the clouding over vision that happens after cataract surgery.

What to do with our rubbish is one of the problems of modern society. But one UEA researcher is working on ways of turning it into fuel that could be used to run cars or generators.

Adam Elliston is creating biofuel from general rubbish, which works because a large proportion of it contains cellulose, especially things like food waste and cardboard. He is adding the enzyme cellulose, which produces glucose when it digests cellulose.

He said: 'You are left with a sugary liquid. If you add yeast that will produce ethanol [alcohol], in almost the same way as brewing. You distil the ethanol off and if you have a converted car you can run it on it straight away, or it can be used in a generator. All petrol at the moment contains 5pc ethanol.'

Mr Elliston's work is sponsored by Achor, a Norwich-based scientific research company, which is currently building him a larger test plant which will be able to take a tonne of waste each week.

Mr Elliston, 29, grew up in Beccles, where he still lives. He said the research is going well. 'We are getting there, it is a question of optimisation. One of the good things about using waste is that people pay to get it taken away, so you do not have to pay for your raw material.

'About 10pc of the waste is left behind and that could be turned into briquettes or maybe used as a building material.'

Teacher Olutayo Popoola is looking for the best ways to use computers to help children learn.

His PhD started off by looking at different computer-based learning tools which are currently available, how well they motivate children and how long the 'novelty' period lasts for.

The 29-year-old, who lives in London and is originally from Nigeria, said: 'The level of motivation that children have with computer games is much higher and the time they are willing to spend on them is much longer. How can we design learning tools so they engage young people and keep them as engaged as computer games?

'Also, can we personalise them for young people? If little Johnny has a two-minute attention span can we design tasks so they are two minutes long? If we are interested in football can we involve that so he is counting balls rather than pieces of fruit?'

His research has also led him to believe that the main piece of learning in any topic should be introduced at the beginning of the topic while it still has a novelty factor, rather than later on as is conventional practice in teaching at the moment.

David Gibbs is looking at corporate social responsibility and whether companies act in the wider interests of their shareholders, or just to make money.

His work will look at how things changed in 2006, when the Companies Act was passed which encouraged directors to consider issues of wider social responsibility, and gave them a responsibility to shareholders to do so. He is also looking at what happened in 2008 and whether the recession caused social responsibility to go out of the window in favour of maximising profit.

The 22-year-old, who lives in Norwich, said: 'I am looking at the best interests of companies and how directors are meant to act - is it in the best interests of the shareholders or wider interests?

'The recent takeover of Cadbury suggests directors are not always adopting such an enlightened approach. Companies can suffer in reputation from decisions like Kraft closing the Cadbury factory, which suggests the market regulates itself - but this does not always happen.'

He said it was difficult for shareholders to enforce their rights over social responsibility, and almost impossible for third party outsiders to try to enforce them.

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