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Institute of Advanced Study

Light and Wellbeing

Light is the ultimate sustainer of life on earth and the complex mechanisms that evolved in nature to capture the energy from light provide an inspiration as we seek to harness light more efficiently for our own purposes. Light influences our health and well-being in other less fundamental ways, both good and bad. Exposure of our skin to sunlight is needed for the synthesis of vitamin D, but overexposure to ultraviolet light leads to skin cancer. Mood and behaviour are strongly affected by light, with prolonged darkness or dull weather leading to lassitude and depression. The right to light is encoded in urban building regulations, yet light is also seen as a form of pollution, disruptive to nocturnal wildlife, disturbing to sleep and hiding the beauty of the stars from our eyes. This modern ambivalence to light contrasts to its overwhelming association with good in the history of Western thought. A varied programme of activities proposed within this subtheme will seek to address a number of important issues: can we validate the proposed health issues both for children and adults posed by current and future building lighting plans? Is it possible to strike the right balance between the environment, economics and health and wellbeing? Are we able to control mood and wellbeing by manipulating light, colour, reflection and aesthetics (exploiting the pleasure of light) through physics, architecture and engineering? Can we manipulate light to improve the wellbeing of visually impaired individuals? Why is light so important to life? How do animals sense, use and rely on light sensing to shape their life cycles? 


LIGHT SCATTER - Environmental impact by ionising radiation and other environmental contaminants on the eye

The single most important cause of vision loss world-wide is lens cataract. In the elderly, vision loss is the most significant cause of morbidity. Fortunately there is effective treatment via surgery to replace cataractous lenses. So what is cataract and how does it form? A cataract is when the lens begins to scatter rather than refract light. This means the texture and colour of what we are looking at are lost and in the worst-case scenario the lens become completely opaque blocking the light and preventing it from reaching our retina. How do cataracts form? By a variety of ways, some of which suggest simple lifestyle changes to help preserve lens function. For instance wearing sun glasses to prevent UV damage is one such lifestyle choice. Besides UV radiation, the sun is also a source of other higher energy radiation, like that produced in X-ray machines or in nuclear power plants or as a result of atomic explosions. From epidemiological studies of A-bomb survivors, it is now known that the lens is very sensitive to ionizing radiation. Such studies continue to inform regulations for the safe working limits for ionizing radiation. These regulations are important for national Space Agencies, as well as for cardiovascular surgeons as they consider their exposure to X-rays as part of the imaging procedures they use. Such information also impacts airline pilots. So the impact of radiation is universal.

Another important environmental factor is arsenic contamination of water and food supplies, because arsenic becomes concentrated in the lens. Arsenic contamination threatens more than 35 million people worldwide, therefore appreciating the risks and determining the mechanism of lens damage are important research goals. This project has support of IAS Fellow, Dr Norman Kleiman, a world leading expert on cataract caused by environmental factors and in particular ionising radiation. Dr Kleiman will be offering talks within the IAS and the School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences (SBBS). The environmental issues involving water, food and energy security as well as Health and Safety means that the LIGHT SCATTER theme has a very broad appeal. A workshop entitled Environmental Factors and Light Scatter – a Public Health Issue is also planned in partnership with Public Health England, aiming to bring together leading experts to encourage inter-institute collaboration between the Biophysical Sciences Institute (BSI), Durham Energy Institute (DEI), Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience (IHRR) and Wolfson Research Institute for Health and Wellbeing (WRIHWB). The workshop is initially by invitation only, however for further information contact either Dr Norman Kleiman ( or Professor Roy Quinlan (

Harnessing Light; Plants provide food security

To feed 9 billion people by 2050 is an unprecedented challenge. Rice is the food source for the majority of the world's population but also a model for cereals. Drought and related high salinity during essential periods of plant growth affects nearly all crops including the major cereals such as rice causing drastic yield losses. A major goal of plant biology is to develop crop cultivars that are "drought and salt resistant", defined as those that have higher yields than standard cultivars under these environmental stresses. However plant responses to drought and salinity are overlapping and complex involving many physiological pathways controlled by cascades of molecular networks. This makes engineering drought and salt resistance in crops possible but very challenging unless we identify molecular mechanisms (‘Master coordinators’) that can influence multiple signaling networks to produce an integrated stress response. Crop improvement programmes that target these ‘Master’ coordinators will have the greatest potential to increase yield under stress.

Rice is the food source for the majority of the world's population. Rice crops lose 75% of their yield potential due to the effects of environmental stress particularly drought and salt stress. Despite having a long history as well as great potential for rice production the devastating human cost of this yield loss is felt most in Sub Saharan Africa. Improving rice performance in these conditions is among the most serious challenges facing global agriculture particularly since rice cultivation requires more water than any other cereal crop and therefore efforts to increased water use efficiency in rice will have huge repercussions for global water use in agriculture.

Drawing on the expertise of plant biologists from the Universities of Durham and Singapore a workshop focused on identifying ways to develop stress adapted high yielding drought and salt resistant rice varieties will be held at Durham University on 01 and 02 August 2013. The workshop Durham Centre for Crop Improvement Technology- National University of Singapore joint meeting on Plant Biology is by invitation only and will involve a series of talks and sessions aimed at developing collaborative projects in rice and stress tolerance. For more information please contact; Ari Sadanandom (

Light and the Rhythms of Infant Life

The rhythm of life is driven by the presence and absence of light. Almost every living being on our planet has a biological clock that was first set ticking more than three billion years ago. During pregnancy a mother’s circadian rhythm controls that of her developing infant, but following birth human infants do not have their own fully functioning biological clock. The process of circadian rhythm maturation unfolds throughout the first year of life and can be observed in a number of infant physiological systems: hormone secretion, sleep consolidation, core-temperature patterning and clock-gene expression. Research into the development of circadian rhythms is therefore of interest to a variety of disciplines such as anthropology, biology, psychology, and health; these areas consider the phenomenon of circadian maturation from different perspectives.

The activities coordinated under the sub-theme of ‘Light and the Rhythms of Infant Life’ will provide opportunities for multidisciplinary discussion of infant circadian development across these different fields, with the aim of identifying new research directions and fostering new collaborations for progressing research and funding applications.

As circadian rhythms respond to external environmental cues (zeitgebers), the most important of which is daylight, there is growing interest in the effects of daylight variability on the development of infant circadian rhythms. Researchers who are working with populations at a range of different latitudes have been invited to participate in this sub-theme. Confirmed international speakers include: Professor Hideya Kodama and Dr Hitomi Shinohara from Akita University, Japan; Dr Shoa-Yu (Shelley) Tsai from the National Taiwan University; and Dr Megan Galbally from the University of Melbourne all of whom are actively involved in current studies of the development of light/dark driven circadian rhythms and the consolidation of sleep patterns in the first year of life.

The programme will be coordinated by Dr Alanna Rudzik, International Junior Research Fellow in Anthropology and Professor Helen Ball, Director of the Parent-Infant Sleep Lab. The activities comprise two events:

  1. Light and the Rhythms of Infant Life Conference: this is an open public conference for which registration will be necessary. The conference will be of interest to health professionals working with parents and infants, and anyone with an interest in infant sleep and development. Information regarding online booking and registration fees will be available via Early enquiries should be sent to

  2. Infant Sleep and Circadian Development Workshop: this is an invited research conversation for international guests and UK academics actively involved in research in this area. Researchers who would like to express an interest in being invited to participate in this event should contact The workshop will be held at the Parent-Infant Sleep Lab, Queen’s Campus, in conjunction with Wolfson Institute for Health and Well-being.



Seeing the World through Echoes

People use light to navigate and to go about their daily life, for example to grasp an apple, or to avoid bumping into a lamppost. Now -- consider people who cannot use light to sense the spatial layout of the world. Blind people use hearing and touch. More and more blind people also use echolocation, just like bats and dolphins. They echolocate for example by making mouth clicks and listening to the click-echoes.

Echolocation works based on reflection of sound, similar to the way vision works based on reflection of light. Echolocation - in a way - is like seeing without light. Blind people use echolocation to sense shape and size of buildings, materials, or the layout of rooms and hallways. Research done by Lore Thaler in the Department of Psychology also shows that the processing of echoes in blind people involves those parts of the brain that process light in sighted people.

The programme will address fundamental issues about the nature of spatial sensing through echolocation, how vision loss affects spatial sensing and other aspects of daily living, and how echolocation may benefit people with vision loss in this context.

Lore Thaler will organise a series of science lectures, a ‘hands on’ echolocation workshop, and a moderated roundtable discussion. Lectures will be delivered by Lutz Wiegrebe (Ludwig Maximilians University Munich, Germany), Ian Jermyn (Mathematical Sciences, Durham University), and Lore Thaler (Department of Psychology, Durham University). The echolocation workshop will be conducted in collaboration with Visibility, a Glasgow based organisation that has been working with people with visual impairments for over 150 years. The roundtable will be attended by representatives of organisations working with people with vision loss (County Durham Society for the Blind and partially Sighted, Visibility, World Access for the Blind) and Durham University’s sensory support team. Attendees will discuss how vision loss affects spatial sensing and daily living, and the relevance of echolocation within this context.

The science lectures and roundtable are open all (registration is not necessary). The workshop is also open to all; however registration in advance is requested. To register or to request further information, please contact Dr Lore Thaler (

The Lantern Parade

Lantern parades have become a connecting thread of imagery and engagement in community arts worldwide, and involvement with them by academics and health professionals may direct an inter-disciplinary interest in what makes for human flourishing towards community-based projects that advance action research on the impact of participatory arts on community health and individual well-being. Lantern parades are, literally, occasions to view a community in another light. Sometimes they are one-off events, but in many cases they become annual celebrations generating narratives and traditions, and becoming part of wider programmes of work that connect arts, health education and community development.

The aim of this programme of work, via a two day conference, is to begin to theorise lantern events in an inter-disciplinary context that will support future collaboration. The purpose is to engender opportunities for academics, participants and practitioners to meet and develop outlines for further work and research. The conference will be based on presentations to prompt discussion, including some practical lantern-making activity, and will be accessible to all. Conversation sessions will develop between small groups comprising community participants, practitioners and academics. Participants are welcomed from across the disciplinary spectrum from Durham University as well as other universities. Artists will be highly-experienced lantern makers and community participants will include head teachers and teaching staff from participating schools.

The workshop will take place on 16 and 17 January 2014. Places are limited to 30-40 therefore please contact Mike White (, Senior Research Fellow in Arts and Health, Centre for Medical Humanities and St. Chad’s College for further information.