Caffeine on the Brain

We have had such a great response to Penny University and the interviews posted up so far.  Thanks!  We couldn’t have done it without you (honestly, it’d be a pretty lame endeavour if no one other than myself and the researchers were reading it – and the stats don’t lie: over 2050 views already).

At this point in time, now that we’re up and running (and summer is approaching), we are going to move from posting interviews weekly to biweekly.  However, if there is a call for it (perhaps say, when the new academic year roles around) then we will definitely consider switching back to weekly interview features.  Fifty-two inteviews in a year is a little daunting though!

But don’t despair!  The weeks in between our interview features Penny University will be posting all sort of other wonderful posts on a variety of research subjects.  We even have some guests posts lined up!  If there is a subject you think we should cover – or if you’d like to take part – then get in touch.

We also have one final exciting update.  Remember, Penny University LIVE?  Well, we’ve been in touch with organisers at Manchester Science Festival / other sneaky collaborators and it looks like our insane idea may be going ahead – so if you’d like to take part (or if you just want more information) then do let us know.



What have the Romans ever done for us?*

It has been a rainy, grey, windy week here, but have I got something that’ll brighten your day!  Today’s featured researcher may be off in Finland (along with her dashing colleague Linzi Harvey) presenting her dead Romans to the Nordic Medical Congress, but through the magic of pre-preparedness (and the internet) I bring to you today’s interview with Lauren McIntyre!

Would Rome still have fallen if the legions had access to a cup of joe in the morning?

Would Rome still have fallen if the legions had access to a cup of joe in the morning?

Lauren McIntyre is a PhD Candidate in Osteoarchaeology at the University of Sheffield.  Her PhD project is focussed on reconstructing the population of Roman York using osteological evidence.  Lauren is also Associate Osteologist for On Site Archaeology.

AA: So, tell me a little bit about your work:

LM: For my PhD project I’ve collected osteological data from as many skeletons dating to the Roman occupation of York as I could get my hands on! I’ve ended up with information for nearly 800 individuals from about a 340 year time span.  For each individual I collected data on their age at death, sex, and living stature (height). I’ve used this information to look at the composition of the population, so I’ve been able to work out things like average life expectancy and the ratio of men to women present.  I’ve also recorded every single example of dental or skeletal pathology.  I’ve used this information to try and work out how healthy people were (what types of diseases or health problems people were likely to have), and to try and work out the types of foods people were eating.

AA: Wow, that sounds like a lot of work!  Before you started your PhD was there much known about these things for Roman York or even Roman Britain?

LM: Some work has been done on a couple of different assemblages from Roman York (such as Trentholme Drive and Driffield Terrace), but no-one had ever looked at the town as a whole.  The same is pretty much true for the rest of Roman Britain – there is plenty of work done for individual sites and cemeteries, but it’s very unusual to look at an entire settlement.  What people forget is that a lot of burials are found on tiny archaeological sites – these may be isolated burials or just very small excavations where only a tiny piece of land is being excavated.  Once you add these burials up for the whole town there can actually be quite a substantial number, which could contribute significantly to the story of the population.

AA: Can you tell us a little bit about Roman York before we get on to exactly what you’ve discovered?

LM: York is thought to have been founded in 71AD by the 9th Roman Legion.  It was originally established as a fortress as part of the Roman expansion into the north of England and Scotland.  A civilian settlement eventually grew up around the fortress and it became an important urban centre.  By the third century York was made an official Roman colony and shortly after it was made the Roman capital of the north of Britain.  It would have been quite a cosmopolitan town. There’s lots of evidence for trade with other parts of the Roman Empire – for example we know they were importing wine from the Rhone valley and olive oil from Spain, as well as other exotic foods like figs and grapes.  There’s a lot of evidence for North African communities living in the town, which may be linked to the arrival of the 6th Legion in the second century, but also with the arrival of Emperor Septimus Severus who was born in an area that’s now in modern day Libya.  So there could have been people from all different parts of the Roman Empire living in York as well as those who were born more locally.

AA: Wow, so York sounds like it was a pretty happening place back in the day!  With information on that many hundreds of people you must have found some interesting things.  What are some of the population-wide characteristics you’ve noticed – and have you found any interesting individuals that stand out from the crowd?

LM: Well, I’ve found that there are significantly more men living in the town than women.  This is probably to be expected – after all, we know the town was a military installation.  What’s interesting is that adult life expectancy in the town is approximately equal between men and women.  Most other Romano-British urban sites have elevated male life expectancy.  I’ve found that approximately equal life expectancy is more likely to be found at sites with a large military presence (the same thing was true at Gloucester, Colchester and London).  This is probably because men working in the military were more likely to die at a younger age, which makes their overall adult life expectancy much closer to the female estimates.

As for interesting individuals, there are quite a few!  One individual is a lady of north African descent, who was buried on the north west side of York.  This lady is quite young, probably only in her late teens or early twenties.  She also has lots of interesting grave goods such as a mirror and gold jewellery, suggesting she was quite wealthy.  She’s known as the Ivory Bangle Lady (because of the ivory bangle she was buried with) and she’s currently on display in the Yorkshire Museum.

AA: It seems like interpretation plays a big part in understanding your data.  With the example you gave of the life expectancies, how do you know it is the men dying at a younger age, instead of the women dying at an older age?  Is there some sort of ‘Roman census’ that you can compare your site against?

LM: For each skeleton I examined, I worked out the approximate age they were at when they died.  This is done by looking at certain parts of certain bones, for example the auricular surface of the pelvis, and attributing the person a rough age at death based on the appearance of the area you’re looking at.  Once I put all the male and female ages together I applied different mathematical techniques to work out average life expectancy at birth, average adult life expectancy and so on.  When I compared my results to studies that used similar methods, the general trend across Romano-British sites suggests that men were more likely to live a few years longer than women in the same populations.  Unfortunately there isn’t any Roman census data for Britain that I could use for comparison, although I am about to have a look at some demographic work done using census data from Roman Egypt.

AA: Okay, I have to ask: how do you know she is north African?  And do you have any pictures you could show us?

LM: A study published in Antiquity (by Leach et al., article no. 84: 131-145) in 2010 showed how analysis of stable isotopes found in the skeleton’s tooth enamel suggested that the skeleton was of a non-local origin.  This individual most probably grew up in Western Europe or somewhere in the Mediterranean.  The observed craniometric characteristics were found to be mixed, in that the individual’s skull comprised only a few characteristics commonly found in white European populations, instead having more in common with characteristics found in African-American populations.  I should stress that this type of analysis cannot give us a specific region of origin for this individual, but it is highly likely, given the context, that the observed affinity with the African-American reference population is the result of mixed ancestry.  There is already a lot of archaeological evidence (from pottery, historical documents etc) that there were individuals of North African origin living in York during the Roman period, and populations in Roman North Africa are well known epigraphically for being very mixed, comprising Mediterranean, Phoenician and Berber groups to name but a few.  When you put all the evidence together, it’s likely that even if she wasn’t born in North Africa, she probably had descendants who were.

This is only a brief summary of the findings, and I unfortunately I don’t have any pictures I can share.  If anyone’s really interested in the study I suggest they look up the full article.  Ancestry studies have come under fire a lot in the past, because craniometric techniques in particular have been used to come up with some fairly dodgy and even racist notions about various geographical groups.  The Ivory Bangle Lady study is a very good example of how identification of ancestry and geographical origins can be investigated thoroughly and successfully using a multidisciplinary approach.

AA: Wow, it really makes you think more about what Roman York would have been like and the different types of people that would have been a part of it.  It’s also really refreshing to see lots of different methods being used to reach the same conclusion.  It makes for a pretty convincing case!

It has been great learning about your research – and about Roman Britain in general – thanks so much for taking the time to share it with us.

LM: Thanks for reading!

Lauren examining skeletal remains at the Rothwell charnel chapel.

Lauren examining skeletal remains at the Rothwell charnel chapel.

Lauren McIntyre is a PhD Candidate in Osteoarchaeology at the University of Sheffield.  Her PhD project is focussed on reconstructing the population of Roman York using osteological evidence.  If you’re interested in learning more about Lauren and her research, you can visit her University profile and her Academia profile.  Lauren is also a part of the current research team offering one-day and five-day short courses in Human Osteology at the University of Sheffield.

*The answer is: A lot.  But sadly one thing they did not do for us, was discover coffee (as far as we know).

Leach, S., Eckardt, H., Chenery, C., Muldner, G., & Lewis, M. (2010). A Lady of York: migration, ethnicity and identity in Roman Antiquity, 84 (323), 131-145


Whether you are a regular reader or have just stumbled upon us this week, you can count yourself among the many members of Team 1p.  We have had a great response to the researchers featured thus far and the good news for all of you is that we have a lot more really exciting interviews lined up!  In a minute you’ll be presented with this week’s interview, but first – grab yourself a cup of tea or a mug of coffee and join us in ye olde coffee house that is Penny University, all are welcome.

Ahoy! 'Tis a /jɒt/ sailing upon the calm waters of Latte Harbour.

Ahoy! ‘Tis a /jɒt/ sailing upon the calm waters of Latte Harbour.

Dean Wybrow is a final-year PhD student at the University of Essex.  He is researching the subtypes of developmental dyslexia.

AA: So, tell us a little bit about your work:

DW: I don’t think I’m alone in having become interested in developmental dyslexia through having a family member with the condition, and I was always stimulated to find out more about it.  My early teaching on the subject was from Rhona Johnston at the University of Hull, and I am grateful to her for giving me the knowledge base to work from.  I am currently working on my PhD with Rick Hanley at the University of Essex, and we are investigating the methods by which researchers identify surface dyslexia in a population of dyslexic children.  There has been some controversy surrounding the kind of control group that is appropriate for comparisons with dyslexic children, and there are technical reasons why neither a control group matched for age nor a control group matched for reading ability are appropriate.

AA: Interesting.  So if I understand you correctly, you are in a sense… researching the way that other people have been researching dyslexia?

 DW: That’s not a bad way of putting it!  Researchers have come to some conclusions about dyslexia that may be incorrect because the studies that brought about those conclusions were flawed.  In my thesis, I’m trying to find a new method that eliminates some of the problems that have occurred so far.

AA: Can you tell me a little bit about the problems concerning selecting the participants and control groups – and why this is important to research on dyslexia?

DW: Certainly.  For a long time, researchers have hypothesised that people can have various kinds of dyslexia, depending on the aspects of reading that are problematic for the invidual concerned.  There are two types that I am concerned with, and these are phonological and surface dyslexia.  Phonological dyslexia, to put it simply, is where the person struggles to sound words out, but can remember unusual words adequately, and surface dyslexia is where the person always sounds words out, even when that is not appropriate (consider what happens if you try to sound out knight or yacht!).  The kind of research I am doing estimates how many people in a group of dyslexics have phonological or surface dyslexia by comparing them to different control groups.  In dyslexia research, a control group is a group of people that are not dyslexic, and have no other neural disorders.  However, they need to be the same as the dyslexics in some way or another – for example, the controls can’t have ages that vary from 8-80 if all the dyslexics are 11 years old, as that would not be useful.  The controls can have the same average age as the dyslexics, or they can have the same average something else, such as reading ability, IQ, spelling ability, and so on.  Some studies used a mixture of same-age and same-reading ability controls and found that, while they could find lots of phonological and surface dyslexics with same-age controls, they could only find phonological dyslexics with same-reading ability controls.  This suggested that surface dyslexia is not functionally different from not having read enough books, whereas phonological dyslexia appeared to be caused by a fundamental neural problem in the brains of those involved.  However, some people have noticed that the tests the researchers used to measure reading ability were biased in favour of the phonological dyslexics, potentially skewing the results.  I am currently re-doing this research without using either same-age or same-reading age controls.

AA: It sounds like it is definitely important to make sure the control groups are correct for the results to be useful.  When you get results from this type of study, what are they used for?

DW: Well, the ultimate goal is to provide teaching methods in schools that enable as many children, dyslexic or not, to learn to read as possible.  This will only happen once we are confident that we have discovered all the reasons for this process to go wrong.  In the context of the kind of research we are discussing here, the problem lies in whether there are children who might not be best served by the current method of teaching – phonics.  To understand why this is, I need to go back a bit.  Most researchers agree that the most common cause of dyslexia is what’s called a phonological deficit.  This is a deficit in the ability to store the sounds of words in memory, so that the distinctions between some sounds are fuzzy and not easily distinguished.  This in turn makes it difficult to relate these sounds to letters on the page and therefore sound words out.  This is what I referred to earlier as phonological dyslexia.  Phonics helps these children by explicitly teaching how to sound words out and therefore alleviate the problem caused by the phonological deficit.  Surface dyslexics, on the other hand, seem to have no trouble sounding words out, and in fact do it all the time, and instead seem to have problems storing the written forms of words as wholes (in a hypothetical storage module called the orthographic lexicon).  Therefore, instead of recalling a word and thinking, “I know that, it’s yacht”, they sound it out, and may give a response that rhymes with matched.  If these children can sound words out well, and have a deficit in another area of processing, they would be better off being taught by a method that includes something specifically geared towards that deficit.  It probably doesn’t do them any harm to learn phonics, but they might become better readers with some additional method.

As for the debate about control groups, if a group of surface dyslexics aren’t functionally different from younger readers of the same reading ability, it suggests that perhaps they have no specific deficit at all, and maybe just need to read more books (amongst other things), in which case there is no need to develop a specific teaching method for them.  If the tests used to measure reading ability were biased, then it throws doubt on the ‘not enough books’ theory, and hence we are still investigating the best method to do this.

AA:  Let me see if I’ve got this right; we all sound out words when we’re learning to read and then when we learn new words, but for surface dyslexics they continue to do this – even if they’ve encountered the word before.  What you’re trying to do is identify these children who take the test, because you think it’s not just a case of ‘not experiencing as many words as other children’, but maybe something more.  Is that right?

DW: Yes. We’re hoping to show that children with surface dyslexia are actually impaired in their ability process words as complete units rather than simply being behind their peers.

 AA:  Can you tell us any interesting results from the research so far?

DW: Yes, we have just analysed the results and it seems to have turned out as predicted.  We replicated the results from previous studies when using the old analysis methods, but when we used our new analysis method, we found that the numbers of surface and phonological dyslexia were more equal.  In fact, most of the children (nearly 60%) had problems reading both nonwords and irregular words.  We call these children mixed dyslexics.

AA:  Wow, dyslexia is a lot more complex than I thought – especially with so many different ‘types’!  It definitely sounds like your results will be helpful in identifying these children with different forms of dyslexia (and this in turn will help them get the assistance they need)!  It has been a very interesting introduction to a subject that many of us have experience with, but perhaps don’t know a whole lot about on a research level.  Thanks so much for taking the time to share it with us today.  I hope you’ll get back to us with more of your results in the future!

DW: No problem.  Thanks for inviting me to the Penny University, and thank you to the readers for reading.

Dean Wybrow is a final-year PhD student at the University of Essex.  If you’re interested in learning more about Dean and his research, you can visit:  If you are near the University of Essex in Colchester, you can sign up to take part in experiments here.

*Noun. 1) The fear of long words.**


Warning: contents are hot

Welcome to back to Penny University!  If you haven’t check in during the last week, be sure to check the post Research Blogging to learn about a great service for finding blog posts on peer-reviewed research (<spoiler> we’ve been approved to use it </spoiler>).  Now, on to this week’s interview!

Wow, this sure is strong coffee. MAGNETICALLY STRONG!

Laura Roberts Artal is a PhD candidate at the University of Liverpool.  She is studying 3.5-3.2 Billion year old rocks in South Africa to see what they can tells us about what the Earth was like, relatively soon after its formation.

AA: So, tell me a little bit about your work:

LRA: I am interested in how the Earth’s magnetic field works and more importantly, what it can tell us about what the Earth might have been like soon after it formed.  The rocks I study come from the geological time period, called the Archean, a period of time from which we know very little about.  This is mainly due to the fact that very few rocks from that time still exist today.  Because they’ve been around for so long, they’ve also seen a fair bit of action: they’ve been buried to great depths, brought back to the surface; folded, tilted…you name it!  I am lucky to work with some rocks from NE South Africa, which haven’t been too badly affected by these processes.  From those, I’m hoping to gain information which might tell us more about how the Earth was all those billions of years ago: did plate tectonics exist as we know them today?  Did the interior of the Earth (the core) behave as it does now?  Were the conditions on Earth favourable for the first forms of life to start developing?

 AA: Wow, so you’re really digging into the history of the Earth, aren’t you (sorry for the pun)?  What exactly do you do with the rocks you study, in order to find more out about these processes that have occurred over time?

LRA: We need the samples we work with in the lab to be a standard shape and size.  Standard meaning:  1 inch in length and width and perfectly cylindrical.  So, we take a drill (not dissimilar to the ones used for DIY, just a little more powerful) out into the field and collect the samples.  Once back in the lab, we carry out a bunch of experiments to get as much information about the rocks as possible.  The main (and most time consuming) experiment I perform aims to find the original magnetic signature held within a sample.  To extract this information, I heat the sample up to 600°C, but in 16 heating steps.  We do this in an oven which is designed to cool very fast once it’s reached the desired temperature.  In between each heating step, I take the sample and measure it in a magnetometer, which essentially reads the magnetic information held in the rock.  The data is shown in a graph, which I then go off and interpret.  I would always do this experiment last, as the heating process, ultimately destroys all the information held within the sample.  If I wanted to run any other experiments on the sample, I’d do those first.

AA: What exactly does the repeated heating do to the sample that allows you to gain useful data from it?  Any why 16 steps, instead of 15 or 17?

LRA: So, I’ll try to keep this simple, but we are going to have to go into a little detail of how rocks hold magnetisation for me to be able to answer this question.

As a rock cools following its formation, the magnetic minerals within it align themselves with the local geomagnetic field.  The aim of most palaeomagnetic studies is to measure and interpret the components of natural remanent magnetisation (NRM).  A primary NRM is acquired during rock formation whilst a secondary NRM can be acquired subsequently; for example as a result of the rocks folding or being struck by lightning.

NRM = Primary NRM + Secondary NRM

Heating a rock to a temperature below its Curie Temperature (Tc= the temperature at which all ferrimagnetism is destroyed), then allowing it to cool in zero magnetic field, allows removal of the secondary NRM and isolation of the primary NRM component.  The primary NRM is what I am interested in, because it is the record of that really old magnetic signature that I am after!

Rock MagnetisationThe number of steps you carry out, really depends on the rocks (or materials) you are working with and what information you want for them.  In my case, the 16 steps are associated with this Tc that I talk about just above.  I need to heat my samples to at least 580ºC if I want to isolate the primary NRM and I need to have a number of detailed ‘ish’ steps at lower temperatures to be sure I will be able to see the secondary NRM also.

AA:  I think many of us will have heard about that fact that the Earth’s magnetic poles shift and in the past have actually been reversed – is this the type of information you are looking at in the rocks?

LRA: Yes, that is correct.  The Earth’s magnetic field poles are always on the move, via a process called True Polar wander.  Associated to that is another process called Apparent Polar Wander.  In addition, the poles can flip, which is a reversal of the magnetic field.  You’ve hit the nail on the head in your question; I am in fact looking for evidence for all of those, especially for a reversal.

AA:  That’s absolutely fascinating.  It’s especially interesting that you can isolate the primary NRM ‘just’ through heating and cooling, taking advantage of the properties of magnetism.  I had thought it would have been a far more complex process – although I am sure your simplified it for us in your description!  Since you’ve started your research have you come across any intriguing results you can share with us?

LRA: That’s a tricky one!  I have, but the problem with it is, I’ve not published them yet, so I need to be careful quite how much I tell you!  Despite that, I can give you a little taster.  Previous research has suggested that a magnetic field must have been active in the Archean, 3.5 Billion Years ago, and I’ve been able to confirm that through my research.  Just because you are able to isolate a primary NRM, it doesn’t mean it is as old as the rocks are.  I’ve been able to prove, through using geological evidence and some tests, that the magnetisation held in ‘my’ rocks, is in fact 3.5billion years old.

AA: Incredible.  Well, we won’t pester you for results (we wouldn’t want you to get in trouble), but maybe once you’re able you’ll come back and tell us a bit more about what you’ve learned?  It has been great having you here and it’s been very fun learning all about your research.

LRA: Thanks so much for having on Penny University, it’s been brilliant!  I hope I’ve inspired you to learn a little more about our planet and its magnetic field in particular!  If you want any extra information, don’t hesitate to get in touch, check out my details below.

Laura Rocks!

Laura, in South Africa, with something that is not a rock!

Laura Roberts Artal is a PhD candidate at the University of Liverpool.  She is studying 3.5-3.2 Billion year old rocks in South Africa.  If you’re interested in learning more about Laura and her research, you can follow her on Twitter at @lauRob85, visit, or check out the EGU blog network – for a number of guest blog posts about the Earth’s magnetic field.

Research Blogging

This week (at the suggestion of a reader) I submitted a request to have Penny University registered with Research BloggingI am very happy to say that we were approved and are now officially a ‘research blog’ (or at least have the potential to be a ‘research blog’).

Research Blogging is a site where blog posts that reference peer-reviewed research are compiled for easy identification under appropriate categories and by relevant tags.  I have registered Penny University under ‘Research / Scholarship : Science Communication’, but I will be able to tag individual posts with more subject-specific tags (such as biology, archaeology, geology, etc).  It seemed like the best fit for what we do here!

Now, by the very nature of Penny University, not many of our posts will meet the guidelines.  This is because the majority of our posts are about active research projects (and many just in their early stages), which are frequently unpublished.  But every now and then (and we have one coming up) an interviewee may refer to an article during our discussion and in this instance, I will be able to submit that post to Research Blogging.  These posts will be identifiable on Penny University by the inclusion of the “Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research” icon and a full citation for the articles referenced.  The post will then be listed on the Research Blogging front page and a reference to the post will remain in their database (under the category and by the tags) so that people looking for posts on specific topics can find it in the future!

This is a very useful system, not only for identifying serious blog posts about peer-reviewed research, but it also ensures that the research we feature here on Penny University gets as wide an audience as possible.  While Penny University was founded with the purpose of bringing information about less well-known research projects to the general public, there is no reason why it shouldn’t also bring this information to the academic audience (who to be fair, probably don’t know about it either*).  It may even be a good way to help encourage networking between researchers around the world.  And that can only be a good thing!


*Unless they are your supervisor/advisor**, share your office/lab***, or witnessed a conference presentation/poster****.

**And even then they may not actually know what your research is about, if we’re being totally honest.