Wolfson Research Event 2021 showcases groundbreaking research

This week we kick off one of the highlights in the College calendar, Wolfson Research Event 2021, which showcases groundbreaking and innovative research from current Wolfson students, alongside internationally renowned keynote speakers.  

Wolfson Research Event 2021

Now in its tenth year, the Wolfson Research Event (WRE) is a four-day interdisciplinary programme, stretching from Wednesday 28 April – Friday 30 April, and Tuesday 4 May. 

Free, online, and open to all, the theme this year is New Perspectives, and will see speakers address the new perspectives necessary to confront the growing challenges in the modern world, from climate change to education, political polarisation and the refugee experience.  

As a mature college, many of Wolfson’s students come to the College with a problem to solve or an issue they’ve seen first-hand they want to interrogate – and WRE is a perfect platform to share this work with the world. 

You can find the full 2021 WRE programme is available online and read more and register on the WRE webpage. 

This year’s keynote speakers are: Professor Juan Maldacena, described as “the greatest theoretical physicist of his generation” by physicist Leonard Susskind; Dr Paulo de Assis, a performer, composer, author and researcher at the Orpheus Institute who has a unique and panoramic view of science and research; and Marie-Anne Coninsx, former EU Ambassador to the Arctic and an official of the EU for 35 years, with experience spanning international relations, trade, and climate activism.  

The programme ends with an interactive workshop that demonstrates the advantages of adopting an interdisciplinary focus, hosted by members of Wolfson’s three Interdisciplinary Research Hubs and the Let’s Talk About Race and Racism initiative.      

We spoke to the Chair of the WRE Committee, Vassilis Gkoumas, a second-year PhD student in Land Economy, about this year’s WRE and why it’s such a significant event in the Cambridge calendar.   

The WRE programme this year is incredibly diverse and international again, isn’t it?  

Yes, this is my second year in the organising committee, and we always have a very wide range of topics submitted from Wolfson students researching education, psychology, the arts, economics, science – there are all sorts of projects being presented. 

This year we tried to thematically categorise them, so there is some consistency each day with the projects that are being presented. For instance, on Wednesday our keynote speaker is Marie-Ann Coninsx, who is a former EU ambassador for the Arctic, and so we have many presentations that relate to climate change and the environment on that day. The more science-based projects feature on the third day, which is when Professor Juan Maldacena delivers his keynote speech. 

This is a change from previous years. People have always enjoyed the huge variety in the topics that are presented, but this year each day will have a certain emphasis.

How does WRE change as a virtual event? 

It’s very exciting for us, because everybody knows that they are presenting to a general audience. It’s very inclusive and it’s not strictly speaking an academic conference, where it might be hard for everyone to understand what the speakers are talking about; every presenter is adjusting their research for a general audience, and I think that’s really good. 

From the very beginning, we said we wouldn’t try to recreate a physical event online. We would just make as good a virtual event as possible. A virtual event is easier for us too, as opposed to organising an in-person event, where you have to manage catering and physical admissions. Instead, we could put all our energy and time into the content of the programme and make it the best it could possibly be.  

What are some of the unique differences of the WRE as a programme? 

I think one benefit of being part of a mature college is that people very often come with experience when they start their degrees. Through the WRE, you can see how they translate that experience into a research project that will have an impact on the industry they used to work in. For example, yesterday I listened to the rehearsal of Caleb Deck (‘Developing a framework to guide builder owner sustainability choices’). Caleb worked as an engineer for many years, and he’s taken this very bureaucratic and lengthy process of evaluating buildings, which is done in order to get energy efficiency certification, and he’s tried to create a much simpler and gamified version of it. This is something that you would have never known if you hadn’t worked in the industry first; he’s creating a solution for an industry he was part of.

Another talk is by Tamara Achampong (‘Influence of SES and self-efficacy on maths achievemenet and maths anxiety relationship’). Her research lies at the intersection of education and psychology, and there is a concept there called maths anxiety, which many people experience; maths scares them and they think it’s a very hard topic for them to learn. She’s been studying how socioeconomic background, as well as self-efficacy for self-regulated learning, affects that, and she has some very interesting results. 

Both are very applied projects; and I’m very interested in applied research. Very interesting, and I cannot wait for the rest of the Wolfson community, and beyond, to hear all of the talks. 

How much is the New Perspectives theme driven by the pandemic and how much is driven by other factors? 

It covers many things. I’m very interested in sustainability and the environment, and we need new ways of thinking to tackle climate change, and this is represented in the presenters we have this year. But it also covered the challenges that different disciplines are facing in education, science, the arts, as well as currently with the pandemic. It’s also a new perspective on how science is communicated and how we meet in virtual spaces. 

It’s a highly international programme. How did you shape it?

Like last year, the submission process is double blind, and it’s ended up being a reflection of the international nature of Wolfson itself. After we had created the programme, we compared the statistics of the demographics of the College to our speakers to see how well we did – and we had a very similar proportion of men and women applying, of people from different countries, disciplines and level of study. 

It must be a lot of work to organise. How do you balance that with doing a PhD?

I don’t need much to distract me from my PhD, to be honest! It’s highly complicated! I still love it, after a year and a half of study, but I think the WRE is a very important event for the College. I’m a recipient of a scholarship from Wolfson, and I haven’t been able to participate in many other aspects of student life, whether it’s sports or the Student Association, so I thought this was a good way of getting involved and to contribute to the social aspects of the College. And also, I enjoy doing it – it’s a lot of fun.  

To find out more and register, take a look at the Wolfson Research Event 2021 homepage