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Dr Becky Smethurst, a Citizen Science project Higgs Hunters and the Digital Delius project have all won a Vice-Chancellor’s Public Engagement with Research Award.

The announcement was made at an awards ceremony at Keble College, Oxford, on 10th July hosted by Vice-Chancellor Professor Louise Richardson. Dr Smethurst was recognised in the Early Career Researcher Awards category.

Dr Becky Smethurst

Dr Smethurst’s research is focused on understanding how supermassive black holes can ‘stop’ their galaxies from forming more stars, by removing the Hydrogen gas required. This is achieved by looking for evidence of a change in the star formation rate of a galaxy, at different distances from a galaxy’s actively growing central supermassive black hole. 

“I set up a YouTube channel called Dr Becky to engage the public with cutting-edge astrophysics and astronomy research in an accessible and inspiring way,” says Dr Smethhurst.  


Dr Becky now has over 24,000 subscribers and counting. Video topics have included questions such as: ‘Do black holes contain dark matter?’ and ‘Should we put telescopes on Mars?’ The most popular video has had over 96,000 views.

Dr Smethurst produces a monthly show called Night Sky News which points out which objects to look out for in the coming month and shares the some of the latest astronomy and space exploration research findings. 

Dr Smethurst has also started a series called Nailing Science with Dr Michaela Livingstone-Banks of the Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Division. “We interview scientists about their research while painting relevant and scientifically accurate nail art on their fingernails!” says Dr Smethurst.  

“The main outcome from my engagement work is enjoyment, both for myself and the public audiences,” she adds.

Dr Smethurst has put considerable effort into developing her own channel, and this has paid off in spades. It is not easy to produce high quality video content without support, but this is exactly what the Dr Becky channel provides” says Professor Chris Lintott, University of Oxford.

Professor Alison Woollard, Academic Champion for Public Engagement with Research, University of Oxford says:

“These awards highlight the many ways that Oxford’s researchers engage with the public. This includes informing and empowering people by sharing research findings; working in partnership with communities to shape research and enabling citizens to take part in the research by collecting and analysing data through Citizen Science. These winning projects also demonstrate that excellence in engagement results in a ‘win-win’ for both researchers and publics alike.”

Higgs Hunters

Higgs Hunters has won a Project Award in this year’s Vice-Chancellor’s Public Engagement with Research Awards.

Professors Alan Barr and Chris Lintott were recognised for their Higgs Hunters project that enables citizen scientists to look for evidence of the ‘Baby Higgs’.

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) enables particle collisions to be observed using large complex detectors. Oxford scientists are at the heart of the operation, analysis and interpretation of the largest of these – the ATLAS experiment. One current theory is that the Higgs boson might decay into a new particle – dubbed the ‘baby Higgs’.  

Through the Higgs Hunters project over 37,000 citizen scientists, including young people and adults from over 170 countries, became part of the team to search for interesting features in data from CERN. Over a million citizen science classifications have been made, flagging events that could potentially show Baby Higgs particles. 

noneHiggs Hunters is delivered in partnership with The Zooniverse – a world-leading online citizen science platform - which discovered that when many non-experts classify the same image as experts, on average the wisdom of the crowd wins. People-powered research has also been shown to beat computer algorithms and unlike computers, has the capability to spot unusual objects in images. 

One of the most innovative aspects to the project was enabling UK school students to analyse the data and perform their own independent research. The students then presented their findings at a conference, alongside researchers from the University. Their findings have been written up as proceedings – these are the first of their kind to be submitted to a CERN experiment” says Professor Barr.   

The evaluation demonstrated that many citizen scientists increased their knowledge of particle physics, and their confidence and skills. 

“The analysis shows some surprises, including that citizen scientists developed their own technical language when searching for new physics in ATLAS event displays” says Professor Barr 

Two research publications also resulted and the early career researchers who worked on the project found the experience very helpful in developing their careers, including invitations to present their results at international conferences and at CERN.

'Digital Delius' project 

The 'Digital Delius: Interpretation, Performance, and Analysis' project has won a Project Award in this year’s Vice-Chancellor’s Public Engagement with Research Awards

The project explored the cosmopolitan connections of the composer Delius and his creative affinity with the landscapes and cultures of other countries. The team created a catalogue of his works which demonstrated his painstaking compositional process and the multiple versions his pieces went through as he refined them.

We worked with the British Library, the Delius Trust and the Villiers Quartet to create a permanent digital exhibition of Delius’s manuscripts supported by a range of outreach activities

Professor Daniel Grimley, Faculty of Music, who led the project

“This was fundamentally a team effort, bringing together musicologists, computer scientists, performers and heritage experts, leading to a number of collaborative projects and papers. This research also lays the foundation for future researchers in heritage and digital musicology,” adds Professor Grimley.

'Digital Delius' project wins Vice-Chancellor's Public Engagement and JCDL Awards

The Oxford e-Research Centre's work on the project was led by co-investigator Dr Kevin Page, a Senior Researcher and Associate Member of Faculty within the Department of Engineering Science. As Dr Page highlights, "Digital Delius demonstrates how technologies developed by the team, including our MELD framework, can be used not only to support digital musicology, but also to present this scholarship to new audiences in approachable and exciting ways, increasing public access and understanding." MELD is a flexible software platform for research which combines digital representations of music - such as audio and notation - with contextual and interpretive knowledge in the Semantic Web.

The objectives of the Digital Delius project were to enable wider understanding and appreciation of musical sources, using Delius as a rich case study through access to the manuscripts, to show what they mean and to provide a holistic view of the whole life-cycle of a musical work.

Engagement activities included: a commercially-released recording; a schools workshop with the Oxfordshire County Youth Orchestra, a performance by the orchestra for primary age children; a workshop with the Villiers String Quartet and Oxford students using digital technology; and a seminar for GSCE and A-level students on composer manuscripts.

“It was very interesting to see how composers wrote their music and how they didn’t write it from start to finish but a little bit at a time,” commented a participating school student.

Particular recognition is due to the wider project team, including Dr Joanna Bullivant, Faculty of Music; David Lewis, Engineering Science; Helen Faulkner, The Delius Trust; and Dr Amelie Roper, British Library and James Dickenson, Villiers Quartet.

Find out more here

About the awards

The Vice-Chancellor's Public Engagement with Research Awards recognise and reward those at the University who undertake high-quality engagement activities and have contributed to building capacity in this area. The awards have three categories – Early Career Researcher, Building Capacity and Projects. Entrants can be at any level in their career and activities of any scale are welcome.

Winning entries receive recognition for their achievements at the Vice-Chancellor's Public Engagement with Research Awards Ceremony that will take place on 10 July 2019.The Vice-Chancellor’s prize will also be announced at the ceremony and the winner will receive a cash prize of £1,500.