Omniscience Speaker Series
The Omniscience Speaker Series is for all those with a passion for science and discovery, including Tonbridge School students and staff. In these regular online talks, experts from around the world share their knowledge of the exciting and innovative fields that they work in. It is free to attend, all are welcome, and a number of speakers are already booked in for the academic year 2022-2023.
- Life After Gravity: Sir Isaac Newton's London Career
- The most exciting solar energy technology you’ve never heard of
- "Learning to play Chess through Natural Language Processing" - How a piece of university coursework became published in the MIT Tech Review
- Sealife Sticking to Surfaces in the Sea - how biofouling costs billions?!
- Life on Ice
- Coral with Ben Young
- The Forensic Explosives Laboratory
- Health, Happiness and the Immune System
- Engineering Mars 2020 with Dr. Farah Alibay
For the last thirty years of his life, Isaac Newton lived in London and ran the Royal Mint as well as the Royal Society. Formerly a reclusive scholar at Cambridge, now he moved in aristocratic circles, exerted political influence and became very rich. Through exploring a painting by William Hogarth that is packed with Newtonian references, I describe aspects of Newton’s life and fame that usually receive little attention. Taking the picture as my cue, I reintegrate him into a metropolitan world where men and women benefited from global trading based on slavery.
Dr Patricia Fara is an Emeritus Fellow of Clare College, where she was Senior Tutor for ten years. She originally read physics at Oxford, but is now in the History and Philosophy of Science department and was President of the British Society for the History of Science from 2016 to 2018. She is currently President of the Antiquarian Horological Society. As well as academic lecturing and supervising, she writes popular books and articles, and is a regular contributor to In our Time and other radio/TV programmes. She is especially interested in the Enlightenment period, with a particular emphasis on scientific imagery and women in science, both past and present. Her prize-winning Science: A Four Thousand Year History (2009) has been translated into nine languages, while her most recent publication is Life after Gravity: Isaac Newton’s London Career (2021). Her other highly acclaimed books include A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in The First World War (2018), Pandora's Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment (2004), Sex, Botany and Empire: The Stories of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks (2003), and An Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Enlightenment (2002).
Talk by Kieron Orr (CH 10-15)
Title: The most exciting solar energy technology you've never heard of
Date: 16 June 2021
Enough light energy from the Sun hits Earth every 90 minutes to power the world for a whole year. This fact alone makes solar energy an excellent candidate for helping to mitigate the effects of climate change and to meet the UK’s target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
In this talk, Kieron discussed the specific solar energy technology he researches, made with materials called “perovskites”. These materials are fascinating as they break many of the rules of conventional semiconductor physics. Perovskite solar cells can also be made much more cheaply and easily than most commercial solar cells using standard industrial techniques.
Couple this with the fact that perovskite solar cells are the fastest improving solar energy technology to date, and you have a potent recipe for a disruptive renewable energy technology. From a purely scientific standpoint, the structure of the perovskite material is also complex and contains a rich array of materials chemistry.
He also discussed life as a practicing scientist, what it’s like to be part of a research group, and his journey from school to PhD research.
After leaving Tonbridge Kieran read Chemistry at Magdalen College, University of Oxford. While there, he discovered the world of emerging solar energy technologies during summer research placements in the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford and the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College London for which he received funding from Magdalen College and the Salters Company. His Master’s Thesis was concerned using X-ray diffraction techniques to monitor crystallisation processes.
Kieran moved to Gonville & Caius College, University of Cambridge to complete his PhD under the supervision of Dr Sam Stranks. His current research focuses on characterising new materials for solar energy applications, nicely combining his passion for sustainability and renewable energy with his love of X-ray diffraction. When not in the lab Kieran can be found playing music, climbing, and baking!
Talk by Nick McCarthy (SH 12-14)
Title: Learning to play Chess through Natural Language Processing
Date: 12 May 2021
In the growing field of Machine Learning, researchers are rewarded not by necessarily having the largest and most experienced team around, nor the greatest amount of financial and physical resources at their disposal, but rather a quirky and ambitious idea coupled with the desire and determination to see it through. What started out as a casual conversation as to what topic to base their university coursework on ended in their first published piece of academic work.
In this talk, Nick will introduce 'SentiMATE' a novel end-to-end Deep Learning model for Chess, employing Natural Language Processing that aims to learn an effective evaluation function assessing move quality. This function is pre-trained on the sentiment of commentary associated with the training moves and is used to guide and optimise the agent's game-playing decision making. He will do a deep-dive into the underlying theory of said model, the practical challenges they overcame and the implications of their experimental results. Nick will, towards the end of his talk, share with the audience some advice on how best to position yourself both at school and university to enter into the tech industry.
Nick McCarthy is an Old Tonbridgian (SH12-14) who went on to study Physics at University College London, his sights set firmly on working in the City upon graduation. After dabbling in a variety of internships at hedge funds and investment banks during his undergraduate years he was slowly, yet inexorably, drawn to the world of AI and ML - an increasingly trendy field that was coming to the fore in both industry and academia. With relatively little programming/coding experience, Nick submitted a speculative application to his alma mater to study for a Masters in Machine Learning, in favour of joining a financial institution in an entry-level role.
It was during this year that Nick and his fellow classmates would write a scientific paper that would be accepted for an oral presentation at the AIIDE-19 Workshop on Artificial Intelligence for Strategy Games. Nick now works as a Data Scientist at Amazon Web Services, working within the ‘Globals’ team in London. Since joining he has worked with AWS customers across various industries including healthcare, finance, and sports & media to accelerate their business outcomes through the use of AI/ML. He is currently working on building out a Genomic File Store for AstraZeneca’s Centre of Genomic Research and helping the Deutsche Fußball Liga (DFL) gain a better understanding of the underlying mechanics of the Machine Learning models that run the Bundesliga Match Facts. Outside of work he loves to spend time travelling, trying new cuisines and reading about science and technology (and visiting his old school!).
Talk by Elizabeth Mills
Title: Sealife Sticking to Surfaces in the Sea - how biofouling costs billions?!
Date: 28 April 2021
Flip flops and safety boots? Snorkel masks and hard hats? Suits and well... wetsuits? Where do the two worlds of marine biology and engineering meet? With biofouling. Every material and structure we place in the ocean from boats to giant offshore oil and gas rigs, even ropes, sensors and pieces of floating plastic all experience biofouling. Biofouling is the attachment of marine organisms to the surface of man-made materials. This can leave what we place in the ocean looking like a rockpool covered in crusty barnacles, squelchy seaweed and squishy sponges.
As a marine biologist I love rockpooling, but biofouling can have some serious negative consequences. It is estimated that the US navy uses 40% more fuel because of biofouling, not only increasing costs but increasing carbon emissions. Biofouling can spread invasive species, which is considered the second biggest threat to global biodiversity second only to climate change. Learn about the fascinating challenge of biofouling research, where engineers and marine biologists need to work together to find a solution to a problem, we do not yet have an answer for!
Elizabeth Mills is a marine biologist, engineer, scientific artist and YouTuber. Whilst achieving her first class degree in marine biology Elizabeth noticed a lack of scientists with both the marine biology and engineering skills needed to research biofouling. So Elizabeth decided take on the challenge of also learning engineering and gained a Masters of Science by Research in Materials Engineering and now working towards a PhD in Civil Engineering giving her the knowledge of both disciplines to tackle problems in the field of biofouling research. She is currently working on developing new concrete surfaces to reduce the number of marine invasive species growing harbours. As well as her academic research, Elizabeth is a passionate science communicator sharing the wonders of UK sea life with world on her YouTube channel and website.
Talk by Joe Cook
Title: Life on Ice
Date: 24 March 2021
Joseph Cook has spent over a decade exploring the coldest parts of our planet with the aim of understanding how Earth's ice and snow responds to, and accelerates, climate change.
In this talk, Joseph will explain how he found Earth's glaciers and ice sheets to be surprisingly rich in microscopic life and why this has implications for climate change and global sea levels on Earth and even the search for alien life elsewhere in the solar system.
Joseph Cook is a scientist working at the unusual interface between computer science and polar exploration. His work uses satellite and drone imagery, artificial intelligence and mathematical simulations along with adventurous data-gathering expeditions to the Earth's coldest places to help us predict how Earth's ice and snow is changing in a warming world. He can be found on Instagram @tothepoles and his website.
Talk by Ben Young (MH 07-12)
Date: 10 February 2021
Coral reefs are one of the most biodiverse habitats on Earth. Despite this, anthropogenic influences are causing drastic decreases in the keystone species of these habitats, corals. With the influences of humans, one aspect which we are now observing is increases in severity and frequency of coral disease events. Despite this, we still understand little about coral disease. Of the roughly 29 described coral diseases, only four have had causative pathogens identified. In his talk, Benjamin will outline the current status of coral disease research in corals. He will discuss why this area of research has proved so difficult, and how his research will aid in coral disease research by using next generation sequencing methodologies to study the coral hosts response to disease.
Benjamin Young is in the final year of his PhD at the University of Miami, USA. His research has focused on the critically endangered branching coral, Acropora palmata. This coral species has seen 80% reductions in coral cover, with the primary driver of this being disease outbreaks. Using next generation sequencing methodologies, Benjamin is identifying the genomic basis of disease resistance and susceptibility in this coral species, with a specific focus on the corals innate immune system. He obtained his Bachelor of Science from Monash University, Melbourne Australia.
Talk by Clare Mason and Rachel Sunderland
Title: The Forensic Explosives Laboratory: Scientific Investigations into the Misuse of Explosives
Date: 2 December 2020
Dstl (the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory) is the UK’s leading Government agency in applying Science and Technology to the defence and security of the UK. Dstl works out a broad range of areas including counter terrorism, cyber and space and provides capabilities including the Forensic Explosives Laboratory (FEL).
FEL are the sole provider of forensic explosives investigations on the UK mainland, providing a 24/7 365 days a year service to police forces for any incident involving the use or suspected misuse of explosives, related materials or chemicals.
This talk will provide an introduction into FEL, the chemistry of explosives and examples of work that FEL undertakes.
Clare has been working in the Forensic Science sector for 9 years and is currently an Explosives Case Officer at the Forensic Explosives Laboratory in Wiltshire, England. Previously she worked as a Forensic Toxicologist performing work for both the Police and Coroner’s Office to help determine whether a person’s death could be attributed to either drugs or alcohol.
Rachel has worked at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) for almost 10 years and is a Forensic Case Officer in the Forensic Explosive Laboratory. Previously, she worked as an Analytical Chemist within Dstl specialising in explosive detection, studying the odour of explosives to maintain and improve the detection capability of canines and equipment.
Talk by Dr Pippa Kennedy
Title: Health, Happiness and the Immune System
Date: 19 November 2020
We intuitively understand that our health can impact on our happiness, but what about the other way around? Can your mental state affect your health? And what might be the role of the immune system - those white blood cells that protect you from disease? Dr. Pippa Kennedy will discuss these questions (adapted from a previous talk at Latitude festival) and in doing so, illustrate the difficulties that can arise when scientific evidence is reduced to headlines in the media.
Dr. Kennedy is a cancer biologist working in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA. She specialises in Natural Killer cells - immune cells that are particularly good at detecting and destroying cancerous cells and virus-infected cells. She works as part of a team that are developing therapeutic Natural Killer cells that can be given to patients to treat cancer. With the onset of the pandemic, the team expanded their research focus and have launched a clinical trial to test whether therapeutic Natural Killer cells are a safe therapy for COVID-19.
Talk by Dr Farah Alibay
Title: Engineering Mars 2020
Date: 7 October 2020
In her 6-year career at JPL, Dr Farah Alibay has worked on 3 Mars missions - the latest of which launched on July 30th 2020 and is currently 1/3 of the way into its journey to the red planet.
In her talk, Dr Alibay will give an overview of the Mars 2020 mission, and will dive into what it takes to build and test a rover destined for another planet. She will also share some insights about the road ahead and the work that her team is doing in preparation for operations on the surface of Mars.
Dr. Farah Alibay has been a Systems Engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for the past six years. She is a flight system engineer on the Mars 2020 team – the rover mission scheduled to land on the Red Planet in February 2021. She is primarily working on the mobility system for the Perseverance rover as well as supporting preparations for surface operations. Prior to joining the M2020 team, she worked on the InSight Mars Lander, as well as its companion mission: the Mars Cube One (MarCO) CubeSats. Dr. Alibay possesses an undergraduate and master’s degree from the University of Cambridge in the U.K., and a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, all in Aerospace Engineering.