Back to Latest News

News Archive : July - September 2012

Computer modelling shows long menopause allows killer whales to care for adult sons

Date Added: 14th September 2012
An international team of scientists, including Computer Science's Dr Dan Franks, has found why female killer whales have the longest menopause of any non-human species - to care for their adult sons.

The research led by the Universities of York and Exeter and published in the journal Science, shows that, for a male over 30, the death of his mother means an almost 14-fold-increase in the likelihood of his death within the following year.

The reason for the menopause remains one of nature’s great mysteries and very few species have a prolonged period of their lifespan when they no longer reproduce, as in humans.

However, female killer whales stop reproducing in their 30s-40s, but can survive into their 90s. While different theories have been put forward for the evolution of menopause in humans, including the well-established ‘grandmother’ hypothesis, there has been no definitive answer to why females of a small number of other species, including killer whales, also stop reproducing part-way through their lives.

They found the presence of a female who was no longer reproducing significantly increased her older offspring’s survival. In the case of males over the age of 30, a mother’s death meant a 14-fold increase in the likelihood of their death within a year. Females also stay within their mother’s group but for daughters of the same age, the difference is just under three-fold. For females under the age of 30, the death of their mothers had no effect on their survival rates.

The research team included Dr Dan Franks from York’s Departments of Biology and Computer Science, and Dr Sonia Mazzi from the Department of Mathematics, as well as scientists from the University of Exeter, the Center for Whale Research (USA) and the Pacific Biological Station (Canada).

Dr Franks said: "Our analysis shows that male killer whales are pretty much mommy's boys and struggle to survive without their mother's help, even into adulthood.

“In humans, it is thought that menopause evolved so that women can focus on helping to nurture their grandchildren. In killer whales, however, females appear to be important lifelong carers for their adult sons. The need for mothers to care for their sons into adulthood explains why killer whales have evolved the longest post-reproductive lifespan of any non-human animal."

The researchers analysed records spanning 36 years, of over 500 members of two populations of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the North Pacific ocean, off the coast of the USA and Canada. The team developed a survival analysis to examine the data in light of the hypothesis that mothers invest more in sons than daughters, matching theoretical predictions from previous computer models that predicted this trend.

Killer whales live in unusual social groups, with sons and daughters staying with their mothers in a single group throughout their lives. With this close association, older mothers have the opportunity to increase the transmission of their genes by helping their adult offspring survive and reproduce.

When sons mate, their offspring are cared for by females in another group, whereas when daughters reproduce the offspring stay in the group, which increases local competition for resources within the group. Theory predicts that in order to have the best chance of spreading their genes, without carrying an additional burden, mothers should focus their efforts on their sons. This research backs up the theory and demonstrates the extent to which older sons are dependent on their mothers for survival.

Lead author on the paper, University of Exeter PhD student Emma Foster, said: “Killer whales are extraordinary animals and their social groups are really unusual in that mothers and their sons are lifelong companions. Our research suggests that they have developed the longest menopause of any non-human species so that they can offer this level of commitment to their older offspring.”

The research was supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Leverhulme Trust and Earthwatch.

Computer Science graduate named among Management Today's "35 young female high achievers under 35"

Date Added: 3rd September 2012
Helen Bowyer graduated with a first in Computer Science and Mathematics in 2006, and has been named as a young female high achiever by Management Today magazine.

Helen now works for IBM as Manager of Emerging Technology Services at Hursley. The Management Today 35 women under 35 awards celebrate high-achieving women in business under the age of 35. The 2012 list is described by the magazine as "a vivid reflection of wider British enterprise".

Helen, who was identified by IBM during graduate recruitment as showing particular promise, initially joined the Emerging Technnology Services (ETS) group as a student on a year in industry. After finishing her degree, she then re-joined IBM and the ETS group straight from University. Within four years, she was appointed manager of the group, and recognised as a Senior Inventor.

Helen's year in industry as part of her degree gave her the chance to develop technical skills, and it was this year in industry that helped to boost her career within IBM. Helen has also found that her Computer Science grounding from York has helped with the theoretical and practical side of her job.

Peter Waggett, Emerging Technology Programme Leader, nominated Helen for the Management Today award, and wrote the submission form outlining her job responsibilities and outstanding achievements.

He described how Helen’s ‘level of skill and maturity, demonstrated on a daily basis, enable her to hold a technical role on a par with other members of the team, while providing leadership and management of the team’s activities’ - marking her out as a ‘unique individual’.

Peter also explained how Helen and a colleague came up with the original idea for the first prototype of an automated signing solution - Say It, Sign It (SiSi) - which uses speech recognition technology to convert a conversation into text, and text into the gestures used in sign language. She mentored the Extreme Blue student team who developed the successful prototype, and their success contributed to the scheme winning a National Council for Work Experience award.

Outside of her ‘day job’, Helen is heavily involved in IBM's outreach activities to generate interest and involvement by girls in considering IT as a career. Outside of work, Helen is a keen horsewoman who competes at local and national levels.

Explaining how she felt to win the Management Today accolade, Helen says: “Initially I was very surprised as, having looked at last year’s winners, I didn’t think I stood a chance! But it’s great, and I really enjoyed meeting the others at the award event.”

You can read the full list at You can also read a profile of Helen about her time at York.

Institute of Physics publication features our quantum information approach to black holes

Date Added: 2nd August 2012
Professor Sam Braunstein's groundbreaking research into black holes is featured in the latest IoP publication.

Black holes provide an important tool for probing and testing the fundamental laws of the universe. This publication looks at the latest research into black holes, and features Professor Braunstein's quantum information approach.

Download the booklet and read more about black holes.

York formally joins the Russell Group

Date Added: 1st August 2012
In recognition of our excellent research, teaching and learning and impact of our work with business and the public sector, York today joins the influential Russell Group of leading UK universities.

The Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Cantor said: “It is an honour and a privilege to become a member of the Russell Group. The invitation to join such a group of highly prestigious universities reflected the great progress we have made since our inception in the early 1960s. Our research has a worldwide reputation for excellence, and the quality of our teaching and student experience is acknowledged throughout the UK and beyond.

“We are ranked number one in the UK and eighth in the world of universities less than 50 years old. York is a truly international university but we are also deeply committed, socially, culturally and economically, to the great city of which we are a part.”

York’s move to the Russell Group coincides with its resignation from the 1994 Group which represents smaller research-intensive universities.

More information about the Russell Group.

Researchers aim to give disabled people their voice of choice

Date Added: 18th July 2012
A comedy sketch about speed dating with a twist will be filmed in a North Yorkshire village as part of a research project led by academics from the Universities of Hull and York.

The project aims to promote greater public engagement with the design of synthetic voices using the creative and performing arts.

The sketch ‘Voice by Choice’ features three disabled people all using computer generated voices at a dating event and the absurd situations that arise when all three use a device with the same voice.

The actors involved in ‘Voice by Choice’ are all disabled and use Augmented and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices - speech-synthesis technology - in their daily lives. The sketch was written by Lee Ridley, a stand-up comedian known as ‘The Lost Voice Guy’, who also stars in the production.

Describing himself as “disabled, but not silent”, Lee Ridley is the only comedian in the UK to use a computer generated voice to tell jokes. Born with cerebral palsy, complications at birth resulted in him losing the ability to speak. He started performing stand up comedy earlier this year using an iPad tablet computer and is now headlining comedy clubs across the country.

‘Voice by Choice’ is part of the Creative Speech Technology (CreST) Network, a research and public engagement project led by Dr Christopher Newell, from the School of Arts and New Media, at the University of Hull’s Scarborough Campus and Dr Alistair Edwards from the Department of Computer Science, University of York.

Dr Newell said: “The idea behind the comedy sketch is to show how people who cannot speak are frustrated by a lack of opportunity to make the synthetic voices they use more personal. We hope that by working directly with individuals who share this disability and the companies and researchers who design the technology we will be able to specify more individualised synthetic voices in the future.

“In the sketch, three people at the speed dating event are using AAC devices that happen to have the same voice. This is an absurd scenario, particularly when more than one user is speaking at the same time, but is based on the true experiences of our actors.”

CreST is supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and Arts Council England. ‘Voice by Choice’ is a recipient of research funding from the University of Hull and industrial support from Toby Churchill Ltd.

‘Voice by Choice’ will be filmed in Parish Rooms at Appleton Roebuck on 23 July and stars Alan Martin and Nicola Bush, alongside Lee Ridley.

Nicola Bush said: “I am a communication aid user and using a device has completely changed my life. I am an out-going individual who likes to be kept busy and enjoys new challenges, so I am really enjoying being involved in this exciting project.”

The film, which will premiere at York City Screen Cinema on 3 December, is directed by BAFTA award winning director Patrick Titley from the University of York’s Department of Theatre, Film and Television.

The screening in December will form part of a United Nations sponsored International day of Persons with Disabilities and will mark the first day of the CreST Road-show which aims to raise public awareness of speech technology by showing collaborative exhibits and installations in public places.

Speech-synthesis technology allows those who have lost their voice through illness or disability to communicate verbally. The best-known user of this type of technology is Stephen Hawking, who lost his ability to speak through motor neurone disease.

The charity Communication Matters estimates more than 30,000 people in the UK could benefit from speech-generating communication technology.

Dr Edwards’ research centres on finding ways of improving the quality and experience of interaction between humans and computers.

He said: “Together with teams of artists and scientists including engineers, poets, film-makers, composers, computer scientists and linguists, we are developing exhibitions and installations using cutting edge technologies.”

Dr Newell, a former opera director, believes that rather than making computer-generated speech more realistic - which he says many people find slightly unnerving - ways should be found of making it more attractive to the ear.

He said: “The universities of Hull and York are working collaboratively on a number of projects which aim to find out what synthetic-speech technology can learn from the performing arts where there is already a good understanding of voice and what makes it attractive.”