Research for Future


A Look Into the Research of Dr Arianna Parnigoni, Biologist and Current WiRe Fellow

Text & Concept: Dr. Arianna Parnigoni

Editing: Dr. Astrid Burgbacher, Katharina Grohmann, Alison Seiler

Cover Photo: © Nikolaus Urban // WiRe

October was Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and in this post we will discuss a little about what breast cancer is and how we can defeat it!

Breast cancer is a major public health issue – 1 out of 8 women are diagnosed with this kind of tumour. Even more worrying, breast cancer ranks first not only for incidence in the vast majority of countries (159 of 185 countries) but also for mortality in 110 countries worldwide, accounting for 1 in 6 cancer deaths in women.

“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” – Neil Armstrong

Humans have and will always be explorers. From accessing remote lands on earth to exploring space, Humans are curious and will always try to set foot where no one has ever been before. But we don’t need to go as far as the outer-space to access new inaccessible places: we can just look at the nanoscopic world around us! Put your lab coat and cosmonaut helmet on and let’s show Neil Armstrong a few new places to plant his flag! 

Difficulties of exploring the 3D-world on the molecular level

Molecules are an assembly of different atoms (such as Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen or Oxygen for examples) sharing electrons. There are molecules that are planar (2D), and others that exist in 3 dimensions. A lot of research has already been done to explore the spaces on 2D-molecules. But when we add an extra dimension, things tend to become more complicated…

3D-molecules can look very similar, have the same atoms in the same order, and still have different properties. This is what chemists call enantiomers. Enantiomers are mirror-image molecules that can’t be stacked on top of each other. Like our hands! We have the same fingers on both hands, in the same order (thumb next to the index finger, which is next to the middle finger etc…). Our hands are images of each other in a mirror but can’t be stacked on top of each other. Consequently, our hands don’t show the same abilities: we will be able to write with the right hand while the left one is clumsier, for example. 

© Dr Louise Ruyet

This small geometrical difference can also drastically impact the properties of molecules! For example, methamphetamine can exist as two different enantiomers. One (the right hand) is the active compound of Vicks Inhaler, an over-the-counter medicine used to clear your nose when you have a cold. The other enantiomer (left hand) is an illicit drug. This small geometrical difference has a huge impact on how our body is reacting to the two molecules! Therefore, Vicks has to be extra careful so that the medicine they are selling is in the right form and will produce the desired effect. You would not want to be high on a hard drug after taking medicine for a cold!

© Dr Louise Ruyet

But how does Vicks manage to produce only the right enantiomer and not the illicit drug? Two main methodologies can be used by the company to synthesize the desired enantiomer:

  1. Vicks could use traditional synthetic methodologies where there is no control over which enantiomer is formed preferentially.  They would obtain both enantiomers in a 50/50 ratio, which would then need to be separated. This separation is extremely difficult due to the structural similarities of the two molecules and is also going to generate a lot of waste, as they are going to discard D-methamphetamine (or maybe open another business on the side – Breaking Bad, anyone?) to only keep L-methamphetamine.
  2. Vicks could use a more recent method, where only one enantiomer is formed selectively using a chiral catalyst. A chiral catalyst is a molecule which is going to “block” one face of the molecule and allow the reaction to happen either on the “front” or on the “back” of the molecule and therefore create one enantiomer preferentially. This is what we call enantioselective synthesis. This is what my research is about! 

Organocatalyst, a cleaner fuel to explore new chemical spaces

In the past, most of the chiral catalysts used were metal species, but these catalysts come with several drawbacks. First, we only have a limited amount of rare metals on earth. This problem has been particularly highlighted recently with the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, which is greatly impacting the price of these rare metals. Finally, metals pollute – not only our environment but also our body. If a metal catalyst is required during the synthesis of a drug, all traces of metal species must be removed from the drug before giving it to a patient, which is extremely complicated and time consuming. 

In the last decades, an alternative has been found and rewarded by the Nobel prize in 2021: organocatalysis. This time, we are not using metal species but small organic molecules (such as proline for example). In comparison to metal catalysts, organocatalysts are abundant on earth, less toxic and cheaper. In my research I am using a special type of organocatalyst containing Iodine.  

© Dr Louise Ruyet

3D Fluorinated molecules, the ultimate exploration goal

We have our goal (to access 3D molecules and synthesize one enantiomer selectively), we have our team of astronaut/chemist, we have the rocket filled with green fuel (organocatalyst). Where should we go now? What planet should we explore? 

Have you ever heard of fluorine containing molecules?  Probably not, and yet I am 100% sure you are consuming fluorinated molecules daily. If you have ever used a Teflon pan, took a drug, or gardened, you are likely to have been using fluorinated molecules, as more than 25% of the pharmaceuticals and 40% of agrochemicals contain at least one fluorine atom. 

In most cases, these fluorinated molecules are still in 2D. The role of the fluorine atom is to change the physical/chemical properties of the 2D molecules to make them more efficient. For example, the presence of fluorine is going to make it easier for the fluorinated drug to go through the membrane in our bodies, allowing it to reach the desired site of action faster and be quickly active.

In 3D molecules, fluorine is going to have an additional role. Usually, for a drug to be active, it needs to interact with a receptor in our body, just like a key is going to interact with a lock to open a door. The receptors (locks) are sensitive to the geometry of the molecule (key). Only one key can unlock the door, and only one enantiomer can activate the receptor. Therefore, a big goal of chemical companies and of my research today at the WWU is to finally be able to access and control 3D fluorinated molecules with the help of our iodine organocatalyst. These 3D molecules, which were still unexplored spaces until now, could be the high-value added molecules/keys of tomorrow!

After that, rockets and spacesuits will no longer be required to have our head in the stars!

© Dr Louise Ruyet

by Dr. Mariagiulia Giuffré, Legal Scholar

Throughout history, people have always migrated from one place to another. Ever since the earliest humans began to spread from Africa thousands of years ago, people have been on the move, driven by climate, food availability, and other environmental factors [1]. Today about three percent of the world’s population live outside of their country of origin due to famine, climate change, persecution, security, demography, poverty and human rights abuses. Within this broadly mixed category of people on the move, refugees fleeing persecution and gross human rights violations in their home country represent the most vulnerable group, and are often unable to obtain personal identification and travel documents. As uninvited aliens, refugees are often perceived as a menace to the peace and internal security of the host State while also having no community and no linkage with their home country. As such, they are treated as outsiders whose claims must first be carefully assessed in order to decide whether they are legitimate and worthy of assistance. States’ endeavours to impose ever more robust barriers against those who seek to enter their national territories continue to accelerate and have therefore led to a ‘tension between generosity towards those at home and wariness of those from abroad’ [2].  

by Dr Anna Podgórska, Plant Biologist

Much worse than your personal carbon footprint: The nitrogen footprint of industrial agriculture

In a  perfect world, plants  would be able to grow under steady environmental conditions, have sufficient water and microelement supply, avoid the dangers of herbivores and pathogens, and receive just the right amount of light. Looking more specifically at a plant’s chemical ability to flourish, one of the most important contributors to its growth is the element Nitrogen. Plants require this mineral element in the greatest amount (2% of plant dry matter) among absorbed macronutrients. Nitrogen is incorporated into the structure of proteins, DNA, chlorophyll and all kinds of essential molecules, so no wonder it is considered a building block of an organism. 

Nitrogen based fertilizers as a stepping stone to the plant’s perfect world?

Modern agricultural technology uses a few different tricks in attempting to create a plant’s perfect world – adjusting the environment that plants are grown in, using greenhouses, artificial irrigation, chemical pest control, artificial illumination, and, of course: fertilizers, mostly based on different forms of nitrogen. Given the fact that our world is covered in an atmosphere containing mostly nitrogen (the harmless nitrogen gas N2 is, with almost 80% , the main component of the air) – you might wonder why agriculture even has the need to use nitrogen derivatives. This is simply due to the fact that, unfortunately, the air’s nitrogen gas is not accessible for use by organisms. Plants are dependent on inorganic nitrogen forms supplied through the soil. So modern agriculture resorts to various derivatives of nitrogen – as a result of these interventions, a remarkable boost in crop quality and yield has been achieved over the recent decades. 

However, all these measures come at the cost of excessive resource use and require large amounts of energy, water and fossil fuels, making agriculture the main global consumer of fresh water and the major emitter of CO2.  But this is only half of the story. While it is commonly known that our excessive emission of carbon dioxide leads to an increase in the planet’s average temperature, which leads to devastating changes in the climate – the damage done by derivatives of nitrogen that are used in industrial fertilizers are less known. 

Let’s have a closer look at nitrogen derivatives commonly used in modern agricultural fertilizers

One of the derivatives is nitrous gas (N2O) –  commonly known as ‘laughing gas’. You might know this gas as an anesthetic used in medicine. (Just a side remark: short term exposure to laughing gas is not a problem, but long-term exposure would be dangerous for humans as nitrogen gas, when carrying oxygen, can act as a potent oxidizer). Especially at high temperatures, like on hot summer days, it can be classified as toxic since it can oxidize all kinds of biomolecules. At even higher temperatures it is used as an oxidizer in rocket propellants or engines.  

Nitrous – alias “laughing” gas – is actually not that funny for our environment

The environmental effects that ‘laughing gases’ have are actually not that funny: Nitrous oxide is a particularly potent greenhouse gas as it is over 300 times (!) more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. This gas damages the ozone layer. Overall human-caused N2O emissions have increased by 30% over the past four decades. And what is important to mention here: Half of the N2O is generated by agriculture through the use of fertilizers. No wonder that industrial agriculture is a significant contributor to climate change. Additionally, nitrogen oxide causes an increase in particulate matter and acid rain, which definitely aren’t nice side effects. 

And there is yet another harmful sibling of Nitrogen: Nitrate

Another main nitrogen derivative used in agricultural fertilizers is nitrate (NO3-). Unfortunately, nitrate used in agriculture doesn’t fare much better than nitrous gas:  Plants which absorb high rates of NO3 after the harvest may be big and look nice and green, but are not really healthy. Additionally, consuming NO3- through food may be dangerous for humans. It can cause various issues like methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome), hypertrophic changes in the thyroid, and the endogenous formation of N-nitroso compounds, which are potent carcinogens. 

But probably the most harmful effect of the use of nitrate-based fertilizers is, that most of its NO3- is washed out of the soil solution or evaporates into the atmosphere in the form of potent NOx-greenhouse gases. NO3- leaching is a major reason for water pollution, which affects eutrophication of all water reservoirs. The content of NO3- in drinking water is a major danger for human health, even in well developed countries and areas like the Münsterland, where despite good filtration systems, the ground water still carries high levels of NO3- . 

To Summarize: Agribusiness as usual is not an option

In sum, the use of nitrogen derivatives in agriculture is not just an ecological problem affecting the biodiversity, but also decreases the availability of drinking water for us. The nitrogen pollution problem is increasing worldwide – in recent years this issue was recognized, and a European Nitrogen Assessment was formed to raise awareness. They came to the agreement that nitrogen containing agricultural runoff is not only contaminating our land, water, and food, but also the air. So, we actually should not only care about our Co2 footprint, but also about our nitrogen footprint. But is there a way to get out of this vicious circle?

Research in plant biology for a more sustainable use of fertilizers

As we have learned, the ways that nitrogen fertilizers (both inorganic and organic) are used in agriculture is far beyond optimal and actually gives rise to many problems. 

Let’s go back to where we started: We said that in a plant’s perfect world, they would be able to grow in the most perfect of conditions. However, perfect growing conditions are usually not the case. But just like we put on clothes to protect us from cold, plants have evolved mechanisms that enable them to cope with unfavorable conditions.Those built-in mechanisms allow the plant to change its own physiology. And this is where research in plant biology, such as the work of Dr Anna Podgorska, WiRe Fellow in 2021/22, may help us implement a more sustainable agricultural use of fertilizers. To put it more specifically: Research like Anna’s will help us find a well-dosed and targeted use of fertilizers that are as unharmful as possible. Anna’s research currently revolves around the question: Is there an alternative for the use of nitrate?

Ammonium – the model sibling of nitrate and nitrous gas?

Anna’s specific starting point is the analysis of the effects of ammonium on the metabolism of plants. Ammonium – NH4+ – is yet another nitrogen derivative that is used as a fertilizer. From an economic standpoint, things look positive:  the invention of the Haber–Bosch process, where atmospheric nitrogen (N2) converts to ammonia (NH3), enabled cheap production of NH4+ -based fertilizers.  Ammonium as a nitrogen source for plants is particularly attractive when compared with nitrate, as it is less susceptible to leaching from the soil solution. Also, from abiological point of view, ammonium seems to be the better nitrogen source for plants because it does not need to be reduced in order to be assimilated into metabolism. So, you might wonder, why don’t we use ammonium as the only nitrogen base in agriculture?

One of the most intriguing phenomena in plant physiology is that despite ammonium being more efficient energetically, most plants cultured on ammonium as the sole nitrogen source exhibit serious growth inhibition. In research, this is commonly referred to as ‘ammonium toxicity syndrome’. To date, the mechanisms underpinning the ammonium toxicity in plants have not been resolved. Anna’s research focuses on understanding mechanisms that affect plant development under ammonium nutrition. If we improve nitrogen use efficiency and aid the targeted breeding of plants that can handle ammonium fertilization efficiently, we will be able to reduce our industrial agriculture’s nitrogen footprint. This in turn will help us reduce global warming and keep our planet as liveable as it currently is. 

Understanding plants’ physiology and metabolism will help us save our climate

To put it in a nutshell, plants’ potential of adapting to various environmental conditions is insufficiently understood, especially with regard to crop breeding. This is where Anna’s research comes in: Understanding the plants’ mechanisms of environmental monitoring and acclimation is of fundamental importance if we are to transition to a sustainable agriculture that will also be fundamental to a climate friendly bioeconomy.

by Dr Rui Sun, Social Psychologist

Wellbeing is an age-old topic. Even though its meaning may differ across cultures and time, most people would agree that it is one of the most important themes in life. Going back to the Greeks, Aristotle declared that “happiness is the meaning and the purposes of life, the whole aim and end of human existence”. In the east, echoing Aristotle, the Dalai Lama also agreed that “the purpose of our lives is to be happy”.

By Dr Debdatta Ray, Applied Physicist

What do hazelnuts, cupcakes and our planet have to do with an invisibility cloak? Well, it’s all about nanotechnology!

How would you feel if you had your own “invisibility cloak” just like our favourite child hero Harry Potter? Or if you were to own a smartphone as thin as a sheet of paper? Or, if your bulky camera bag became the size of a hand-held purse as your DSLR camera shrunk to one resembling the size of a fruit cake? I am sure that this sounds like science fiction to you, and you might be wondering whether it is at all possible in reality. Well, the truth is – some laboratories are at the brink of making this a reality soon. You still don’t believe this? Then follow me into the world of nanotechnology and metasurfaces – the two key players that make this dream possible!

Dr Louisa Preston

Self-organised and institutionally hosted artists’ book fairs and the range of artist-publishing they represent offer valuable insights into a relatively under-researched area of publishing. These insights include an understanding of the meanings and motivations behind creating comics, zines and artists’ publications. I have been gaining an understanding of how these publications are produced, circulate through the fairs’ networks, and communities of readers, producers and publishers by attending two artists’ book fairs in 2021.

Drawing as a research method within an autoethnographic research approach produces new insights into artists’ book fairs. I use drawing to capture a moment of an experience and convey an emotive aspect of that experience, which speaks to something that words on their own can’t convey. I use Instagram (@louisapreston_scribo) as a site of publication for my drawings, to share my reflections and explorations of my lived experience in a small city in Scotland, and to find others who use drawing for similar or different ends to my own in becoming part of an evolving community of comic artists, zine-makers, artists’ publishers, researchers and illustrators.

I was asked by the lovely folks at WiRe to write a blog post on why my research on artists’ book fairs matters. The research process can feel like a hike up a steep mountain at times! But why does my autoethnographic research, which utilises drawing and creative research methods to investigate artists’ book fairs matter? – and is the hike worth it?!

Autoethnographic Research: From My Lived Experience to Research

My autoethnographic research approach utilises drawing as a research method and my lived experience as the lens through which I am generating insights into artists’ book fairs and comic and zine fairs. My understanding of these aspects of the artists’ book fair and participants involved derives from my own experience as an artist who trained at DJCAD in Dundee. As an artist-publisher-researcher and a mother, I too seek to find my place in this world in a way that combines my drive for creative expression and the clarity that drawing gives that writing can’t of a particular kind of tacit understanding. The artists’ book fair and the comic and zine fair I am using as case studies in this research are investigated and understood from this positioning.

Drawing is an expressive tool for understanding and exploring an emotive experience. Drawings, illustrated notes and memory poetry comics I create capture a moment and produce emotive insights of my experience. This uniquely contributes to existing literature in the area of book fairs and literary festivals as the visual materials I am generating contribute an emotive and personal experience to the understanding from a researcher-practitioner perspective.

The Bigger Picture: Post-Digital Book Cultures and the Visual Arts

Before explaining what artists’ book fairs are, it’s worth briefly saying how this research relates to the bigger picture. Post-Digital is a term used by researchers to reflect the current status of our communications, production, consumption and dissemination processes today. The term does not simply refer to a time after digital technologies began to disrupt certain processes, especially those for publishers. Rather, it reflects the mix of digital and analogue technologies used in these processes and the ability for people to ‘do-it-yourself’ via the advancement of personal computers and digital devices we have at our disposal that no longer requires specialist technologies or knowledge to use.

Within this framing, my research investigates the modes and functions that artist-publishing reveals and the agendas at play in the processes of producing, consuming and disseminating artists’ books. It seeks to understand these aspects of the artists’ book fair and artist-publishing and relate them to their counterpart book fairs in the literary network. It considers the stakes for artists and organisers of artists’ books fairs and their positioning in this area of publishing to the mainstream book publishing industry.

A niche area of Publishing as Case Study: Artists’ Book Fairs & Comic and Zine Fairs

Research in artists’ book fairs and comic and zine fairs is important as the number of fairs has been increasing in recent years in the UK. These online and in-person events celebrate artists’ publishing and the variety of experimental formats, modes and motivations for publications produced in this niche area of publishing. They offer valuable insights to wider research in post-digital book cultures.

Artists’ book fairs bring together people with similar interests, namely the pursuit of disseminating their creative ideas and fostering debate on contemporary issues. They foster and create communities of people who are interested in becoming a publisher of their own work and who then in turn may be published by a small press or larger publisher. The Manchester Bound Art Book Fair, hosted by the Whitworth Art Gallery, had a mixture of independent art publishers and zine makers presenting their publications.

Similarly, comic and zine fairs celebrate the comic artform and experimental formats linked to comics. The Hackney Comic and Zine Fair which I attended in September 2021 was a self-organised fair (organised by Joe Stone) that encouraged and supported attendees’ work at workshops and showcased celebrated comic artists and zine makers through the virtual fair tables and panel discussion events. Zines (a name which derives from magazine) are small hand-made and cheaply reproduced pamphlets or booklets which are made by either stapling the pages or creating pages by folding down a single sheet. (For more on zines I recommend Notes from the Underground by Stephen Duncombe). Individual creatives of zines and comics seek out discussion with peers to help with challenges of production or with seeking second opinions of their work. Motives behind creating the works for the comic and zine maker include: seeking clarity of their position in the world, to understand how they might be different or how they might endure a particular facet of their mental or physical well-being for example.

Hackney Comic and Zine Fair (HCZF), September 2021.

I attended the Hackney Comic and Zine Fair in September 2021. This was an online fair with a programme of events spanning the month of September. Instagram was a main channel for the organisers of the fair to communicate information about the programme. Attendees of the fair also used Instagram to post their reactions and share their work with others, which I also participated in. The online fair offered me the opportunity to attend from my home in Perth, which meant there were no travel time and cost requirements for me to attend. I was able to use my laptop and could situate myself anywhere that I felt most comfortable. Events I attended included: ‘The Power of the Small Press’; ‘Abstraction in Comics’; ‘All Comics No Time’; ‘Manga and Asian Comics’ and a ‘One-page Comic Workshop’.

‘The Power of the Small Press’ was a talk by Gareth Brookes. Brookes spoke of the fact that in 2005 there were no publishers making the kind of works that he was. There were no anthologies and no printers. He would use a photocopier at work or his home printer. By 2010, he noted the publishers Myriad and No Brow had been set up but that people were essentially working out of their kitchens. The so-called big publishers in this area were really small presses. He also pointed out that the low numbers of print runs and publishers of comics and zines were largely comprised of under-represented groups. Speaking of the materiality of some kinds of comics he said, “it’s what the art wants to be, small-press published”. 

Manchester Bound Art Book Fair, October 2021.

In contrast to HCZF, Manchester Bound Art Book Fair was hosted by the Whitworth Gallery and as such could be understood as an institutionally hosted fair compared to HCZF. Art publishers and self-publishers were presenting their publications at tables in one of the gallery spaces. Social issues, feminism and gender equality are some of the topics that publications and publishers at this fair addressed. A two-part zine on ‘Radical Bookstores’ for example aimed to highlight to the interested reader a collection of places to find books, zines and pamphlets on radical and political thought.

Modus is a publication which is associated with a research project of the same name on fashion. The project aims to generate dialogue between the theory and practice of fashion, supporting “expanded ways of thinking being and doing fashion”. I attended a hands-on workshop led by the two principal investigators of the project as part of the fair programme. We were given the publication and introduced to the project before being asked to cut up parts of the publication and then stick parts of those cuttings back onto it with the addition of other images. This interactive and creative workshop was interesting for my research because of the use of the publication as a tool generating insights from the workshop participants in unforeseen and creative ways. Participants of the workshop could take away their finished version of the Modus publication afterwards. We were also encouraged to share our thoughts of what fashion is on the project website.

My journey from Perth, Scotland to Manchester is documented as part of this art fair experience through my memory poetry comics. In addition, sketches and writing add further reflections of my attendance of the book fair as an artist-publisher-researcher.

In terms of the interests of my research and the experiences highlighted here, the networks of production and consumption involved and the motivations for creating these types of art and zine publishing and the fairs that are organised around them are producing insights into a post-digital mode of artist-publishing, art publishers, and self-publishing. Practices of creating, communicating and sharing involve a degree of do-it-yourself gusto, digital and analogue formats, professional and non-professional agents, which coalesce at the artists’ book fairs and comic and zine fairs, online and in-person. Low numbers of production, a high degree of personalisation and an emphasis on supportive communities of creativity which celebrate the comic, zine and artists’ book format are indicative of artists’ book fairs. My analysis is still ongoing, but I hope that the highlights of my research here show the value of artists’ book fairs and the autoethnographic approach to research in this area. 

Last weekend was once again the Day of Peace of Westphalia. We are taking this as an opportunity to present an exciting programme currently in the works: the Münster International Peace Research Initiative (MIPRI). Similar to WiRe, MIPRI aims to promote and bring together international junior researchers. But let’s return briefly to the Day of Peace of Westphalia. What does the day commemorate again?

This entry to the blog was written by Dr. Yamina Saheb, climate mitigation scientist and WiRe Fellow whose work and research focuses on designing sustainable policies to ensure wellbeing for all within planetary boundaries.

This blogpost is a slightly altered version of the sufficiency section included in the report entitled 1.5-Degree Lifestyles: Towards a Fair Consumption Space for All published by Hot or Cool Institute. Dr. Saheb’s contribution to this report introduces and examines sufficiency practices, which are long-term actions and societal changes driven by non-technological solutions. Sufficiency (in contrast to the want-based efficiency approach to climate policy) focuses on human needs and services required for wellbeing (i.e., housing including thermal comfort, nutrition, mobility…).

Cover Photo via 1.5-Degree Lifestyles Report: ©Ryoji Iwata / Unsplash

Global warming is today’s reality in every region of the planet

Heatwaves, heavy precipitation, agricultural and ecological droughts in some regions, tropical cyclones, as well as reductions in Arctic Sea ice, snow cover and permafrost are unfortunately what 2021 will be remembered for. Changes of the global climate system became indisputable. Extreme weather and climate events driven by human-induced warming of the atmosphere, ocean and land is unequivocal (Masson-Delmotte 2021).  Every region across the planet has experienced in 2021 at least one climate and weather extreme event. The global climate system has changed because of the global warming caused by the continuous increase of greenhouse gas emissions driven by human activities. Carbon dioxide emissions, resulting from the use of fossil fuels, is the main greenhouse gas contributing to global warming. Over the period 1750-2019, global carbon dioxide concentration increased by 48% to 410 ppm (parts per million) (Global Carbon Budget 2021) leading to an increase of global surface temperature of 1.09°C compared to the pre-industrial temperature levels (Masson-Delmotte 2021).