Jump to Navigation

Current Research

There are over 100 Fellows at King's. They carry out a huge variety of research, from investigating the origin of the Universe to uncovering the classical world.

The roots of German identity

Hanna Weibye

Hanna Weibye is looking at the origins of German nationalism, and the relationship between physical culture and national identity.

Her PhD, which she finished last September, investigated a man who was both a German nationalist and the founder of modern gymnastics: Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778 –1852).

"Jahn was a colourful character," says Hanna. "He invented two youth movements, which still exist, and founded a volunteer corps to help drive Napoleon out of Prussia." Jahn's goal was to rejuvenate the German-speaking people through physical and moral education, and to unite them in one, constitutional state.

The period when Jahn was most active (1800-19) saw the birth of German nationalism, but at that time Jahn was already in his forties. Like other early nationalists, he had been brought up in the eighteenth century. "They were in their teens and twenties when the French Revolution broke out, so they had been educated in pre-revolutionary Europe."

She is interested in tracing which concepts they inherited from eighteenth century political thought and philosophy, and how they used these concepts in a new political movement after 1800.

Understandings of early German nationalism have sometimes been skewed by the desire to find the origins of Nazism, Hanna says, and so the period around 1800 is often taken as the starting point of a story that leads to 1871, 1914, and 1945.

Her approach, by contrast, is to examine early German national thought in its own historical context. "It became obvious very quickly that this movement grew out of enlightenment political theory. The nationalists are simply trying to figure out better ways to organise the state and society, to make people more happy and more free."

Hanna explains how she hopes to trace the ideas that formed German nationalism in the early nineteenth century back to the eighteenth century.

Hanna’s next project picks up another theme from her PhD: the relationship between politics, national identity and the body.

European discoveries of 'new' peoples and early theories about nationhood led to debates about whether national character is biological. Hanna plans to trace these debates in the German context, in order to better understand the origins of hypotheses like Jahn's - that there is an interaction between the physical culture of a nation and its identity, such that if you change one you change the other.

"Understanding the link between these eighteenth-century ideas and their nineteenth-century successors, nationalism and racism, has obvious implications for the way we understand these two forces, which are still very much alive nowadays."

- March 2014

Hanna Weibye is a Junior Research Fellow at King's. She studied French, German, History and English before going to university. Torn between studying History and Languages, she chose to study Languages at Cambridge "because it was such a wonderful, broad course. You can do a bit of everything - history, literature, film studies, philosophy and linguistics." The language skills proved valuable later because, she says, "I knew I wouldn’t have any trouble reading the sources for the period I wanted to study". She became interested in German nationalism as an undergraduate, and studied the national thought of the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762 –1814) for her MPhil. Her interest in nationalism was partly prompted by her own upbringing in Scotland, which gave her "a very strong awareness of nationalism and national identity in action."

Discovering dialects of world English

Linguist Dr Bert Vaux talked to National Public Radio (NPR) in the US about his surveys to identify English language dialects. See the related news story and Bert's department webpage.

- February 2014

Investigating natural killers

Francesco Colucci

Dr Francesco Colucci researches a type of white blood cell called a Natural Killer (NK) cell, which destroys tumour and virally-infected cells. In doing so, he follows both a family and a King's tradition in medicine and immunology.

"I was always interested in nature and human evolution," he says, "and I had a role model in the family. My parents are not highly educated, but I had an uncle who, like me, came from southern Italy, got to medical school, then travelled and became interested in genetics and immunology. He inspired me to study medicine."

After medical school Francesco drifted away from clinical practice, and like his uncle travelled to Sweden, France and the UK and became interested in immunology. It was during his post-doctoral training in Paris (1997-2000) that he started researching NK cells. He is now looking at how these cells can help treat cancer and prevent complications in pregnancy.

"This is an exciting time for immunologists with an interest in research and clinical practice in cancer because new anti-cancer drugs are being developed that may synergise with the body’s immune cells to fight cancer."[1]

Francesco's interest in NK cells has also taken him into another area: pregnancy and childbirth. Here he is following a King's tradition. He is the third generation of King's Fellows to work on immunology in the womb, the first being Professor Charlie Loke and the second being Professor Ashley Moffett, with whom Francesco collaborates.

The unborn baby is genetically only half matched to its mother, so a long-standing question is: why doesn't the immune system attack the foetus as a foreign body?

"We have now a modern outlook on how the mother's NK cells engage in a constructive communication with the placenta."[2]

This communication influences the course of pregnancy and, when it goes wrong, may cause miscarriages and other problems.

- February 2014

Dr Francesco Colucci is a University Reader at the University of Cambridge Clinical School. You can find a list of his key publications at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology website, and watch talks about the immune system and the foetus on the University of Cambridge website. See also the news story about Francesco' research.

1. To understand how NK cells can be more effective in attacking cancer, Francesco is working with oncologists at Addenbrooke's Hospital and geneticists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. They are taking cells from patients before and after cancer treatment, and looking at what changes have occurred both within the cancer cells and in the molecular conversation between the NK cells and cancer cells.

"Cancer cells too often build resistance to the drugs, and we are trying to understand how to fight the mutant cancer cells by using new drugs and by harnessing the power of NK cells, which, if properly stimulated, might help overcome the resistance of cancer cells to the drugs."

Drugs are a much cheaper option than immunotherapy, so if resistance to them can be understood and overcome, then cancer treatment will be hugely more effective. Back to text.

2. "During pregnancy", Francesco says, "NK cells become very numerous in the womb but they are no longer killers. In fact, they change their role completely and actually help the growth of the foetus. We don't understand how this happens, but the clue may lie in how NK cells interact with the placenta, an organ that is made and run by the foetus rather than the mother."

"In the future our knowledge of how NK cells interact with the placenta may lead to a treatment for pregnancy complications." Back to text.

Solving a global problem with superconductors

Dr Suchitra Sebastian talked about her research to create a new generation of superconductors at Google's 'Solve for X' summit in February 2014. These superconductors could resolve the problem of how to transport and store energy losslessly. Watch her talk below and read the news story.

- February 2014

Understanding South Asia's Democratic Cultures

Anastasia Norton-Piliavsky

Anastasia Piliavsky

The project team, including researchers from UK, Europe, India, and the US, is trying to answer one simple but urgent question: why are more and more citizens of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh electing more and more politicians with longer and longer criminal histories?

To this effect, nearly two dozen researchers are conducting in-depth ethnographic studies of how South Asia's residents conceive of and practice democracy.

What do 'ordinary people' expect from politicians? What do politicians do to secure political loyalties? Why do they appeal to increasingly coercive means, or at least appear to do so? And what does this tell us about what democracy is - and is not - in South Asia as much as elsewhere in the world?

King's partners include University College London, Oxford, Centre for the Study of Developing Society in Delhi, and the University of Oslo.

Dr Anastasia Piliavsky, co-Investigator in a large collaborative study of democratic cultures and 'muscular' politics in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, funded by the European and British Research Councils. See the project webpage.

Research | Back to the top