Alumni Profile: Regan Leahy, MSc Development Studies 2018

Regan Leahy chose to come to Birkbeck in 2015 after being recommended the course in MSc Development Studies. Originally, she had intended to pursue a law career, having undertaken a position at international law firm Hogan Lovells in 2013 and established a career path in the firm. In understanding the growing overlap in corporate social responsibility and development, Regan decided to combine her skills and interests, both personal and professional, to undertake further study.

In July 2019, Regan was selected as the first ever UK SDG Pioneer winner and then went on become the global winner for advocacy and sustainable solutions, both awarded by the UN Global Compact Network.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were set by the United Nations Development Programme in 2015 as a global call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and to ensure peace and prosperity for the year 2030.

Regan took the time to talk more to us about coming to Birkbeck, her recent achievement and some advice for those considering a similar path.

What did you enjoy most about Birkbeck and what it offered you as a student?

I really enjoyed the diverse groups of people in my classes. It made the classroom discussions and debates more interesting to have a wider variety of people with backgrounds in industry, academia, and the third sector. I also enjoyed the methodology of the classes I took where we started at the beginning to get back into the academic mind-set. I had only been out of academic study for a few years so remembered how to read and analyse, but I thought it was so clever the way our assignments were structured to help us get back into the swing of things.  

How did the volunteer programme contribute towards the Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN?

Barefoot Futures is Hogan Lovells’ global skills-based volunteering programme that inspires young people to take SDG-related action in their local community. The workshop is delivered by volunteers from Hogan Lovells to students in schools all over the world and seeks to raise awareness about the SDGs and innovative solutions by introducing students to the Barefoot solar mamas of Barefoot College and how young people can use STEM solutions to achieve the goals. Over 195 volunteers have taught 1,400 students in 31 schools in 12 countries and 87% of students agreed they would like to develop new solutions to global problems in the future.

What are the challenges that you face and what advice can you give to students considering similar career paths?

The intersection of development and business is only growing and business and NGOs will require experts with knowledge on both topics. As with the SDGs, collaboration is key and different industries, sectors, and organisations need to use their skills, people, and influence to create sustainable change. The challenge is showing different stakeholders that this is what the world needs and showing them how they can help. Businesses need to widen their measures of success and NGOs need to create engagement opportunities for businesses that are more than just financial. For students considering similar career paths, I’d recommend getting out into the world and networking! The best collaborations and uses of my degree have come from meeting different people and figuring out how to bring them all together under a shared vision and project.

It’s fantastic that you have inspired so many students. To round it off, did you want to say whether you are optimistic about the future and that these kinds of partnerships and business can broadly be a key solution to the world’s problems?

I’m happy to say that I am optimistic about the future. Young people in the world today are not shying away from tackling complex, global issues that are affecting their local communities. From plastic use to gun violence, young people want to live in a world that reflects their values and I’m delighted that the private and third sectors are collaborating to give young people and the adults who works for them the opportunity to use their voices, talents, and influence to build the world we want.

Hogan Lovells partner with Birkbeck to ensure prospective students are not deterred from studying law on account of their financial situation. Their generous scholarship programme supports two talented students in Birkbeck’s School of Law

Alumni Profile: Dr Simon Smith (PhD English, 2014)

Dr Simon Smith completed his PhD from Birkbeck in 2014. An appointed lecturer in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Birmingham, Smith recently received acclaim for his recent publication Musical Response in the Early Modern Playhouse 1603-1625‘ receiving both the University English Book Prize alongside the 2018 Shakespeare’s Globe Book Award. In the book, Smith argues the case of music as a dramatic tool in plays often as a cue for audience response, whether participation or to shape meaning and serve as a reminder of critical moments. This award could be considered a significant feat given that Smith admits no prior expertise in musical knowledge.

What drew you to complete your PhD at Birkbeck and how did you fit your studies into your working life?

I chose Birkbeck for my PhD because of the vibrant postgraduate community, because of the educational, scholarly and social principles that Birkbeck embodies, and because of its proximity to the British Library! I was also aware of Birkbeck as a place with a longstanding reputation for early modern studies.  My fondest memories at Birkbeck may be of the early modern reading group meetings – sociable, student-led evening gatherings in which we read texts I would never otherwise have come across. I studied full-time with AHRC funding, so I was highly privileged in that sense and was able to work part-time in order to make ends meet whilst renting in London! I taught quite a bit as a Globe Education Lecturer at Shakespeare’s Globe, and for Birkbeck as an Associate Tutor once I was a couple of years into the PhD – I’m proud to say that my most brilliant undergraduate student has stayed on at Birkbeck and is now completing a fully-funded PhD on early modern drama.

How does your recent publication contribute towards the field of early modern drama?

Musical Response in the Early Modern Playhouse asks why music matters in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, examining Jacobean dramatic texts and cultural expectations.

The book offers insights into the dramatic craft of Shakespeare and other playwright. It suggests new interpretive angles on play-texts and illuminates the culture of play-going and the significance of music in early modern England.

The study reveals many previously unrecognised ways in which music contributes to early modern dramaturgy.

Musical Response re-reads the playhouse as a space intended above all for serious ‘play’, reconceptualising the ways in which Jacobean performance sought to engage playgoers with fictional narratives, and revealing the inherent playfulness of early modern drama itself.

And, if you could choose, what’s your favourite Shakespeare play and why?

Othello is probably my favourite to teach, because of the sheer range of possibilities it offers in the classroom –I’m yet to find an approach students aren’t prepared to run with. If I had to choose just one though, it would probably be Twelfth Night, for Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s ‘challenge’ letter alone…

Mentoring Pathways: Reflection of a Mentor

Written by Anna Wesson (Occupational Psychology, 2012)

“Why do you want to be a mentor? Do you know what’s involved?”

These were the words that echoed in my head as I went into the training for the Mentoring Pathways programme. The blunt answer was no. I had some fuzzy ideas about making a difference, but beyond that, I wasn’t clear about what to expect.

As an alumnus of Birkbeck, I have first-hand experience of the magic of the place. The Master’s course I completed in 2012 overhauled my life, causing me to alter my perspective on myself and my career. For me, there was one piece missing. Going through the educational process, I wanted the opportunity to explore how to embed my learning into my life.

Fast forward six years, and I came across the mentoring programme by accident. I realised that this was my opportunity to support someone having an experience like mine all those years ago.

Mentoring was a fascinating experience and one with unexpected consequences. In working with my mentee, I was forced to get clear on my story, why I had made the choices I made, what served me, and what I would counsel against. It forced me to get under the skin of some of the commercial decisions I have made and justify them, which I really enjoyed.

My mentee and I spent time discussing her academic work, and in that, I discovered new writers and texts, and enriched my practice in unexpected ways.

I had expected to enjoy supporting a student in a way that allowed them to think about things differently. What I had not expected was the breadth of learning for me and the richness that it offered.

I can wholeheartedly recommend being part of the mentoring programme. As well as being run exceptionally smoothly, it offers a development opportunity for both mentors and mentees. I strongly encourage you to sign up next year.

Anna Wesson is an executive coach, working with emerging leaders in professional services.

The Mentoring Pathways programme offers Birkbeck graduates and corporate partners the opportunity to mentor a current Birkbeck undergraduate or postgraduate finalist.

The programme aims to support students’ career aspirations and expose them to professional networks, by bridging the gap between academic learning and workplace practices.

Applications have opened for the Mentoring Pathways 2019/20 intake, find out more about becoming a mentor.

International Alumni Profile: Rebecca Rellstab (MSc Occupational Psychology)

Rebecca studied for an MSc Occupational Psychology at Birkbeck.  She was born in Toronto, Canada, but grew up in Switzerland. She was living in Italy at the time of applying to Birkbeck. She spoke to us about her time at Birkbeck and what she’s up to now…

Rebecca studied the course via network learning, which allowed her to continue to work and live in Rome. “It was a really fantastic way to study. I found it just as engaging, if not more engaging than a face-to-face class or seminar as lessons were open for two weeks and allowed the seminar group to read each other’s contributions and reflect upon them before replying. This resulted in a deeply engaging and reflective learning process and which to this day, is one of the most personally and professionally enriching experiences I have had.”

Studying and working at the same time was hard work, Rebecca acknowledges, but she made as efficient use of her time as possible. “I remember my commute on a busy bus through Rome, passing the Colosseum, along the Tiber, all with a pile of reading materials on my lap!”

Rebecca looks back at her Birkbeck degree with fond memories. “The staff were very accessible and worked hard to make our experience a good one.” She would come to London every so often as part of her course to participate in weekend seminars and study with fellow students in person; they developed a tight-knit study group, and even to this day she is still in touch with several of them.

Rebecca is now working for the United Nations in Geneva, where she leads the Diplomatic and Client Services Team. She says that her degree most certainly helped her with her career progression. “It developed my curiosity and strengthened my ability to withstand and work under pressure.”

Her advice to prospective students thinking of studying at Birkbeck: “Develop a strategy which will allow you to work alongside studying for a degree. Be creative and tap into your support networks when needed.”

If you would like to provide an alumni profile and be featured in our e-newsletter and blog email 

An Afternoon Tea at Birkbeck

Many Birkbeck alumni, supporters and their families have generously decided to remember the College in their wills. In November 2018, the Master of Birkbeck Professor David Latchman CBE invited the College’s alumni to Birkbeck to tell them more about the positive impact that gifts in wills have on the College community.  The Master hosted alumni and supporters for Afternoon Tea at Malet Street where guests had the opportunity to hear from faculty and students.

Guests enjoy the cakes and a hot drink while chatting.

From 2016-2018, Birkbeck received £2.5m from gifts in wills. Such kind gifts have enabled Birkbeck to continue its mission: to provide further education that is high-quality and flexible for working Londoners.

‘It is so important that people like myself are given a chance to fulfil our potential and create value for society in the present and future. I believe Birkbeck stands alone in its mission to provide the highest quality education to everybody, regardless of age, background or gender’.


During the afternoon, Birkbeck student Christine Ozolins spoke to alumni about the difference that a bequest made to her student experience. After completing her BSc degree in Psychology at Birkbeck, Christine continued her studies by enrolling for the MSc in Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuropsychology at Birkbeck.

Halfway through her MSc, Christine’s marriage broke up, and she questioned whether she could afford to continue her studies. Christine said: ‘With the financial burden of having to support myself and also pay my fees I knew I would not be able to continue my studies. I had received a distinction for all my first year modules and I was heartbroken at the thought that I might not be able to continue’.

It was at this point that Christine was awarded the Constance Kenway Scholarship. The late Mrs Constance Kenway generously remembered Birkbeck in her will, and her gift now offers financial support for postgraduate psychology students facing financial hardship.

Christine will graduate from Birkbeck with her MSc Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuropsychology with Distinction. She plans to start a PhD.

Christine explained: ‘It is so important that people like myself are given a chance to fulfil our potential and create value for society in the present and future. I believe Birkbeck stands alone in its mission to provide the highest quality education to everybody, regardless of age, background or gender’.

Master of the College, Professor David Latchman (r) speaks with an alumnus over tea.

More than 200 alumni and supporters have informed us of their intent to remember Birkbeck in their wills, and many hundreds more have registered their interest to receive further information. Birkbeck is incredibly grateful to have such kind alumni who want to invest in Birkbeck students.

The Afternoon Tea was a wonderful opportunity for some of these supporters to find out more about how gifts in wills benefit students like Christine. Gifts of every size have a lasting impact and help to ensure that Birkbeck’s high-quality teaching and world-class research continue to serve future generations of students.

If you are curious about learning more about remembering Birkbeck with a gift in your will, please get in touch with the Development & Alumni Team by calling Kara McMahon on 020 7380 3187 or sending an email to

If you would like to read Christine Ozolins’ speech in its entirety, you may do so here.


Student Christine Ozolins speaks at the Legacy Afternoon Tea

Christine Ozolins who received a The Kenway scholarship spoke at The Legacy Afternoon Tea. Christine described how the studentship transformed her life and enabled her to undertake important research for the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. Read the full speech below.

Good afternoon, my name is Christine Ozolins and I recently completed Birkbeck’s MSc in Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuropsychology.  Today I would like to share with you my experience of studying at Birkbeck and how the Kenway scholarship helped me at a crucial point in my studies.

As a child I had a difficult home life and was unable to finish my schooling.  I spent many years working in a variety of different jobs.  However, I always felt unfulfilled and longed to be in a career where I could help others and fulfil my potential.  It took me years to get the courage to change my life, but when I eventually did, I commenced a BSc in Psychology here at Birkbeck.  This degree transformed my life in ways I never could have imagined.  I fell in love with the brain and with cognitive neuroscience, something I was not expecting.

I graduated with a first class honours degree.  For my undergraduate project my supervisor and I used fMRI to functionally locate and retinotopically map human visual area V6 as it relates to relative motion perception, something that had not been done before.  For my dissertation I extrapolated this finding as a possible tool for the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease, and I won the Honorary Research Fellows prize and was nominated for the British Neuropsychological Society’s national award.

I knew that I wanted to take my studies further and apply psychology and neuroscience to helping people.  And so I commenced a part time MSc in Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuropsychology here at Birkbeck in 2016.  However, halfway through my MSc my marriage broke up and I had to move into rented accommodation.  With the financial burden of having to support myself and also pay my fees I knew I would not be able to continue my studies.  I had received a distinction for all my first year modules and I was heartbroken at the thought that I might not be able to continue.

It was at this point that I applied for the Kenway scholarship, which is available for postgraduate psychology students experiencing financial hardship.  I was delighted and very grateful when I was awarded the scholarship.

For my MSc project my supervisors and I devised an intervention to help people alleviate the symptoms of creative block.  I interviewed my participants and used qualitative analysis to understand how they experienced their creative block.  This was followed by an EEG neurofeedback intervention targeting brain activity known to be associated with creativity and relaxation.  This was then followed by another interview to see whether the intervention had been effective and whether they had experienced any changes in their creative process.

My participants were a musician, a composer, a writer and an artist.  The artist broke through her block of five years and my other participants experienced dramatic changes in their behavior, emotion and attention, which were all factors that had been contributing to their block.  Again, this is something that had not been done before.  I received a distinction for my coursework and my thesis.  My supervisors are currently helping me prepare to submit my thesis for publication.

For my undergraduate and postgraduate studies I have had the honour of working with excellent academics.  In particular, my MSc supervisors Dr Eddy Davelaar and Dr Virginia Eatough were wonderfully supportive of my desire to do something ambitious that had not been done before, while providing me with practical advice as to how to manage what was essentially three projects in one.  Studying at Birkbeck enabled me to realise my dream of going to university, and the Kenway Scholarship enabled me to take the dream further and finish my Masters.

During my research into creative block, the head of the reading rooms at The British Library told me that ‘if we could solve the problem of writer’s block we would be doing humanity a great service’.  I have since been asked to give a presentation about my project and the methods I used to undergraduate psychology students at the British Library, as part of their outreach program.   I believe we have made a start in understanding the underlying mechanisms of creative block.  I really want to stay at Birkbeck and continue this research by doing a PhD, however the financial obstacles to this are considerable.  As with most mature students I have to support myself, and so I would have to do a part-time PhD.   However, funded studentships for part-time PhD students are rare, and competition from across universities is fierce.

Nonetheless, I will continue to put all my efforts into finding a way to finance my PhD.  There are currently no bursaries or scholarships for PhD students in the Department of Psychological Sciences.  With this in mind, I plan to become successful enough that I can leave money in my will to support students like myself at PhD level, and make the path easier for those who will come after me.

As a mature student I believe I can combine my life experience and (hopefully) wisdom with the skills I have acquired to make a valuable contribution to science.  This is why I believe it is so important that people like myself are given a chance to fulfil our potential and create value for society in the present and the future.  I believe Birkbeck stands alone in its mission to provide the highest quality education to everybody, regardless of age, background or gender.

I would like to read a quote from Buddhist philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda – Education is not simply the transmission of knowledge. It is not simply the development of talent.  Education is the great enterprise of steadily and surely passing on the fullness of humanity from the past to the future”.

Thank you all for coming today, and in that spirit I hope you will consider helping the students of the future.

If you are curious about learning more about remembering Birkbeck with a gift in your will, please get in touch with the Development & Alumni Team by calling Kara McMahon on 020 7380 3187 or sending an email to

Alumni Profile: Amer Anwar (MA, Creative Writing)

Amer Anwar graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck in 2010. His recent novel Brothers in Blood was featured in The Times Books of the Year 2018, Guardian Best Books of the Year 2018, Crime Time Best of the Year and was the winner of The CWA Debut Dagger award. We spoke to Amer about his time at Birkbeck and what he’s been up to since graduating…

Photo by Steven Joyce

Your time at Birkbeck…

I had a great experience at Birkbeck. I started out doing an Introduction to Writing Fiction course through Hammersmith & Fulham Adult Education. It was my first attempt at writing fiction since the beginning of high school and I really enjoyed it. The course was Birkbeck affiliated and the tutor said, if anyone wanted to pursue it further, to apply to Birkbeck, which offered a range of further Creative Writing courses. That’s exactly what I did, enrolling on a 2 year, Certificate in Creative Writing (which is now the BA Creative Writing, I believe) and then onto the MA Creative Writing too. It was in the second year of the Certificate Course, when I’d chosen to continue with Fiction, rather than the Poetry or Drama options that were also available, that I wrote and workshopped the first chapter of my novel – the chapter that would go on to win the CWA Debut Dagger and secure me a literary agent.

Throughout my time at Birkbeck, I was working full-time, so there was no way I would’ve been able to do a normal full-time course or even a part-time one that required a full day or two at university, so the fact that Birkbeck offers such excellent courses that are available in the evenings, was essential for me to be able to fulfil my ambitions. And I really loved everything about it. The standard of teaching was second to none and the breadth of age and experience in the classes meant that there was a much more diverse range of fellow students to learn from and with. The whole atmosphere was informal and comfortable but everyone was there to learn and work, which was a very enriching experience. It was also fun and enlightening to socialise after class and talk about writing and books with everyone. All in all, it was a fantastic experience.

Your experience since leaving…

Life since graduating from Birkbeck with an MA in Creative Writing has been a bit of a rollercoaster. All through the MA, I was working full-time, studying part-time and also working on finishing a novel. As I was already working on the novel when I started on the MA, everything I learned was geared towards helping me write and complete it, so I was very focused on what I wanted from the course. Even after I graduated, I took everything I’d learned and applied it directly to my work. I continued to learn and tried to improve as a writer.

After I left Birkbeck, I was very focused on finishing the novel. It took 8 years, all told, to finally finish it, and then a further 2 years to land a publishing deal. My debut novel, Brothers in Blood, was published in September 2018 and I am currently working on a follow-up, which is due out at the end of 2019.

Brothers in Blood by Amer Anwar was published in September 2018 and is available to buy on Amazon.

Alumni wisdom…

General advice would be, if you’re thinking about undertaking a further course of study around a full-time job, seriously consider applying to Birkbeck. That’s exactly what it’s set up for and it will be such a rewarding experience – academically, personally and socially.

For Creative Writing students especially, I’d say, have an idea of what you want to get from the course when you go into it. That way you can gear your learning towards helping you realise your end goal. For myself, it was to write a crime thriller. I knew that from the outset and so I was able to use everything I learned on the course to further my progress with that novel. In the longer term, finish your first draft. It’ll be hard and a long slog at times, but once you finish it, whatever shape it’s in, you’ll have a complete draft of a novel. That’s a real accomplishment. Once you have that, you can edit and improve it. And, perhaps most importantly, if writing is what you really want to do, never give up. Keep working at it and you’ll get there. If I did, so can you.

If you would like to provide an alumni profile and be featured in our e-newsletter and blog email 

Knowledge Transfer Opportunities for recent graduates and business leads

If you’ve recently graduated you could kick start your career…

Or you could transform your business…

…by taking part in a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) managed by Innovate UK.

These partnerships connect recent graduates with academic or research institutions and a UK business or not-for-profit. The three-way collaboration aims to solve a real-world issue that the business is facing.

KTPs are designed to help UK business’ stay competitive by encouraging them employ talented graduates while also keeping up with the latest industry innovation by taking advantage of advice and support provided by the academic partner.

The academic or research organisation partner (knowledge base) will help to recruit a suitable graduate. They will also act as the employer of the graduate, who then works at the company for the duration of the placement.

The scheme can last between 12 and 36 months, depending on what the project is and the needs of the business.



  • Fast track your career.
  • Competitive salary.
  • Enhance your project management and business strategy skills.
  • Take part in one of the largest graduate schemes in the UK.


  • Develop your business.
  • Obtain academic expertise that you don’t have in-house.
  • Improve your business performance
  • Help you to become more competitive and productive.


Graduate opportunities can be found at:

  • KTP vacancies online
  • an academic or research organisation’s dedicated KTP office
  • university departments
  • career offices
  • recruitment websites
  • local newspapers

If you are part of a business with a problem that you think the College could help you solve, use our expert database to find a possible academic partner for a KTP project.


A KTP is part-funded by a grant. You will need to contribute to the salary of the Associate who will work with your business, plus the cost of a supervisor who will oversee the scheme.

The amount you will need to contribute depends on the scale and length of the project. It will also depend on the size of your company. Typically:

  • small and medium-sized enterprises contribute around £35,000 per year, about one-third of the project costs
  • large businesses contribute around £55,000 per year, or half of the project costs

For more detailed information visit –






Information gathered from and used in accordance with the Open Governance License for Public Sector Information.

Kenway Legacy Scholar Graduates from Birkbeck

Helen Dunbar, recipient of the Kenway Legacy Scholarship, graduated with Distinction in April 2018 with her MSc Educational Neuroscience. The Kenway Scholarship, named for the late alumna Mrs Constance Kenway, was made possible through a generous gift in Mrs Kenway’s will.

Helen and her son Max enjoying the graduation ceremony back in April.

‘Without the scholarship, it would have been impossible for me to finance my studies. The Kenway Legacy Scholarship enabled me to achieve my goal of postgraduate study and push myself to a higher level of academic study.’ – Helen Dunbar

Mrs Constance Kenway studied Psychology and Social Anthropology at Birkbeck and graduated in 1962. Inspired to give back, Mrs Kenway remembered Birkbeck in her will with a pledge to provide scholarships for excellent MA/MSc psychology students who demonstrated financial need

Mrs Kenway’s generous gift has enabled postgraduate psychology students, including Helen Dunbar, to pursue higher study at Birkbeck.

Helen applied for postgraduate study at Birkbeck to boost her academic credentials and advance professionally. ‘After finishing my BSc in Psychology, it was always my ambition to take it further and study at postgraduate level.’

Helen faced a number of significant hurdles to study. As a single parent to her young son and as a full-time teaching assistant, Helen needed a postgraduate programme that could accommodate her work and family schedule. ‘I had to study whilst continuing working full-time. Being Max’s sole parent, I could not afford to give up work, nor would I have wanted to in all honesty’.

Several of Helen’s colleagues suggested that she look at Birkbeck’s postgraduate prospectus, given its flexible part-time and evening class schedule. ‘Once I came across the Educational Neuroscience course [at Birkbeck], I was set: it would build on my background in Psychology and my interest in Education and Child Development and would complement my job role perfectly’.

Max enjoying wearing his mum’s graduation cap!

Helen’s workplace provided partial sponsorship of her degree, but she still needed extra financial assistance to cover her remaining fees and travel costs. ‘I had reached the point where I had a confirmed place on the course but had now to solve the problem of trying to factor in the outstanding course fees… as well as organising after-school and evening childcare’.

Helen questioned her attendance on the course. ‘At this point, the worry over whether or not I could actually take up this opportunity to study at postgraduate level was almost overwhelming’.

Helen applied to the Kenway Legacy Scholarship with hopes of receiving this necessary extra financial support. ‘When I found out that I had been awarded the scholarship, the sense of relief was palpable. I knew I could make it work from there on in’.

Helen excelled in her studies at Birkbeck. Despite balancing study, looking after her son and full-time work, Helen graduated with Distinction. Helen is now looking toward the future, and her employer has encouraged her to pursue a higher level job. ‘The MSc has given me the confidence to pursue further study and training in Educational Psychology, which will ultimately enable me to better provide for my small family in the future. I could have never reached this point had it not been for the Kenway Legacy Scholarship’.


Many alumni and supporters have chosen to help secure Birkbeck’s future by leaving a gift in their wills.

These gifts fund a variety of research projects and support students in different ways. Whatever the amount, gifts in wills make an enormous difference to the College and to students who may otherwise be unable to continue in education.

Legacy gifts of every size have a lasting impact and help to ensure that Birkbeck, its high-quality teaching and its world-class research continue to serve future generations of students. If you would like to know more about leaving a gift in your will to Birkbeck, please get in touch with our team by calling Kara McMahon on 020 7380 3187 or sending an email to

PhD Psychology Student Wikus Barkhuizen gives an inspiring speech at Birkbeck’s An Evening of Thanks 2018

Wikus Barkhuizen who received a fully funded scholarship spoke at last night’s An Evening of Thanks. Wikus described how the studentship transformed his life and enabled him to undertake important research linking smoking to mental health issues in young people. Read the full speech below. 

Good evening,

It is a real honour to be here tonight to tell you about my Birkbeck journey and the real difference that your donations make to students like me and to the research we do.

From a young age I knew that I wanted to spend my life helping others. My parents instilled in me a strong culture of the importance of giving back. So after school I decided to do a degree majoring in psychology and genetics.

But things did not go as planned and I had to take a break from my studies to work full time. And as I soon discovered, opportunities in South Africa where I grew up were few and far between without the right contacts or qualifications.

But I got a second chance. A good friend and her mum lent me the money for plane tickets and a visa application so that I could come to the UK to save money to finish my degree.

When I arrived, I worked as a care worker for people with dementia. I also volunteered at a drug service and six months later got a job as a case worker helping people to overcome their addictions. I loved that I could do something for a living that I found fulfilling and that helped others.

Several years later and I had settled in London. I was managing the drug service where I initially started as a volunteer. But working for front line services, especially after several waves of funding cuts, was not a long-term plan. The “more-for-less” culture started demanding too much. Friends and colleagues were burning out around me. Luckily, I had a plan.

You see, Birkbeck is all about second chances. For 4 years I rushed from work to attend evening lectures and finally got my psychology degree.

After graduating from Birkbeck, I was accepted to do a master’s degree at Kings College London researching early interventions in psychosis. While doing my master’s, a good friend from Birkbeck encouraged me to apply for a fully funded PhD studentship on adolescent mental health using genetic methods, supervised by Professor Angelica Ronald at the highly rated Department of Psychological Sciences.

It was perfect for me. And thanks to my experience working in clinical settings with people affected by mental health and substance use difficulties, and my academic background in early interventions, I got the studentship!

If it was not for the generosity of the Birkbeck alumni who funded the Camara-Rijvers David studentship, I would not have been able to dedicate three years of my life to researching a topic I am deeply passionate about.

So let me tell you a bit about my PhD research:

We all know that smoking tobacco is bad for you. If I ask you “What are the risks associated with tobacco use?”, what comes to mind?

Most people think of lung and heart disease and cancer, right? But I am guessing that not a lot of you knew that smoking may also affect your mental health, particularly in young people.

We can measure experiences that resemble psychotic symptoms, like paranoia and hallucinations, in the general population. So in people like you and me. We call these psychotic experiences. Psychotic experiences have been linked to an increased risk of developing mental health problems later on.

Tobacco use is linked to psychotic experiences in adults, but very few studies have been done on adolescents, which is key because it is during adolescence that most people start to smoke and when psychotic experiences often emerge.

So I wanted to know if there is a link between tobacco use and psychotic experiences after taking into account other factors. For instance, if a young person who smokes tobacco is more likely to feel paranoid, is this related to tobacco use or is it rather because they have also experienced more stressful life events or smoked cannabis?

My findings showed was that regular smoking during adolescence was associated with psychotic experiences and this was not just an artefact of other risk factors.

So there is a link. But why? To find out, I ran twin models that compare identical and non-identical twins in a sample of thousands of twins called the Twins Early Development Study. And what these models showed was that in most part, tobacco use and psychotic experiences are associated because of the same genetic influences.

What does this mean?

Finding shared genetic influences do not tell us anything about causality, and it is not to say that smoking and psychotic experiences are predetermined by our genes. What it does tell us is that if we want to understand why tobacco use and psychotic experiences are related, it is important to look at our DNA. And this is what I am currently looking at in my PhD.

Thanks to the opportunity to do a fully funded PhD I have just published the main findings from my first year in a leading adolescent mental health journal. I have developed research skills and got my foot in the door for a new career. This will put me in a good position this time next year when I apply for research positions as a post doc.

My funders not only supported my PhD but a future career that I believe will allow me to continue making a difference, and I could not have done this without their support. Thank you!