Building on personal identity to help overcome adversity

Sreeja, daughter of one of our Professors, aged 13, explores how we can focus on ‘diversifying our identities’ during this challenging COVID-19 period.

Orchid

Throughout this testing COVID-19 period, I want to help those of you, struggling like me with productivity, anxiety, uncertainty or simply paradoxical boredom. I thought I’d explain how to overcome this difficult mindset and extract the best out of adversity. This blog will detail the significance of diversifying our identity, spending quality family time and understanding comfort in the uncomfortable. I will be introducing a new concept called ‘Diversification of Identity,’ which I have found to help myself and others immensely.

The idea of diversifying our identity is built on an economical concept mentioned by Tim Ferriss; ‘It’s always smart to diversify your investments. That way if one of them goes south, you don’t lose everything.’ This same principal applies to our own identity, if one has been engrossed in something that has now been taken away from them – perhaps their regular job, a project or a hobby that they currently cannot undertake. They might be finding it difficult to come to terms with it, which is possibly a sign that they need to expand the basis to their sense of self.

For example, my father’s wet lab-based research for new antibiotics against tuberculosis is currently compromised. Essentially, wet-lab-research consists of interactive lab procedures, where you perform various experiments in order to reinforce research; however, at present this is not possible for his team to approach. Although my father is deeply riveted by this form of research, we, as a family, are not allowing this to affect our mind and wellbeing and we are participating in alternative pastimes (see figure 1).

This is a time when it is paramount to maintain gratitude as a daily practise. To appreciate the family members who remain with you regardless of the problems you encounter, those who unconditionally offer you love and affection, even during trying times. Our family has taken this opportunity to utilise our interests, such as cooking and baking, photography, gardening and writing, and do them together. Not only is this entertaining, but it gives time to develop bonds, communication skills and mutual respect amongst family members. During this period, we aim to act upon this knowledge and take advantage of the new-found time that is in on our hands.

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COVID-19 in prisons – a major public health risk

Catherine Heard, Director of the World Prison Research Programme at the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck, discusses the impact of COVID-19 on prison populations.

Prison

The coronavirus pandemic presents formidable challenges for prisons worldwide – challenges they will struggle to meet, with potentially grave consequences for the health of prisoners, prison staff, their families, and all of us.

This is a fast-moving situation: since the outbreak was declared a pandemic on 12 March, prisoners and prison staff have tested positive in several European countries, and prisoners have died in England and France. These cases will only be the tip of the iceberg globally. With prison health systems in so many parts of the world struggling to provide even basic healthcare, many sick prisoners and prison staff will not have been tested. Overcrowded and under-resourced prisons offer the perfect conditions for the rapid spread of any contagious disease, including COVID-19, within and beyond their confines.

Last year, we published a report examining the effects of failed penal policies through the lens of health. We showed that well over 60% of countries have overcrowded prison systems (based on information held on our World Prison Brief database). Our research included evidence from ten diverse jurisdictions across five continents. Prisoners spoke of extreme overcrowding (for example, 60 men sharing cells built for 20 in Brazil); inadequate medical treatment, with too few doctors to deal even with routine health issues let alone serious disease outbreaks; constant hunger; lack of fresh air and exercise; shared buckets instead of toilets; not enough fresh water or soap; having to eat while seated on the toilet due to lack of space in a shared cell.

These are the realities of prisons across the world. They provide important context for the World Health Organisation’s warning that global efforts to tackle the spread of the disease may fail without proper attention to infection control inside prisons.

How have prison systems around the world responded to the pandemic? Many prison authorities – including in England & Wales – have suspended visits to prisoners, and cancelled temporary release schemes. In Columbia, Brazil, India, Italy, Romania and Lebanon, prisoners have rioted at these measures and in protest at the life-threatening conditions in which they are being held. Prisoner deaths, escapes and widespread violence have been reported.

More recently, some governments have responded by releasing prisoners: in Turkey, legislation was passed to release 100,000 of the country’s roughly 286,000 prisoners; similar steps have been taken in Iran and are under consideration in the United States, Canada and Ireland. In England and Wales, the government has so far declined to do this, despite the severe challenges already facing our overcrowded prison estate.

Now, detailed guidance from WHO, running to 32 pages, should leave no government in doubt about the serious risks presented by the virus, and how to tackle them. It states: ‘The risk of rapidly increasing transmission of the disease within prisons or other places of detention is likely to have an amplifying effect on the epidemic, swiftly multiplying the number of people affected.’ It calls for ‘strong infection prevention and control measures, adequate testing, treatment and care’ and provides detail on what this means in practice.

The parlous state in which prisons find themselves throughout the world today will make it difficult for them to follow the guidance, as they lack the resources – human, material, and financial – with which to do so. Even before the pandemic they were struggling to provide basic sanitation and healthcare for those in their care, as our research has shown.

COVID-19 provides the clearest illustration yet that prison health is public health. It is more important than ever for our governments and prison administrations to abide by the principle, enshrined in international law, that prisoners have an equal right to health and healthcare. Realistically, the only way that most countries could afford to meet this obligation is by first reducing their use of incarceration. This means ruling out custody for less serious, non-violent offending; and reversing the recent growth in the length of prison sentences.

It also means cutting substantially the use of pre-trial detention.  In America, thousands of the country’s nearly half a million pre-trial detainees are in jail for no better reason than that they cannot afford bail – although senator Kamala Harris has called for this to end.

No one should be remanded in custody unless absolutely necessary. But, of the more than three million people in pre-trial detention across the world, a large proportion are there purely because they cannot afford bail, or their country’s courts are hopelessly backlogged (a situation that will only worsen as courts around the world are forced to stop hearing all but the most urgent matters because of the current health emergency). On 2 April, we will release the latest global data on pre-trial prisoner numbers. It will reveal a significant upward trend, and should provide a wake-up call for governments the world over.

All news items and other sources referred to in this piece can be accessed via a dedicated COVID-19 page on ICPR’s World Prison Brief database: https://www.prisonstudies.org/news/news-covid-19-and-prisons

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How Birkbeck has helped me achieve three of my biggest dreams

Faranak Pourzamanie attended the recent Certificate Holder Celebration, after completing a Certificate of Higher Education in Management. Faranak is now studying BSc Management with Accountancy and Finance at Birkbeck, and explains how Birkbeck has changed her life.

Faranak Pourzamanie

As a completely new student to the UK’s education system, Birkbeck has given me the great opportunity of achieving not one, but in fact three, of my biggest dreams.

Firstly, I was able to enter university through Birkbeck’s Certificate of Higher Education in Management. I came to the UK with my family and had no qualifications, and I was reluctant to spend extra years at college to get into university. After two frustrating years of applying to different universities, my friend introduced me to Birkbeck and told me to apply for their Certificate of Higher Education in Management. I was hopeless, but I didn’t give up and applied. I was elated when Birkbeck accepted my application and gave me the opportunity to “jump” to higher education. Even though academic study wasn’t that easy, I had great support from the College which helped me achieve my Certificate of Higher Education.

Secondly, another dream of mine was to open my own business. Studying at Birkbeck gave me the opportunity to partake in the Pioneer programme, which introduced me to resources and people who have started their entrepreneurial journey. Listening to a number of guest speakers at Birkbeck events also really inspired me to set up my business. The Pioneer programme really helped me shape my business idea and make it happen. I have now started my online business selling saffron, and I’m applying the knowledge I have from the programme as well as getting help and advice from people I met through the programme.

Lastly, the final dream was getting a job while studying at university. Networking with one of the guest speakers after a lecture allowed me to know more about working in the corporate world. This individual has trusted me by putting me in front of the right people, which has opened the doors to the beginning of my career.

In conclusion, one small step to Birkbeck has given me so much in such a short time. I’m so happy that I had the College’s help in my life journey so far. Soon I will be graduating from my undergraduate degree at Birkbeck, BSc Management with Accountancy and Finance, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Certificate Holder Celebration

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Tackling climate change head on

Professor Gabriel Waksman, Professor of Structural Molecular Biology, shares how he has set up a charity dedicated to funding carbon mitigation projects that aim to restore native forest habitats.

Since becoming a scientist, I have had the great joy of globe-trotting all over the world from conferences to review panels, from seminars abroad to lecturing at foreign institutions. Such extensive travelling was useful to promote my research, tell people about our latest discoveries, and exchange ideas with fellow scientists in my field. It also provided me the opportunity to publicise the achievements of the research institute I founded in 2003 and directed until October last year, the joint UCL/Birkbeck Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology.

However, I came to realise how dreadful my carbon footprint had become. Like many of us, my awareness of human-made global warming caused by CO2 emissions has increased over the years and recently it passed a threshold where I felt I needed to proactively address this issue. There is no doubt that government intervention is going to be crucial in solving the climate crisis, but I wondered how we, academics, could take individual responsibility for our carbon emissions. We must obviously reduce our travelling: we do travel far too much. But attending conferences and sharing our results prior to publication is an essential lubricant of science: it makes it work more smoothly and more rapidly. I suspect that, in the foreseeable future, academics will continue to travel to conferences.

If conference travel is here to stay (albeit at a reduced rate), what can we do to offset our carbon emissions? There are many ways to do so but I was attracted to the approach of native tree-planting. Trees are excellent carbon fixers and, in my opinion, there is nothing more beautiful than a native woodland. Native afforestation increases biodiversity and restores degraded ecosystems. Also, it was important to me to plant trees in the UK, and not necessarily abroad as many afforestation projects do. Tree-planting sites in the UK are easily verifiable because they are easily accessible. They are also subjected to the Woodland Carbon Code, a set of stringent governmental rules.

I therefore set up a charity called ‘All Things Small and Green’ and a website where academics can compute their carbon emissions, convert them into trees (2-4 trees per metric tonnes of carbon), and add these trees to groves we have set up with Trees For Life, our tree-planting partner. We created a Scientists’ Grove, and Academics’ Grove, even a Friends’ Grove, and finally our first Conference Grove.

I find the idea of a ‘grove’ extremely attractive. Any institutions can create their own grove and ask their members to contribute trees to it to offset their carbon emissions. I hope we can create a ‘Birkbeck Grove’ where everyone at Birkbeck will be able to contribute trees. Birkbeck has made tremendous efforts in reducing its carbon footprint and last week organised its own ‘climate learning week’, that included a vegetarian day and an opportunity for students and staff to bring in their bikes for an appointment with Cycle Republic. But the effort must continue and address the issue of carbon emissions caused by academic travel. In that respect, the latest initiative by Wellcome is important and will spur all institutions on to tackle the issue effectively.

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Summer School in Uganda!

Sapphire Metcalf, BA Politics student, shares her experience at the Natural Resources and Development Summer School of Kyambogo University, Uganda, after successfully being awarded an Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) Summer School grant through Birkbeck. Birkbeck undergraduate students are encouraged to apply for the 2020 ACU Summer School Grants by Friday 28 February 2020, please see the full details below.

July 1st, 2019, I landed in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, to begin the summer of a lifetime studying in Africa.

I remember applying for the scholarship in early 2019 through Birkbeck and envisioning how incredible it would be to study for one month in another continent with students who may have completely different perspectives to me on common issues, due to cultural differences, life experience, and access to resources. A few months later I was informed that I had been put forward by Birkbeck to the final stages of the selection process and subsequently in early April the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) congratulated me on the success of my application and to begin preparing for the incredible journey I was about to embark upon in Uganda!

When you are awarded the grant by the ACU you are then free to apply for one of the host universities available in that year. There were summer schools being held in stunning places such as Canada, India, Australia, and China however, I was instantly drawn to Kyambogo university in Uganda due to its focus on natural resources and development. My area of interest is centred in international development, climate change and environmental policy and the course Kyambogo offered boasted many insightful topics including; conservation planning and practice, climate change effects, gender and resource management, oil and gas, parks and wildlife and environmental development; which furthered my excitement for this unique experience.

From start to finish the summer school and all its staff and organisation managed to exceed my expectations, as I felt so welcome and at home, I almost forgot I was in Africa. The classes were thoroughly engaging from the academics at Kyambogo and I learned a lot, it was also incredibly interesting to engage in cultural aspects of learning as well, such as entering classes without shoes and saying a prayer before commencing. As well teaching from academics we often met with industry professionals such as the National Environment Management Authority, National Water and Sewage Corporation, and Bold Energy, a social enterprise. Lessons ran from Monday to Thursday, with Fridays reserved for day trips out of the university campus.

In preparation for our first outing we were given some local language to use and a local Buganda name, which all have a meaning; mine was Apalat which means laughter. We were then taken on a tour around Kampala and visited the famously hectic street markets, the largest mosque in the country, the King’s Palace and my fellow Ugandan classmates led us to try to local brew, which is a socialising activity for men and women within communities and is consumed through long bamboo straws. Other Fridays we ventured to the Ndere cultural centre to watch performances capturing the lives of a wide variety of African tribes, as well as the town Jinja, where we took a boat ride to witness the source of the River Nile and enjoy a delightful Ugandan delicacy; Tilapia. Some of us later returned to the River Nile to take part in some white-water rafting activities which was an altogether exhilarating experience especially on one of the most famous rivers in the world.

The summer school included a week long field trip to Murchison Falls National Park, which will always remain one of my most cherished memories. Our first day in the park began at sunrise, which was already beautiful enough, then we embarked on a jeep safari with a very knowledgeable and passionate tour guide. Along the way we saw giraffes, herds of elephants, buffalo, antelope including the Ugandan cob, warthogs, baboons, blue tailed monkeys, and many types of bird in their stunning natural habitats. Following the land safari, we travelled by boat where we spotted spectacular views of kingfishers hunting, hippos, and crocodiles and of course the magnificent Murchison Falls. Just when we thought it had all come to an end, we disembarked the boat by the Falls and hiked by foot to catch a close up of the waterfall, in fact we ended up so close that we were splashed by the force of the water. It truly was the most spectacular day of my life.

During the rest of the field trip we met with Ugandan Wildlife Authority where we discussed human and wildlife integration and interacted with local communities within the park. We also stopped at Total, the Oil and Gas company, to witness the effects their oil rigs are having on the park.

I would once again like to thank Birkbeck and the ACU for this opportunity, it has been such a unique and inspiring experience that will hugely enhance my career prospects and motivation to return to Africa. If you wish to spend your summer at university meeting wonderful people and making great contacts and visiting another remarkable part of the world and immersing yourself into the culture all whilst enriching your knowledge, then I could not recommend applying for summer school enough!

Birkbeck undergraduate students are encouraged to apply for the 2020 ACU Summer School Grants by 28th February – see full details and criteria. Complete the application form and return it to student-communications@bbk.ac.uk by Friday 28 February.

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Birkbeck, an energy you carry with you through your lifetime

Birkbeck alumna, Helen Kofler, writes about her work experience with the Birkbeck Futures team, after deciding she wanted to follow her passions and explore a career change.

As a Birkbeck masters graduate my most profound memory is of my graduation in 2015. I was sitting in the crowded auditorium and the familiar rumble of family members and friends cheering proudly for their loved ones, as they walked on stage to collect their hard-earned certificates, filled me with excitement and anticipation. I was sitting facing the stage on the right-hand side, so I saw the backs of students climbing the stage and only got to see their faces when they turned to face the audience.

One female student walked onto the stage and loud whistles and hands clapping in the sky charged throughout the audience. As I saw her turn to face me, her black gown was neatly folded around a baby carrier which she had strapped to her chest with her young toddler grinning out at the audience. For me this was everything Birkbeck stood for. The evening university which gives people the flexibility to study, whilst juggling the responsibilities of work, life and family.

So many of my contemporaries who have had children have had to turn to organisations such as ‘Pregnant, then Screwed’ when employers have discriminated against them for starting families, condemning their working lives. This woman on stage was looking that stereotype in the face and saying I am strong, I am powerful, I am intelligent and I am a mother. I was so proud to be a part of Birkbeck.

Having worked in retail in Marketing then as an Area Manager across London and the UK since 2010, I was exposed to the increasing pressure that has fallen on the UK retail market and decided it was time for me to leave the industry in search of new cheese. The only aspect of the job that I was sure I was committed to was working with, and developing, people. Through much soul searching and self-reflection I began to think about areas of my life which I enjoyed and where people were naturally drawn to me.

In the midst of this work on myself, my phone rang, “Helen, can I meet with you to help me prepare for a job interview?” “Yes!” I exclaimed. I hurriedly pored over the job spec and made a note of potential questions that could be asked. The next week, someone else called, “Helen, can we have a catch up, I am struggling at work and don’t know what my next move should be?” “Of course! Let’s go for a coffee.” This became a theme. I enjoyed so much meeting up with friends and colleagues and talking to them about career journeys but never considered it could be a full-time career itself.

Remembering my time at Birkbeck, I decided to contact the Birkbeck Futures team and ask for their advice. Even though I had graduated five years earlier, the door was flung open for me to discuss my situation with Lucy Crittenden, a Careers Consultant in the Futures team, where I was given bespoke advice and offered insight into creating a job out of my passion. An opportunity then arose for me to spend a week working alongside the team and seeing what they did on a day to day basis.

Excited and nervous, I made my way back to my old stomping ground ready for a week of learning. As I started the week, I have never come across such a generous and forward-thinking team. Spending a lot of my time with Jenna Davies, the Head of Careers, she took time out of her day to coach and mentor me. Jenna also shared her passion for entrepreneurship which I found truly inspiring and rubbed off on me giving me motivation to take side projects forward. Jenna organised a week full of interesting and fulfilling duties. These activities included research projects for Birkbeck’s inspiring Ability Programme, which is a series of lectures, workshops and networking opportunities dedicated to students and graduates with a disability, neurodivergence or long-term health conditions. I also attended training sessions and one to ones. Anna Gordon, Birkbeck Futures Career Coach helped me to reflect on my strengths and has given me a sense of purpose. Lucy Robinson, who is a Careers Consultant, gave me an insight into the Pioneer Programme, an initiative dedicated to encouraging students on their start up ideas. A week full of inspiration.

I have come away from my week at Birkbeck with that familiar sense of excitement and possibility that I was often filled with after having been to lectures and seminars as a student. Anna Gordon said that as a career changer it is important to have ‘resilience’ and I will carry this comment with me on my journey through career change. I am excited about the future and the opportunities ahead of me. I got the sense that there was a shared sense of community and purpose for each staff member that I came across. It was amazing to see as a spectator but also really infectious when surrounded by such energy.

At a lecture I attended towards the end of the week, Dr Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick, Senior Lecturer in Management, said that Birkbeck is dedicated to inclusion and dedicated to giving people a second chance in life. The people I worked with during this week were testament to this and I am grateful to such an institution and these intrinsic values so imperative to our society today.

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Wesley’s journey on the Freshfields Law Scholarship

Birkbeck Law student Wesley Manta has recently been awarded a prestigious Freshfields Stephen Lawrence Scholarship, marking the second time that a Birkbeck student has been chosen for the mentoring and scholarship programme. In this blog, Wesley discusses his journey so far on the scheme.

I was recently awarded the Freshfields’ Stephen Lawrence Scholarship, along with 13 others across the country. The scholarship seeks to address the disproportionate under-representation of black and black-mixed race men from less privileged backgrounds in large commercial law firms, and more recently in other City careers. The scholarship award is a mixture of mentoring and interning opportunities with law firms and other commercial City firms. The scholarship programme lasts for 15 months and is aimed at complementing our busy university schedules. Though we have just begun the programme, it is clear that the programme will provide a lot of value to our professional growth.

My journey started with the insight meeting. The insight meeting was an opportunity for potential candidates to understand more about the scholarship, what Freshfields were looking for in their scholars and what the scholarship programme would entail. It was a great day, with guests from Freshfields, Bank of England and AON. Though this meeting was not compulsory, it is definitely recommended, especially as we had the opportunity to speak to former and current scholars about helpful tips for the application form.

The next step of the journey was to submit a formal application. Part of the application included producing a video with the theme “My Story”. I was grateful enough to have some friends who had some video-editing skills to help with my video. Birkbeck helped fill out the application, including giving a recommendation. The support I received from Birkbeck was exemplary throughout this process.

The final stage was attending the two-day assessment centre. The assessment centre was an exhausting array of challenging exercises, created to test several aspects of the candidates. There was a theme throughout the assessment centre which really added to idea of the exercises being tasks that clients may ask us to do in a professional setting. The exercises were hard to complete but getting to meet and network with dozens of black men in the same position as I was a wonderful part of the two days.

My cohort, the 2019 scholars, have already begin meeting and learning. In our first group meeting, meetings that are scheduled to take place roughly once a month, we were treated to several lectures by senior people from Freshfields and some of their clients. We learnt the basics of maintaining a professional looking LinkedIn page, how to protect our reputation and some tips and tricks for landing a great first impression.

I am eternally grateful to Baroness Lawrence and Freshfields for providing me with this opportunity. Breaking into the commercial world is not easy, as there are so many rules and ways of working which we are never taught in university. Through this scholarship, I hope to be able to gain the practical knowledge required to succeed in the City.

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