Category Archives: Science

“Not all Deaf people know sign language and not all sign languages are the same”

Psychology student, Silvia Janickova discusses how inclusivity and accessibility have got considerably better but there is still a long way to go.

a pic of Silvia Janickova

Silvia Janickova

1. What are your thoughts on the significance of popular culture, especially film, in representing the experiences of deaf and hearing-impaired people?

One thing I would like to see more of is the representation of Deaf and hearing people interacting more with each other. CODA (the Oscar-winning film) and other films with Deaf or hard-of-hearing characters often portray hearing and Deaf communities as largely separate entities with the conflict revolving around the gap between them. I feel this is not reflective of the life richness that goes way beyond deafness versus “hearingness”.

2. What is the biggest misconception people have about people from the deaf community?

One of the misconceptions is that we are excellent lipreaders. In reality, lipreading is hard and largely a guesswork. Face masks during the pandemic have made the already precarious lipreading art even trickier.

There is also a gap between how many Deaf and hard-of-hearing people perceive themselves and how we are perceived by the society. Deafness is often seen as a “deficit” or impairment, but for us, the real issue is communication barriers and lack of inclusive environment.

Another misconception is that all Deaf people know sign language and all sign languages are same. For example, when doing my BSL courses in London, BSL used in Manchester had such a different accent that at times it felt like a whole new language for me!

3. Do you feel things have got better for deaf people, when it comes to understanding and inclusivity?

I think inclusivity and accessibility have got considerably better compared to even just a decade ago. That said, there is still a long way to go.

For example, and related to the film theme, cinema screenings often come unsubtitled so we cannot go and see the films we would like to watch.

Deaf people are also underrepresented in professional roles and there are persisting barriers in the job market.

Social events can be also difficult. In the end of the day, we are all humans and above all, we all want to feel that we belong. Many of us have learnt to be great pretenders and nod and smile at the right places. Simple things such as facing us, speaking clearly and typing things when it gets too noisy around can make a big difference.

4. What’s your own personal experience as someone who is deaf?

As a Deaf person who grew up entirely in the hearing world, finding way both to the hearing and the Deaf communities as an adult has been a journey for me. It has often been difficult, but it has also enabled me to meet many amazing people, both Deaf and hearing, and gain and wealth of experiences. Ultimately, all of this has shaped who I am, as a solution-seeker and a lifelong learner, not only in the academic sense, but also in terms of always learning something new about myself and other people.

5. What support have you received from Birkbeck?

As a substitute for spoken aspects of lectures, I use captioning or transcription and electronic note-taking. Studying as a Deaf student can be harder, since DSA (governmental funding scheme for communication support) only covers partial expenses for Deaf students. The pandemic has brought increased accessibility due to widespread use of automatic subtitles, but also additional challenges. However, the Psychology Department, where I study, and my disability team have been absolutely fantastic and really went extra mile to ensure the great studying experience for me.

The diversity of the student body has been also very attractive for me as a Deaf mature student. I am now in my final year and loved my Birkbeck experience so much that I am hoping to continue here for my Masters.

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“British Sign Language is receiving far more recognition”

Ari Laughlin, Psychology student, offers a perspective as a Deaf student, including praise for Birkbeck’s “high quality” and “versatile” disability services.

Pic of Ari Laughlin

Ari Laughlin

– How does popular culture, especially film, represent the experiences of deaf and hearing-impaired people?

I think that popular culture is extremely significant for representing the experiences of D/deaf and hearing-impaired people, especially since most hearing people have never met or have had to interact with a d/Deaf, Hard-of-Hearing or hearing-impaired person before. Popular culture forms a significant gateway for learning about groups of people. “A Silent Voice” is a very accurate representation of many deaf people’s experiences because it demonstrates how little sign languages are generally known by the public, and shows how Shoko Nishimiya, the deaf character, struggles to hear in most situations with just her hearing aids and needs Japanese Sign Language to be fully immersed in social interactions.

– Can you share the biggest misconception people have about people from the deaf community?

That there is only one, singular Deaf community with one sign language and culture across the globe when there are thousands of Deaf communities with their own individual cultures, sign languages and regional dialects. These communities and sign languages, particularly those from other countries in the Anglosphere, are often misperceived as belonging to American Deaf cultures, which, on the other hand, receive a lot of media and pop culture coverage. In contrast, British Sign Language and British Deaf cultures receive little representation and coverage. Rose Ayling-Ellis’ appearance on “Strictly Come Dancing” is probably the most exposure British Sign Language and British Deaf cultures have had so far in popular culture and in the media.

– Do you feel things have got better for deaf people when it comes to understanding and inclusivity?

For British d/Deaf people, yes and no. Yes, since British Sign Language is receiving far more recognition today than it was before and Deaf psychology – particularly the clinical, counselling and neuroscience fields – is gaining traction and breaking barriers for d/Deaf people. However, schools for the d/Deaf across the UK are shutting down and more d/Deaf children are having to attend mainstream schools. Deaf education is still highly stigmatised and most d/Deaf children, including those with cochlear implants, struggle significantly in mainstream schools where they cannot hear their teachers and classmates or may not even understand English itself. Teachers of the Deaf, who use British Sign Language, form bridges to the curriculum for d/Deaf children because English is largely inaccessible for many of these children since they cannot hear it. British Sign Language is fully accessible to d/Deaf children and acts as a steppingstone for the acquisition of English skills. D/deaf children often cannot have this highly specialist support in mainstream schools and many have very poor English receptive and comprehension skills because of this.

– What’s your own personal experience as someone who is hearing-impaired?

I can only really speak as a deaf person who was brought up as oral with exposure to Deaf cultures and British Sign Language much later in life. Although I had to attend mainstream schools – which I struggled significantly in – I was lucky enough to be able to eventually attend a school for the d/Deaf and largely receive the support that I needed. Regarding Deaf communities, my own experiences have varied vastly. Despite having experienced awful racism from some Deaf people about my partial East Asian heritage, many others have taken me under their wing to teach me British Sign Language and their cultures. I think that that is down to the general lack of accessibility, which pushes Deaf communities and d/Deaf people to the very edge of society and consequently shuts them off from the wider world. I was also very fortunate to be able to receive psychological therapies from Deaf clinical psychology services, which are very scarce throughout the UK.

– What support have you received from Birkbeck?

I have received specialist electronic note taking for the d/Deaf and live captioning support. This support meant that I could transfer very easily to online learning and that the pandemic had no negative impacts on my studies. Seminars and lectures became far more accessible and inclusive for me. The disability support that I have received from Birkbeck has been the highest quality and the most versatile for my needs so far. I cannot further express how phenomenal Birkbeck’s Psychology Department, Disability and Dyslexia Service and Mental Health services have been throughout my studies.

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Why World Wetlands Day is now being officially observed by the United Nations

Wednesday 2 February 2022 marked the first official observance of World Wetlands Day. In this blog, Dr Dale Mineshima-Lowe, Lecturer and Acting Programme Director of MSc Environment and Sustainability, explains the significance of the day and how it’s raising awareness of biodiversity, climate mitigation/adaption, and the global environment.  

Wetland in Korea

Wednesday 2 February marked the first official observance of World Wetlands Day, adopted by the UN General Assembly in August 2021.  February 2 was chosen as the date to mark the anniversary of the Convention on Wetlands (also known as the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands), adopted as an international treaty back in 1971. 

Since 1997, the 1971 Convention has been celebrated annually as ‘World Wetlands Day’, as a means of raising awareness about how global wetlands are critical ecosystems that contribute to various global environmental and sustainability issues. The 2021 UN Resolution has now adopted this day officially as an internationally observed day. This additional recognition, it is hoped, will highlight the issue within public discourse, raise concern for the issue, and mobilise political will and commitment (national and international) for resources towards wetlands protection, restoration, and preservation.  

‘Wetlands’, broadly defined, covers a multitude of water ecosystems – natural and human-made, including both freshwater and marine-coastal ecosystems – such as mangroves and other coastal areas, coral reefs, tidal flats, estuaries, swamps and marshes, rivers, lakes, and underground aquifers. This year’s theme of ‘Wetlands Action for People and Nature’, explains how wetlands are ecosystems that contribute to biodiversity, climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. Its focus on the inter-relationship between nature and people is meant to serve as a ‘call to action’ – dedicating human, financial and political resources to protection and restoration efforts.  

According to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands – Global Wetland: Special Edition 2021 report, global wetlands deterioration is widespread, impacted by climate change – with changing weather patterns creating more risk of droughts and flooding – causing ecosystem damage and degradation. While the report identified the negative impacts on wetlands, it also recognised wetlands as important for their role as part of climate mitigation and adaption strategies. It highlighted that wetland ecosystems can be both solution and problem dependent on how they are managed – as power source carbon sinks if undisturbed and maintained, or a source of greenhouse gases if allowed to degrade. This is where the report, along with the call to action of this year’s World Wetlands Day theme, calls for the need to enhance coordination and integration across different sectors – wetland management, agriculture, and urban development amongst others for instance. It highlights the need not only for international agreements and national strategies, but the commitment of vital resources to actualise the agreements in the short and long-terms.   

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Spanner in the works for a parasite motor

Throughout World Antimicrobial Awareness Week, we’re featuring key areas of research at Birkbeck relating to the management of diseases. In this blog, we feature the work of former PhD student, Alex Cook, who is looking at new approaches to malaria control.

Alex Cook

Alex Cook

Separated by 85 million years of evolution, the parasite Plasmodium falciparum that causes the most deadly form of malaria, is a very different beast to its human host. Yet the challenge for malaria treatments is that they must kill the parasite but not destroy the cells of their human host in which the parasite hides. Malaria is a massive disease burden world-wide. Hundreds of thousands of people are killed each year, the majority of which are children younger than five. In Africa, disruption arising from the COVID-19 pandemic to existing measures also threatens to undo the last decade of malaria control. With resistance to current frontline therapeutics rapidly rising, new drug targets and vaccines are urgently needed.

Malaria-causing parasites are single cells and have a complex life-cycle within both human and mosquito hosts. The many iterations of parasite proliferation that are essential for disease transmission are driven by intracellular machinery called the mitotic spindle, which is built of cytoskeleton components called microtubules. This machinery ensures the correct distribution of replicated chromosomes to the newly produced cells. Targeting of the mitotic spindle by drugs is well-established in a variety of settings – notably human cancers – and components of the malaria proliferative machinery are thus attractive anti-parasite targets.

As part of his PhD work in the research group of Professor Carolyn Moores (Biological Sciences), Alex Cook studied a component of the malaria mitotic spindle machinery, a molecular motor called kinesin-5. Kinesin-5’s are a family of proteins known for their ability to ‘push and pull’ microtubules to create ordered structures within the cell. Alex used a very powerful electron microscope to take images of kinesin-5 molecules – which are around a millionth of a millimetre in size – bound to individual microtubules. He then used computational analysis to combine these pictures and calculate their three-dimensional shape, thereby providing information about how the motors work in the parasite themselves.

the Kinesin protein that contributes to malaria

Using this information, Alex – who is co-supervised by Professor Maya Topf and also collaborates with Dr Anthony Roberts, both also in Biological Sciences – showed that although the malaria kinesin-5 motor shares some functional properties with human kinesin-5, there are several key differences that indicate it might be susceptible to specific drug targeting. Confirming this idea, Alex found that a drug-like molecule that blocks human kinesin-5 activity does not affect the parasite motor.

Alex Cook, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford said: “To uncover new approaches to malaria control, we urgently need to look at new molecules from the parasite. Using high resolution electron microscopy, this first look at a parasite cell division motor will provide a springboard for discovery of small molecules that can disrupt malaria replication.”

Professor Moores commented: “Alex’s hard work, together with vital support from our department’s lab and computational teams, demonstrates the power of electron microscopy to explore medically important challenges.”

Alex’s work was recently published in The Journal of Biological Chemistry (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbc.2021.101063). Future directions for the project involve further investigation of specific motor inhibitors, and also of the function of kinesin-5 in the parasite itself, in collaboration with the research group of Professor Rita Tewari at the University of Nottingham.

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Abusing Antibiotics: The Unknown Phenomenon

This week, 18 to 24 November, marks World Antimicrobial Awareness Week, and this year’s theme is ‘Spread Awareness, Stop Resistance’. In this blog, Professor Sanjib Bhakta, Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Biochemistry, discusses the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on antimicrobial resistance, why this is so alarming, and how research at Birkbeck is making a difference.

Headshot of Professor Sanjib Bhakta

Professor Sanjib Bhakta

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is an alarming global crisis which inevitably arose alongside the ground-breaking discovery of antibiotics and its subsequent use to save billions of human and animal lives. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused a redirection of resources worldwide to fight the coronavirus. Naturally, this has meant resources such as Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) to fight antibiotic resistance have been disrupted.

COVID-19 has affected AMR rates and research dramatically in the last 18 months. There have been changes in availability of staff to research, treat and screen for AMR pathogens (disease-causing germs) leading to under-reporting of AMR cases. There has also been an increase of broad-spectrum antibiotic prescription, at least in some parts of the world due to possible bacterial co-infection and clinical presentation of cases, which has led to increased selection pressure on pathogens. As well as this, the introduction of disinfectant overuse could be driving mutation and increasing AMR rates. Despite reduced exposure due to COVID-19 measures, other factors have meant that AMR rates have increased. In order to stop this rise, better stewardship for antibiotic use need to be implemented.

Tackling the rise of antimicrobial resistance is central to our multidisciplinary research at the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology (ISMB) Mycobacteria Research Laboratory and for our national and international collaborative partners. We investigate metabolism in order to address antimicrobial drug resistance in tuberculosis (TB); tackling this challenge by discovering novel antibiotic-leads and repurposing over-the-counter painkillers to cure TB and other non-tubercular mycobacterial (NTM) infections.

We have paid special attention to the study of the cell-walls of World Health Organisation (WHO)-priority bacteria in an ongoing ASEM-DUO fellowship exchange programme between the Indian Institute of Technology – India and Birkbeck, University of London, as cell-walls are an important site for attack by antibiotics such as penicillin. This inter-institutional collaboration between the UK and India continues to build a strong international research programme to tackle AMR and accelerate the development of new and effective treatment options.

Parallel to our lab-based research endeavours, we have integrated interdisciplinary approaches to tackle antimicrobial drug resistance in superbugs in partnership with ‘Joi Hok’, a community TB awareness programme in West Bengal, India. In this award-winning Microbiology Society Outreach Prize project, we have raised awareness of TB and antibiotic resistance with school children, their families, and local communities, through traditional storytelling, folk art, painting, and music.

To mark World Antimicrobial Awareness Week 2021 at Birkbeck, we have organised a student-led public-awareness presentation, an international students’ experience event and a research webinar series where we will be brainstorming the significance of interdisciplinary initiatives and strategies to tackle AMR.

If the current trend continues, there will be more than 10 million preventable deaths every year by 2050. Therefore, we must take every possible measure against antibiotic resistance in infectious diseases, now rather than later, before this major global health challenge goes beyond our capacity to control.

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Storm Train

Throughout Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October), the Building Resilience in Breast Cancer Centre (BRiC) is sharing stories, told first-hand by women who’ve experienced the illness. Here, Sara Williamson, Writer and Chair of the Mid-Yorkshire Breast Cancer Support Group, shares her journey.

image of Sara Williamson quote

So, after a mastectomy: node clearance (as 14/17 lymph nodes were affected), then chemotherapy, sepsis delaying radiotherapy, more surgery due to infections, Herceptin being stopped and started due to heart failure twice, then the Zoladex harpooning, followed by reconstruction, reduction, lypo filling – that filled four years from 2015 – 2019. That was the treatment plan! Nothing went in a straight line! The train kept derailing and diverting. Nothing prepares you for the side effects. Having to relearn to walk again and use my arms was an upward challenge.

Cancer disrupts your career, friendships and day to day living. I remember people being scared of me, the sad looks, no close proxemics. I was a reminder of the possibility of death and subjects always changed so that they did not have the burden of carrying my illness.

So, grade 3, stage 3c with a 40% chance of living. Five years was the predicted life expectancy, if I completed all treatment. I fought to continue treatment as was bloody minded enough to prove that those stats would be wrong. You would think after completing four years of treatment that you would be relieved, but the truth is that psychologically and emotionally the clock starts ticking backwards and the mind plays tricks on you. There’s the whisper in your ear that means that you have one year left to live, and reaching the five-year mark is supposed to be good, right!? People don’t realise that although alive you feel half dead with the side effects.

Every blood test recalled, mammogram, urine test and medical review terrifies me, so much so that there are sleepless nights until a recurrence is ruled out. When the word ‘cancer’ hangs over a cancer survivors head, it can be emotionally paralysing, making decision-making a challenge. New unexplained aches and pains cause fear of recurrence, and anxiety can be triggered by sounds and smells in hospital waiting rooms. Knowing your own body helps distinguish and recognise changes, but to what extent are we vigilant? Checking daily is obsessive but like a form of necessary obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

There’s emotional grief with enforced menopause and the loss of fertility, even if you never planned to have children. Body image, scars and disfigurement mean that you can’t relate to old friends in the same way. It’s difficult losing part of your body especially one so visible, and one which defines you as a woman. There’s frustration at life interrupted. Trying on bras and t-shirts that never seem to fit. Life and the body is lopsided.

Words all seem to have new meanings: ‘Warrior, fighter, survivor’. There’s no emphasis on one’s quality of life, or acquired disabilities, or new health issues. For secondary metastatic breast cancer patients, the word survivor seems to optimise the gift of life inappropriately. Then there’s guilt and grief at hearing of friends that have not lived. You are back on that storm train again.

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How to get your Birkbeck studies off to a flying start

Student Engagement Officer Rebecca Slegg offers top tips to new students, to help you settle into Birkbeck, get your studies off to a flying start and help you make sure you get the most out of your time here.

  1. Set up a study space at home. If possible, decide on one place where you will be able to study. Keep it free from clutter and other distractions as much as possible and make sure that your family/flatmates know that when you’re there they should avoid interrupting you if they can.
  2. Talk to your friends and family about your course. If the people in your life know why studying is important to you and what it involves, they will be able to better support you throughout your course. They’ll understand why you might not be able to go out every weekend at exam or assignment time. They’ll also be interested to hear about the new ideas and topics you’re now an expert on!
  3. Attend Orientation and the Students’ Union Fresher’s Fayre in September. This is a great opportunity to meet fellow students, find out about life at Birkbeck and join some of the many clubs and societies open to students.
  4. Create a wall planner and use it to map out your first term. Plot on your term dates, exam dates and assignment deadlines. This will help you to know when the pressure points are so that you can plan ahead in other areas of your life to accommodate your study needs and be well prepared to meet all of your course requirements comfortably.
  5. Set up a WhatsApp group/Facebook group with your classmates. This will enable you to share tips and information between lectures and seminars and help you get to know each other quickly. You will probably find that your classmates quickly become a source of support and encouragement.
  6. Sign up to academic skills workshops. Birkbeck offers a wide-range of resources for students to brush up on their academic skills, whether you need a refresher on essay writing or an introduction to academic referencing – get ahead with these skills now so you’re not trying to master them at the same time as researching and writing your first assignment.

  7. Explore the campus. Get to know Bloomsbury. There is a wide range of bars, restaurants, coffee shops, indie bookshops and cultural facilities close to our campus.
  8. Arrange to meet your personal tutor. Your tutor is there to offer advice and support on issues that may affect your academic progress. Some of the topics you might discuss with your tutor include module choices; exam revision; meeting deadlines; any personal or professional issues that are affecting your studies.

  9. Buy some nice stationery. Investing in some nice paper and pens is a subtle reminder to yourself of the investment you have made in coming to Birkbeck and that this is something that you believe is worth doing and will help you to move ahead with your life goals.
  10. Find out about Birkbeck Talent (the in-house recruitment agency) and the Careers and Employability Service. These two services can offer advice on CV writing, interview techniques, setting up your own business and can suggest suitable short- and long-term positions to match your skills and interests.
  11. Make sure you’ve ticked off all the items in our new student checklist, which includes all the practical details you need to have covered like enrolling on the course, paying your fees and setting up library and WIFI access.

At our graduation ceremony we asked those who had made it what advice they would give new students:

If you’re a current student, why not add your own advice for those just starting out in the comments section?

 

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Supporting parents, carers and educators during the pandemic

Over the past year, Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department has teamed up with the Psychology for Education BA: reaching out to parents, carers, and educators in the pandemic. In this blog they outline how they are supporting those who face barriers entering higher education in a virtual world. People in a classroom with a person speaking Social interaction and peer support are invaluable to all of us, and for children and young people isolated from their friends and usual routines, it has been an especially tough year. Parents, carers and educators have also been hit hard, having to adjust to online learning and struggling to find time for their own needs while juggling online learning, work and caring responsibilities.

Recognising these increasing pressures and following the launch of Birkbeck Inspires last year, Ana Da Cunha Lewin, Senior Lecturer and Course Director for the Psychology for Education BA contributed a series of online lectures for parents and carers. These covered coping with anxiety during lockdown, exercise for wellbeing, and nurturing resilience. At Access and Engagement, we were delighted when Ana agreed to work with us to deliver a five-week taster programme on the subject of Psychology for Education with a focus on children’s learning, wellbeing and resilience.

The Access and Engagement Department aims to support those who face barriers to Higher Education to take a step into formal education. This taster programme provided a space where people could come and learn more about the subject and apply it to their life as parents, carers or at work. It also gave participants a chance to explore what university learning is like using Moodle, seminars on MS Teams and pre-recorded video content.

We had 30 people without a first degree join us, with ages ranging from 20 to into the 60s, and an array of different life experiences. Working with our Trade Union partners, a third of our attendees heard about the course via Unison or the Public and Commercial Services Union. Participants shared their experiences of their own schooling and parenting, or their work in schools or youth work.

Ana da Cunha Lewin said: “It’s been a pleasure to work on the Psychology for Education Taster Course with the Access and Engagement team; planning was really well-supported and the team made the preparation very straightforward. It was also an absolute pleasure to teach a really interested, engaged and enthusiastic group who made the sessions lively with many interesting discussions. A really positive experience and I would be very happy to take part in the programme again.”

Feedback from participants was positive with one person commenting: “Ana and Vanna were magnificent educators and their passion and enthusiasm for the subject has been infectious!”

We’re looking forward to running a similar programme with Mike Berlin and Tim Reynolds from the History and Archaeology Certificate of Higher Education later this year. For more information about our Taster Programmes and Access and Engagement’s other work take a look at our newly revamped web page.

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Blended learning: Improving access to higher education

Dr James Hammond, Reader in Geophysics, shares his thoughts on online learning, reflecting on his experiences of delivering both face-to-face and online teaching in Birkbeck’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

The ongoing pandemic means that new university students are weighing up the impacts of a sudden move to online learning. Many are understandably concerned that this will negatively impact their university experience, reducing their ability to learn and engage with other students and faculty. However, my experience delivering both face-to-face and online education in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences is that for a significant number of people, the opposite may be true. An online platform offers more access, and indeed for some, their only access to higher education. This can allow students to study for a certificate, degree, Masters or PhD built around their complicated lifestyle rather than having to fit their lifestyle around a university degree.

‘Traditional’ Birkbeck students

For almost 200 years courses at Birkbeck have been delivered in the evening, allowing those who work full time in the day to study part time, making higher education affordable and more accessible. When describing Birkbeck to colleagues at other universities, we are often asked to describe our students. This is not an easy task. Each one of our students is unique with a story to tell. At Birkbeck, we teach everyone, from students straight from school, carers who need to be at home during the day, those looking to change career or gain further qualifications, to retirees curious to learn more about the world, and many more. Each one of these students has challenges and responsibilities that affect their ability to complete a degree. Rising to Birkbeck’s mission of making education accessible to all these people is a challenge, but it is what makes the College truly special.

Fitting a degree around your lifestyle

Within the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences we have been making efforts to understand our students and make our courses more accessible. While evening teaching allows those close to London to take advantage of our courses, it does not help those outside London who seek higher education, but for who traditional university is not an option. To combat this, in the late 1990’s we decided to embrace distance learning, making our courses available to students at home as well as in London. In the early days this involved posting out boxes of CD’s with all our material, but today we use a state-of-the-art online platform that allows our students to live stream lectures, join in class discussions and practical sessions from home and chat to lecturers one-to-one. Students can ‘view’ a microscope image from their offices, conduct research projects from their lounge and present their results to leading researchers from their bedrooms. All lectures are recorded and made available offline, meaning they can be watched at a later date to suit the student.

Our ethos in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences is to make our degrees flexible and each student is free to choose how they participate. Many attend each class in person in London, more combine a mixture of face-to-face and distance learning, so called ‘blended learning’.  This allows students with shift work or caring responsibilities to participate, or students who can come to London once a week, once a month or in many cases not at all to complete a University of London degree.

Blended learning is here to stay in our Department

While we all hope that we can soon get back to our classrooms, delivering in person teaching to those who choose to come to London, we in Earth and Planetary Sciences will continue to develop new and innovative ways for distance learners from all over the UK and the world to join our unique community at Birkbeck and share the College’s 200 year vision of making education accessible for everyone.

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Dr Clare Press discusses life as a scientist

Dr Clare Press reflects on her parents’ encouragement of her inquisitive mind, and her support for measures to increase the representation of women in science

Tell us a bit about who you are in a few sentences.

I’m a Senior Lecturer (Reader from October) in the Department of Psychological Sciences, and I’ve been faculty here since 2012. I’m also Assistant DeanPhoto of Dr Clare Press, Lecturer, Department of Psychological Sciences for Research for the School of Science. I run the Action Lab where we study questions relating to how we move around and perceive our world. We look at how someone behaves (e.g., close monitoring while they pick up a cup or press a button), and what they report seeing or hearing, and relate this to what is going on in the brain to allow them to act or perceive. Neither action nor perception are simple jobs for the brain even if they seem effortless to us. Once we understand how these systems work we can apply this understanding to individuals with various conditions who struggle with these basic tasks, to understand what may be different.

What has the lockdown period taught you?

That I am quite happy to be at home. I like my family (most of the time), enjoy my job, keep up with other friends and family over video, and I miss the other parts of my previous life less than I expected. Of course we need the labs to be up and running again as soon as possible but I can imagine working from home more once the offices are open again. I have found the period painfully exhausting, because we have three young children (ages 5, 3, 3) who have been ‘locked up’ at home with us. But if I look past the exhaustion and the fact I’ve had far too much to do, I’ve generally been quite content with it in a way I may not have imagined.

A person is either scientific or religious in their outlook…What are your thoughts on this?

I think the statement is too simplistic. Both science and religion aim to answer life’s big questions, and it is sometimes speculated that once science has an answer to a question there is no need for religion anymore. However, science is unlikely ever to answer everything because it requires that the system we are trying to understand is of a complexity we can fathom. This is unlikely to be true of everything as human intelligence is limited. We cannot comprehend limitless time or space, for example. Many also believe that higher powers relate to the underlying causes of phenomena understood via scientific methods (e.g., natural selection). The element of religion that consists of moral codes for life is of course not at odds with science either.

What or who influenced you to enter the field of Science?

I have always loved science, which I attribute mainly to my parents fostering such an inquisitive character and excitement to understand how the world works. They were both passionate about science and clearly enjoyed explaining underlying causes as I grew up. They did not believe in ever telling a child ‘because I say so’, believing that children should be discouraged from simply accepting what they are told and that children are interested in understanding and interrogating how things / society works. The fruits of their labour were clear by the time I was 5, when I told my grandma it was implausible that we breathed all the time – that may be true for her but certainly not me, and surely I would notice if I did. So it was definitely my parents who generated my curiosity in understanding how the world works, and I was certain by mid teens that I would study psychology or physics at university.

What have your experiences been, as a woman in Science, throughout your career?

I am passionate about science and would not trade the career. In few other professions do you have the freedom to ask whatever questions you fancy and the constant discovery is especially stimulating.

99% of the time I do not think of myself specifically as a woman in science. Being a scientist is a large part of my identity but being a woman less so. The data certainly suggest that people perceive me differently because I’m a woman. To use a collaborator’s words, “(I) am a short, blonde woman who laughs a lot and wears cardigans and jeans”, which will mean implicit biases stacked against me. For the most part I feel respected by people in my field, but I will not know if anyone secretly ascribes my successes to collaborators! I’d say my everyday experience is one where I’m perfectly at ease with my treatment as a woman, but at the daily level I am largely surrounded by people who have chosen to work with me (in my group or in collaboration).

I occasionally notice treatment where I wonder whether life would be easier if I completely fitted the typical male scientist mould. For instance, without checking my background, people have occasionally explained to me – in great detail – theories and findings relating to my own expertise. The classic ‘mansplain’ – and I am without a doubt that this happens more to women. Some flag work from my lab, linking it only to male co-authors and not me. Not frequently though. With particular instances of behaviour you can rarely know the true underlying reasons so I try not to dwell on it. However, there is serious work to be done in overcoming these biases given we know most people hold them. It will presumably take a long time for implicit biases to disappear. They follow centuries of assumptions that men are better at science and structures resulting from those assumptions – where fewer women enter science, and when they do, they don’t always get the credit they deserve. I therefore strongly support measures aiming to counteract these biases, e.g., approximately equivalent ratios of men and women for conference presentations and grant awards. At the moment I see these as measures to counteract the belief biases but that changes to the beliefs themselves will take longer. However, we can hope that with time – if insightful women are equivalently represented in the highest positions – the biases will reduce and ultimately disappear. There is an extensive focus in universities now on these initiatives, especially given Athena Swan. I think it’s important to remember that the aim is never Athena Swan itself, but facilitation of the scientific enterprise by having all of the best brains onboard rather than a subset.

Einstein himself has credited a woman with helping him to formulate his general Theory of Relativity. Yet history has shown that female scientists have often been overlooked for their contributions to science, with men often receiving the credit for major advancements. Tell us about a woman in Science who we should know about.

My PhD supervisor, Prof Cecilia Heyes, is outstanding. She is the perfect role model of a scientist, preoccupied by the generation of empirically testable theories of cognition and slotting together all the pieces of the empirical jigsaw. She thinks long, hard and deeply about any problem, and carves theoretical reasoning at appropriate joints that can be interrogated via scientific methods. She also provides the perfect role model of a PhD supervisor. She didn’t appear to see PhD students solely as a pair of hands to help pursue her own endeavours, but people she should properly train in the skills of academia. She spent hours with us each week debating theoretical nuances and passing down her theoretical wisdom, as well as explicitly encouraging challenge. She says she attracted students who enjoyed that element of science, but the atmosphere was also one where every view was given time and deconstructed. She gave swathes of time to training us how to write and give talks – e.g., always listening to dry runs before conferences – and told us she would be a mentor for life upon completion. I lucked out having a supervisor who was both so sharp academically and so nurturing, and think Celia should be celebrated on both of these dimensions.

This month marks 100 years since the birth of our very own Rosalind Franklin. How far have women come since then, in terms of their contribution to the field?

Prof Angelica Ronald and Dr Emma Meaburn, both from Psychological Sciences, have recently been running events inspired by Rosalind Franklin – highlighting many of the particular contributions of women to science. Rosalind Franklin is a good example of the fact that women have been making huge contributions to science throughout history, but perhaps not always receiving due credit. Therefore it may make more sense to speak of changes in how women are treated. Certainly explicit biasing against women is unacceptable these days, but implicit biases are much harder to address.

What more can be done to encourage more young girls and women to become scientists?

I assume this will partly require developing a passion for science in girls from infancy – as with boys. Encouraging them to search for answers and not being afraid to challenge what they hear. We may think society is now more aware of biases in the way we raise children but it doesn’t always translate into behavioural change. Some teachers and nursery staff widely talk about particular activities that will appeal to the boys or girls, without thinking about the repercussions of their statements. I was told during maths at school that I would likely find 3D geometry more difficult due to being female (!). It just irritated me but assume many may be discouraged by this. We need to watch how we raise children and the beliefs we engender with our comments.

It is also important explicitly to promote science to girls and women. For instance, Prof Essi Viding at UCL has received a Royal Society award to raise the profile of women in STEM with workshops and other initiatives aimed at schoolgirls. These initiatives aim to address the reasons for girls dropping out of science during A level years – i.e., partly low confidence and partly because of concerns surrounding working in a male dominated area. Additionally, I am part of the ‘SOFAR’ network – led by Dr Trudi Edginton and Dr Gilly Forrester – dedicated to supporting women in research through their careers by providing expertise, advice and support through mentorship. If we provide girls and women with good role models and good support, then with time men and women will become more equivalently represented.

What do you see as the most significant impact of science on the world?

At the moment, the development of vaccinations against infectious diseases.

If you could be doing anything else, career-wise, what would you be?

At school I told the careers adviser that my two career deal-breakers were that it should be predominantly maths-based and involve largely working by myself. Their data-crunching exercise came back with the answer that I should be an Actuary. I disagreed, and in fact I can only really imagine working in another academic branch of science! Very unimaginative of me. I should also point out that I especially enjoy many of the social elements of academia now, even if the idea of lecturing to 250 students would have made me rule out this profession in my teens!

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