The story behind Birkbeck’s new web design

Dr Ben Winyard, Senior Content Manager at Birkbeck explains the research and process behind our website’s new look. 

The Birkbeck website serves many vital functions simultaneously: it must be an authoritative, accurate source of information; a gateway to services; easy to navigate and search; aesthetically pleasing; accessible to all; and it must reflect and advance Birkbeck’s mission. The experience of using our website is often absolutely central to a person’s decision to come and study in the evening with us.

In our digital age, having a professional, beautifully designed and practical, easy to use website is absolutely essential for any university or organisation. Users need to get where they want to be quickly and easily, feeling confident that what they’re reading is accurate, while enjoying the tactile and visual experience of moving through our site.

The Birkbeck Digital project is a hugely ambitious, wide-ranging and on-going project to redesign, redevelop, restructure and re-present Birkbeck’s web presence based on research, evidence and over 50 user-testing sessions. Every longstanding website – and Birkbeck has been online for around twenty years – has a natural history of expansion and growth. The ambition of this project has allowed us to research and reconsider everything about our site – the design, the layout, the navigation and the content – and the opportunity to field staff and student feedback to ascertain how people use, and feel about, our website.

The project has been divided into stages, as the Birkbeck website extends to many thousands of pages. Stage 1, which is being delivering on schedule this month, includes the redesign of the Birkbeck homepage, of our ‘corporate’ site, which includes all of the key information for prospective students and covers many of our most important professional and student services departments, and, lastly, the online prospectus, which includes over 3000 pages of course and module information across all levels of study, from short courses to PhD research.

Our first task was to organise user feedback sessions, to help us map and improve the experience of visitors to the website. A series of workshops, one-to-one interviews and group sessions, were bisected by ‘type’ of user, from ‘young undergraduate’ and ‘mature postgraduate’ to international students, MPhil/PhD researchers and staff from across the College.  From this research we were able to compile a rich analysis of who is using the Birkbeck website, what they are looking for, and what delights and frustrates them. This invaluable feedback has informed every step of the design process, the reviewing and refreshing of content and the build of the new website.

The feedback was often interestingly divided according to the age of the student: in general, users above the age of 30 were positive, describing our website as ‘modern’, ‘clear’, ‘precise’, ‘professional’ and ‘mature’; while younger users were less positive, describing our website as ‘traditional’, ‘outdated’, ‘plain’, ‘dull’ and lacking colour and media content such as videos. Many users expressed frustration with the navigation on our site – the menus, signposts and links that you click on to move from one page or section of the website to another – and felt we don’t adequately convey what it is like to study at Birkbeck. Users also struggled to access vital information, including bursaries and financial support.

Embedded accessibility software, including screen-reading, enables visitors to customise our site in the way they need it to work

Embedded accessibility software, including screen-reading, enables visitors to customise our site in the way they need it to work

The task of converting all of this, sometimes conflicting, feedback into a new design fell to the design company, Pentagram, who created our new visual identity last year so had a head start in understanding Birkbeck’s unique mission and our diverse staff and student community. Over the course of many brainstorming sessions and meetings in the autumn of 2016, Birkbeck’s content (External Relations) and technical (IT Services) experts worked together with Pentagram to translate our new visual identity and user feedback into a stylish, clear and colourful new design.

The mammoth task of translating Pentagram’s beautiful designs into a functioning website fell to our hugely talented and hardworking CIS & Web Team in IT Services. This type of translation work – of turning a design into functioning code on a webpage – will always involve cutting your coat to match your cloth – i.e. working out what can be done given the challenges of schedule, staff capacity and budget. The developers were astute at breaking down each element of the design and explaining the best way of turning them into a digital reality. Extensive user-testing was carried out in the team as well as research to makes sure our site is sector-leading in terms of accessibility. This sort of cross-team working carries its own challenges, but IT Services and External Relations have worked strongly and successfully together.

The new pop-out menu

The new pop-out menu signposts visitors to important pages

This new design has adapted our visual identity for the Web, incorporating new typography and standards of layout. On the redesigned Homepage, we now have the images, clear, graphic signposts to important pages that users have asked for, brought together on a new, easy-to-use pop-out menu on the right-hand side of the page.

 

Finding a course is usually the number one task of a new visitor to our site, so we have incorporated a prominent keyword course search box at the top of the Homepage, to get students started on their journey as quickly and easily as possible. We’re also showcasing the best of what’s happening at Birkbeck – as a lot of user feedback articulated a sense that Birkbeck is ‘hiding its light under a bushel’ and not trumpeting its achievements and strengths. So we are featuring news, events, blog posts and podcasts on the Homepage and on landing pages, singing loudly and proudly about our world-class research.

research-tile

Birkbeck’s unique qualities are showcased with eye-catching statement tiles

Birkbeck’s unique mission makes us genuinely different to other universities and the new website is all about making this clear upfront, celebrating it and helping prospective students see the many ways in which studying with us could have a real impact on their lives. We are also making videos more prominent, as a way of telling our unique story and dusting away some of the fustiness that frustrated our younger users. Finally, the new website has been designed responsively, meaning that, whatever device you are using, the website will look great and be easy to use.

newwebsite6phone

The website is optimised for browsing on any device

On our online prospectus, we are presenting each course page as a gateway into Birkbeck, as many prospective students come to our website through our course pages after a Google search. Thus, we now include links to important information on fees and funding, making an application, entry requirements, accommodation, our research culture and other key areas of interest for prospective students, depending on the level of study. We have also reviewed the content on all of our course pages, stripping out duplication and generic content and simplifying, consolidating and improving.

Redesigning and restructuring the website gave us a golden opportunity to review, assess and edit our content. The pages on our ‘corporate’ website include absolutely crucial information on fees and funding, student services, careers and employability, and research, while our online prospectus is the most visited area of our website and absolutely central to attracting new students.

Like most organisations, Birkbeck has seen its website expand exponentially over the past decade and, as with any large, complex organisation, content on our website has not always been kept up-to-date or focused on the needs of users. Seizing this opportunity, we have reviewed and refreshed over 1500 items of content, which includes webpages, images and files, in line with the newly created House Style and tone of voice guidelines – the first time Birkbeck has ever had a comprehensive style guide.

Duplicate and obsolete material has been removed, written content has been reviewed, rewritten where necessary, and adjusted to meet our House Style. User testing and workshop sessions with content owners across the College mean that we have been able to reorder material based on user needs, giving prominence to the material that matters most to visitors and giving answers to their most pressing questions. Areas of the website that had been structured to reflect the internal organisation of Birkbeck have been reordered to bring users’ needs, questions and tasks to the forefront. Thirty new landing pages have been created, giving essential content areas a fresh, vibrant new look that also makes the website easier to navigate.

Throughout this process, when considering the design, layout, structure and content of the website, we have been guided by the following ideas and principles:

  1. To focus on and prioritise the needs of the website users, whether staff, students or visitors.
  2. To simplify, clarify and reduce, while avoiding duplication, obfuscation and verbiage. Our written content should be truthful, clear, concise and easy to understand.
  3. To ensure our site is accessible to all users and optimised to enable disabled, blind and visually impaired users to access the information they need.
  4. To increase the aesthetic appeal of the website, particularly through the greater use of images, videos and other media. To this end, nearly 600 new images have been uploaded to the site.
  5. To simplify the structure of our website, to enable ease of navigation and quick access to the information that users need.
  6. Apply our new House Style and deploy a more consistent, positive and appealing tone of voice.

And this is just the beginning. Going forward, we will be redesigning and relaunching other parts of our website, utilising new technologies, implementing new principles of digital governance, rolling out our new House Style and tone of voice guidelines, and working towards the shared goal of a website we can all feel justly proud of.

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User-testing Birkbeck’s new website design

Naomi Bain, Web Officer (Training and User Experience), at Birkbeck explains the way student feedback informed our new web design. 

webOver the course of the past few months, throughout the redevelopment of the Birkbeck website, I have carried out more than 50 user testing sessions. These have sought to ensure that the changes and improvements we are making to the website are firmly rooted in research and evidence about how the website is used in real life, rather than how we might imagine it is used.

After each round of testing I reported back to the web teams, both technical and content, about any issues that came out of the sessions. These reports led to some changes being made, helped with decision-making processes and provided reassurance.

There have been four rounds of testing with students, gathered with the help of Team Birkbeck. As well as this, I set up sessions with students with dyslexia and related conditions and students with visual impairment, who I contacted with the help of the Disability Office and External Relations. The students who have participated are studying all kinds of subjects and come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Testing has included a number of older students, and students who do not speak English as a first language.

In the early stages of testing we just looked at PDFs of the new design. Students were asked for their response to the appearance of the site, and I did ‘first click’ tests to assess their understanding of the layout of the pages and how they would find something on a live version. We then moved on to testing some mock up stand-alone pages, concentrating in particular on testing the course finder and the menu.

For the final round, we had something approaching a complete test version of the new site, and focussed in particular on course information. In addition to this, students with disabilities assessed various accessibility tools, and also talked about how their disability could affect their use of websites.

All sessions took place at Birkbeck and were recorded using Panopto, the university’s video content system. All students used the site on a PC, and some also searched the site on their phone.

Feedback on the new site has been overwhelmingly positive. People described it as “clear”, “modern”, “colourful” and “engaging”. It compared favourably to both the existing Birkbeck site and to other university sites.

Observing students carrying out searches on the site enables us to quickly see whether they understand how the design “works”. Several minor issues with the design have been brought to light as a result of these user testing sessions and changes have been made, or potential problems flagged up.

The intention is to do some follow up testing post-launch, as part of an ongoing iterative process of development and improvement, which will ensure that Birkbeck sites are attractive, usable and accessible to all our students.

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Getting our Act together

After 700 amendments and some heated debates, the Higher Education and Research Bill finally became law last week. Birkbeck’s Policy Communications Officer, Fiona MacLeod, has followed its parliamentary progress from First Reading to last week’s ‘ping-pong’ between the two Houses of Parliament, and outlines what changes it will bring to the Higher Education sector.parliament
The Higher Education and Research Bill ended its lengthy passage through Parliament last week and is now law. With both Houses agreeing on the exact wording of the Bill, it received Royal Assent on Thursday 27 May with a flourish of Norman French – a declaration that ‘La Reyne le veult’ – to become the Higher Education and Research Act 2017.

The ‘ping-pong’ process between Commons and Lords to agree a final version of the Bill began the day before, when MPs rejected earlier amendments made in the Lords and agreed a raft of new Government amendments in lieu. These final amendments were designed to achieve compromises acceptable to Peers and get the Bill passed speedily before Parliament’s formal dissolution this week ahead of the 8 June General Election.

The 2017 Act has been hailed as ‘the most important legislation for the sector in 25 years’ but getting it to this point involved more than 700 amendments and some major concessions from the Government.   So what key changes to UK higher education does the 2017 Act bring?

The Act establishes a new regulatory body, the Office for Students (OfS), to replace the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), and integrates the UK’s seven research councils into a new body called United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Among its regulatory changes, the Act will make it easier for new higher education providers to gain degree awarding powers and university status, while the OfS will implement a new mechanism to recognise and reward high-quality teaching, already underway, known as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF).

The TEF will rate universities as Gold, Silver or Bronze, and results of the initial TEF trial will be published in June.  The TEF will be used to set university tuition fees, but any differentiation of fees based on its controversial Olympic medal-style ratings will not happen until 2020/21. Until then, future increases in fee limits – in line with inflation – for universities participating in the TEF will require the approval of both Houses of Parliament.

The Act also requires an independent review of the TEF in 2018 which will look at how ratings are decided and what they should be called; whether the metrics used are appropriate; the TEF’s impact on institutions and indeed whether the TEF is in the public interest. This goes further than the earlier ‘lessons learned’ exercise offered by the Government. The review’s conclusions will be considered before the 2020 timeframe for fee differentiation based on TEF ratings. The Act ensures the TEF can’t be used to limit international student recruitment figures and will require institutions to publish specific data deemed ‘helpful’ for international students.

For Birkbeck, a major problem with the early draft of the Bill was its failure to reference part-time study and its importance for the country’s future skills needs. It also failed to recognise the particular needs of mature or part-time learners when outlining the future role of the OfS.  Working with MPs and Peers, including College President Baroness Bakewell and Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Garden, Birkbeck lobbied successfully to gain explicit recognition of part-time study in the Bill; the OfS will be required to promote choice in the way university courses are taught, including part-time study, distance learning and accelerated courses.

We’re also pleased that the Act will help make alternative methods of financing available to those unable to take out student loans, including for those who require ‘Sharia-compliant’ finance.

The OfS will be responsible for quality and standards in the HE sector and will absorb the work of the Office for Fair Access.  Universities will be required to publish information about the fairness of their admissions as well as information that might be ‘helpful to international students’.

The Act also confirms that International students will continue to be included in the net migration target. Media reports suggesting that the Prime Minister was softening her stance on this in order to get the Bill passed proved to be inaccurate, and Peers reluctantly accepted the status quo.

Among other hotly debated aspects of the Bill, the Act confirms that University title, even those granted by Royal Charter, can be removed by Government.  But the Secretary of State will have to consult representative bodies of higher education providers and students when giving guidance to the OfS about its power to grant university title, and the OfS must consider this guidance before allowing a provider to call itself a university. There will be a full review to look at the shared features of a university – such as excellent teaching, sustained scholarship, learning infrastructure, pastoral care and knowledge exchange.

Similarly, the Bill was strengthened to provide better oversight of OfS’s powers to grant, revoke or vary degree awarding powers (DAP): the OfS will have to notify the Secretary of State when granting DAP to institutions which have not previously had a validation agreement with another higher education provider or OfS, and degree-awarding powers will be automatically reviewed following a merger or change of ownership.

Peers welcomed the many changes made to the Bill during its parliamentary progress and there was much mutual congratulation last week on the Government’s willingness to listen and the degree of cross-party collaboration in the Lords.

Lord Stevenson, Labour’s spokesman on higher education in the Lords, said the amended Bill would ‘improve collaboration within the sector… help reverse the decline in part-time students…assist mature students who wish to come back, and … pave the way for more work to be done on credit transfer and flexible courses’.  Let’s hope he’s right.

See the Parliamentary process of the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 here and Read debates on all stages of the Act 2017 here

 

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Take a virtual tour of our campuses

Explore our beautiful Bloomsbury campus in the heart of London and state-of-the-art Stratford campus in east London.

Both campuses offer all the facilities you need, which all Birkbeck students are entitled to use. They are also well-served by public transport, making it easy to get to and from the College.

 

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A day in the life of… Dr James Hammond

As part of Science Week 2017, Dr James Hammond from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Birkbeck gives an insight into a day in the life of a scientist.

I get up, usually rudely woken by my little boy and battle the northern line to Birkbeck. When I am in the field I get up early, normally just before sunrise so we can be on the road as soon as it is light. There is always a lot of ground to cover, so maximising daylight hours is key.

My research…focuses on using energy released by earthquakes as a probe to image inside the Earth. Much like a doctor uses x-ray energy to image inside your body, we can do a similar thing using sound waves that are released by earthquakes to understand what the Earth is made of.  I do this on a large scale, trying to image depths of hundreds of kilometres and understand what drives plate tectonics. I am particularly interested in volcanoes and how magma is generated, stored and transported before an eruption. Obviously volcanoes are not a big concern in the UK, so my research involves collaborating with people all over the world to understand what makes volcanoes work.

I teach… geophysics and scientific computing to geology and planetary science students in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

My typical day… involves heading in to work and a mixture of research, processing seismic data from beneath some of the areas I am working on (Ethiopia, Eritrea, North Korea, China, Chile), meeting with PhD students to discuss their research or with colleagues to discuss new proposals. If I am teaching I will spend time preparing for that. In the field, there is no such thing as a typical day. In Chile, we were accommodated by a cowboy in the mountains (including dinner at his house, with his horse joining us at the table), off-road driving for eight hours to deploy a station near an active volcano or white-water rafting to access a site for a seismometer deployment.

I became a scientist… mainly due to some inspirational teachers. At school my geography teacher, Ashley Hale instilled a fascination with the physical world. He was also an explorer, heading off to climb mountains in Africa, South America and Asia and updating us as he went. Some of that clearly rubbed off and I have been lucky enough to have a job where I can combine exploration of the world with an exploration of how it works. However, I have to admit that my PhD involved spending six weeks in the Seychelles. A life in science seemed a good idea after that.

My greatest professional achievement to date… has to be leading one of the first ever collaborations between the West and North Korea. This collaboration is focussed on a large volcano (Mt. Paektu) on the border of China and North Korea. We recently published papers showing the first images of the Earth beneath the Korean side of the volcano and also estimated the amount of gases that may have been released (a lot) when it erupted in 946AD.  The work is ongoing despite all the recent political tension and shows that science has the ability to build collaborations during even the most strident political tensions.

My favourite part of the job… is the travel. As well as the Seychelles I have spent time in Mexico, Canada, Montserrat (a small island close to Antigua in the Caribbean), Japan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, China, North Korea and most recently Chile. The best bit is the chance to work with scientists from all these countries, learning about geology all over the world and learning their culture too. Also, volcanoes are in some of the most interesting and hard to get to parts of the world, so I get to satisfy the explorer part of me too.

After work… it is normally back to my family and a glass of wine or beer to relax.

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A day in the life of…Dr Emma Meaburn

As part of Science Week 2017, Dr Emma Meaburn from the Department of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck gives an insight into a day in the life of a scientist. 

I get up at …  6am (or 6.30 am, if I am lucky), when I am woken by my children. The next two hours are a whirl of breakfast, loudness, finding lost shoes, cajoling, cuddles and probably some light bribery before I leave the house at 8.15am. I drop the youngest child off at nursery on my way to the train station, and typically arrive at Birkbeck by about 9.30am.

My research … looks at the genetic contributions to individual differences in psychological traits and disorders. We all differ, and I am interested in how these differences are influenced by differences in our DNA and how the information stored in our DNA is used.

I teach on … the BSc Psychology degree program, where I co-convene and co-teach a large first year ‘Research Methods’ module that provides psychology students with a basic grounding in the principles of experimental design and statistics. Undergraduate students can sometimes be surprised that research methods form a core element of the program, and we work hard to make it accessible and relevant to the students’ current knowledge and career aspirations. I also teach on the final year “Genetics and Psychology” optional module. This is always enjoyable as I get to talk about my own research findings and that of my colleagues, and expose the students to the newest methods and insights from the field of behavior genetics.

I am also responsible for … quite a few things!  Broadly, my job falls into three categories; research, teaching and service.  As part of my research activities I am responsible for running a lab and the admin that comes with it; writing ethics applications; PhD student supervision, training and mentorship; securing funding (writing and revising grant applications); dissemination of my research via conference attendance, giving invited talks, publishing my work in peer reviewed articles and public engagement activities. Behavior genetics is a fast-paced field, and I stay informed about new developments and methods as best I can by reading the literature, speaking to colleagues and collaborators, organizing and attending conferences and (occasionally) training workshops.

When I’m teaching, I will be lecturing (typically on two evenings per week); developing or updating content for modules (slides, worksheets and notes); marking assessed work; writing exam papers; writing model answers; supervising teaching assistants; answering student emails; writing letters of recommendation; designing lab experiments; acting as a personal tutor for undergraduates (roughly 10-15 students); attending exam board and module convener meetings; and being assessed on my teaching.

I also peer review grants and manuscripts; supervise undergraduate (about four per year) and graduate student research projects (about two per year); sit on the academic advisory board and postgraduate research committee, and I am a member of the management committee of the University of London Centre for Educational Neuroscience, which provides a unified research environment for translational neuroscience.

…or I do none of the above because nursery have called and my child has a temperature, and I have to go and collect him (three out of five days last week!)

My typical day … doesn’t really exist! One of the best aspects of academic life is that each day is different.

If I am teaching in the evening, typically I will meet with my PhD students (or project students) in the morning where we discuss the past week’s progress, go over new results and edits of conference abstracts and manuscript drafts. Then there is at least an hour of email and admin tasks such as paying invoices, tracking lost lab orders, or hurriedly writing a PhD application, before heading to the gym for an hour of ‘me’ time. I’ll then undo all my hard work by grabbing a hearty lunch from one of the many fantastic food places around Birkbeck, before attending a departmental seminar or journal club. That leaves me with a couple more hours to squeeze in research and research admin before preparing for the evening’s class. Once the class is over (at about 8.30pm), I head back to my office for 30 minutes of emails before catching the tube home. All being well, I’ll get home around 9.30/10pm, check on my (mostly) sleeping family, and do 30 minutes of life chores before collapsing into bed.

I became a scientist… because I had always loved science and by my late teens I had developed a keen interest in what was then known as the “Nature Versus Nurture’ debate. I think this interest was sparked by my own experiences and reflections as a fostered child (I was separated from my biological parents at six months of age), and when I finally studied genetics as an undergraduate student in human biology at King’s College London, my mind was made up – I was going to be a geneticist!

My greatest professional achievement… has been establishing myself as a research active academic and developing my own research program, in a field where academic positions at renowned institutions like Birkbeck are few and far between and competition is fierce. I get to work in a research field that is dynamic, challenging and interesting, and in a supportive, autonomous and friendly environment.

 

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A day in the life of…. Dr Anthony Roberts

As part of Science Week 2017, Dr Anthony Roberts from the Department of Biological Sciences at Birkbeck gives an insight into a day in the life of a scientist. 

I get up… bright and early with our son. He’s two, and has yet to learn the art of the lie in. Depending on whether I am doing the nursery drop-off, and on the temperament of the Victoria Line, I usually arrive at Birkbeck between 8.00 and 9.00am. The first thing I do is switch on the lights in the laboratory, and think about what experiments the day will hold.

My research investigates… walking proteins. These molecules have legs one hundred million time smaller than ours, and walk along filaments inside the individual cells that make up our body. It has emerged that they are important for human health: their dysfunction is associated with a number of currently untreatable diseases, such as neurodegeneration. The ability of these proteins to walk correctly is vital, because they transport key materials in the cell to the right place at the right time. We want to know how this works at the molecular level.

I teach… mainly to students doing research projects in the laboratory. This is exciting, because it is teaching while attempting to discover something new at the same time. I also lecture to MRes and PhD students on the main techniques we use in our research, particularly microscopes that enable one to view individual molecules.

My typical day… has no predictable pattern, and this variety is one of my favourite parts of my job. Some days will be spent mostly in the laboratory, for example purifying the proteins that we study. This work has a pace not dissimilar to cooking, with multiple stages and incubations – although alas less delicious smells! Others will be on the microscopes, or analysing data. As the lab grows, I spend less time doing experiments myself, and more time talking to others about their data, and preparing grants, research papers, and seminars. The data we obtain from our research is very visual: thinking about ways to extract and present the important insights is a nice balance to these literary tasks.

I became a scientist… in a somewhat roundabout way. As a child, I wanted to be an artist. This interest in the visual remains a strong part of who I am. Later, I became curious about biology, and enjoyed the hard answers that maths and chemistry could provide. I did an undergraduate course in Biochemistry, really engaging with it as it transitioned from memorising facts to solving problems. In hindsight, it makes sense that I gravitated to what I work on now, as it combines all of these elements, but a number of fortuitous events made it happen. Chief among them were training with terrific mentors during my PhD and postdoctoral studies: Stan Burgess, Peter Knight and Samara Reck-Peterson.

My greatest professional achievement to date has been… obtaining the Sir Henry Dale Fellowship from the Wellcome Trust and Royal Society, which enabled me to start the laboratory at Birkbeck. The scale and flexibility of its support are a great help towards realising research ideas.

After work… it is nice to do something completely different. We like finding new places to eat and drink around where we live in east London, cooking, music, art and design, and relaxing.

My favourite part of my job is… the first glimpse of a new discovery, to be shared with lab members, students, and other scientists.

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Antibiotics: victims of their own success

This article was written by Liam Tom Martin and Arundhati Maitra from the ISMB-Mycobacteria Research laboratory, Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology, Department of Biological Sciences, Birkbeck. Birkbeck Science Week runs from 3-6 April 2017.

antibioticsSince the development of penicillin as a treatment for bacterial infections in the 1940s, antibiotics have played an integral role in modern medicine. Beyond their obvious utility in treating serious diseases like tuberculosis and pneumonia, antibiotics have facilitated a vast array of modern surgical treatments. Without them, major procedures from organ transplants to hip replacements and cancer chemotherapy would carry too great a risk of infection to be feasible. Antibiotics have become so deeply woven into the fabric of modern life that a future without them borders on the unimaginable.

Over the past few decades, strains of bacteria have emerged which are resistant to most, if not all, of the antibiotics in our current arsenal. Coupled with a near total halt in the development of new antimicrobial therapeutics, the rising tide of antibiotic resistance threatens to compromise the very bedrock of modern medicine. If those foundations were to crumble, it would usher in an era in which minor infections can develop into chronic and potentially fatal illnesses; an era in which surgical interventions and immunosuppressive chemotherapies are simply not possible.

The most recent World Health Organisation (WHO) report states that 480,000 people each year develop multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB), while strains of gonorrhoea which are resistant to all available antibiotics have been observed in 10 countries, including the UK. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) also continues to cause potentially deadly infections in hospitals, putting significant strain on healthcare resources. The UK government report into antimicrobial resistance, chaired by Lord Jim O’Neill predicted that if antimicrobial resistance were to continue to rise around the world, we could see as many as 10 million more deaths annually, with a total economic cost of $100 trillion. The majority of this burden would likely fall on low- to middle-income countries. This threat has grown to such a proportion that recently, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) met to discuss the steps which could be taken by global organisations including the WHO, the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) to help to slow the spread of antibiotic resistance and to incentivise the development of novel antimicrobial drugs.

Antibiotics, it seems, have been victims of their own success. Their effectiveness and convenience have led to a ubiquity which provides a wealth of opportunities for development of antibiotic resistance; an issue exacerbated by misuse and overuse in mankind, animal farming and agriculture. The conditions which accelerate the development of resistance, however, are just one side of the coin. The emergence of new antibiotics onto the market has slowed to a glacial place over the last 20 to 30 years, as pharmaceutical companies have diverted their focus onto other areas. This move has been driven primarily by the limited profitability and steep challenges in developing new antibiotics with novel mechanisms of action. There is a sense that all of the low hanging fruit were picked during the golden age of antibiotic discovery in the 1940s and 50s, and that new classes of antibiotic are becoming harder and harder to come by.

As we have come to expect antibiotics to be inexpensive, pharmaceutical companies must sell them at low cost or lose out to the generics market. The short treatment times required to cure most infections also present little opportunity for pharmaceutical companies to recoup their billion dollar investments in research and development, while the rapid emergence of resistance following deployment of a drug can quickly stifle demand. The result is that pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies preferentially invest in treatments for chronic conditions which require long-term treatments and thus generate a more reliable revenue stream. Essential research into novel antimicrobials is thus left by the wayside. This market failure is exacerbated by conservation programs which discourage the use of newly discovered antibiotics until resistance has developed to the standard treatments, as well as by variable regulations which create uncertainty in the market.

On positive notes, there are a number of initiatives providing funding for further research in academia, promoting collaboration between academia and industry and incentivising industry investment into antibiotic research. These include the Fleming Fund, £195 million collaboration between the UK government, the Wellcome Trust, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Institut Pasteur International Network, among others. The UK government is also involved in a variety of other funds aimed at tackled antibiotic resistance, such as the Ross Fund and the Global AMR Innovation Fund, which are collaborations with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chinese government, respectively.

The past 5 years have seen the emergence of the first new antibiotics for decades. Bedaquillin was approved as part of a second-line combination therapy for use against multiple drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB) in 2012, following an accelerated approval process lasting just six months. There are currently numerous other novel antibiotics at some stage in the development pipeline, including Teixobactin, a promising candidate which has been found to have broad antibacterial activity while acting through a novel mechanism which may slow or prevent the development of resistance. A collaborative effort between Sequella Inc. and members of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases in the USA, and Janssen Infectious Diseases in Belgium, has led to the development of the antibiotic SQ109. This is testament to the ability of private-public partnerships in spreading the risk of drug development and incentivising biotechnology companies to proceed with research into novel antibiotics.

A number of academic institutions, bolstered by increased funding from government bodies, are beginning to undertake significant research into means by which to tackle antimicrobial resistance. At the University of Birmingham Institute of Microbiology and Infection, critical research is being conducted into understanding the transmission and mechanisms of antibiotic resistance, under the direction of Professor Ian Henderson and Professor Laura Piddock. In the Bloomsbury area, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have recently opened their Centre for Antimicrobial Resistance, which will include sociological research alongside traditional lab-based research in order to understand the spread of antimicrobial resistance on a large scale. Just a stones-throw from the London School, the Mycobacteria Research Lab lead by Dr Sanjib Bhakta at the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology, Birkbeck College, University of London, are investigating new means to tackle antibiotic resistance tuberculosis, including a “drug repositioning” approach, by which drugs which are currently on the market for the treatment of a separate ailment may be repurposed to act as antibiotics in the fight against MDR-TB.

Science Week 2017: Microbes in the Real World

Date: Monday 3 April

Talk by Sophie Downes – ‘The Interactions Between Fungi and Heritage Buildings’
Clore Management Centre B01, 5:30-6:30pm

Screening of the film Resistance followed by panel discussion: ‘Tackling antibiotic resistance and the rise of superbugs
Speakers: Dr Sanjib Bhakta, Dr Jane Nicklin, Professor Nick Keep and Arundhati Maitra
43 Gordon Square Cinema, 7:00-9:00pm

“Antibiotics were first mass-produced in the 1940s and their ability to fight and kill bacteria revolutionized medicine and profoundly impacted everything from agriculture to war. After less than 80 years, however, these miracle drugs are failing. Resistant infections kill hundreds of thousands of people around the world each year and there are now dozens of so-called Superbugs each with its own challenges and costs. How did this happen? Using microscopic footage, harrowing personal stories, and expert insights RESISTANCE clarifies the problem of antibiotic resistance, how we got to this point, and what we can do to turn the tide.”

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Behind Birkbeck’s new visual identity

pocket-guides-etc-croppedIt’s an unusual position for an organisation to find itself in: on the brink of its third century and still no signature style. Imagine Apple without its elegant designs and simple use of space; or Google minus its primary-colours and clean white canvas.

So, just a few years shy of our 200th birthday, we thought it was time such a unique and vibrant university had the coherent and contemporary look it deserved.

What we wanted was a clear, well-considered look and feel that stands for Birkbeck, which is fortunate to possess two rare things: a real Unique Selling Point (as the UK’s only evening university) and a heritage to die for (a core mission which has remained unchanged for 200 years, of educating working Londoners).

So, where to start? We had a 20 year-old ‘lockup’ – a logotype and crest, always seen together on a burgundy panel; and a blue theme inherited from a decade-old advertising campaign. We didn’t want to change the lockup (the burgundy has been darkened and the crest reversed to give greater contrast). But the older and newer looks didn’t always sit together favourably and the visual identity void led to a variety of styles that were not always recognisably ‘Birkbeck’.

new-pop-up-exampleThe challenge, then, was to create an identity – typefaces, colour palette, ways of presenting information – that would live happily alongside the lockup and work across digital and printed channels and products for years to come.

Importantly, the identity needed to be easy for people across the university to put in to practice. We have a small central design team, but many others across the organisation have some responsibility for design, stationery or leaflets, for instance.

We hired Pentagram, the world’s largest independent design consultancy, after a competitive process during which we were wowed by their careful understanding of Birkbeck, creative problem-solving and knowledge of the Higher Education sector having worked with the University of the Arts and the University of Sussex.

A cross-university steering group of academics and professional staff were convened to discuss Birkbeck’s personality and how it might be portrayed visually. This group became essential arbiters throughout the process, helping to define and refine ideas and schemes.

And together we came up with a visual identity that is both beautiful and practical that reflects Birkbeck’s ‘attitude not age’ approach to higher education for all – inclusive, vibrant and world-class.

Domenic Lippa, partner at Pentagram, said: “We wanted to create a visual identity that used the heritage of the existing logo.  To do this, we anchored all information off of the logo, thus creating a strong hierarchy. Once we established this, the ‘heart’ of the identity, we started to introduce new typefaces, colours and imagery to support and counter-point that heritage.”

social-mock-up-croppedThere is enough flexibility to give people across the university room to ‘play’ with the identity, for instance by an unrestricted colourful palette and playful new ways of using our crest’s iconic owl – signifying our evening study. But brief, user-friendly guidelines gently help people stay within a ‘safe space’, ensuring Birkbeck always looks the part.

Needless to say the list of products queuing up for an identity make-over is long – from signage and stationery to websites – so the process of switching our look will take some time. We’ll take it gradually. We wanted to share the design with staff and students first, of course and there will be face-to-face briefings for people who work with design and on-going support from the central design team.

Externally, the new look will be debuted by our new marketing campaign which launches after Christmas with advertisements across the London underground and buses. Our annual magazine BBK will be sent to our alumni and friends shortly afterwards, sporting the new identity. And thereafter, as we proceed throughout 2017, e-newsletters, stationery, Open Evening livery, the 2018-19 prospectus, a new website design and many other products will follow on.

Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck, said: “I am delighted that Birkbeck is getting its first ever visual identity. As we move towards our third century this colourful, modern look helps communicate with the vitality, passion and professionalism of our world-class university.”

–  Julia Day, Head of Communications at Birkbeck

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Creating ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ with a team of neuroscientists

Theatre Director Sarah Argent finds out why babies giggle and dance, and that she has more in common with the neuroscientists at Birkbeck’s Babylab than she first thoughthome

As someone who dropped all science subjects aged 14 to focus on the arts, I approached the invitation from Pete Glanville (Polka’s Artistic Director) to develop a theatre piece for babies inspired by the work of neuroscientists with a mixture of trepidation and delight (I always like to challenge myself!)

“We all shared a passion for improving the lives of babies but from very different perspectives”

Having identified the Babylab at Birkbeck as one of the most likely places with which to liaise, we were thrilled at the excitement and generosity with which they welcomed our proposal. We met with Mark Johnson, the Director of the BabyLab, and a number of his colleagues who outlined the fascinating work of the lab and we were thrilled to realise that we all shared a passion for improving the lives of babies but from very different perspectives. Having talked about our respective interest in and engagement with babies and how we might work together, Pete and I were taken down to the labs themselves where we were fascinated to see tiny bonnets of electrodes that can ascertain exactly how a baby’s brain is being stimulated; to hear more about the eye-tracking machines that can monitor exactly where a baby is looking; and to see various familiar toys etc that are used in experiments about object permanence and time intervals, etc.

Having agreed with the Babylab that we did, indeed, wish to work together, they arranged for Jo Belloli (Polka’s Associate Producer, Early Years) and me to meet with a range of scientists – undergraduates, PhDs and members of staff – to hear more about their individual and joint areas of research in order to identify which I could most readily see as being the inspiration for the creation of a piece of theatre for babies aged 6-18 months and their parents and carers. Everyone with whom we met did a wonderful job of describing their work in laymen’s terms (neither Jo nor I being a scientist) – although we did still have to ask a few very basic questions! After much discussion and deliberation, we chose three scientists with whom to work: Sinead Rocha, Rosy Edey, and Caspar Addyman (who cut his teeth at Birkbeck and, while there, developed the Baby Laughter project but is now on the teaching staff at the Infant Lab at Goldsmiths).

“You could see the brains of the creative team firing off at the mention of babies’ responses to sound or lights”

We then invited the scientists to visit Polka, to see the Adventure Theatre in which the production will be performed, to meet with Polka staff, and for them to find out more about us and for us to find out more about them. At a wonderfully-attended meeting (Polka staff were so intrigued about and excited by hearing more of the work of the scientists), Caspar, Rosy and Sinead outlined their research areas in more detail. Without the need for bonnets of electrodes, you could see the brains of the creative team firing off at the mention of babies’ responses to sound or lights or what makes them laugh. It was also hugely gratifying to realise that so many of the words and terms we use to describe our creative processes were also used by the scientists – maybe we have even more in common than we thought!

We then spent three wonderfully full and creative days in the Adventure Theatre playing with lights and movement and objects – a mixture of inanimate objects and actor, Maisie!

“The level of scientific clarity took things to a deeper level”

On the second day, we invited a number of babies and their mums to join us to observe how they would respond to our initial ideas. As we suspected, Maisie has a natural affinity with babies with a number of them being mesmerised by her from the moment they first clapped eyes on her. What was so exciting about this project was that, while as makers of baby theatre we are well-versed in close and detailed observation of babies while they are observing rehearsals or performances, the level of scientific clarity with which our scientists could describe the babies’ responses and analyse why the babies’ were responding in a particular way at their particular age took things to a deeper level.

While we’re not asking Maisie to play the character of a baby, we are keen for her movements to mirror or resemble those of a baby – to share some of the characteristics – and so, again, to have the scientists detailing babies’ reasons for moving e.g. the way in which they ‘unlearn’ some of the lessons they’ve learned while crawling or shuffling on their bottoms once they begin toddling on two feet, has played a fascinating role in helping us to develop the movement vocabulary of the piece.

“A wonderful example of science influencing art influencing science”

I have to be honest, the music that Sinead uses in the BabyLab as part of her exploration of rhythm was not music that either myself or Julian Butler (our composer) would have instinctively been drawn to in creating a theatre piece for babies but, in line with the brief of responding to the work of the scientists, we have dutifully explored this – and it has led us to realise that babies respond to much more upbeat and rhythmic music than we had previously imagined! Julian has now created a wonderful track which starts with a heartbeat (evoking the sounds the baby would have heard in the womb) and building to wonderful up-tempo Latin-inspired rhythms – all thanks to Sinead’s research. He has also remixed a track that Sinead had stopped using in her experiments as, while it has the right tempo, it didn’t have a strong enough pulse for the babies to respond to. Sinead is now exploring whether she can use Julian’s remixed track in the BabyLab – a wonderful example of science influencing art influencing science.

Again, confounding our initial instincts, the Adventure Theatre will be transformed into a more aesthetically-pleasing version of the BabyLabs complete with dark curtains and versions of the objects and toys found in the Lab – along with gorgeous carpet and cushions on which the audience can sit.

“Now we have scientists with us who are able to explain WHY the babies’ are responding in this way”

Our scientists will be visiting us regularly throughout rehearsals, observing our material as it develops and observing and commenting on babies’ responses each time they visit. Detailed observation of the moments that make babies’ giggle, the moments that make them move spontaneously be that bouncing or waving their arms, the moments that make their already-large eyes open even more widely is always part of our process, but now we have scientists with us who are able to explain WHY the babies’ are responding in this way.

Further information:

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