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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Overcoming mathematical anxiety with customised support

evaszatmariDo you have a fear of mathematics?  Have you always avoided percentages? Do you want to run away when you see algebraic expressions?  If you think it is time to conquer your maths demons, then Eva Szatmari can help.  Eva works for the School of Business, Economics and Informatics, and enables you to customise your learning and go at your speed through her one-to-one sessions. She tells us how she can help you solve your maths and stats knowledge and support you in your studies.

Eva, what do you do?
I help students learn mathematics and statistics, working one-to-one. When he/she comes into my office, I always start by asking what would they like to work on. In this way, I am tailoring the session to the individual student need.

I also run workshops in which I try to make sure that everyone in the class is able to follow the teaching, so no one is left behind.  I make sure I create an atmosphere where students feel safe to ask questions that they think might be too simplistic in their usual lectures. Birkbeck students have very busy lives so I have made video tutorials available online including instruction on Boolean logic, the binary number system and various scientific calculator tutorials so students can access my help wherever they are. More details of this can be found here.

Could you tell us a little bit about your role and the kind of support you offer?
Students who have maths anxiety often have previous life experiences that discourage them from ever wanting to learn maths again.  Suddenly on some degree courses, they are forced to come back to maths to ensure they complete their course.  I would like to prove to them that maths is enjoyable, rewarding, and accessible to anyone.  Therefore my challenge is forensic – to detect the right mode and language for communicating to each student.  I make sure I create an encouraging environment where students can ask even the most basic maths or statistics questions.

Why is it important to offer a customised approach to learning?
The School of BEI recognises that customised approach to learning is important and it adds to the experience a student can have at Birkbeck.  We want to give every student the necessary support to excel in their studies. This ties into Birkbeck’s central mission to offer flexible education to meet the widely varying needs of our students and to help them fulfill their potential and their ambitions.

Have you seen this approach make a practical difference?
Definitely yes!  I would like to give you two examples of students I helped.  One of them had severe maths anxiety and approached me for some extra tutorials not believing he would understand it.  He had no maths experience because of disruptive schooling.  We started with the basics, and gradually he got really to like maths and he enjoys the course he was on more because he no longer feared the relevant sessions.  He went on to pass his maths exam which was part of his course.

I am not here only for the weakest students, but to help anyone at whatever level.  In another example, a student came to see me needing a 1st Class Honours degree to get on her chosen Masters and I am happy and proud that she got accepted for Oxbridge to do what she wanted.

It has repeatedly been shown that there is a correlation between better numeracy skills, and better life chances – the higher your mathematical abilities, the higher your job prospects and your earning potential.

Why is this customised learning approach unique?
There are many initiatives out there which provide support for literacy skills, but considerably fewer that develop numeracy skills. This is particularly true at university level. This customised learning approach makes a real difference to improving the confidence and mathematical skills of students. This means they may achieve more in their courses than they would otherwise and often they surprise themselves at what they can do.

Birkbeck is in itself unique when compared to most other universities for two particular reasons. A significant proportion of students are already in full-time employment, or they are hoping to use the skills they learn at Birkbeck to change their existing careers. There is a particular need for additional numeracy support in the School of BEI, where mathematics may feature significantly in a course or module, but where many students join from a different academic discipline, or from a professional environment where they have not used formal mathematics in the same way.

Finally, how can BEI students at Birkbeck get in touch with you if they want to work with you?
They can email me on to book a one-on-one session. These normally last about an hour. They can also see the BEI Workshop Timetable on my staff web page for module specific workshops.

The sessions I run are completely confidential, and it’s important that students know there’s no need to be embarrassed about asking for assistance – it’s what I’m here for. It’s worth any student who is unsure about a particular aspect of mathematics coming, especially with exams on the horizon!


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How to get a job interview in digital technology

This blog was written by Frederic Kalinke, an ex-Googler who is now Managing Director of agile marketing technology company AmigodigitaljobsoriginalOne of the most common questions I get asked following my workshops with the UpScale programme is: how can I land an interview in a digital technology company? Tech firms like Google and Facebook revel in the aura that has been created around their application process. Movies like The Intern and The Social Network and books like Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? add to the mystique. In this post, I want to outline a few tips on how to create a powerful application that will give you the best chance of landing an interview in digital technology. In short, it’s about creating an application so good that they can’t ignore you.

I believe that too many graduates struggle with finding jobs because they don’t put enough thought into understanding what they want to do and then do not try hard enough in their application. The default behaviour upon graduation is to create a generic CV (A4; one-sided; Arial font) and hand over the reins to a recruiter who will find you a suitable position (read: fire your CV in a scattergun to hundreds of employees and see what sticks). This is not a good approach as it reflects a lack of thoughtfulness and tenacity on behalf of the applicant, which are two qualities that every employer treasures.

Created View, not Curriculum Vitae

Instead I suggest graduates should be highly targeted in their approach. They should think carefully about the sectors that interest them and then do more thinking to create an argument as to why companies in this sector should hire them. It’s all about taking a position; more power behind fewer arrows. If one wants to apply for a marketing role at a fintech company that is trying to create a new form of bank, one should do some competitor analysis on their positioning, pricing, marketing strategy and visualise it in a colourful presentation. If one is after a software development job in an organic food business, evaluate their technology systems and website, and offer a technical SWOT analysis. A CV should stand for ‘Created View’, not Curriculum Vitae. So how do you create a view?!

The first step is to analyse relevant data. Google Trends is a fantastic resource that provides search query volumes for any word or phrase. This is a goldmine as it enables you to understand brand affinity by the amount of times people are searching for a set of firms. You can easily plug in the names of the firms you are applying to and their top five competitors. If you look hard enough, there are several other data sets or reports available to provide the ingredients you need to construct your argument.

The second step is to construct an argument. One of the first warm-up exercises I do in my UpScale workshop (see this Birkbeck blog post for more information), is to get participants to imagine they are an alien marketer who wants to convince decision-makers back on Planet Zog to adopt the internet, as an alternative to billboards. I ask them to list the six key attributes of digital marketing that make it so powerful versus traditional advertising? If I was applying for a role at a traditional billboard advertiser (such as Clear Channel or JCDecaux), my argument would be that their strategy should be to make their product comply with the attributes that make digital advertising so powerful.

The third step is to present your argument in an engaging way. Don’t put all your eggs in the A4, one-page CV basket, but supplement it with a colourful presentation, a website, a video, an audio file. Anything to mark yourself out as thoughtful and tenacious.

Contact the CEO

The last step is to send your application (your ‘Created View’) to the CEO. Their email address can be easily found by combining tools like LinkedIn, and Contacting the CEO is a fantastic tactic as he or she will not receive direct applications, especially ones with well researched arguments. The worst outcome is that he or she will not reply directly but send your application to the HR department who will then be compelled to reply.

I’ve suggested this approach to so many people with great results. One of my friends wanted to get a marketing job with an eponymous fashion brand. I suggested he created a view by evaluating the brand’s use of social media and then displaying his report on a website. He built a WordPress site (www.why[brandname], and emailed it to the CEO. Within a day, he had a call from the Chief Commercial Officer who offered him a paid summer internship!

In short, getting a job in digital technology is not easy. But you will stand the best chance of landing an interview by being thoughtful and tenacious. Target a small set of firms by sending the CEO a well informed argument that will help his/her business. Remember: don’t create a Curriculum Vitae, Create a View.

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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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Developing digital skills with UpScale

This blog was written by Frederic Kalinke, an ex-Googler who is now Managing Director of agile marketing technology company Amigo.digitaltechoriginal

I am a big fan of the UpScale programme at Birkbeck, which inspires students to work in the wonderful world of digital technology. Several big brands like LinkedIn, ASOS, JustGiving and MediaMath are partners, offering dedicated seminars to aspiring students. I have delivered a number of workshops focused on the power of Google and online marketing. In this article, I want to share why I believe UpScale is so important, as well as some tips on how to learn digital skills effectively.

I started my career at Google. Besides overdosing on sushi and chocolate, I learnt everything there is to know about Google’s marketing tools, which help businesses acquire customers online. I was also lucky to discover a passion so early. The thing that got me out of bed in the morning was developing novel and effective ways to teach companies about how Google products work. Before I dive into these, it’s worth spending some time exploring why working in technology is a fantastic place to be.

Never get bored

The UpScale programme focuses exclusively on the digital technology sector. Why? The UpScale website talks about employer demand. As the world gets increasingly digital, companies will continue to require and reward people who have technical skills and interests. This is undeniably true. You only have to look at the market salaries for software developers, data scientists and digital marketers to understand that demand for digital talent outstrips supply.

I would argue, however, that there is an intrinsic reason why technology is a fantastic career choice: it never gets boring! By nature it constantly evolves and never lies still. Here’s a clear example. Before the internet, the hotel, taxi, retail and entertainment industries remained largely unchanged. Hoteliers and taxi companies enjoyed oligopolistic privileges so could charge whatever they wanted to customers; high street shops enjoyed healthy margins based on the fact that customers had no other choice but to purchase their goods and services from them; and content producers, movie distributors and cinemas moved in lockstep, creating a profitable triumvirate. Then the internet arrived. And so did AirBnB, Uber, Amazon and Netflix, which have completely transformed their respective industries. It’s mind-boggling to think that two of these companies did not even exist 9 years ago. And none of them existed 23 years ago.

I was given the recommendation to work in digital by a wise CEO of a large FMCG company whom I met at university. He told me to forget the FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) sector as, despite its name, was the “commercial snail”. It turns out that washing powder and toothpaste don’t really change that much.

So if you want excitement and constant innovation, digital technology will not disappoint and UpScale will equip you with the skills and networks to help get you there.

How to learn digital effectively

Having established the significance and thrill of working in technology, I’d now like to outline three ways to learn digital skills effectively. These insights are based on my experience of running several UpScale workshops.

  1. Interactive learning: From the very start of my workshop, I involve everybody in warm-up exercises and thought experiments to get people thinking. I am a big believer in the saying that if you “tell somebody to do something they will forget, if you show somebody they will remember, but if you involve somebody they will understand”. Because digital technology touches every part of our life, I advise students to get together in small groups to debate digital and challenge each other with questions like: why is Amazon so successful? Why is Twitter’s stock price so low? If you had £100k, what business would you set up and why? Why is using data important in decision-making? Which industry will be disrupted by technology next?
  1. Metaphors: I use a lot of metaphors to teach digital marketing concepts. For example, when we look at keyword planning, the bedrock of Search Engine Marketing, I use fishing and football; when we discuss Website Optimisation, I use the metaphor of a great restaurant. Metaphors make new things memorable and familiar. I always advise students to devise their own metaphors for newly learnt subjects and try them out on friends. As the Feynman Technique tells us, explaining something to a newbie is the best way to master any topic.
  1. Get practical: The last part of my workshop is about applying theory to practical exercises. Participants create their own Google AdWords campaign for an industry of their choosing. In whatever technical subject you are learning, there is always a practical application. If you’re learning a computer language, grasping data science or building a Microsoft Excel dashboard, get stuck in by building something. You will be amazed at how much this aids the learning process.
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Populism and the question of political time

Dr Jason Edwards, Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, comments on the quickening pace of politics in the context of a resurgent populist movement.populismoriginalThe many remarkable political developments of the last year – most notably the vote in favour of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as President – are less extraordinary than they may seem at first sight if we regard them as recent moments in a longer-term acceleration of political time. It was Harold Wilson who (supposedly) said that ‘a week is a long time in politics’, but fifty years later this seems like an understatement. The pace and rate of political change today seems unprecedented.

One way in which we might view the current success of ‘populist’ political parties and movements is that they are a response to this acceleration of political time. Populists often berate politicos obsessed with the minutiae of political intercourse, hooked on Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle. But of course, there is a paradox here: populists have come to prominence and to power precisely by the use of those media that most readily lend themselves to the acceleration of political time. Donald Trump’s victory would not have been possible thirty or even twenty-years ago: not just because of the direct line he had in the election campaign to his followers on Twitter, but by the saturation coverage he received in the ‘mainstream’ media.

Populists have thrived on the permanent election campaign that has come to characterise the politics of democracies. It was not their invention. Nor was it a simply technologically-driven process, made possible by innovations in broadcasting and digital communications. Rather, the permanent election campaign is a central feature of neo-liberal governance. The logic of neo-liberalism transforms citizens into consumers, and political knowledge into a marketable commodity. Political knowledge was once tough to digest and even tougher to produce; but today it has been broken down into eminently digestible, often tasteless nuggets, and virtually anyone can add to the stock of knowledge through a tweet or by posting in the comments section on the website of a national newspaper.

Populism seems like a reaction against neo-liberalism. But, in fact, in its most prominent contemporary form – that is, the populism of the authoritarian nationalist right – it follows the same relentless logic of commercialisation and de-politicisation. A politics that promotes dissent, or even that calls for careful deliberation of important matters is routinely dismissed by populists. It promises instead to outdo the technocrats by providing quick and ‘simple’ solutions to what are deeply complex, and often intractable problems. Most obviously in the shape of Donald Trump, it offers the prospect of an effective politics by adopting the ruthless efficiency of the modern corporation (or at least what is supposed to be its ruthless efficiency, which in reality often masks inefficiency, inertia, and corruption).

By appealing to an idealised past of social harmony and effective authority, populists may seem to venerate a simpler and more authentic world, where politics was not driven by the permanent election campaign. But this is a veneer – populism in its contemporary forms is very much a product of a (hyper-) modern world of accelerating political time and diminishing public space. It is driven along by these transformations rather than presenting a challenge to them.

Populism might prompt us to think more seriously about the question of political time, because it may frame certain central problems about how we are governed in the present. Despite its avowals, populism does not slow down political time but accelerates it to the point of permanent crisis and reaction. We are seeing the manifestation of this ever-greater acceleration in the multiple crises of politics. How we slow down political time is a question now worth asking.

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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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An early modern treasure trove

Michael Willis is a student on Birkbeck’s MA Renaissance Studies. He reflects on his internship at Shakespeare’s Globe

globe-theatre_michael-willis-blogEvery Tuesday began with a wintery riverside walk from Embankment to Bankside to work with an early modern treasure trove of books and archival material at Shakespeare’s Globe. The vast spectrum of material that I was exposed to fed my intellectual curiosity as an early modern theatre enthusiast!

Each week would be completely different. One week I’d analyse stage movements in Outside In performances, where a production originally performed on outdoor stage at the Globe was performed inside at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse. Another week, I’d be researching costume designs, and in another I’d research early modern lighting. Working on the winter season, Wonder Noir, at the Sam Wannamaker I worked quite heavily on Webster’s challenging The White Devil. When it was originally performed in 1612, it was not received well and Webster blamed the ignorance of the audience and the wintery lighting for its poor reception.

Analysing the idea of voyeurism in the play, I traced the sordid and blackened world of a distorted Jacobean reality and wrote press tweets and researched for synopses of the play. One of my projects was to produce a Christmas blog. Working to a set deadline and with a range of archival material, I focused upon the cancellation of Christmas in the mid-seventeenth century. The blog proved to be popular through its many re-tweets and re-posts upon social media most likely because it presented a world that is quite the antithesis to modern day Christmas time. I mean, can you imagine being thrown into prison for having a festive tipple whilst putting Christmas decorations up?

The internship allowed – and demanded, in a way – an investigation of very different materials. Whether that would be stage production documents or prop illustrations, each week required that I work to a tight deadline: a challenge but a motivation. I have developed a range of skills that will only serve to steer and inspire my research in my current MA, and as I embark upon a PhD later this year.

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