Blended learning: Improving access to higher education

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

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

‘Traditional’ Birkbeck students

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

Fitting a degree around your lifestyle

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

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

Blended learning is here to stay in our Department

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

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Dr Clare Press discusses life as a scientist

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

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

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

What has the lockdown period taught you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Forging a new career through distance learning

James Hale studied BSc Geology at Birkbeck through distance learning after 14 years out of education. He discusses how his degree has helped him transform his life, having gone on to both further study and a new job in the field of Earth Sciences.

I started the BSc (Hons) Geology degree at Birkbeck in 2014 whilst working as a sales consultant for a large, multi-national workshop consumables company. I had worked in sales for over ten years and really wanted a career change, but I had no idea what to do instead of sales. I have always been passionate about Science, Earth Science in particular but I never saw it as a possible career, as I left school with only a set of GCSEs, no A-levels or degree.

After a particularly bad day in work, my fiancée suggested I do a little research into Earth Science degrees. I came across various online distance learning geology degrees but Birkbeck was the only one with accreditation from the Geological Society of London and the only one using Panopto to deliver the lectures. The accreditation was important to me because I wanted to be able to establish a career using the degree and the fact that Panopto was used to record the lectures in HD quality made me feel like I was in the classroom. The staff were excellent, very supportive and clearly understood that many of us in the class had not been in any sort of education for quite some time. For me, it had been 14 years to be exact so naturally I was apprehensive about starting a degree. After watching the recording of the induction evening before the start of the course, I felt very much at ease. By the end of the first lecture I was hooked, my mind was immersed and I was extremely glad that I decided to study Geology at Birkbeck.

I originally started the degree on a part-time basis and transferred to full-time after the first year which enabled me to complete in 2017 after three years. The distance learning aspect benefited me because I have a young family, therefore I needed the flexibility to be able to work on a full-time basis and be able to study around them in the evenings and on weekends.

The degree gave me a strong, renewed sense of purpose as well as the immense personal satisfaction of completing something as challenging and life-changing as a degree. I gained invaluable academic skills such as report writing and data processing, a lot of which are transferable, as well as first-class field skills. The degree has made me employable in a scientific environment, so much so I am about to start work at a major UK university as a Senior Technical Officer – Earth and Biological Sciences. I am also a year into a part-time MSc which I am studying online at a world-renowned oil and gas industry focused University. My overall ambition is to progress to lecturer and to conduct my own research in the field of geology.

I would advise anyone else thinking about studying via distance learning with Birkbeck to go for it! Provided you put in the hard work, you can achieve your goals. The study process is made as flexible and accommodating as possible by the college, the course content is both interesting and engaging, the staff are very helpful and supportive, plus if you choose geology you’ll remember the amazing field trips for the rest of your life!

I can’t thank the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences staff enough for literally helping me change my life.

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Kareen Duffus: Education is the key to success

MSc Educational Neuroscience student Kareen Abdu’Allah-Duffus, 45, tells her story of coming to England from Jamaica on her grandmother’s wishes and finding joy in education at Birkbeck.

I was born in the Jamaica so my early years were spent on that beautiful island surrounded by sun, sand and sea. I am the eldest of three children and even though my parents were present, the culture in Jamaica still remains, that your grandparents are usually the head of the household. Growing up as a child into adulthood, my fondest memories and discipline were instilled by my grandparents back home.

I graduated from Secondary School in 1989 at the age of 17 and started Nursing College in September 1990. I wasn’t enjoying the course so I told my grandmother that I didn’t want to continue. My grandmother understood the education system very well so she was very strict about achieving personal goals. She was gutted when she realized that I was really giving up on the Nursing career. She told me that I needed to start thinking about another career – otherwise she would think about it for me.

I was very reluctant to do so because I was 18 years old and knew it all. I left college in December 1990 and in February 1991 my favorite uncle from England came to Jamaica to visit the family. I asked him all types of questions – what was life like living in England, whether he loved the country and whether he was planning to retire back in Jamaica – and that’s when he dropped the bombshell. He said all these questions you are asking about England, you will find out soon enough. I asked my grandma and she told me I was going to England to continue with my education.

I arrived in England on 28 February 1991. What an experience! It was cold and miserable, dark and snowing on and off. I remembered the day just like it was yesterday. I started to cry because I had never seen anything like this. It was depressing and I wanted to go back to Jamaica where my family and friends were, not to mention the sun. My uncle promised me that if I wasn’t enjoying my time here in England after six months I could go back to Jamaica.

Shortly after I arrived, I met with my cousins and we started going out raving and having a good time. I was homesick, but I was embracing the country and getting familiar with my new life. I looked at a few colleges and enrolled at Greenhill. I was also looking for a job at the time so whichever one came about first that was the decision I would make. A job offer came up at the local dry cleaners and I started working as an Assistant Manager. I was really happy about working so I could support myself. I made a decision to start working and forgot the real reason why I came to England.

I worked at the dry cleaners for five years then I decided on a career change when my eldest son was born. I started working at Howdens Joinery in Feb 1996 as a Business Developer. By 2000 I was made an Assistant Manager. In 2003 my second son was born and the job was getting more demanding so I asked to be demoted to counter sales instead. In 2005, my daughter was born and I wanted to give up work totally. However, the manager at the time said I could reduce my hours and work in the office. I jumped at the offer because this means I could have the best of both worlds, I could work and be a mother at the same time.

It is every woman’s dream to have everything in life and I felt I was in that world. I was able to drop and pick up my children from school and work at the same time. But something was still missing from my life, I hadn’t fulfilled my grandmother’s wishes and she passed away. My daughter was 6yrs old and started ballet lessons so a few of the parents always sit around and converse about anything and everything.

It was a Saturday afternoon and a conversation started about regrets in life. Well, everyone got talking and I explained my story about coming to England at the age of 18 to go to University and still hadn’t done it.

There was a woman there who was interested and listened carefully to what I had to say. She was very positive and started encouraging me to go to university and achieve my goal. She kept saying you are never too old to learn. I always remembered my grandma saying that and that ‘education is the key to success’. I reflected on the conversation while I was making my way to the train station. The train arrived and I got on, sat down and looked up and there was my epiphany; an advert about Birkbeck, University of London – evening classes for working people.

I went to the open evening with the intention of finding out about the counseling course but for some reason, I ended up in Psychology. I remember thinking, “I am 40 years old, what am I doing here?” However, I didn’t feel alone because there were people there older and younger so that made me feel comfortable. I also spoke to lots of people who were in the same position as me.

Psychology was interesting; I am a curious person so I wanted to study the human mind and behavior given my circumstances. I enrolled and got accepted on the fast track Psychology course. I had to get over 50% in all my subjects to continue straight to 2nd year and I did! I knew if I could study three or four subjects per week while I was working 32 hours a week and been a mother to three children at the time I was capable of a degree. I tested myself in that year and I passed, so I enrolled in 2nd year BSc Psychology.

This was where it all began. The feeling of excitement! I was in a lecture with more than 100 students.  I was making new friends and this was my new life for the next 3 years. It was very challenging and there were times that I wanted to give up because I felt awful leaving the children in the evenings on their own. Family time over the weekends was non-existent because I had to study for my exams.  I had essays to write and deadlines to meet. I was motivated and could not give up on my dream.

My eldest son was so inspired because we were both going to graduate around the same time. In fact, he found it fascinating that I started university when I did. I was so determined to get a good degree and not letting my children or myself down. I finished my degree with a 2:1. When I saw the result I cried with joy. This was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life but also the most rewarding. The graduation took place on 9th November 2016 and my children were there at the ceremony. That was the happiest day of my life. I still get goose-bumps even writing about it now.

After one year’s break, the time had come to make the decision whether to do a Masters. I applied in May to get on the Educational Neuroscience part-time course and shortly after I applied, I got the letter of acceptance. I was really excited about starting something brand new and really exciting. As if that email wasn’t enough I got another email about the Acker Bursaries Scholarship.

My eyes lit up and I thought… All my Christmases came at once. I had nothing to lose but I could gain substantially from applying. Within a month, I received an email to say I won the award. I was ecstatic, I felt good about myself. I felt as though all the hard work I did had paid off in my degree. I was rewarded for something that I loved doing and I couldn’t get my head around it.

This bursary has helped me so much. I feel extremely proud of myself and very honored to have received it. It has given me a confidence boost and I am very grateful that I was selected for it. I felt pleased because I worked really hard and I felt worthy of it. This award means that over the Christmas holidays I can travel into Birkbeck with ease to complete my essay due in January and worked on my research for my presentation.

After almost 22 years of working at Howdens Joinery I am finally looking for work in the schools as a SEN Teaching Assistant. I need to gain enough experience working with children, as this is one of the required criteria for getting on the program. My long-term ambition is to become an Educational Psychologist. It’s only a matter of time before this goal is achieved because the help and support at Birkbeck is phenomenal.

England is now my home and I would not change anything about it.  My grandmother was right, there are huge opportunities here if you want to embrace it. I have three beautiful children supporting my dream, wonderful friends and a university where I called home. I am very happy and I look forward to a beautiful future ahead.

View our range of undergraduate courses for 2018 and apply now.

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I’m a scientist… get me out of here!

Hear from Dr Sanjib Bhakta about taking part in a new initiative to engage young people in science, and to give them a taste of the day-to-day life of a scientist.san1Dr Sanjib Bhakta from Birkbeck’s Department of Biological Sciences recently took part in ‘I’m a Scientist’, an initiative designed to engage young people in science and the realities of the lives of scientists.

Students from schools across the country were able to log on and ask questions on any particular areas of the scientists’ research (or life) that they were curious about, then vote for their favourite scientists to win a £500 prize.

Dr Bhakta was one of the winners, and will be donating his prize money to a local school, and helping them to organise a workshop for World TB Day. We talked to him about the experience:

Why did you want to take part in this initiative?
I took part in this science outreach programme because I was keen to know how the young community generally perceive careers in science and the specific challenges of drug resistance. I personally envisage antibiotic resistance beyond a current global health emergency, having serious impact upon our future generations due to the limited resources and unwise exploitation of the current pool of drugs.

Why is it important to engage young people in science?
It is extremely crucial for school children to engage and partake in scientific research to solve local or global real-life problems in long term. It is also important for scientists to step out of their lab and spread the word about how enjoyable, rewarding and exciting science is as a career.

What were the most interesting questions you were asked?
Over these two weeks, I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with the participating schools and sharing a typical day in my life. However, I must say it was much more easier to answer ‘what do you enjoy most in your job?’ than it was to answer ‘what was the worst moment you faced in the lab?’ or ‘why drugs are so addictive?’!

imascientistWhat would you like to say to the students who took part?
I would like to thank all the participating students, teachers and moderators for this opportunity to interact, and to share my personal and professional life, and our lab research with you! It has been such great fun.

After chatting with you all, I got some fresh ideas on how to deal with this emerging world health concern of drug resistance and also am reassured that when all your intensely inquisitive minds and extended hands are joined together, drug resistance (like many other health and well-being emergencies on earth) will be a trivial challenge for us to overcome. Please don’t let the bugs win and ruin anyone’s life, at our home, in our neighbourhood or anywhere in the world!

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Artificial wombs and the law

Claire Horn is in the first year of her PhD in Birkbeck’s School of Law. She is researching the legal and ethical implications of artificial wombs.

credit-partridge-et-al-nature-communications

Credit: Partridge et al. Nature Communications

A few weeks ago, a team of scientists published their research on “An extra-uterine system to physiologically support the extreme premature lamb” in the journal Nature Communications. Within a few days of being posted online, the study had received enthusiastic coverage from major international news outlets and popular think-piece platforms alike. In the media, the language around the research changed: the “extra-uterine system” was redubbed “the artificial womb.”

Currently fetal viability in humans (the time at which a foetus can survive outside the mother) happens around 28 weeks. As the original article states, recent developments have pushed this timeline back to 22-23 weeks, but not without continued complications for the baby. The Biobag, designed to mimic the womb, has allowed a lamb foetus inserted at the developmental equivalent of 23 human weeks to survive and grow to healthy viability.

While, as the scientists who conducted this research state plainly, this technology is still a long way from being trialed with humans, and while the Biobag is only a partial artificial womb (an artificial womb proper would entail the foetus growing outside the body for the duration of gestation), the popular presses which picked up this news focus on questions emerging from the presumption that an artificial womb is inevitable. Their queries range from what an artificial womb might mean for how we conceive of personhood, to discussions of the ethics of research on foetuses, to debates over what impact such technology might have on the infants who are born through it.

In one way, these are very old debates that have echoed throughout science—and science fiction—for centuries. But the artificial womb has never felt closer than it does today, and while it is the work of scientists to proceed with caution, scepticism, and the suspicion that what aids a lamb may not aid a human, it is the work of legal scholars and bioethicists to imagine the possibilities, dangers, and issues inherent if this technology does in fact arrive.

My PhD research begins with these premises: that the artificial womb is on its way, that the law is rarely prepared to meet the challenges of new reproductive technologies, and that we should consider the different frameworks available to us ahead of the artificial womb’s arrival. Thinking about the ethics of the artificial womb allows us to consider new ways in which we might approach reproduction, familial relationships, and gender in the future. AAs the primary tool that structures the rules of engagement in our societies, legal frameworks can be introduced or renegotiated in ways that could make space for new social developments.

The artificial womb is an opportunity for legal scholars to consider important questions in this regard. With the artificial womb—which could constitute the growth of a foetus separately from the mother even at the earliest stage of development—might we be able to beneficially renegotiate abortion law to protect womens’ bodily autonomy? Could the artificial womb prompt us to reframe legal doctrines of parenthood in ways that offer greater protection to trans and queer parents, and greater equality in co-parenting? Could it render gender entirely irrelevant to parenting roles?

A central consideration in my work, and one that I have found absent in many media discussions of the artificial womb is the ways in which reproductive technologies have historically been used to benefit some communities while subjugating others. As Deborah Wilson Lowry writes, “new technologies, when not accompanied by equal access or distribution, can increase existing disparities related to race, class, and gender”. Such inequalities have been starkly demonstrated with regard to the introduction of the pill (which, prior to being marketed as the key to sexual liberation was tested on poor women and women of color, often without their consent), and with regard to surrogacy (only available to those with financial and social means, often outsourced to poor women in the global South), to name just a few examples.

Like these technologies before it, the artificial womb is unlikely to have either purely utopian or purely dystopian results, and it is necessary to be attentive to the dangers it might present for those who have been made vulnerable by these technologies in the past. Research by legal scholars and bioethicists which places marginalized people at the forefront, work which is lead by and consults with diverse groups of women, including women of color, trans women, and women with disabilities, is necessary in advance of the artificial womb’s introduction.

Scientists may be rightly skeptical of the speed at which humanities scholars have rushed from the growth of a premature lamb in a Biobag to heralding the growth of human babies outside the body. But proceeding with this future in mind, and carefully considering the ethical dilemmas that it presents, will allow us to interrogate its dangers and consider the best possible legal frameworks and policies to protect women when it arrives.

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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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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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