A day in the life of a PhD student

Chris Daniel, researching for a biology PhD

Why Birkbeck?

I chose Birkbeck, University of London because it was one of the few places I could study a Master’s degree part-time; I joined in 2020 to study Microbiology (MSc) and in 2022 I was honoured to receive the Diversity100 scholarship.

I am working in Professor Sanjib Bhakta’s Mycobacteria Research Laboratory within the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology (ISMB), and my project is part of the effort to tackle antimicrobial resistance in TB and TB-like respiratory diseases. Our research group originally discovered a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug class (similar to ibuprofen) that kills the drug-resistant form of the TB-causing bacteria, and my doctoral research project aims to understand how that over-the-counter painkiller drug is killing the bacteria on a molecular level.

What is a typical PhD day?

So, I’ll take you through one of my days in the lab!

I start the day usually by going to the gym, I find it helpful to clear my head before the day and it gives me the chance to plan my work. After a quick cup of coffee in the office, I’ll plan my experiment by assessing what I learned from the last experiment and writing out an aim for the next one. For example, I might have learned that I need to optimise my cell number for an experiment, so I’ll draw out my experiment using a multi-well plate map I designed, then prepare the chemicals I need.

Everything needs to be sterile (otherwise you risk running an experiment with bacteria that isn’t the one you want to use!) so to avoid contamination, we autoclave the chemicals and media that we use. The autoclave is basically a high-pressure cooker that kills everything before you use it. Once everything is clean, I set up my experiment in a sterile air-flow hood to keep everything in a safe atmosphere and a high level of protection for aseptic preparations. I clean everything down with ethanol when I’m finished so it’s ready for the next person to use.  

I usually combine my microbiology lab work and molecular biology experiments since culturing mycobacteria can take some time. Whilst I’m waiting for my results, I write everything up in my online lab notebook including my aims, observations, changes I’ve made, how old my bacteria was, and any other relevant information. Birkbeck graduate research school (BGRS) creates an amazing doctoral training environment where I get the opportunity to meet my thesis committee and my graduate tutor regularly. 

When I’m not in the lab, I’m researching specific areas of my topic to build up further knowledge. This means keeping up to date with current research and critically analysing published papers and methods. I am usually crunching a lot of data too! I also prepare presentations for conferences, assist with teaching the undergraduate and postgraduate labs as well co-supervise project students in our lab.

And that’s my typical day!

This scholarship has changed my life, it has given me the opportunity to be a scientist. Of all the wonderful, complex elements that make us who we are, this PhD makes me feel fulfilled, capable and excited.

Three minute thesis videos 2023


On Thursday 25 May, Birkbeck doctoral students took part in the 2023 Three Minute Thesis Competition. Conor Kelly was the overall winner and received a £500 prize.
Thesis title: Northern Ireland’s Political Parties Shifting Stances on European Integration 

Thesis title: Percy Grainger and Trans Identity in Edwardian England

Thesis title: The role of vFLIP in Kaposi Sarcoma-associated Herpes Virus (KSHV) Oncogenesis

Thesis title: Admitting Demons: Brexit and Psychoanalysis

Thesis title: Law and Evolutionary Agency in Outer Space

Thesis Title: An Era of Violence: Confronting Colonialism in the U.S. Violence Against Women Act (1994-Present) 

Thesis title: Choice of Court Agreement in Private International Law of Insurance Contracts: An analysis of harmonisation efforts in the field of jurisdictional party autonomy in insurance

Winners of the 2023 Three Minute Thesis and BGRS Poster Competitions

Top row left to right: Conor J. Kelly, Jo Brydon-Dickenson, Allison McKibban. Bottom row left to right: Graham Driver, Laura Phillips-Farmer, Clau Di Gianfrancesco

Birkbeck’s annual Three Minute Thesis and Poster competitions were held on 25 May and proved to be an entertaining and invigorating evening for competitors and the audience alike.  

For the Three Minute Thesis competition, participants from a range of different disciplines were challenged to present their scholarly research to a non-specialist audience in just three minutes. Showcasing their ability to talk with clarity and passion about their research, as well as their presentation skills, the quality of entries from doctoral students was exceptionally high. For the Poster competition, doctoral students submitted a poster design that explained their complex research to a mixed audience of non-subject specialists.  

The winner and recipient of a £500 prize for the Three Minute Thesis was Conor J. Kelly, for his talk entitled ‘Brexit and Northern Ireland’s Political Parties’.

The winner of the Poster competition and recipient of £150 was Graham Driver for ‘Exploring the geological evolution of Glacier-like Forms on Mars’. As well as the winners, a panel of judges also selected runners-up for each competition, and there was also a people’s choice award.  

Below is more information about the students who placed as winners and runners-up, and their respective research.  

Three Minute Thesis Judges Winner: Conor J. Kelly  

Thesis title: Northern Ireland’s Political Parties Shifting Stances on European Integration 

What’s it about? Northern Ireland’s political parties have had a huge influence on political developments related to Brexit in recent years. But the parties themselves have often presented contrasting positions on whether they support European integration since Ireland and the UK joined in 1973. There is literature on how parties form their positions on the EU. However, I argue Northern Ireland presents a somewhat unique case, and I try to show why you need to go beyond the current literature on political parties in order to understand how they behave towards Europe. 

Why this research? I grew up in Donegal, near the Irish border and I’ve always been interested in the politics and history of Ireland. The 2016 Brexit referendum brought the politics of Northern Ireland back to the top of the political agenda in Ireland, the UK, and the European Union. My thesis is trying to make sense of one dimension of a complicated but fascinating set of political dynamics. 

What’s your background? I did my BA at the University of Galway in Ireland and then studied for an MA at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Prior to coming to Birkbeck in 2018 to do a MRes and then a PhD, I had a variety of different jobs in not-for-profit fundraising in New York and London. 

Three Minute Thesis Runner-up: Jo Brydon-Dickenson

Thesis title: Percy Grainger and Trans Identity in Edwardian England 

What’s it about? It’s about a musician who wrote a lot about gender and sexuality in their private letters and diaries. I’m using those documents to try to piece together some understanding of what it was like to be trans in London in the early twentieth century and how people like Percy Grainger might have understood themselves.  

Why this research? A lot of trans history before the 1950s is built upon court records and newspaper articles, and it’s very rare that we get to hear trans people speaking for ourselves. So, when I came across these documents with Grainger expressing thoughts that will probably seem quite familiar to a lot of trans people today, I thought it was important to take the time to unpick them and show how they might help us understand the trans past.  

What’s your background? Before this, I was doing a Master’s at Reading and a degree at Sussex, both with a focus on music and gender in history. My background also includes a lot of performing music, so I love the opportunity to bring the things that I’ve learned as a musician into my research. 

Three Minute Thesis People’s Choice Winner: Allison McKibban

Thesis Title: An Era of Violence: Confronting Colonialism in the U.S. Violence Against Women Act (1994-Present) 

What’s it about? While laws regulating sexual violence are used by governments around the world, it remains a global health crisis. For 30 years, the U.S. Violence Against Women Act has addressed sexual violence, and in particular, violence against Indigenous women. My research questions why this set of laws hasn’t prevented the violence, through uncovering the ingrained beliefs beneath the words written in the more than 2000 pages of legislation. 

Why this research? The United States government has enacted violence against Indigenous communities for centuries. However, as a U.S. citizen, I never learned of this ongoing colonization until I was in university. My research pushes back on my own government’s violent policies, but also has compelled me to do activist work to restore land to Indigenous peoples. 

What’s your background? Before Birkbeck, I worked in government affairs in the US and attended LSE and Oxford to study for master’s degrees related to law, gender, and history. 

Poster Competition Winner: Graham Driver 

Thesis Title: Exploring the Geomorphological Evolution of Glacier-Like Forms on Mars 

What’s it about? The mid-latitudes of Mars are populated by numerous water-ice-rich landforms known as Glacier-Like Forms (GLFs) that are similar in appearance to valley glaciers found on Earth. Little is known about these glaciers and how they have evolved over time. Using data collected by orbiting spacecraft, and computer climate modelling, I am attempting to provide insight into the geological evolution of these landforms and discover what environmental factors influence glacial evolution on Mars. 

Why this research? I have always been interested in space exploration and geology, particularly in geomorphology and how landscapes are formed. When you think of Mars, you think of a dry, cold, dead planet, not an active landscape with large glaciers on its surface. The difference between what I had known about Mars before and the excitement of what I could discover exploring another planet drew me to this research. It’s an amazing privilege to have the opportunity to look at Mars every day from images I have requested from spacecraft 140 million miles away.  

What’s your background? Like many Birkbeck alumni I was working a steady job when, aged 30, I decided to go back to university to study something I have always been passionate about: planetary science. I worked full-time whilst completing my degree at Birkbeck, and graduated in 2019. In 2020, this PhD was advertised at Birkbeck, and I was fortunate enough to be selected for the position. Now I’ve had the opportunity to teach one of the modules which got me here and help other students towards their goals of exploring the geology of our solar system. 

Poster Competition Runner-up: Laura Phillips-Farmer 

Thesis title: Where structural and individual factors interplay: Building on the pathways approach to homelessness  

What’s it about? It’s about looking at the factors involved in why and how people come to face homelessness in the UK. Currently, research is split between ‘individual factors’ or ’structural factors’ or episodes of both types of factors. I would like to explore the spaces where they interplay using Life Course Theory and by focusing particularly on families.  

Why this research? Homelessness in the UK is a crisis that many take for granted. Comparisons between countries show that policy makes a huge difference, but it is highly contested over. I wanted to provide research that would give some weight to arguments in these areas. I was keen to slightly dismantle this idea that there’s always going to be some people who are safely in housing and some people who don’t get that, and that there’s something inherent about ’those people’. Homelessness charities sometimes make the point that “we’re all only one or two months of pay away from being homeless”, but it’s more complicated than that, with inequalities being deeper rooted. I want my research to help people tackle that complexity.  

What’s your background? I’ve worked as a youth worker, managed a winter night shelter project, and also a support worker for a homelessness charity. I took the Birkbeck conversion MSc in 2019-20, studied a health and social psychology MSc at Maastricht University in the Netherlands the following year, and began my PhD in the summer of 2021. 

Poster Competition Runner-up: Clau Di Gianfrancesco
 

Thesis title: Collective Practices of Undoing and Unbecoming: Masculinity and Theatre of the Oppressed 
 

What’s it about? I am investigating the potentialities held by participatory theatrical practices, and more specifically of Theatre of the Oppressed, in troubling and re-imagining gender and masculinity. In my work, I consider the work of decolonial, antiracist, queer, and feminist thinkers – and specifically, those who have used theatre and performances as privileged sites to question and trouble gender normativity. My aim is to investigate theoretical and practical ways of doing and undoing gender and masculinity. I am using an ethnographic approach, detailing my experience with companies working with Theatre of the Oppressed in different parts of the world.  

Why this research? I have been interested in questions pertaining to gender, theatre and gender performances since my BA in Psychology. I find theatre an incredibly helpful and productive medium to explore questions of identity and gender. Given my added interest in collaborative storytelling and collective imagination, I think that theatre and performance offer privileged sites for such rich, artistic, multi-sensorial, embodied and collaborative ways. 

What’s your background? While studying for my BA in Psychology, I saw my first Theatre of the Oppressed play which I was so profoundly struck by it that it informed my dissertation. After my BA, I did a Master’s in Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck, where I learned about a rich variety of theories and methodological approaches and encountered a vibrant community of postgraduate students. After a year of working as a Research Assistant at Goldsmiths in the Department of Sociology, I was awarded the UBEL, ESRC 3+1 scholarship which is currently funding my PhD research. 

The PhD Network in-person Social

Our very first social since what feels like forever!

Most of us in this PhD Network have only seen and talked to each other virtually – over our shut-up and write group – and while strong bonds have been formed, it is finally time to organise the get together we have all been waiting for and quite frankly deserve.

For our new PhD cohorts, this is a great opportunity to meet some seasoned PhD students and grab as many tips and trick from them as possible! As such alumni are also welcome.

But it’s also a chance to get to know the group and who we are, and what the PhD Network does and how it can help you in your studies. PhD study can be very isolating and lonely and it takes a while to navigate all the hurdles that will inevitably come your way – we all know of this, trialled through it – but thankfully together, we can get through it in one whole-ish piece 🙂

I have chosen Coram’s fields as our location as they run a fully facilitated and supervised under 5’s playgroup from 9:30am- noon weekdays – it gives our PhD parents the option to join without worrying if they can or cannot bring children etc

It is a really nice space, with a cafe, and lots of lovely gardens.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to secure a budget for this picnic – so please do bring your own food and drinks. We will have a large blanket and some bits and bobbins to nibble but nothing substantial. I hope to see lots of you there. I am -fingers crossed – hoping for good weather and I know I will have good company 🙂 

PhD Mums Breakfast Club

Sundays 9am-11.30am every 4 weeks, starting 8 May

While this space is primarily designed for PhD mums, to talk about the difficulties in balancing motherhood, work and PhD study, and how we often fall through the gaps of these communities without having a community of our own, this is an all-inclusive group. Thus PhD dads, and other parental carers and those becoming parents or thinking of becoming parents during their university study are welcome.

This is a relaxed space for open conversation and dialogue. I may throw in a few games and some fun activities, we will see how we go. But mostly the space is for getting to know each other, to build a little community of peer support and share experiences unique to PhD mumming. Children are welcome, but equally, if you just need a few mins rest, both are welcome. Come as you are! Looking forward to meeting all of you BBK PhD mums and sharing a few laughs together as we navigate the joys but also perils of managing parenthood and PhD life.

Also, If you are a Birkbeck PhD student, and would like to join the Birkbeck PhD Students WhatsApp group please use the invite link below. It will automatically add you to our WhatsApp group. Or our Facebook group.

Join Zoom Meeting: Meeting ID: 846 1564 6681 Passcode: phdmum

Call for Interest/Papers – School of Law Annual PGR Conference

Thursday 26th and Friday 27th May 2022

Every year the Birkbeck Law and Criminology community comes together to listen to, discuss, and support PGR research at the School of Law Annual PGR Conference. We are delighted to confirm the dates for this year’s conference and to let you know that it will be taking place in-person at Birkbeck.

We encourage all PhD students within the School to use this opportunity to share their work – no matter what stage it is at! – and to hear and respond to the work of others within our research community. There is no theme to the conference as we would like the event to reflect the wide scope of fascinating and often intersecting topics each of us are working on across the department.

Presenting your work in academic settings is something that all PGR students who are planning to remain in academia need to have done before finishing their research projects, so this is a fantastic opportunity to gain (further) experience, and practice, refine, or experiment delivering your research in a friendly, supportive, and caring setting. Academic staff will be chairing panels and be in attendance, so this is also a useful chance to get some constructive feedback on your work from a wide variety of disciplinary experts.

Each paper should be 20 minutes. First year students are welcome to present shorter papers of 10 minutes if so desired. There will be Q&A sessions after each panel.

If you are interested in presenting, please send your name, a working title, and a few sentences describing the paper to birkbecklaw@gmail.com. This will enable us to organise the panels. However, if you would like to participate but need more time to develop your idea that is absolutely fine – just get in touch. It doesn’t have to be perfect at this stage! 

The deadline for submission is 5pm Friday 29th April 2022. 

We hope that this event will be a lovely chance for the Law & Criminology community to come together in-person for the first time in a while. However, we also acknowledge the many reasons that might make this impossible for some of us and so we are ready to explore hybrid options. If you want to participate but can only do so virtually, please get in touch with us. We are also keen to make the event as accessible as possible, so please let us know of any required adjustments if you are able to. 

Any questions or concerns, please contact us at birkbecklaw@gmail.com.

All the very best and we look forward to receiving the plans for your papers!

Lizzie, Jenny, and Shomo 

Law & Criminology PGR Reps

2022 LONDON CRITICAL THEORY SUMMER SCHOOL

Our internationally renowned London Critical Theory Summer School returns on Birkbeck’s campus in central London this summer from 27 June to 8 July. The LCTSS may revert to either a hybrid model or a full-scale online programme if Covid-related restrictions globally require us to do so.

Throughout the two weeks, attendees will be immersed in a substantial programme of study with the acclaimed critical thinkers Jodi Dean, Achille Mbembe, Sarah Nuttall, Etienne Balibar, Costas Douzinas, Stephen Frosh, Esther Leslie, Jacqueline Rose and Slavoj Žižek. We are also welcoming Sisonke Msimang as part of our strengthening connections to the WISER institute (Johannesberg).

The Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities are pleased to offer three bursaries to Birkbeck students and one bursary to an international student to cover the full cost of fees, travel and accommodation during the period of the Summer School in central London. 

This year, there will also be a LCTSS Virtual Programme, an educational experience for those: unsure whether they are ready for the full in person course; with concerns about travel; or on a reduced budget.

The deadline for applications is Friday 18 March. Application forms are available here.

London Open Research Week 25th – 29th October 2021

A group of London-based peers working in the areas of scholarly communication, research data management, librarianship, publishing, and institutional repositories decided to collaborate across institutional boundaries for London Open Research Week 2021: having experienced frustrations with the fractures and divides across the topologies of openness, we have worked together to try and forge a broad event for practitioners and research communities.

Predicated by our experiences at and beyond the four institutions collaborating in London Open Research Week, and working with the theme of  this year’s International Open Access WeekIt Matters How We Open Knowledge: Building Structural Equity, we have curated a diverse and engaging programme of live, online sessions that are free to attend.

Feminist perspectives from Early Career Researchers, critical perspectives on openness, and the increasing tensions arising in the realm of research evaluation and (biblio)metrics and the various intersections with open research will be included, amongst a wealth of international insights from scholars and professionals across the sector.

We welcome you to join us to share in the ideas and benefits that come from commons approaches; as a rich field, working collaboratively and exchanging experiences and ideas beyond our usual operational, departmental, and institutional limitations, we hope to explore the tensions that exist between our current conception and operation of openness in direct relation to structural equity in order to build upon and challenge the equitable premise that ‘open’ is often understood to imply.

For more information and to book please visit: London Open Research Week 2021 If you have questions about any of the events, please contact Emma Illingworth e.illingworth@bbk.ac.uk