The challenges of peace-building, leadership and completing a PhD

This post was contributed by Kevin Teoh, a PhD student and staff member in Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology.

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When a notice in February asked for volunteers to organise the second joint PhD Conference between the Departments of Organizational Psychology and Management, I thought: ‘heck, why not – how hard can it be?’ The work began almost immediately: sorting out venues and keynote speakers, collating abstracts and printing booklets; it may seem like a lot of work, but with some organisation and a good team, we made light work of it. Besides, picking out drinks for the wine reception doesn’t really constitute work!

The day in late September was soon upon us, and over forty of my peers from across the globe converged on central London to talk about where we were at with our PhDs. A range of topics was covered, with varied subjects including theories, methodologies, findings and even reflections on personal growth (video of the day available). People shared ideas, advice was given, and encouragement provided. My own presentation was about junior doctors and their working conditions, and how I intended to explore the link to patient safety. This subject itself is very topical, especially as Birkbeck researchers recently highlighted how patient mortality rises in August when new junior doctors start working in hospitals. Presenting my work gave me a chance to verbalise and focus on the core emphasis of what I am researching , and I was told about some resources to help with a prospective study as well.

In addition to the student presentations, we organisers pulled off quite a coup by securing the attendance of two high-profile keynote speakers. In the morning keynote (video available here), former Birkbeck student Dr Peter Davis talked about his work in the area of post-conflict peace building in countries such as Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Nigeria. What struck me most was how Dr Davis used his PhD to have a real-world impact. I certainly had not realised the important role the private sector has in developing a functioning economy, vital in sustaining peace.

Professor Adrian Furnham, from University College London, spoke on leadership derailment in the afternoon keynote (video available here). A very lively speaker, Professor Furnham distinguished between incompetent and derailed leaders; the former represents the lack of ability, and the latter represents too much of a particular characteristic. It made me wonder, we often consider the narrative of incompetent managers in the NHS, but what about those who are derailed? Perhaps I should integrate this somehow into my research with junior doctors.

PhD work can at times be a lonely affair. However, I think the numerous brilliant presentations, and the informal discussions and socialisation between sessions reinforced that we are in fact part of a wider, supportive community. It allowed many of us to put a face to a name, and better understand what others were doing. One of our peers had just finished her own PhD, and it was the first time she could use the ‘Dr’ prefix. She was deservedly excited about her accomplishment, and it was wonderful encouragement for us to persevere with our own work. By the end of the day, the overall feedback was positive with everyone benefitting from participating. Although the conference is now over, we are already looking at how we can improve further for next year’s event.

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The evolutionary secrets of garden flowers described at Birkbeck’s Science Week

This post was contributed by Tony Boniface a member of the University of the Third Age.

Science Week logo

Science Week logo

On 3 July, Dr Martin Ingrouille, of Birkbeck’s Department of Biological Sciences, began his talk by pointing out that Darwin had studied plants for 40 years and had published books on pollination. However, Darwin knew nothing of genes and chromosomes and could not explain the rapid origin of flowering plants in the Cretaceous period.

Dr Ingrouille continued by emphasising that garden plants are sterile and exotic plants without their natural pollinators. They have been selected for showiness, many being artificial hybrids. He referred to Goethe, who stressed the essential unity of floral parts, which have all evolved from leaves.

Dr Ingrouille explained how genetic control, in its simplest form, consists of three classes of genes: A, B and C. Class A genes control sepals and petals, class B genes control petals and stamens, and class C genes control stamens and carpels. Mutations of these genes result in parts being converted into others.

Floral evolution in plants could have been the result of duplication of basic genes allowing one to perform its normal function while the other could give rise to a novel structure or function. New plant species have often arisen by chromosome doubling in a sterile hybrid as seen in the formation of Primula kewensis.

Dr Ingrouille then explained how much insight into plant evolution arose from the work of John Gerard (gardener to William Cecil), John Ray (author of the first modern text book of botany) and the Jussieus family (three generations of gardeners to the king of France). These people put plants into groups that were the first natural classification of the angiosperms.

Now DNA sequencing has resulted in a detailed understanding of the phylogeny or evolutionary history of these plants in which many of the families have survived such as the umbellifers and legumes but some such as the figwort family have been split. The result was the arrangement of the plants into two main groups namely the Eudicots, with three  grooves on their pollen grains, and the Basal Angiosperms, with only one groove. Within the Eudicots are the Core Eudicots including the Rosids and the Asterids whilst the Monocots are within the Basal Angiosperms. The first ancestor was Amborella trichopoda, a weedy shrub from New Caledonia in the Pacific – a place Dr Ingrouille hopes to visit on his retirement.

Dr Ingrouille finished  by urging his audience – all members of the University of the Third Age (a movement for retired and semi-retired people to come together and learn together) – to examine their garden plants in detail to look for the variations, which suggest their origins.

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Exploring the hidden complexities of routine behaviour at Birkbeck’s Science Week

This post was contributed by Guy Collender, Communications Manager, Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

Dr Richard Cooper

Dr Richard Cooper at Birkbeck’s Science Week

How often do you forget to attach the relevant document when you are sending emails? When was the last time you accidentally put the coffee in the fridge instead of the milk? Or, more alarmingly, when did you last leave the nozzle of the petrol pump in your car when you drove off from the petrol station? (Yes, believe it or not, there is ample photographic evidence to prove the last point).

Such errors, made during routine tasks, were the centre of attention at a fascinating lecture, entitled The hidden complexities of routine behaviour, during Birkbeck’s Science Week. Dr Richard Cooper explained why it is important to understand routine behaviour, why mistakes are made during everyday tasks, and the implications for the rehabilitation of brain-damaged patients.

Benefits of routine behaviour
The presentation on 3 July began with a description of routine behaviour and its advantages. Dr Cooper, of Birkbeck’s Department of Psychological Sciences, defined routine tasks, such as dressing, grooming, preparing meals, and cleaning, as frequently performed tasks carried out in a stable and predictable environment. By automatically performing various stages in a routine task, people do not have to plan every action on a moment-by-moment basis. This, as Dr Cooper showed, saves the mental exertion associated with constant planning, and enables the brain to think about other things when performing routine tasks.

Difficulties associated with routine tasks
However, routine tasks are prone to error, especially following an interruption, and these mistakes may have “catastrophic consequences”, including vehicle collisions and industrial accidents. Dr Cooper said: “Routine behaviour is not something we can take for granted.”

The lecture continued with a list of different types of errors made while performing routine tasks. These include omission errors (leaving out a vital task), perseverative errors (repeating an action even though the goal has been achieved), and substitution errors (mixing up objects).

Dr Cooper showed how people with brain injuries are much more prone to making these mistakes. He said: “Neurological patients can have a much more difficult time.” They can suffer from a range of problems, including anarchic hand syndrome (where one hand performs involuntary movements), frontal apraxia (which leads to patients making sequential errors and substitution errors on a minute-by-minute basis), or ideational apraxia (which leads to the right action, but wrong place – such as trying to light the wrong end of a candle).

Devising solutions
Dr Cooper also referred to studies of brain-damaged patients in rehabilitation clinics and their performance of routine tasks in a controlled environment. He said: “Re-learning must focus on rote learning of the precise procedure, with no variation. Home environments should be designed to minimise distractions.”

Dr Cooper also hinted at future developments in this field as smart devices might be able to monitor the performance of routine tasks for certain errors. Hopefully the latest technology will be able to help reduce everyday problems in the years ahead.

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Olympic gold medallist shares the secrets of his success at Birkbeck’s Business Week

This post was contributed by Guy Collender, Communications Manager, Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

Adrian Moorhouse MBE, Olympic gold medallist, speaking at Birkbeck's Business Week

Adrian Moorhouse MBE, Olympic gold medallist, speaking at Birkbeck’s Business Week

The phenomenal swimming achievements of Adrian Moorhouse MBE speak for themselves: world number one from 1986 to 1992 for 100m breaststroke, Olympic gold medal winner in 1988, and serial breaker of world records. He has also been incredibly successful in business. The management consultancy he co-founded, called Lane4, boasts 80 staff, works in 30 countries and has been recognised repeatedly by The Sunday Times as one of the best 100 small companies to work for. How did he manage to transfer his success from the pool to the boardroom? That intriguing question was the subject of the Alec Rodger Memorial Lecture, entitled What can business learn from sport?, which Moorhouse delivered on 24 June during Birkbeck’s Business Week.

Moorhouse emphasised the importance of applying sporting practices and insights from organisational psychology to create conditions for success. He explained how this was the philosophy of the University of California, where he trained after winning a sports scholarship at age 18. Often referring to the success of Team GB at the 2012 Olympics, he described how the athletes were assisted throughout in a way that is rarely the case for businesses. This approach helped Team GB to third position in the medal table. He said it is necessary to identify “critical performance moments” and then give people what they need when they need it. He also stressed practising under pressure, learning from failure and setting goals as part of talent development.

Moorhouse continued by focusing on goals, saying: “Sport motivates people well with goals. People [in business] don’t work hard enough on meaning.” He employed a goal framework to show how to divide the ultimate goal into manageable stepping stones en route to the overall prize, and how he had to meet a mind-boggling 400 key performance indicators on his way to winning gold in Seoul during his four-year Olympic campaign.

Building mutual trust within teams was highlighted as an essential component of success. He explained how leaders have to believe in people and work together on goals, and how individuals need to be “team-fit”.  He said: “My goal is to create an environment where people can be brilliant. My job is to release their talent.”

Aside from the role of the team, Moorhouse did refer to the personal resilience, self-esteem, self-belief, discipline and rigour required to succeed. He shared a headline from The Daily Telegraph, which declared “Moorhouse is a failure”, after he came fourth in the 1984 100m breaststroke final. At the next Olympics he was to prove the journalist wrong when he won gold.

Moorhouse did explain that not all sporting skills and approaches can be transferred to the world of business, but it is clear that his sporting background and “entrepreneurial nature” are enabling him to succeed.

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