Collaborating with east London’s university community

Hester Gartrell, Senior Outreach and Access Officer for Stratford discusses the East London Collaboration Day that she organised with universities operating in east London. She also discusses the onus behind creating the East London Widening Participation Forum. 

While many might be used to universities coming together to recruit students at Higher Education Fairs, on the 25 February we brought universities together for a slightly different reason. 

Rather than just showcasing the courses offered by different universities, the East London Universities Collaboration Day aimed to make educational professionals working in schools, colleges and other organisations more aware of the outreach and widening participation offer available from universities based in east London.  

We all know that with increasing workloads and lots of things to juggle, it can often be difficult for teachers or other educational professionals to know who to contact at a university. Bring into the mix that universities have different specialties and their access work might focus on different groups and you have a situation where education professionals want to engage their students with the idea of university but don’t know where to start.  

This event that I set up and run in partnership with China Anya, Senior Outreach Officer at Loughborough University of London aimed to address this by giving people the opportunity to find out about the different universities specialities and meet face to face with widening participation teams. Attendees had the chance to network with universities and hear more about their outreach work, as well as take part in a workshop and panel session which covered topics such as student wellbeing, part-time study and funding options.  

Ten universities attended including established east London Higher Education institutions such as Queen Mary and the University of East London, and more recent arrivals to the area including Loughborough, Coventry and Staffordshire Universities 

The day was part of a wider initiative, the East London Widening Participation Forum that was set up in 2019 as part of the Access and Engagement Department’s outreach work in the Borough of Newham.  

It’s important that universities work together to help those who face barriers to accessing higher education. With lots of universities coming to east London as part of developments such as the Olympic park, 2019 seemed like the perfect time to bring established east London universities and more recent arrivals together. The aim of the forum is to see how we can work in partnership to help east Londoners take advantage of the activities and information about Higher Education offered by our forum’s members – who are right on their doorstep! 

We’re looking forward to seeing where the forum goes from here and are definitely hoping to run more workshops and events. We had over 30 professionals come along to the event and feedback from attendees has been great. There’s clearly an appetite for universities to come together and share their knowledge and expertise in a collaborative way. 

 

 

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Rosetta’s views of Comet 67P

Mauro Pirarba BSc, a Planetary Sciences Graduate Certificate student and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, discusses Dr Ramy El-Maarry’s recent talk on the geology of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Figure 1 – Five comets have been photographed at close range during flyby missions, but only one, comet 67P, has been studied closely for an extensive period of time (image credit: El-Maarry et al., 2019, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11214-019-0602-1)

Comets are temperamental, often breaking all rules, suddenly appearing out of nowhere, occasionally getting close enough to the Sun and the Earth to display long tails that make us marvel at their beauty and diversity. They have been studied by astronomers for centuries and yet we still do not understand them fully.

What can Dr. Ramy El-Maarry, a geologist at Birkbeck College, possibly tell about one of them, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, at a special meeting organized by the Royal Astronomical Society?

Does that C-something – G-something sound vaguely familiar? Perhaps you are more likely to remember another name, Rosetta, the probe of the European Space Agency (ESA) tasked with deciphering its mysteries, a few years ago. Launched in 2004, Rosetta reached Comet 67P in August 2014 and spent two years observing it closely.

“I have 80,000 images from that mission and 20 minutes to go through them…”, Ramy started his talk, to everybody’s laughter.

In fact, such a big figure hints at an unprecedented and extraordinary achievement. Twelve spacecrafts have sent back to Earth data about eight different comets and images of six of them (see figure.1). What makes Rosetta stand out is the length of the observation, two years, and its closeness, on average a few tens of kilometres. You may also remember that the mission included a lander, Philae, which failed to anchor itself to the ground and bounced a few times, before settling down and sending back images and data. The greatest feat though was achieved by the “mothership”, Rosetta, which accompanied the comet for most of its orbit around the Sun, taking images that show details as small as a fraction of a meter. These images have allowed scientists for the first time to observe geological processes, as they happened, on the surface of a comet.

We are all familiar with the effects of water, ice, temperature excursions and wind in weathering, transporting and depositing sediments, reshaping the landscape on the Earth. We’ve seen images of craters and the effects of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on our planet. What geological processes has ESA’s spacecraft uncovered on Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko?

This is a tiny world with a miniscule gravity and an irregular shape (approximately 4 x 4 x 2 km), made of porous and light material rich in different ices. The agent driving most geological processes on P67 is solar radiation. As the comet orbits the Sun along a very elongated orbit, which takes it further away from our star than Jupiter and then brings it not much closer to the Sun than Mars, insolation varies dramatically and seasons become extreme. Autumn and winter last about 5.5 years in the northern hemisphere, while the southern spring and summer last nearly a year and are relatively hot, causing the icy surface to sublimate copiously, creating a coma, a tenuous atmosphere. Activity is patchy, occasionally “violent”, jets of gas burst into space taking dust and larger particles with them. Significant amounts of gas and some of the dust are lost, but part of the solid material is transported by “winds” to the northern hemisphere, blanketing it with dust and coarser grains. Over time, the material moves down gentle and steep slopes, “pushed” by the weak gravity, forming a variety of terrains. These give the northern hemisphere a very different look from that of the southern half, which is quite rugged (see figure.2). One of the most striking images shown by Ramy was one where aeolian ripples appeared on an otherwise smooth terrain in the neck of the comet, a narrow region connecting the two main “lumps” that make up 67P. No one had ever thought such features could occur on a comet.

Figure 2 -Dr. El-Maarry shows how different the northern and southern hemispheres of comet 67P appear (image credit: El-Maarry et al., 2019, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11214-019-0602-1 and El-Maarry et al., 2016, https://www.aanda.org/component/article?access=doi&doi=10.1051/0004-6361/201628634).

The rate of ices’ sublimation is so high in some areas that several meters of materials are removed during the summer, uncovering a variety of features. Some of these are circular and resemble craters, others look like depressions that wax and wane over time. Their origin is baffling geologists, as that of other so-called transient surface features. Somewhere else on the surface of the comet new pits (probably sinkholes) appear and cliffs collapse. Outbursts of activity, driven by the Sun’s heat, propel jets that like rockets push the ground in the opposite direction, varying the speed of rotation of the comet. The resulting forces cause tension, leading to the formation of tectonic fractures, as several photos shown by Dr. El-Maarry clearly prove. Picture after picture a tiny complex word emerges, revealing to us in detail what we had been able to observe only from very far or for very brief instants, in the case of other comets.

In August 2016, Rosetta ended its mission and landed softly on Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The legacy of the mission is not just what it has taught us about Comet P67, but it goes beyond. As Ramy summed up at the end of his talk, the number of images and other data collected in situ is helping scientists not only to understand 67P, but also interpret previous and future mission to other comets. A long time is likely to pass, before a probe like Rosetta will be launched.

In the meantime, Comet Interceptor, a new exciting cometary mission is taking shape at ESA. We’ll ask Ramy to bring a few thousand pictures next time…

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William Matthews Memorial Lecture: ‘European Journeys, Medieval and Modern’

Dr Marion Turner’s lecture on Chaucer’s writings and journeys reframed the quintessentially English writer as a great European poet and source of inspiration beyond the continent.

Dr Marion Turner took an audience of Chaucer enthusiasts on a journey through the poet’s works for the 2019 William Matthews Memorial Lecture. Following on from her own travels around Europe, where she contrasted the medieval with the contemporary, she demonstrated how Chaucer weaved his journeys through Europe into his works of poetry. Geoffrey Chaucer was an English poet and author, whose most famous works include The Canterbury Tales. He is often thought of as ‘the Father of English Literature.’

During her research, Dr Turner endeavoured to go on a physical journey through contemporary Europe in order to retrace Chaucer’s journey through Medieval Europe, to understand his interests, works and what gives the writer appeal beyond the borders of England.

Early on in the lecture, Dr Turner shared the impetus of her travels; being approached to write a biography of Chaucer’s life. She lamented that, upon sitting down to write the book, the plan she sketched was not very different from any other biography written about Chaucer. Frustrated, she set out on a walk to help her find ways of approaching the structure of the book, when she came to her ‘road to Damascus moment’; the idea to approach Chaucer’s work through his travels through Europe in the fourteenth century as a way of understanding the writer in the reader’s imagination.

Dr Turner reflected on numerous characterisations of Chaucer as an English poet firmly rooted in the English imagination and identity. She used the example of UKIP aligning Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Alisoun with the party during the 2013 election, thus painting her as an English archetype. But this trope is challenged by the numerous writers of colour, particularly women, who have taken Chaucer’s work and adapted it to create stories in their own contexts.

What’s more, through her travels she found that Chaucer’s stories came from distant places made up of diverse demographics. Particularly Navarre, located in the northern region of Spain, where Chaucer visited and saw members of the three main religions living harmoniously. She highlights that in the medieval period the most educated of the population were multilingual and that Chaucer himself would have been influenced by French, Italian and Latin poetry, which he enjoyed.

Chaucer’s travels through Europe also highlighted to Dr Turner the importance he places on perspective in his work, and it is this transition of perspective that characterises much of his poetry. She gives the example of the prominence of birds and someone who can only see from the ground as a way of demonstrating these different perspectives, which will inform an individual’s thinking on any given situation.

The lecture concluded with a reflection on Chaucer’s views of time and crossings, the place of crossing being “a place of magic, darkness and possibility” – an ongoing action in which the past infiltrates the present, much like the persistent influence of Chaucer’s works on writers across place and space within the literary canon.

The William Mathews memorial lecture is an annual lecture on either the English language or medieval English literature.

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Birkbeck students’ away day fuelled their appetite for interdisciplinary collaborative research

Last week a select group of Birkbeck’s BSc Biomedicine and MRes Global Infectious Diseases project students with a few others visited The Francis Crick Institute, informally known as ‘Sir Paul’s Cathedral’, located just a short walk from Birkbeck’s main campus.

The Crick Institute (formerly the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation) is a biomedical research centre right at the heart of London. The institute is named after Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins.

La Young Jackson from International Students’ Administration team in collaboration with the Scientists from the Crick Institute organised this trip which was part of enhancing international students’ experience agenda at Birkbeck. The Birkbeck group was hosted and guided by Dr Minee Choi, a brilliant neuroscientist and researcher who showed the laboratory facilities and the sophisticated equipment used by the scientists working at the Crick.

Borna Matubber, a BSc Biomedicine Independent Research Project Student at Professor Sanjib Bhakta’s Mycobacteria Research Lab at Birkbeck, University of London said: “This was an amazing opportunity to interact with the scientists at the biggest single biomedical laboratory in Europe! It was truly motivating for young researchers like us to go above and beyond and appreciate how discoveries to change lives.”

Professor Bhakta adds: “A collaborative interdisciplinary approach is the way to address many of the major global challenges of our time. Students had the opportunity to step outside their lab and own zone of interest to think beyond the obvious, reflect and bring new energy back to their project. This would add great value to their research experience that we always encourage at our institution.” Professor Bhakta added.

Birkbeck officially partners with the Crick, UCL and LSHTM to jointly host the World TB Day 2020 on the 24 March at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health.

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