Birkbeck in Venice for Study Trip 2019

Three students from the Department of History of Art reflect on their recent trip to Italy where they explored the architecture of various cities.

Around 30 Birkbeck students – postgraduate and undergraduate – congregated in Venice in April 2019 for the annual week-long study trip, led by the indefatigable and super knowledgeable Dr Sarah Ferrari and Dr Zuleika Murat from Padua (Padova) University.  Three of the group, Sue Joshua, Angela Parry, and Steve Cragg, share some of their memories and experiences….

Angela, an MA Museum and Cultures student:

If you think you know a city – think again!  These study-tours are not just about ticking off the top ten tourist attractions, but exploring off the beaten track, and taking time to really look at stuff!  We arrived on a slightly damp and chilly day, successfully negotiated the Vaporetto and found our hotel in Arsenale – a great location with lots of friendly local restaurants and cafés.  Then it was full-on. Taking in the unique beauty of Venice, walking, chatting with everyone and catching up with people from the 2018 Berlin trip (it’s easy to get hooked and keep coming back on these tours!).  My favourite off-tour location was the Greenhouse café at Sera dei Giardini in Castello, built in 1894 to create a “tepidarium made of glass and iron” and now a great place to just relax with coffee and a good book.  Top Tips; get the Blue Guide is great for extra information, comfortable shoes and an umbrella are essential, rest your eyes with some contrasting art. Sue, Steve and I took an hour out for a welcome blast at the Guggenheim Collection – and then it was back to those amazing frescoes!

Sue, an MA History of Art student:

Speaking of frescoes…. Mid-week we visited Padua, about half an hour from Venice by train but a world away in terms of architecture, open space and general tempo. The city is renowned for its fourteenth-century fresco cycles, many of them well preserved and easily accessible. Some of these testify to the ability of powerful and wealthy individuals to possess and transform prestigious urban spaces. Enrico Scrovegi was a wealthy merchant from a family with a dubious history of moneylending or usury. On land originally used as a Roman arena, he built a palace with its own private oratory, known as the Scrovegni (or Arena) Chapel. Visitors must sit in an air-conditioned waiting room for 15 minutes to allow their body humidity to cool. Time in the Chapel itself is limited to 15 minutes for a maximum of 25 people. Every surface of the walls and the barrel-vaulted ceiling is painted. There is a sense of being sheltered under a blue sky, pierced by stars, the colour an extraordinarily bright and deep ‘Giotto blue’. Nothing had prepared me for the visual and conceptual world created by Giotto in 1305. The central themes are the life of the Virgin and the life and ministry of Jesus, beginning with the story of Mary’s miraculous birth to her elderly parents Joachim and Anne. The narrative is presented chronologically, starting from the top tier and working around the Chapel and down in a kind of spiral, each scene pointing to what will follow. There are closed buildings and open spaces, contrasts of light and shade, bright and beautiful colours and above all humanity, wit and recognisable emotion in Giotto’s depiction of his characters.


Steve, a BA History of Art student:

San Zaccaria Altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini

Back in Venice, I’m concentrating on one work that stays with me from the trip.  We gathered in the rain early one morning in an eerily quiet square a stone’s throw from St Mark’s, and in front of the Convent and Church of San Zaccaria. Containing many stunning works, the five-metre high altarpiece (also known as Madonna enthroned with Child and Saints) by Giovanni Bellini from 1505 stands out (and the photograph I took is still my screen-saver).

It is an outdoor view of the Virgin and infant Christ in a rich architectural setting.  The main figures are flanked by meditative saints; whose demeanour and posing encourage a similarly thoughtful attitude in the viewer (especially this one suffering a little from too much Valpolicella the previous evening).    St Peter on the left earnestly clutches his keys in contemplation, and on the right St Jerome is immersed in an enormous Bible.  The inner figures of St Catherine and St Lucy bend attentively towards the Virgin. A single angel plays a stringed instrument at the foot of the Virgin’s pedestal.  Spending time in front of this work provides the perfect retreat from tourist-besieged Venice.  Although fighting to get a glimpse of the golden mosaics in St Mark’s was worth it too.

Next year’s trip has not been announced yet.  But do think of going – travel and accommodation are up to students to arrange, but the study programme itself (after entry fees etc.) is totally free. The trip is made possible by the generous support of the Murray Bequest and was set up in honour of the department’s founder Professor Peter Murray. The Bequest also offers a number of bursaries every year to students who would otherwise be unable to attend. Details on how to apply are circulated to students when information on the trip is released – usually in December or January. You can read blog posts about past trips here.

Further information:

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Science Week 2019: A talk on the adolescent brain

Georgina Donati, a Postdoctoral student at the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development reflects on a talk given by Dr Iroise Dumontheil, Reader in Cognitive Neuroscience, that explores how various brain networks, in particular, those linked to emotional reactivity, the control of behaviours, and social interactions, continue to develop during adolescence.

Dr Dumontheil started the talk with a short film about the adolescent brain.

The paradox of adolescence, Dr Dumontheil begins, is that while individuals are at the peak of their cognitive ability, they do not necessarily use this ability to make good real-life decisions. This talk explored what cognitive neuroscience has found out why this might be the case.

Across development, the brain goes through a gradual structural process of decreasing grey matter (the cell bodies and connections) and increasing white matter (the fat that covers the connections making them faster).  During adolescence, this is happening most clearly in the frontal and temporal lobes while at the same time cognitive control, social cognition and emotion regulation are changing and developing.

(Lebel & Beaulieu, Journal of Neuroscience, 2011)

Cognitive control: Several key aspects of cognitive control continue to develop during adolescence including the ability to inhibit a response or distractor, monitor, maintain and manipulate information in the mind; sustain, divide or select things for attention; shift between tasks, plan for the future and even try and remember future needs.  The development of these skills behaviourally coincides with brain-based changes in activation interpreted as a process of increased specialisation in the pre-frontal cortex.

Social cognition: Social cognition is how we process, store and use information about other people and how this influences us.

The social cognition between people who are all sharing in the same experience or emotion.

Adolescents exhibit different social behaviours to adults; they struggle with perspective taking but are also more aware of and responsive to social situations.  For example, in a study where both groups partake and are excluded from an online game of catch, adolescents experience more anxiety and negativity in response to this exclusion than adults.  In the brain during social cognition, adults recruit their temporal lobes more where adolescents recruit their prefrontal cortex.  This has been interpreted as a difference in strategy – adults use previous experiences to inform their understanding, whereas adolescents, perhaps lacking in previous experience, rely on abstract thought and cognitive control.

Emotions and Sensation Seeking: There are also changes in subcortical areas of the brain during adolescence which coincides with an increase in emotional reactivity and sensation-seeking behaviours.  Adolescent brains seem to react more strongly to fearful faces as well as taking more risks.  However, this increased risk-taking behaviour is only evident when in the presence of their peers, when alone they act similarly to adults and this effect has been replicated across different species.  Adolescent mice, for example, drink more alcohol when with their friends than when alone but adult mice do not.

At an age when individuals are starting to make their own choices, carve their own futures and develop their own identities, these sensitive exploratory behaviours could have adaptive or maladaptive outcomes.  Scientists such as Dr Dumontheil are trying to work out what factors might increase the adaptive rather than maladaptive outcomes.

Watch ‘The Adolescent Brain‘ video here.


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The Birkbeck Training Series: Tailored workshops for counsellors working in Higher Education

Aura Rico, a Student Counsellor at Birkbeck reports on the training sessions for counsellors that was set up last year. 

The UK has a healthy provision of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) courses for counsellors and psychotherapists. However, for some time it has been evident that there is a gap in the CPD offering for counsellors working in Higher Education, who due to high demand and limited resources, work to a short term counselling model – a maximum of six sessions per academic year.

The third session of the 2018-2019 series: ‘Working with Trauma and Sexual Abuse in Short-Term counselling’ in Higher Education facilitated by Christiane Sanderson who has written and worked extensively in this area. Christiane was a lecturer at Birkbeck for over twenty years.

It is well known that university support services are experiencing challenging times; across the sector, with ever-growing demand and longer waiting lists of students with serious and complex mental health problems who require specialist long-term interventions.

With secondary mental health services being cut or even closed, and waiting lists for psychiatric assessments and psychological therapy increasing, we are faced with unprecedented challenges.

In response to these challenging times, the Counselling Service at Birkbeck University created a space for training and dialogue on key topics such as risk, suicide and trauma.  The intention was to open a space where different university counselling services across the UK could come together to learn from each other by discussing key topics and ultimately better serve the student population.

We were delighted to see the positive response of the sector to our first training series with over 200 attendees.  We were fortunate enough to have experienced facilitators who engaged us all with fruitful discussions.

Given the high demand that our training programme generated and the positive feedback that we have received, we have decided to continue to provide a space for training and dialogue and we are delighted to be launching our 2019-2020 training series.


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Birkbeck brings Higher Education to union learners

On Wednesday 26th June, Union Learning Reps (ULRs) and organisers from unions, including PCS, Unison and USDAW came together for Birkbeck’s first ULR Skills Workshop on the theme of bringing Higher Education to union learners. In this blog, event organiser Sophie Swain of Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement (A&E) reflects on the day and the importance of trade union engagement.

My role as Access and Outreach Officer (Adult and Community) involves supporting trade union members with their transition into higher education.  Alongside Birkbeck’s 10% fee discount for trade union members, I coordinate an outreach programme providing information, advice and learning activities for trade union members who do not currently have a qualification above level 4 or whose jobs may be affected by automation.

This outreach work reflects the importance of the trade union movement in promoting learning and development, and I work closely with officials and reps who are involved with supporting trade union members to access further learning.

Together with a toolkit produced in conjunction with unionlearn, June’s event is intended to be the first in a series with the aim of equipping ULRs and organisers with useful knowledge and skills to both help them in their role and in providing advice and guidance for members considering studying at university.

Following an introduction to Birkbeck, attendees at the event took part in a coaching skills session led by Head of Access, Sahar Erfani, in which they were able to put into practice new techniques for supporting members to explore their options around further study. Andrew Liddell from Birkbeck’s Development and Alumni department spoke about Degree Apprenticeships at Birkbeck and Lucy Crittenden of Birkbeck Futures ran a session on how to promote the benefits of higher education to employers. Emily Harber and Andrew Jones of Linking London led an interactive workshop on the various higher education qualifications and the many different entry levels and to finish a number of attendees took part in a campus tour led by a member of Team Birkbeck.

Feedback from attendees was overwhelmingly positive. Sue Lapworth, ULR at PCS’s Criminal Justice Branch in Croydon said “I really enjoyed the event, it was good to learn what Birkbeck can offer our members and to look round the University. I enjoyed networking with other ULRs and the staff at the college, I am in a better position to advise members who may be interested.” Another event is planned for the Autumn.

To find out more about the union outreach work taking place at Birkbeck, email or visit

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