Category Archives: Science

Bringing staff, students and internationally acclaimed artists together to celebrate Diwali

The event, hosted by Birkbeck School of Science in collaboration with local Indian community Adda, attracted students and staff eager to celebrate Diwali and learn more about the folk culture and rural artistry of Bengal.  

Group picture with Dr Ana Parejo Vadillo (School of Arts); visiting artists Prasenjit Bhattacharjee, Esha Chakravarty, Babu Fakir, Subho Karmakar; and Professor Sanjib Bhakta

As part of this year’s celebration of Diwali, Birkbeck was delighted to support an international community-based project between the Government of West Bengal, India and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The project, called Rural Craft and Cultural Hubs (RCCH), is a collaboration between the Government of West Bengal, UNESCO and selected ambassadors to promote folk culture and rural artistry of Bengal. 

Three internationally acclaimed artists, Subho Karmakar, Babu Fakir and Saurav Moni, attended Birkbeck’s 2022 Diwali on Campus event on Monday, 24 October, performing and exhibiting a selection of arts and crafts to Birkbeck students and staff.  

Professor Sanjib Bhakta, based at Birkbeck’s School of Science, and ambassador for the project was one of the event’s organisers. He explained: “Diwali follows the epic story of ancient India, ‘Ramayana’, to represent the victory of good over evil and light over darkness. The symbolism of Diwali is appropriately summarised in the simple act of lighting a lamp or ‘diya’. This is said to ward off evil and welcome the Goddess Lakshmi (the Hindu Goddess of wealth and prosperity) into the house. The positive vibe that comes with the Diwali festival continues to be highly needed in the current challenging environment around the world.” 

An example of the traditional bites served during the event

Brought up in West Bengal, Professor Bhakta was excited to welcome the artists to the event and share with students and fellow staff more of his culture.  The artists played Baul music of Bengal and wore traditional clothing. The Baul are a group of mystics from the Bengal region who mix elements of Sufism and Vaishnavism. Considered to be both a religious sect and a musical tradition, Bauls are a very diverse group with many sub-sects but their membership mainly consists of Vaishnava Hindus and Sufi Muslims. They are often identified by their distinctive clothes and musical instruments, which the artists at the Diwali event also wore.  

The event was well attended, and some Indian students dressed in traditional clothing for the occasion. To reflect the importance of food in Indian culture, and particularly during Diwali celebrations, traditional sweet bites, fresh fruit and drinks were served alongside the entertainment.  

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Birkbeck School of Science Celebrated World Refugee Week 2022

A recount of an important and community focused event held for World Refugee Week.  

A group of people in a conference room chatting animatedly

World Refugee Week honours the strength and courage of refugees and is held to cultivate compassion for others. This week, Birkbeck School of Science hosted an interactive event exploring the theme of ‘Healing,’ to celebrate global community, mutual care, resilience, and the human ability to rise above. 

The event enjoyed a full-house audience and started with a couple of short presentations to highlight some of the work going on to support refugees and forced migrants at Birkbeck. 

Stories and Supper is a refugee and migrant supper club project based in Walthamstow, East London which seeks to challenge the myths surrounding the migration ‘crisis’ and provide a welcome space for refugees living in London. Helen Taylor and Olivia Sheringham shared the journey of their project in an engaging presentation. 

Isabelle Habib then presented an outstanding success of Birkbeck’s very own Compass Project, while some students from the School of Science shared their learning journey and experiences. Staff from the School of Science attended the event and interacted with the students too. After the presentations, the community spirit continued over refreshments, where good food and stories were shared. 

Co-organisers of the event, Katherine Thompson and Sanjib Bhakta commented:  

“It was great to hear the success ‘Stories and Supper’ and ‘Compass’ projects and appreciate the enormous contribution that they are making to our diverse international community. We really hope the event leads to more support for refugees and hopefully new links at Birkbeck for such collaborative initiatives.”  

Hosts:
Katherine Thompson (AD Equalities, Diversities, and Inclusion) 
Sanjib Bhakta (AD Internationalisation and Partnerships)
School of Science 

More information:  

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From leaving education at 15, to graduating with a Psychology degree

Anna Green is graduating this week with BSc in Psychology. Here she tells her story of her struggles with mental health growing up, her unconventional education path, and how Birkbeck’s Disability Service was instrumental in her ADHD diagnosis and her achieving a First-Class Honours. This is her #BBKstory.

Anna Green

I grew up in a working-class family, as an only child to a single mother. We moved around a lot, and I went to four primary schools in different parts of the country so I had a very disrupted education which lacked routine and consistency. I think this had quite a big knock-on impact as I found secondary school hard and I struggled to fit in. As a teenager, I could barely concentrate, got into fights with other children and by the age of fourteen was struggling severely with my mental health. Everything became overwhelming, which led to me spending four months in a mental health unit, and later that year, I lost my father to cancer. By the age of fifteen I had left mainstream education for good.

Aged 19, the opportunity to study GCSE’s and A-Levels at college arose and I studied for six GCSEs and two AS Levels. However, I lacked in direction and motivation, and abandoned education once again, working in hospitality until the age of 23 when I decided to give it another shot. I took a free, online Open University access course in People, Work and Society and once I completed that was delighted when Birkbeck accepted my application to study BSc Psychology. I knew psychology was the course I wanted to study because my teenage years were defined by my battles with mental health and I’ve always wanted to use my experiences to help other people going through similar challenges.

University was a turning point for me, as it was when I established my identity and got to know myself a bit more. It was a relief to be settled somewhere and be independent. I made friends quickly through group projects and I really enjoyed being around a range of people from interesting backgrounds. Being in the centre of London, with the British Library and nice pubs in Bloomsbury, meant I could socialise easily with people on my course. My days were busy but rewarding: I spent a few days a week working as a support worker for people who had acquired brain injuries, which was relevant to my degree and an opportunity that I stumbled across at Birkbeck’s annual Careers Fair. I also volunteered for Childline as a counsellor and tutored primary school children maths online through the pandemic. The great thing about Birkbeck is that it really allows you to balance work, volunteering and studying.

Unfortunately, in my second year, I began to struggle in familiar ways. The lack of focus was something I knew went beyond just a disrupted education and at times, an unstable childhood and I was finally diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). I found my diagnosis helped me understand myself, but I did find it hard to accept for about a year. I applied for Disabled Student’s Allowance and was granted weekly study skills support and a mentor. Mark Pimm, Birkbeck’s Disability Service Manager, was so supportive and oversaw this process and advocated for me to receive all the help possible, such as deadline extensions; extra time in exams; useful computer software and equipment; study skills support; and a mentor. With the help of Birkbeck’s Disability Service, I was able to graduate with a First-Class Honours in Psychology.

I am grateful to Birkbeck for normalising mature study, providing opportunities for those who may not have perfect grades and factoring in a person’s life experience when accepting applicants. I have met some wonderful people who I’m still in touch with now, and I’ve learned that there is no time limit on education, and sometimes it’s best to wait until you feel ready to give it a go. In future, I would like to do a Master’s in Forensic Psychology and get a place on the Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. I couldn’t recommend Birkbeck enough to any mature student and my confidence has transformed over the last three years.

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Science Saturdays: Differences in DNA – what makes you, you?

In May, Birkbeck’s School of Science held ‘Science Saturdays’, a programme of free online talks every Saturday, open to a global audience. In this blog, Maria Pitharouli, Birkbeck and UCL PhD student, gives her account of the talk she attended by Dr Emma Meaburn, Reader in Human Genetics, about DNA and its role in shaping each person’s development, behaviours, and health.

‘What makes us who we are?’, is a question that has occupied Dr Emma Meaburn since she was a teenager and it is what led her towards becoming a Behavioural Geneticist, as she explained in her recent talk.

Behavioural genetics is focused on the influence of nature (our genes) and nurture (the environment we are exposed to during our lives) on the differences we can observe or measure amongst people. But to understand the effect of nature and nurture we need to understand first what DNA is and how big a role it plays in our day-to-day lives.

The human genome is contained in the nucleus of every cell in our bodies, and it is the complete set of genetic instructions: a sequence of approximately 3 billion of the DNA bases adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T). Each cell has two copies of these genetic instructions, one inherited from the mother and one from the father. Most of the genetic code is identical amongst humans and follows a specific order. Dr Meaburn talked about why this similarity in the genetic code between people is so important; the sequence of A’s, C’s, G’s and T’s acts as a guide for our cells so they can function properly and create all the components needed to sustain life.

Image 1. The letter “V” indicates the genetic variants scattered throughout the human genome. Source: Polygenic Risk Scores (genome.gov)

However, despite this similarity there are parts of the DNA code that differ between people, called genetic variants (image 1), and they are scattered throughout the human genome. These DNA differences are what really interests Dr Meaburn as they might explain some of the variation in how we think, feel, and act, or why some of us develop health conditions. In the talk, Dr Meaburn described how behavioural genetic research has shown that there isn’t a single gene (or DNA difference) that can explain differences in human intelligence, personality, or susceptibly to mental health conditions such as depression. These complex (or multifactorial) traits and disorders are the result of lots (and lots!) of common genetic variants in combination with our different life experiences.

The talk then described a method called genome-wide association studies (or ‘GWAS’) that have been hugely successful in identifying the specific DNA differences that relate to complex human behaviours and traits.  The GWAS approach requires very large numbers of research participants – typically tens of thousands of people – who donate both DNA and information about their health and behaviours. Interestingly, while GWAS have identified many of the genetic variants that contribute to differences in human health and behaviour, Dr Meaburn emphasised that each of the variants found explains just a tiny amount of the differences we see amongst people. As a result, we now know that complex mental health conditions such as depression are polygenic; any single genetic variant does not cause the disorder, rather many of them together can increase or decrease one’s predisposition to depression.

Dr Meaburn went on to describe how polygenic scores – the sum of the effect of all genetic variants that can either increase or decrease risk to develop a disorder – could potentially be useful for identifying individuals more (or less) susceptible to a wide range of human behaviours or health outcomes (image 2).  However, it is important to keep in mind that polygenic scores will never be a ‘crystal ball’, as while DNA differences are important, we know that our environment and life experiences matter too.

Image 2. Polygenic scores can help us identify someone’s genetic likelihood to develop a specific disorder or trait. Source: Polygenic Risk Scores (genome.gov)

The take home message from the talk is that the DNA sequence you have inherited from your parents is an important piece of the puzzle in explaining what makes you, you. Your own unique DNA code plays a role in shaping your development and nudging your health in certain directions.  In the last ten years GWAS research has shown us which DNA variants are important, and the real challenge for the next ten years is understanding how they lead to differences between us in how our brains work, and how we interact with others and the wider world around us.

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