Knowledge without borders

Baroness Bakewell, President of Birkbeck, addresses the College’s newest graduates as she congratulates them on their achievements during Graduation Week.

In her speech, she emphasises that the upheavals of a changing world and the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union should not be allowed to stand in the way of knowledge-sharing and education, and how our news graduates can help to break down borders.

It is always a great pleasure to be with you here and offer my congratulations to you on your success. This is a day you will always remember; a watershed in your lives, your careers, that will have a lasting influence on how you live your future life – where you go, what you do and. most importantly, what satisfaction it brings you.

When I look out across a sea of faces and listen to your names, I am impressed by the range and diversity of our graduates. As for your names – you may notice that I try to catch the first name of each of you as I meet you as you cross the platform. That’s because each of you matters individually to Birkbeck. It’s not always easy; I can’t always get it right. There are some names that are not familiar to my own background in the north of England. But even as I hesitate in my wish to get it right, I take pleasure in knowing what a global reach Birkbeck has. I am always delighted to speak with those of you from places across the world. Birkbeck embraces you within its academic fold. And that goes too for my fellow Europeans.

Indeed, I want to say something more about this sense of belonging and the barriers that inhibit it. These are troubled times, when matters of identity – who you are and where you came from – are increasingly used to define and, indeed, restrict what you can do, where you can work and where you can make your home. The whole of Europe – and indeed the larger world – has a long history of men who drew lines on maps and made laws giving power to those lines. We are the inheritors of those maps, and we both thrive and suffer because of them. Not just in Europe but across the Middle East, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Americas  – tribes of mankind have settled and developed, have lived within those lines and traded across them. They are the nation states we have today.

I, the people on this platform and all of you enjoy crossing those lines.  As a young student long ago I remember being woken in the night on the train south by a man in uniform demanding my passport and shouting:  “We are now crossing into Switzerland.” I was thrilled. At the first station I got out to buy fresh Swiss coffee and cakes. It was all so new. I had grown up in a country at war so, of course, only the servicemen of our armed forces got to travel abroad. France, Belgium, Holland and beyond were all occupied by the Germans. I got my first taste of crossing a frontier when I went to France at the age of 16.

I offer these personal reminiscences to show just how much times have changed. And then something important happened: the foundations of what we today call the European Union were created. And something happened in our family, too. Something I had never seen before: my father wept. He wept with joy that never, never again would there be war on the continent of Europe such as he had seen twice in his lifetime: the First World War with its death toll of 17 million. And the Second World War, including the war in the Pacific, with over 50 million dead.

He cried for himself and for his children: they would inherit a safer, more coherent Europe. And so it came about.

But wars did happen, and barriers took on a new significance. In the Middle East, and across Africa, people fled their homelands, crossed legal lines between countries to seek refuge from conflict or to seek a better life for themselves. They crossed frontiers in their millions and, in so doing, changed not only their own lives but the lives of those from whom they sought asylum. One of the outcomes of these shifts has created the world we have today: a world at odds with itself, finding it hard to formulate new rules by which to live – and, incidentally, defying the precepts of many of the world’s great religions which is always to “welcome the stranger”; make him welcome within your gates. People have increasingly become dogmatic, hostile, uneasy about their lives and their homelands.

But there is another – and, I believe, more powerful – impulse at work in the world: and we here today can be part of it. Knowledge is universal. The discoveries of science, medicine, social welfare, anthropology, literature, cultural studies are shared by scholars and institutes of learning around the world. It is crossing lines. It knows no boundaries.   The wisdom of study, the richness of shared understanding, the value of scholarship is something we are taking part in, simply by being here today.

Your remit extends around the world and your future careers will reach into many countries and communities. What we have in common is stronger than what divides us; stronger than the lines on the map; and we are here today to celebrate that shared outlook. Congratulations again to you all.

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Orientation 2017: Welcome to Birkbeck

New and returning students joined this year’s Orientation events.

A new year at Birkbeck kicked off with Orientation, a range of events to enable students to familiarise themselves with the campus, get to know fellow students and refresh academic skills to boost their confidence.

It was an action-packed and busy day with nearly 2000 new and returning students signed up to browse the Fresher’s Fayre in the marquee outside the main campus, in order to find out about college sports and societies, ask current students questions about life at Birkbeck, and pick up some freebies.

There were also a range of talks throughout the afternoon on key topics to help students get their years’ off to a great start, on topics from looking after mental health, time management, to preparing for dissertation writing, and campus tours throughout the day.

Thank you to all who attended.

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Science Week 2017: Resistance – film screening and panel discussion

Dr Clare Sansom, Senior Associate Lecturer in Biological Sciences, writes on the screening of Resistance: not all germs are created equal and panel discussion on antibiotic resistance, which took place as part of Science Week 2017

resistance_panel-disc-3Antibiotic resistance is one of the most crucial issues facing humanity in the early 21st century, with some commentators even suggesting that it poses as serious a threat to civilization as climate change. It was therefore timely that one of Birkbeck Department of Biological Sciences’ contributions to Science Week 2017, with its strapline ‘Microbes in the Real World’, should tackle the issue. This took the form of a screening of an award-winning feature film from 2014, Resistance (subtitle: Not all germs are created equal) followed by an extensive and lively panel discussion. The four panellists were scientists from the department whose research is geared to the development of antimicrobial drugs: Dr Sanjib Bhakta, a Reader in microbiology; Professor Nicholas Keep, Executive Dean of the School of Science and a structural biologist; and two promising students from Dr Bhakta’s lab: PhD student Arundhati Maitra and MRes student Alina Chrzastek.

Not surprisingly, given the timeliness of the issue and (it has to be admitted) the size of the venue – the tiny Birkbeck Cinema in Gordon Square – the session was over-subscribed. After a short introduction by Dr Bhakta, who used his own research field of tuberculosis to set out the ‘global threat’ of drug resistance, the packed audience were treated to 70 minutes of engaging and at times chilling documentary. The film, by US producers Ernie Park and Michael Graziano or, collectively, Uji Films, uses a combination of archive footage, animation, interviews and personal stories to explain how we have arrived at a point where antibiotics are failing and what we need to do to ‘save antibiotics in order to save ourselves’. Although the film was made in the US and focuses on US policies and case studies, the problem it describes is a global one and it would not have been difficult to find equivalent examples in the UK.

The producers weaved three case studies of patients who had suffered antibiotic-resistant infections engagingly through the footage. We were introduced to a teenage lad who had been exceptionally lucky to survive drug-resistant pneumonia with some disability; a fit, middle-aged man who picked up methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) while surfing and is now seriously disabled; and, most harrowingly, a mother whose 18-month-old baby picked up a new strain of MRSA and died within 24 hours.

The film’s narrators explained that all antibiotics are ‘poisons that kill bacteria but not us’; if they don’t kill the bacteria they make them stronger. Using antibiotics in such a way as to promote this rapidly sets up a ‘Darwinian battleground’ in which weak bacteria are knocked out but strong ones survive. This can happen very quickly because bacteria grow and divide so fast. In the words of scientist and author Maryn McKenna, we had the only effective way of killing bacterial pathogens and squandered it. And we have done this in three main ways: by over-use in the environment, in agriculture and in medicine.

The first two of these are particularly prevalent in the US and some Asian countries and less of a problem in Europe, where regulation is stronger. In the US, antimicrobials are used in everyday household products, sprayed on everything from fruit trees to kitchen counters. And once farmers had realised that constant small doses of antibiotics made livestock grow faster and fatter, even in crowded, unsanitary conditions, they were determined to keep doing so even though it ‘makes as much sense as sprinkling antibiotics on your children’s cereal’. Most US-produced meat and poultry is now contaminated with resistant bacteria, and occasionally this is multi-drug resistant. A Danish hog farmer, Kaj Munck, explained the sensible approach taken in Denmark where antibiotic growth promoters in animal feed were banned in 1995 following an extensive public debate. The Danish pig industry is still profitable, producing 28 million a year: about the same as the state of Iowa.

The beginning of the antibiotic era in human medicine coincided with World War II, when it was seen as a ‘miracle drug’ for curing infected wounds. Over-use, however, started very soon: penicillin was given to overseas sex workers, not to protect them from infection but to prevent their US military clients from becoming infected. The danger of resistance was known as early as 1945, when Sir Alexander Fleming told the New York Times that “in such cases the thoughtless person playing with penicillin is morally responsible for the death of the man who finally succumbs to infection.” Doctors who prescribe antibiotics inappropriately are often not morally wrong, or even thoughtless, but over-anxious to avoid mistakes when the chance of an infection being bacterial is low but not vanishingly so. Readily available, rapid diagnostic tests would go a long way towards preventing this type pf misuse.

It would not matter as much if antibiotics became ineffective if there were other molecules ready to take their places. However, the current antibiotic pipeline is weak, with few drugs coming through. Pharma companies can spend at least a decade and a billion dollars on developing a single drug, so it makes more sense to work on drugs like statins that patients must take every day. We must begin to encourage and reward companies that bring forward antibiotic ‘drugs of last resort’ rather than best-sellers. In short, the film concluded, the problem of antibiotic misuse is a classic example of ‘the tragedy of the commons’; one individual’s over-use of antibiotics may be neutral or even beneficial, but if everyone does it there will be a huge problem. To win the arms race against bacteria we may need to redesign all the processes through which we discover, use and protect antibiotics, and to ‘use our wits to keep up with their genes’.

Bhakta introduced the panel discussion with a short explanation of the molecular mechanisms through which bacteria acquire resistance to antibiotics. Bacteria evolve quickly, and almost all have acquired some resistance either intrinsically, through mutations, or by acquiring resistance genes directly from other species. This is an inevitable process but we have some control over how quickly it occurs: good antibiotic stewardship is as important as innovative science for winning the ‘arms race’ described in the film.

Bhakta’s group at Birkbeck is interested in tackling the problem of resistance through discovering new compounds with novel modes of action and by aiming to ‘re-purpose’ some over-the-counter medicines that are already in use for other indications. Drugs in this category will have already been shown to be safe and are therefore quicker and cheaper to develop. Keep summarised the role of structural biology in antibiotic discovery as one of determining the structure of bacterial proteins that might be vulnerable to attack by drugs and identifying compounds that can bind to and inhibit them. We are now often able to see directly how these structures are changed by mutations that increase (or decrease) resistance.

Bhakta chaired the discussion that followed, which was extensive and wide-ranging, taking in politics and economics as well as science and medicine. Several questions touched on the role and responsibilities of the pharmaceutical industry, which is reluctant to invest in drugs that will only be used for short periods. More drug discovery than ever before is taking place in academic labs and small companies, often working together; Maitra, whose Birkbeck Anniversary PhD studentship is part-funded by Wellcome, highlighted the role of the Trust in promoting links with industry. Re-purposing drugs that have already been used clinically is much cheaper than developing a molecule from scratch. MRes students in Bhakta’s lab, including Chrzastek, are testing common anti-inflammatory drugs against Mycobacterium tuberculosis and have found some potentially useful activity although the mechanism of action is still to be explored.

Other questions focused on the need for strict antibiotic control measures. In many European countries, including the UK, antibiotics are only available on prescription and cannot be used as growth promoters in animal feed. This ‘best practice’ needs to be replicated worldwide, but it will be an uphill struggle. Bhakta told the audience that he often visits countries in south and east Asia where resistance is prevalent and has seen antibiotics available over the counter there. In countries without strong, publicly-funded healthcare systems there are often incentives for doctors to over-prescribe drugs including antibiotics. And even where this is not an issue, patients need to be educated to think of antibiotics as drugs of last resort rather than demanding them for every upper respiratory tract infection.

It was perhaps inevitable that someone would ask the ‘Brexit question’: in this case, is there a danger that we would reverse some of our ‘best practices’ when we are no longer bound by EU regulations? Encouragingly, Bhakta doubted that anyone would want to get rid of rules with such clear benefits. He felt that the now inevitable move of the European Medicines Agency, which regulates all medicines marketed in the European Economic Area, from London – and the confusion about how the UK drug market will be regulated – does present a danger, to our strong research base. And however the politics develops the international collaborations that UK-based doctors, scientists and entrepreneurs have built up over decades must be maintained.

Other Science Week 2017 events:

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Science Week 2017: the source of human irrationality

Professor Nicholas Keep, Executive Dean of the School of Science, writes about Professor Mike Oaksford‘s Science Week 2017 talk on Tuesday 4 April
department-sliderProfessor Oaksford, the head of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck, gave a talk on the source of Human Irrationality. There are proposed to be two systems for decision making.  System 1 is the older system shared with other animals and is fast and unconscious.  System 2 is slower and uses language and working memory to form a reasoned argument. It had been argued that irrational decisions arise from System 1 and System 2 is rational. However, Professor Oaksford argued the opposite. Studies of other animals such as starlings show that they are rational using System 1 and Professor Oaksford shows studies supporting the fast, unconscious response being rational in human. It is therefore, Mike argued, System 2 that leads to irrationality. It requires conversion of the unconscious processing into language and there is limited working memory to support system 2. Further, we do not (or cannot?) fully check all steps in our unconscious inference. The use of language can override our rational response and introduce errors of rationality.

What then is the advantage of language? It is that it allows us to be social and communicate our thoughts and plans with others thus accessing a wider range of experience and to store them in written form to recover them later. These social interactions should allow correction of our imperfect System 2 leading to better outcomes than System 1. I wold not be quite sure that this social correction is yet perfect judging by recent election results. There seems to be an ability to construct contradictory and mutually exclusive ‘rational’ views through social interaction.

Watch Professor Oaksford’s lecture on the source of human irrationality:

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