Combining postgraduate study with raising six children

Bioinformatics graduate Rudo Supple returned to education after spending 15 years out of the workplace while she raised her children.

After 15 years spent raising her six children, Rudo Supple felt ready for a new challenge. Having studied Economics and Japanese as an undergraduate, Rudo couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe she’d made the wrong choice about what to study at A-level, and decided to look into going back to university to study science.

She initially applied to study medical statistics at Birkbeck, but while looking up information on the types of career that medical statistics graduates went onto she came across the term ‘bioinformatics’. She recalls: “I had never even heard of bioinformatics, but then I discovered that Birkbeck offered a Master’s in it and when I looked at the course content I realised that this was the right programme for me.”

Despite having no background in either biological sciences or computer science, Rudo enrolled on the MSc Bioinformatics with Systems Biology after talking to the course admissions tutor.

“When I started the course my aim was just to pass. I wanted to challenge myself academically after so many years without an academic challenge but I really didn’t know whether I would be able to keep up with the subject material without having prior knowledge.

“It was incredibly daunting to come back into education after so long. Even the one area that I was vaguely familiar with from my undergraduate studies – statistics – had changed enormously, and whereas I had been used to looking things up in tables, we were now running them through computational models.”

While many part-time students at Birkbeck are combining their study with work and therefore need to study in the evenings, for Rudo, who was commuting to Birkbeck from Oxford, it made sense to follow the daytime modules from the full-time programme and study from 2pm-5pm – which meant that she could be back in Oxford for the children’s bedtimes.

Rudo’s children were initially sceptical about the idea of her going to university – something they saw as ‘for young people’ and which was only a few years away for her eldest son himself. “I think that now my kids just see study as ‘what mum does’. I’m pleased to have modelled for them the idea that your education doesn’t stop when you leave school or university as a young person – that there’s no time limit on learning.”

After receiving a merit in her first module, the doubts about whether she’d be able to complete the programme slowly began to recede for Rudo. She says: “You pass one module, then another, and after a while you realise that it’s not going too badly. But at the end of the first year, when my tutor said that I could potentially get a distinction I just laughed. I had an excellent supervisor for my project and in the end I did go on to get a distinction overall.”

Not only did Rudo begin to believe that she was capable of passing the course at Birkbeck, she began thinking about a PhD as well. She says: “Commuting to Birkbeck two afternoons a week was manageable but I knew that it would be easier for me if I could do my PhD closer to where I live. The academic standard at Birkbeck was so high that I knew that if I was good enough to do a PhD there, then I would be good enough to do one at Oxford, and so that is where I applied.”

Now in the first year of her PhD at Oxford, Rudo has no regrets about taking a chance on a brand new subject at Birkbeck. She says: “I’m so grateful to all of the tutors and my supervisors at Birkbeck. They never minded when I asked a thousand questions about everything – and actually liked it when students asked questions as it showed how engaged we were with the subject matter.

“I couldn’t have done it without the help of my husband, mother and friends who looked after the kids at weekends and evenings when I was studying. They all knew how important this was to me and supported me throughout.

“In my dissertation I wrote inside the cover page that you should follow your dreams. If you have support – from a good university and from your family – then nothing is too outrageous and you should follow your most fantastic dreams – there is no limit. I’m so proud of what I’ve achieved.”

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Driving innovation in the UK through collaboration and the Industrial Strategy

Yossie Olaleye from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics reports on a recent conference at the Birkbeck Centre for Innovation Management Research (CIMR) on the UK’s Industrial Strategy.

Innovation and technological advancement lie at the heart of industrialisation. In November 2017, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) published the UK government’s Industrial Strategy White Paper, which presents a ‘modern’ long-term plan to boost productivity across the country through innovation, infrastructure development, and collaboration. The Industrial Strategy focuses on the 5 foundations of productivity – ideas, people, infrastructure, business environment, and places – and the government hopes to encourage collaboration with industry, academia, and civil society to create an economy that works for everyone.

Various questions emerged from the debate around the white paper, including how the government will support science and innovation research, and how to drive growth and local inclusion across the country. These questions formed the basis of the all-day workshop on Innovation and the UK’s Industrial Strategy hosted by Birkbeck’s Centre for Innovation Management Research (CIMR) on 23 March 2018. The event brought together a group of policymakers, including Paul Drabwell, Deputy Director of Science Research & Innovation and Dr Rosa Fernandez, Economic Adviser on Local Business Growth at BEIS, industry experts such as Professor Birgitte Andersen, CEO of Big Innovation Centre, and renowned UK academics who travelled from Kent, Oxford and Sheffield to share their latest research and comparative perspectives on the Industrial Strategy.

The objective of the workshop was to explore the trends that led to the formulation of the Industrial Strategy, and the possible outcomes of implementing the Grand Challenges outlined in the white paper, focusing on innovation, collaboration, and local partnerships. While the workshop dealt with several topics, including the impact of Brexit on achieving the strategy’s outcomes, presented by Birkbeck’s Professor Klaus Nielsen, two key themes stood out: local, regional and national engagement to deliver on economic opportunities, and driving innovation through digital skills development.

Paul Drabwell opened the workshop by emphasising the government’s commitment to increase R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. He said that the UK “has world-leading science research, excellent universities, and innovative companies,” and it is these strengths that will drive the implementation of the strategy. Increased R&D funding will enable UK universities to continue to excel in international league tables, collaborate more with industry partners, and encourage innovation across the country, a theme which runs throughout the Industrial Strategy. Despite the UK’s strengths, Paul Drabwell noted that there are issues around local engagement in the country, which means that there is a crucial need to drive productivity and maintain a high level of employment. This is a challenge the government hopes to resolve through the £1.7 billion Transforming Cities Fund to improve intra-city transport links and promote local growth within city regions. Dr Rosa Fernandez expanded on this point with a presentation on the role of place in the Industrial Strategy, highlighting that the UK government intends to build on local strengths to tackle the issue of poor distribution of economic activity across the country.

A key question at the workshop was the role of research and the UK’s academic institutions in delivering the possible outcomes of the Industrial Strategy. We heard from Dr Keith Smith at Imperial College London who discussed the need for multinational collaboration to deal with innovation challenges across different industries, and Birkbeck’s Professor Helen Lawton Smith who presented research on the importance of local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) in addressing the challenge of regional inequality in the country. Professor Jeremy Howells from the University of Kent and Professor Tim Vorley from the University of Sheffield focused their presentations on the potential for business schools to convene and work with other social science schools to create solutions for the challenges of productivity and job creation discussed in the white paper.

The takeaway from this workshop was that collaboration – from government, industry, universities, and local communities – is essential if we are to achieve the ambitious objectives of the Industrial Strategy, as well as greater investment in research and innovation to support skills development.

One notable example of such collaboration is the Institute of Coding (IoC), which was announced by Prime Minister Theresa May at the World Economic Forum 2018. Birkbeck is a partner in a consortium of over 60 universities, businesses such as IBM and Microsoft, and professional bodies, to tackle the digital skills gap in the UK through the IoC. By bringing together such diverse perspectives, the CIMR workshop stimulated debate and provided useful suggestions for how academics can work effectively with business leaders and the government to drive innovation in the UK through research collaboration and meaningful partnerships.

Many thanks to all who participated and attended the workshop.

Organisers: Professor Helen Lawton Smith, Professor Klaus Nielsen, Professor Jeremy Howells, and Dr Rupert Waters.

Further speakers:

  • Professor Sharmistha Bagchi-Sen, State University of New York
  • Professor Åsa Lindholm Dahlstrand, Lund University
  • Dr Alexander Grous, London School of Economics and Political Science
  • Dr Carl Hunter, CEO & Managing Director, Coltraco Ultrasonics Limited
  • Professor Ewart Keep, SKOPE, Oxford University Skills
  • Professor Slavo Radosevic, University College London
  • Professor Roy Sandbach, Northumbria University

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Understanding data analytics at BICOD

Lucy Tallentire from the School of Business, Economics and Informatics reports on the biennial British International Conference on Databases (BICOD).

Award of Best Research Student paper prize to Alexandru Bogatu, by Alastair Green of Neo Technology

From 10-12 July, Birkbeck’s Department of Computer Science and Information Systems played host to a wealth of insightful research discussion at the biennial British International Conference on Databases (BICOD). Birkbeck has a long-standing association with BICOD since its inception in the 1980s, with three generations of Computer Science researchers at Birkbeck having contributed to its legacy.

In her opening address, Professor Alex Poulovassilis, Deputy Dean of Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics & Informatics, and General Chair of this year’s BICOD, highlighted Birkbeck’s long-standing contributions to the conference. She gave special thanks to this year’s Keynote speakers and those delegates who had travelled from abroad for the occasion. The last time Birkbeck hosted the conference in 1997 it was still known as the British National Conference on Databases (BNCOD) but this name was changed in 2015 to reflect the aim of the conference to be a platform for research discussion both nationally and internationally: “The geographical and thematic scope of this year’s papers and the interest from all over the world serves to demonstrate the conference’s continuing success.”

The theme of this year’s BICOD was Data Analytics, and the programme kicked off with a Keynote talk from Dr Tim Furche, Lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Oxford and Co-Founder of Wrapidity Ltd. Tim stressed the importance of translating research in AI and Machine Learning into practically applicable technology – in the case of his company, in the large-scale extraction of useful data from websites.

Short presentations by the four students vying for the best PhD paper prize followed. The judges commended the quality of the competition and praised the investigation and presentation of all the students. The winner, Alex Bogatu, collected his prize from the sponsor Neo Technology.

Further conference sessions over the course of the event comprised of two more Keynotes, from Professor Elena Baralis and Dr Sihem Amer-Yahia; two Tutorials, from Professor Leopoldo Bertossi and Dr Vasiliki Kalavri; and further research paper presentations, with subjects ranging from Data Exploration, Multidimensional Data and Graph Data Querying.

Keynote Speaker Professor Elena Baralis

On the final morning of the conference, there was also a unique chance to enjoy a joint session between BICOD and the International Joint Conference on Rules and Reasoning (RuleML + RR), which followed the BICOD conference at Birkbeck. The leading international joint conference in the field of rule-based reasoning, RuleML + RR brought a number of new delegate perspectives to the audience, as well as a focus on theoretical advances, novel technologies and innovative applications for rules and reasoning.

The BiCOD team would like to thank the conference sponsors for their generous support: Neo Technology, ONS, Palgrave Macmillan and The Information Lab.

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