How the generosity of donors transforms the lives of students

On 13 July 2017 Birkbeck welcomed donors, volunteers, students and staff for an ‘An Evening of Thanks’ for all they give to the College. Aziza Sentissi, a PhD candidate in Mathematics and Statistics, spoke at the event, and reflects on what the generosity of donors means for students like her, who may otherwise be unable to undertake their studies. aziza850x450My interest in Mathematics dates back to an early age at primary school. I achieved good academic results in Mathematics and I never felt that it was an effort to tackle my math homework or any math puzzle. I have always enjoyed the thrill of the mathematical challenge. It was (and it is still) like going on an adventure where your only tools are your logic and your instinct. I believe that we all have naturally a set of skills in which we reach our optimal potential. It is just matter of finding, nurturing and using them. In my case, it is definitely Mathematics.

Most of my academic and professional decisions were motivated by the need to use Mathematics on a daily basis. I studied industrial engineering for my undergraduate degree, focused on financial engineering when I studied for my MBA and spent more than a decade working in market risk management in both Toronto and London. My career allowed me to gain an expert-level experience in the field while using the mathematical finance skills I acquired through education and experience.

I know that I should have felt a certain degree of contentment with my academic and professional progression, but in reality, I felt frustration that I was still far from my intellectual potential. I felt that I needed to get back to ‘core Mathematics’. It was just about finding the right programme so that I could reconcile studies and work. Finding out about Birkbeck’s MSc programmes was already a big step toward my goals. Indeed, Birkbeck offered the best opportunity to join a recognized programme taught by an outstanding faculty while working in London.  A few years later, I graduated with distinction from the MSc Applied Statistics (2013) course, and with merit from MSc Mathematics (2015).

Studying at Birkbeck by far exceeded all my expectations. It has competitive programmes with strong curriculums, an outstanding faculty, and dedicated staff. Some companies I’ve worked at have spent a lot of money persuading employees to buy into their mission. Well, at Birkbeck, it is an achieved goal. You can sense the commitment to the university’s mission at each one of your interactions either with the professors or with the staff. I have always been amazed that everybody will make that extra effort to help you thrive in your studies and achieve your goals as you are trying to balance your work life and your studies.

My story with Birkbeck did not stop at the end of my second masters. Indeed, as I expressed my interest in joining the full-time PhD programme while highlighting my financial constraints, my supervisors suggested applying to few scholarships which I eagerly did. After a few weeks, I was approved for the Winton STEM PhD Studentship, which aims to promote gender equality in STEM subjects.

The support from Winton has indeed made it possible for me to join the full-time PhD programme in Mathematics. There are no words that really capture how grateful I am to Winton for their support and for giving me the opportunity to pursue a long-term ambition which is to build a career in research in Mathematics either within the academic world or within a research firm. The subject of my PhD is about optimizing one of the advanced approximation methods (Meshfree method) in multivariate setting.  It is a cutting-edge subject with multiple applications in several fields such as engineering, machine learning and artificial intelligence. I am extremely proud to be working on this subject with my supervisors who are experts in the field.

Through my PhD, I have also had the opportunity to take part in an outreach conference jointly organised by Birkbeck and Winton. At the conference, we encouraged young women from schools in disadvantaged London boroughs to consider studying mathematics at university. It was a privilege and an amazing experience to see the impact of the conference on these girls and to see how it changed their perspective on using their mathematical talent.

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Arts Week 2017: Science as Spectacle

A Magic Lantern Slide Lecture on St. Peter's Basilica, 1897  An illustration from the December 1897 catalogue of T. H. McAllister Company, Manufacturing Opticians, New York

A Magic Lantern Slide Lecture on St. Peter’s Basilica, 1897
An illustration from the December 1897 catalogue of T. H. McAllister Company, Manufacturing Opticians, New York

Ushered into the dark cinema of Birkbeck, the curious spectators witnessed Science as Spectacle. Over an hour and a half on the evening of Tuesday 19th May 2017, Jeremy Brooker, Chairman of the Magic Lantern Society, demonstrated the workings of the magic lantern.

He began by setting the scene with a brief history of the import of the magic lantern on society. He told the story of Faraday’s presentation in January 1846 to the Royal Institute and was not shy when it came to making it clear that, actually, technologically, what Faraday was displaying was nothing particularly impressive given the popular magic lantern shows taking place at the time.

And this was the crux of the presentation: the lantern’s dual purpose for both entertainment and research. The population were now able to see “actual experiments happening in real time before their eyes.” This capability of the magic lantern was displayed in an archive film of thawing ice. Now, through the magnification properties of the magic lantern, one could peer over the shoulder of an experimenter and see what was being done. Jeremy revealed that people of the time were particularly disturbed upon finding out what was living in their drinking water.

But at the same time, the magic lantern was also being used to show things that were not there. The more familiar history of the magic lantern is for its use in phantasmagoria shows, creating ghostly effects that titillated and terrified the audience. Jeremy and partner Caroline displayed the abilities of the magic lantern as entertainment and Birkbeck cinema witnessed popular magic lantern displays of distant lands, changing seasons and, yes, a vanishing ghost and skeleton or two.

What was remarkable about the display was how science and entertainment were so interlinked. The projectionists at the time realised the capabilities of their tool to both entertain and educate and so, for a time, the two went hand-in-hand. After we were shown the layers of matter that make up the human body, we were rewarded with a skeleton jumping a skipping rope. Similarly, whilst we admired the beautiful vistas of icy landscapes under the rippling Aurora Borealis we also learned something about the geography of distant lands. As the precursor to film and demonstration, the magic lantern projectionists knew that both entertainment and education were of equal importance, making the learning engaging and the enjoyment worthwhile, a lesson that is all too often forgotten on both sides today.

This is not to mention the technical ability of the projectionists themselves. Layering slides via three projectors, working the mechanics of the individual slides and managing the transitions required an artistry and practice that was as entertaining and impressive as anything appearing on the screen.

Ultimately, on Tuesday night we were shown not how the machine worked technically but what the magic lantern did for Victorian society. By not dwelling on the technicalities it remains a medium that is exciting, mysterious and indeed a little magical.

Jonathan Parr is studying jointly at Birkbeck and RADA on the Text and Performance MA

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Representing Players in Sport: Bargaining for A Fair Deal for Athletes in an Olympic Year

This post was contributed by James Brown, from Birkbeck’s Department of External Relations.

In the week that former darts champion Jocky Wilson passed away, it was fascinating to hear the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre discussion about the welfare of athletes both during and after their sporting career on 27 March 2012.

The rise and fall of Wilson is one of the more extreme that sport has known. In his eighties pomp, he was an ever-present in the latter stages of the World Championship, winning the title twice. With the sport regularly attracting 8 million views, Wilson became a folk hero with his large frame betraying the pub lineage that darts was trying so hard to leave behind. Never flash, the extent of his largesse was to splash out £1200 on new dentures following his 1982 title triumph. Yet within seven years of his second and final World Championship in 1989, Wilson was living in a council flat, aged 45, surviving on the disability benefits that were granted to him after his lifestyle brought on diabetes. When he was elected to the Darts Hall of Fame in 1996, it took a further two years for him to be informed of the honour, so far had he retreated from the game he had once dominated.

I was reminded of his story in listening to Barry McGuigan talk at the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre. In managing athletes, he was keen to emphasise that they should be prepared not just for their sporting career but also for what happens after their career has ended – or if it never happens at all. By his calculation, 85% of boxers don’t make a career out of the sport, and only 5% make any real money. Television holds most of the power in the sport, because it provides most of the money. McGuigan counted five boxers in the UK who would draw an audience big enough to attract television coverage – for the rest “it is a very tough business”.

McGuigan, like Wilson, was hugely successful in the Eighties, his fights attracting huge television audiences. He became WBA Featherweight Champion and was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year, both in 1985. But his career since retiring from sport has been no less successful. A boxing pundit and commentator across most British broadcasters, he’s also had stints as a chat show host and won Hell’s Kitchen in 2007. But more importantly, and perhaps borne out of an eventually fractious relationship with his own manager, he founded the Barry McGuigan Boxing Academy in 2009. Its aim is to target people who are enthusiastic about boxing, but who have fallen out of love with education, and use the sport as a hook to get them back to learning: “It is so laudable to see students going back to college no matter how old they are – I’m into lifelong learning”.

Encouraging boxers back into education is difficult, said McGuigan. The nature of boxing in particular, where bravado is a key element of the boxer’s makeup, means that those attempting to make a career out of the sport have to believe in their ability to be the best, or that lack of confidence will soon be found out. But in doing so, trying to persuade aspiring boxers that they may not be a success can be a thankless task. And even if you do get them to college, they are naturally suspicious of spending time in class with other boxers who they may well be fighting in the ring next week.

But his Boxing Academies are helping to overturn some of that negativity. Now working with five further education colleges across the country, and there are hopes of extending the arrangement to more. “If you can invest 20% of the energy you put into sport, you can succeed in other areas of life”. It’s safe to say that, on McGuigan’s induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2005, it didn’t take two years for him to find out about the honour.

Which brings us back to Jocky Wilson. “I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me,” he said in 1996. “There’s only one person to blame for the situation I’m in, and that’s me.” Here’s hoping that future sportsmen will also invest the 20% that means they won’t have to say the same thing.

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