Tag Archives: PhD

Overcoming alcohol and drug addiction to achieve a Master’s degree

Azad Ashim Sharma graduated in April with an MA in Creative and Critical Writing. Here he tells his remarkable story of life growing up, his battles with alcohol and substance misuse, starting a publishing company, and his aspirations for the future.

Azad Ashim Sharma celebrating on his graduation day

My childhood was strange in a way. I’ve come to look at it not through rose-tinted glasses or nostalgia, but through a sense of compassionate inquiry. Being raised in an intergenerational home deep in South London, I was co-parented by grandparents, who were political exiles from apartheid South Africa. My grandmother was a political activist and our family in South Africa are quite close to the anti-apartheid liberation movement.

Our family home was always busy: my younger brother is autistic, so we had a large care team. During my school years, I attended two local independent schools, and my brother, who is severely autistic, was home-schooled. I was bullied at school, which was really quite traumatic for me at the time. I sought solace in music and art from a young age and my most special childhood memories are of attending exhibitions with my mother.

My family’s love of reading certainly made its mark on me, as I went on to study BA English at the University of Sussex. After finishing my course, I knew I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree in Critical Theory at Sussex. Whilst I was on track for a distinction in 2015, my mental health deteriorated. I had returned to London to look after my brother who was unwell and under-supported due to austerity. I came home to support my mother with his care and all three of us were also trying to cope with the grief of losing our grandmother a couple of years before that. What started off as something I did socially spiralled out of control into alcoholism and drug addiction. I had to drop out of my Master’s degree to contend with that dark patch in my life.

I’d always been writing poetry at Sussex and this continued during this difficult patch. I published my first poetry collection in 2018, exploring islamophobia and racism in the time of Brexit Britain. In 2018, I received a surprising invitation to read at a poetry festival in India. Reading outside in Delhi, surrounded by flora and fauna in the pleasant hazy sunshine, I had something ignite in me that made me think, wow I want to do this for the rest of my life.

When I got back to the UK, I applied to Birkbeck because I knew several alumni who recommended studying there. I managed to get sober by the time I submitted my application. For a period of nine months, I was totally integrated back into normal life. Approaching a year at Birkbeck and filled with so much energy, I founded a publishing company with two friends called The 87 Press, named after the number of my family home. Our company mission was to change the landscape of publishing, by advocating for fairer trade and more smaller presses in bookstores, but also a more clearly defined representation of under-represented writers. We started off very clueless as to what owning a company would entail, but thrived off the energy of hosting events, publishing books and visiting universities to hold creative writing workshops with students, offering them the chance to get their work published.

Everything was going really well for me, but I was growing wearisome of being ‘that guy’ that always has the lime soda. So, I started walking out the door of sobriety again. I suffer from depression and anxiety too, and everything was taking its toll. During this time, I also met the love of my life who’s stuck by me through all of this recent drama. Both her and my family have been steadfast and invaluable supports.

At the beginning of 2020, I felt really disorientated with everything going on. I needed some counselling, so I signed up to Birkbeck’s counselling service. My counsellor was wonderful and compassionate, and really listened to me. I’ve now been clean for over a year – it’s not been easy, but I’m pleased that now sobriety is my normality.

My ultimate career goal is to become a lecturer, so this autumn I’m pursuing a PhD in English and Humanities at Birkbeck. I got the news that I had been awarded funding for my PhD on the day I was a year clean, which is serendipity to the max.

I plan to continue with The 87 Press during my PhD. We’ve just published our 15th book and it’s such a joy – it continues to surprise me what our initiative can do and the people it can reach. After my PhD it would be a dream to become a lecturer at Birkbeck and have the opportunity to give back. Birkbeck really is a place that gives people second chances in life.

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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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PhD Chocolate Tasting

Chocolate is often an integral, but rarely acknowledged, part of the PhD process. As part of their transferable skills training for PhD students, the Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies (GEDS) decided to explore this further, with a chocolate tasting session run by Anthony Ferguson of Niko B Chocolates. The session was introduced by Kate Maclean and Rosie Cox, whose opening talks framed the session in terms of the relationship between taste, food and embodied knowledge. Following a geographical theme, students and staff tasted chocolate from around the world, and learnt to distinguish the multiple taste and texture sensations of chocolate truffles.

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