Arts Week 2017: “Doing and thinking: methods in practice-based research”

Dr Maria Kukhareva, Educational Developer at the University of Bedfordshire reflects on the interaction of creativity and academia following a workshop as part of Birkbeck Arts Week 2017.creativity-academiaAs an interdisciplinarian (both by background and by own curiosity) I seek opportunities to be amazed by the way different disciplines and approaches interact, the conflict and tension borne out of this process, and the turbulent energy and questions it has potential to generate.

I recently participated in the ‘Doing and Thinking’ workshop during Arts Week, which gathered an exciting and diverse crowd of practicing artists, researchers, and artist-researches – both Birkbeck’s own and external enthusiasts, like me.

Here, I broaden the focus of the workshop and turn to the discourse around creativity, rigour and scholarship in higher education – and what it means for the creative practitioners and researchers, as well as the wider academic community.

“Is it alive or is it ref-able?”

What the workshop discussion demonstrated very quickly and relatively clearly, is that there seems to be a vast and deep ocean between the mysterious continent inhabited by the creative practitioners, and the equally mysterious land of “this is how things are done in academia”.

The ocean was represented by a heap of colourful cards with research (and life?) related words on our tables. As we were shuffling through them, we realised we could not agree on the meanings, values and emotions of some seemingly common words, for example:

impact (think: theatre performance versus academic publication)
serendipity and intuition as a driving force (think: visual arts versus systematic research)
discomfort and doubt (think: open creative process versus evaluation outcomes)

In fact, words and language in general continued to be the cause of frustration, namely the incompatibility of creative output (a painting, a book, a film) and the academic language accompaniment (a thesis).

One could almost imagine how creativity and its magic, so necessary for any artist’s existence, breaks into pieces on encountering the academic expectation. As if to become an academic scholar, an artist needs to give up a part of their soul in exchange for the gifts of rigour, systematic inquiry and strictly formatted self-expression and self-representation. As if the fruits of your labour can either be ‘alive’ or ‘ref-able.’

But… is this really the only way to cross the ocean?

“Follow your nose”

Let’s view creative practice – whether you are a professional artist, early researcher or an educator in any given field – as something you NEED. Whether it’s where you experiment, or where your intuition, or some other undefined drive pushes you to create news things. It’s where a part of your soul lives; it’s something that fuels your daily activity. It’s what inspires your signature pedagogy, your authorial voice and what gives it life – as demonstrated effectively by Emma Bennett, Katherine Angel and Catherine Grant.

If this is what your creative practice does, then not only does it not go against the ‘traditional’ academic activity, with its rigour, systematic approach, structure, format and language – rather, creative practice makes the academic activity possible and interesting, from teaching to publishing.

The messy, unstructured creativity with a mind of its own, should be preserved and nurtured, rather than ‘re-trained’ when entering the world of traditional academic boundaries and standards. As Thomas Fisher has pointed out, creativity can be a rigorous process.

In other words – ‘it’ needs to be alive to be ref-able.

I would like to invite the reader to consider the following questions:

  • How and where do your practice and research activity co-exist?How disparate or how close are these two preoccupations? Do they fuel or hinder each other?
  • Which one of these (research or practice activity) offers more scope for creativity?
  • How does your creative and experimental activity drive your signature approach?
  • And lastly, how can we preserve and nurture our creativity, while we are developing our academic identities and careers?

On that note, I am off to read Katherine Angel’s book!

Contact Maria Kukhareva:
@maria_kukhareva
University of Bedfordshire profile

 

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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: fungi in heritage buildings

Dr Clare Sanson, Senior Associate Lecturer in Biological Sciences, writes on Sophie Downes’ talk on fungi and conservation in heritage buildings.mushroom-2198010_1920The Department of Biological Sciences’ contributions to Birkbeck Science Week 2017 focused on ‘Microbes in the Real World’. Apart from that over-arching theme, however, the two sessions could hardly have been more different. The Week kicked off with a lecture by PhD candidate Sophie Downes on the interactions between fungi and heritage buildings. As far as I am aware, Sophie is the first Birkbeck student to have given a Science Week lecture; she spoke with confidence and clarity, and held her audience well.

Nicholas Keep, Executive Dean of the School of Science at Birkbeck, introduced Sophie as a graduate of the University of Lincoln who had worked in textile conservation before moving to Birkbeck to study for a doctorate in Jane Nicklin’s mycology lab. She began her lecture by explaining the context of her research: her job had been based in a large Elizabethan house that had problems with pests and condensation, particularly in the show rooms. The need to find out how best to preserve and repair organic material in buildings like this one led directly to her PhD studies.

In the UK we have a huge number of historic buildings, many of which are popular tourist attractions and play an important role in the local economy, particularly in rural areas. A large number of these are maintained by the National Trust or English Heritage, and many are open to the public for the majority of the year. The thousands of visitors drifting through properties will affect the number and types of micro-organisms, particularly fungi, found there. Sophie’s project included a year-long survey, starting in the autumn of 2013, of fungi found in 20 historic buildings in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. These included cottages and wartime tunnels as well as the more usual castles and mansions, so the survey could be expected to provide a snapshot of fungi and fungal damage in a wide range of historic properties in the UK.

When we think of fungi, we tend to think of so-called ‘macro’ fungi: this category includes the mushrooms we eat and poisonous toadstools, but also dry rot. Micro-fungi are harder to spot, but they are at least as pervasive and colonise an enormous range of organic matter, producing spores. For example, they are responsible for the blue colouration often found on stale bread and preserves. Micro-fungi will colonise almost any organic object that they find in their way, which, in the context of a historic building, might include wood, tapestry, leather book bindings and silk wall hangings. Sophie used air sampling and sterile swabs to obtain representative fungal samples from one outdoor and four indoor locations at each building and recorded the position of and features in each room or area selected, with its temperature and relative humidity.

Sophie landed up with a total of 4,000 samples to analyse, which, given her limited time, was too many for wholescale sequencing. She started by separating these according to colour and morphology and then selected representative samples for DNA extraction and ‘barcode screening’, and fewer for DNA sequencing.  A total of 158 different fungal species from 77 genera were identified, with the most abundant genera being Aspergillus, Cladosporium and Penicillium. Some of the organisms found in smaller quantities, including fungal plant pathogens probably from the outside air and bacteria, were shed from visitors’ skin scales. Both the number of colony forming units and the diversity of fungal species recorded increased during the summer months.

Resident fungi can carry a small risk to human visitors to the buildings and perhaps a slightly higher risk to curators, given their higher exposure times. Fortunately, only a small fraction of the fungi identified were ‘nasty’ human pathogens, and all but one of these were classified in the lowest-risk group, Category 2. A larger number were recognised as of potential risk to particularly vulnerable individuals with damaged immune systems, and more still are only hazardous to the external environment.

The temperature, the height of the building, the type of room and amount of furnishings were found to be the most important factors in determining the extent of fungal growth within buildings and if high colony forming units would be observed, and the three most common fungal species in both the air and the swab samples – Penicillium brevicompactum, Cladosporium cladosporioides and Aspergillus versicolor – have frequently been reported in organic material in historical collections worldwide.

Fungi damage textiles and other organic materials by secreting enzymes that break down polymers, forming secondary metabolic products that cause further degradation. This process has important effects on the physical, chemical and mechanical properties of the materials. Sophie described how she had evaluated each of these, starting with the effect of fungal growth on the physical properties of cotton. Cladosporium infestation is known to cotton fibres, causing an unattractive colour change that cannot be removed by cleaning. She incubated new cotton strips with several fungal species and monitored them for 12 weeks using a technique known as colorimetry. Each fungus caused a gradual colour change, with Cladosporium causing by far the darkest stains. She also reconstructed images of fungi colonising woven cotton fibres in 3D with confocal fluorescence scanning microscopy.

Most fungi have long, filamentous structures called hyphae that secrete enzymes at their tips as they grow. These enzymes break down large and small organic molecules into nutrients; it is the breakdown of large molecules – polymers such as collagen, cellulose, fibroin and keratin – that cause chemical damage to heritage materials. Chitin and keratin are among the most complex organic substrates that fungi can digest and require several enzymes to break them down. Nevertheless, the three commonest species of fungi all managed to reduce the protein content of protein-containing fibres significantly, with Penicillium causing particularly serious damage to collagen. Fungal digestion also changed the local structure of protein fibres. And one net result of this chemical degradation is a change in the mechanical properties of the materials; for example, fungal infestation tends to cause silk to become more brittle.

But what are the implications of these results for the conservation of objects in historic buildings? All the test were conducted on modern materials, and aged ones, which are already worn, are bound to be more vulnerable. Sophie ended a fascinating talk by suggesting that this research will help to inform conservation protocols for the handling, treatment and risk factors involved with fungal contamination of historic collections.

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CIMR Workshop – Engaging with Impact

This post was contributed by Lucy Tallentire from Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics

impact2How can academic research generate impact? What support structures are in place to promote and support impact? And how can impact be measured? These were just some of the questions up for debate at a unique workshop on “Measuring the Impact of Academic Research”, hosted by Birkbeck’s Centre for Innovation Management Research (CIMR) on 2 December 2016.

Research Councils UK defines research impact as ‘the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy’. This can involve academic impact, economic and societal impact or both. Academics are increasingly called upon to provide evidence of research impact, sometimes as a requirement to secure research funding and sometimes as part of formalised evaluation processes, which might involve providing quantitative evidence. As impact becomes increasingly important for academic visibility and even for the purposes of funding allocation, it is vital for the research community to better understand how it occurs and how it might be utilised to add value to the economy and society. Events such as the CIMR workshop provide a platform for collaboration and discussion, and Birkbeck was delighted to welcome experts, academics and policymakers from across the European research communities to join the debate.

The complex nature of impact

A much discussed theme of the workshop appeared not so much as, how can we generate impact, but crucially, how can we define impact, and how researchers benefit from a more concrete definition of what impact means in the context of their study.

Loet Ledesdorff, Professor in Dynamics of Scientific Communication and Technological Innovation at the University of Amsterdam, opened the first session with an insightful presentation on linear impact models and articulating societal demand. This provided an excellent starting point for participant discussion; he stressed the importance of understanding what impact is before it can be measured – after all, measuring is easy once we are aware of what and why we are measuring. While there are many definitions of ‘impact’, we must bear in mind that the way in which we choose to define it influences the measurements we obtain. Therefore it is paramount to establish a clear theoretical question to which researchers can refer back, after which an appropriate system to measure impact can be developed.

Talks by Martyna Śliwa from the University of Essex, Anne-Wil Harzing from Middlesex University and Fernando Galindo-Rueda from the OECD, brought further perspective on how impact can be measured by the results of the Research Excellence Framework 2014 (REF), from academic impact metrics and from key data indicators. They explored how research might be organised in order to generate greater impact; one key advantage of using impact case studies to assess the impact of research, for example, is that they allow a shift in focus from the impact of a single piece of research to the impact of a whole research programme. A research programme could be considered a more appropriate unit of analysis to assess the way in which research makes an impact on society, and probably on the development of science itself.

Promoting Engagement and Narrative

While all in attendance agreed that measuring impact must remain a high priority, both Loet Ledesdorff and Johnathan Adams, Chief Scientist at Digital Science, warned that current policy debate has too narrow a focus on measuring impact, at the expense of promoting it. A key issue for leading-edge university research is to identify “articulation points”, at which points different communities can meet. The workshop provided an opportunity to share tested methods and case studies to create a system of incentives that encourages researchers to generate impact. Rick Delbridge and Tim Edwards from Cardiff University showcased two of their projects designed to tackle societal “grand challenges”: the Social Science Research Park (SSPARK) and the Responsible Innovation Networks (RIN). These initiatives build on the view that in order to generate impact, the social sciences need to engage with stakeholders and allow them a part in identifying the problems universities could be focusing on. Stakeholders want a voice throughout the process of generating and showcasing impact – in the deliberation, evaluation and dispute of research.

Narrative has become a crucial instrument to showcase the impact of these kinds of processes, which also emerged from the case study presented by Federica Rossi from Birkbeck, Ainurul Rosli from the University of Westminster, Nick Yip from UEA, and Muthu de Silva from the University of Kent. This research group interviewed participants in Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTPs) and found that impact is achieved through sustained interactions within and outside the KTP, which result in knowledge co-production. The mutual benefits of the KTP start an organic ripple – the benefit of the KTP cannot be immediately established by stakeholders, but unfolds over a longer period of time. Broader economic and societal impact of knowledge co-production can be captured by asking key stakeholders to narratively reconstruct their interactions with academic research and how this, over time, has led to a change in their perspective – of the actors involved, and of their roles.

The CIMR workshop provided a space to consider and evaluate successful cases of academic impact, and to share ideas that might offer particular potential for impact academically and socially. The final panel discussion helped to draw out the key messages of the event:

  • It is important to keep the definition of impact broad, as research impact can take many forms;
  • Universities must make space for impact by creating a system of rules and incentives that encourages academics to seek impact;
  • Must also implement incentives that encourage interdisciplinary research because this kind of research is the most impactful;
  • The impact of teaching must not be neglected, since, particularly in the social sciences, one of the key avenues for generating impact is by teaching students how to think about the world in different ways

Thank you again to our Workshop Panel Chairs and Speakers:

  • Emanuela Todeva, BCNED
  • Loet Leydesdorff, University of Amsterdam
  • Jonathan Adams and Martin Szomszor, Digital Science
  • Martyna Śliwa, University of Essex
  • Anne-Wil Harzing, Middlesex University
  • Fernando Galindo-Rueda, OECD
  • Rosa Fernandez, NCUB
  • Rick Delbridge and Tim Edwards, Cardiff University
  • Nola Dundas-Hewitt, Queens University of Belfast
  • Steve Roper,University of Warwick15:00-15:30
  • Federica Rossi Birkbeck
  • Ainurul Rosli, University of Westminster
  • Nick Yip, University of East Anglia
  • Muthu de Silva, University of Kent
  • Jeremy Howells, Kellogg College Oxford
    Suma Athreye, University of Essex
  • Steven Hill, HEFCE
  • Gino Martini, Roche Innovation and King’s College

You can find out about future events on the CIMR website.

Further Links:

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