“Doing this degree has completely changed my expectations of what I can do in the future”

Isabella Ghawi faced challenges during studying, including a brain tumour diagnosis, epilepsy and dyslexia. With the help of Birkbeck’s Disability Department and her steely determination, Isabella founded the Birkbeck Biological society and graduated in November with a BSc Biomedicine degree. Here is her #BBKgrad story.

Isabella Ghawi

What made you decide to study at Birkbeck?

I did a lot of research because I left school quite suddenly without A levels as I started to have epileptic seizures.  After a long time, I decided I wanted to go back to university and study to be a neurophysiologist after my experience of working in a hospital.

I was searching for a good access to university course and chose Birkbeck as it had the best one. Unlike all the other places I looked at, it taught actual science. I knew that I wouldn’t just come out with a piece of paper, but I’d actually come out with real knowledge. After undertaking the Higher Education Introductory Course I decided to continue at Birkbeck to study a BSc in Biomedicine.

Did you face any challenges during your time studying? How did you overcome them?

I had a huge challenge in my first year. I already had epilepsy from the age of 18 and I had dyslexia. On top of that in my first year of biomedicine, I was diagnosed with a most likely cancerous brain tumour which meant I had to have a serious operation.

I overcame it, with the help of my family, my church and the people around me, but also with the support of Birkbeck – I’m especially grateful for the help and support I received from Dick Rayne, Mark Pimm and Jackie Saunder and many others. It was a learning curve for all of us, as we implemented new changes that were best for me at the time. So, with the help of all those people, I was able to continue and not just able to continue, but to really excel and exceed my expectations despite many difficulties.

Did you receive any additional College support whilst at Birkbeck and if so, how did this help you?

Birkbeck staff were a huge driving force because they were very understanding and supportive. The lecturers and the administration staff really helped me to develop resilience within myself and I kept going because they were so supportive. I also received a lot of help from the disability team. I received extra training on my computer with programmes that helped me with my dyslexia. There were a lot of assistive technologies that I was given, as well as a support tutor who was great and again, a real emotional rock. I also received a note taker and had extra time in exams which was helpful. Unfortunately, in a couple of my exams I had seizures, which were quite distressing. As a result, towards the end of my studies my exams were split, and I did them in smaller chunks which was extremely helpful. By the time it got to the last year, we had figured out what worked best.

What do you hope to achieve in the future?

Doing this degree has completely changed my expectations of what I can do in the future. Before doing this degree, I didn’t think I would be able to do much, but it’s made me really open to new opportunities. I really hope to continue to work in research, which is something I’d never dreamed of. I had never really done any lab work before this degree, but by the end of three years I was leaving the lab sessions thinking that if I could go back to the lab every day for the rest of my life, I’d be a very happy person. So, I would really love to work in a scientific laboratory.

This degree has also made me think that maybe there could be other things out there that I would be good at that I haven’t experienced yet. Now I’m looking for a job, hopefully in research, to gain more experience and then perhaps go back and do a PhD when I have more experience in the field, because I feel I really need more hands-on experience.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of studying at Birkbeck?

I would say go for it and give it a try, you will surprise yourself with what you can achieve. If you have any doubts or problems, there is so much help and support out there. I would also strongly suggest being open about your difficulties from the beginning with the staff.  If you do have a busy life and lot to cope with, for example if you have children, work commitments, health problems or caring commitments, the opportunity of doing part-time is well worth taking.

Studying at Birkbeck is a truly great experience, I would strongly recommend others go for it and give it a try. I don’t think you’d regret it, I certainly haven’t.

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BEI Breakfast Seminar: work life balance and career penalties in the performing arts

Professor Almuth McDowall led a lively and thought-provoking discussion at the first School of Business, Economics and Informatics Breakfast Seminar of the academic year.

On a crisp, autumnal Monday morning, academics from Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology, were joined by students, colleagues and professionals working in or with an interest in the performing arts for the first BEI Breakfast Seminar of the academic year. Rebecca Whiting hosted the seminar as this links to the department’s wider interest of working with culture, arts and the creative industries.

Professor Almuth McDowall, who was leading the discussion, began by explaining why the performing arts had become a special interest for her department. The performing arts are the largest employer in the arts and culture industry, yet there are many elements of the sector that need to be better understood. Curiously, the sector is notably absent from UK wide employment surveys and statistics such as the Work Employment Relations Survey, especially when it comes to improving work life balance. Work in the performing arts is often cyclical in nature, unpredictable and subsidised by another job to make ends meet. This is a sector where job sharing makes headline news.

Career penalties in the performing arts

Professor McDowall shared the key findings of Balancing Act, a survey carried out by academics from the Department of Organizational Psychology in collaboration with Parents and Carers in the Performing Arts (PiPA). While performing arts professionals are highly engaged at work, there is a toxic mix of high levels of job insecurity with low levels of employability. Of those who were surveyed, 54% didn’t have full time contracts, in contrast to 15% of the general population, and those with caring responsibilities were much less likely to be in full-time, secure roles.

Women were found to be disproportionately affected by precarious working practices than men due to the ‘second shift’: cooking dinner, making sure birthday cards are bought and continuing to ‘work’ in many ways once their paid working day has finished.

Women also suffer a pay penalty in an already low-paid industry; the median part-time earnings of women surveyed were £5,000 less than men, suggesting that they have to rely on social and financial capital outside of work in order to pursue a career in the performing arts.

When it comes to caring responsibilities, 44% of women and 36% of men have had to change their work roles for this reason, for example, by not touring, or choosing not to work in the West End in order to spend more time with the family.

Furthermore, respondents who had left the performing arts industry did so almost unanimously to become a parent, with those able to continue their career relying on their social capital (partners, friends or family) for support.

In an environment that is practically hostile to working parents, 12% of respondents reported facing discrimination and bullying at work, with one survey respondent warning that “[t]he industry will not care for you”.

The case for change

So, Professor McDowall asked the room, is the ‘deal’ in the arts to accept job insecurity? As a woman, should you try to marry rich, since that’s strategically your best career move? Since performing arts workers are ‘lucky’ to be doing a job they love, should they just keep quiet about the downsides?

As an alternative to accepting the status quo, PiPA has developed a best practice charter for the performing arts industry, starting with recruitment. Professor McDowall stressed that practical solutions do not have to be expensive or call for extra resource, they can be as simple as giving performers and backstage workers more notice of future scheduling.

She also called for more research in order to understand the role that social capital plays in the workforce, and how to equip people working in the arts to craft their careers and negotiate a better deal.

The talk was followed by a passionate discussion from industry professionals both seeking support and sharing best practice. In response to a question about the biggest barrier to change, Professor McDowall suggested that organizational culture remains a barrier, and that more work needed to be done to “research into the active ingredients that will promote culture change in the performing arts, as it’s not an industry where there is a lot of time to reflect and take stock.” The demands of the arts simply require that often getting the next production on stage will take priority over more people focused activities.

Far from just accepting the status quo then, the morning ended with positivity that change can be made in the performing arts industry, since, as Professor McDowall put it, “surely there is an onus on the performing arts to better reflect society?”

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The future of management research

A recent workshop from Birkbeck’s Centre for Innovation Management Research and publisher Wiley saw debate about the new directions that research in entrepreneurship and innovation could take, including the potential future role of Artificial Intelligence.

On Monday 29 October, Birkbeck’s Centre for Innovation Management Research (CIMR) hosted a research workshop in collaboration with Wiley, publishers of the Strategic Change: Briefings in Entrepreneurial Finance Journal. Professor Helen Lawton Smith and Professor Carlo Milana in the Department of Management are editors of the journal.

The aim of the workshop was to stimulate debate on new directions in research in entrepreneurship and innovation, in order to encourage new submissions, reach wider audiences, and highlight opportunities for more dynamic research contributions in the field. The workshop also provided an opportunity for current Management PhD students to discuss their research and progress with the audience, demonstrating the Centre’s diverse and unique research expertise.

Future Directions and Artificial Intelligence Research

Professor Carlo Milana opened the workshop with a discussion of the journal’s “business model” – a thematic approach whereby each issue deals with a particular topic, encouraging a variety of submissions that provide different perspectives on key issues in entrepreneurial finance, sustainable business models, and emerging economies, among other areas of innovation management and entrepreneurship. He also expressed his interest in contributions that will address important questions around the future development of artificial and social intelligence; for example, how will artificial intelligence (AI) engage and impact entrepreneurship? Professor Milana concluded his presentation with a list of practical issues with AI, such as technological unemployment, jobs displacement, security and privacy, and the reliability of automated systems.

Continuing with the theme of artificial intelligence in business and management, Professor Damir Tokic (International University of Monaco) joined the workshop via Skype to discuss his research on the implications of AI for executive decision-makers, asking whether AI can replace human discretion. The world’s largest investment management firm, BlackRock, recently announced the launch of the BlackRock Lab for Artificial Intelligence, suggesting that it intends to “keep tapping into artificial intelligence” to improve the financial wellbeing of its clients. Thus, Professor Tokic asks in his research: “Can AI replace the human discretion in investing?

The answer is yes, technically, because AI programmes can use econometric methods to extrapolate historical data and can interpret and use economic forecasts embedded in financial assets, ultimately ensuring market efficiency. However, legislation, unpredictable geopolitics, and the justice system might prevent the rise of “Robo decision-makers”, meaning that while machines can be fed with all possible human knowledge and available data, as long as human imperfections are preserved, AI-powered machines will not be able to replace human discretion.

Birkbeck PhD candidate Dina Mansour

Open Research, Transparency and Relevance

When we talk about research in the current academic environment, the topic of impact inevitably comes up. In his presentation, Chris Graf, Director of Research Integrity at Wiley, asked what it means for research to be “open”, saying that open science/access is a way of doing research that brings about new opportunities for publishers by: (1) driving forward new models of publishing to emphasise relevance, (2) creating new services for researchers to support their requirements through innovation, and (3) taking a thought leadership position through community engagement. He also discussed issues of reproducibility in research and publication bias, whereby reviewers and editors may be more inclined to accept manuscripts based on the direction of findings, potentially neglecting lesser known research and making some studies seem more significant than they are. His recommendation was to increase the transparency of the research process and products to improve research reproducibility.

Research on Gender and Entrepreneurship

Professor Colette Henry (Dundalk Institute of Technology) provided greater insight into the nature of research on gender and entrepreneurship, noting that in the entrepreneurship literature, “gender typically means ‘women’s entrepreneurship’”, and there is urgent need for new perspectives on the topic, such as: (re-)conceptualising the gender perspective in entrepreneurship, the influence of gender on the entrepreneurial ecosystem, leadership styles, and business model innovation.

She also shared data on women’s participation in entrepreneurship, highlighting that more women are engaged in ‘necessity entrepreneurship’ than opportunity-based entrepreneurship. This means that women across the world are more likely to become entrepreneurs due to gender-specific issues, such as childcare challenges and restrictive workplace policies; and in some cases, some women simply become entrepreneurs to meet basic economic survival needs as they have no other options.

A Publisher’s Perspective: Maximising Research Impact

After a full day of discussing future areas of research in entrepreneurship and innovation, it was only appropriate to end with the publisher’s perspective on how to maximise the reach and impact of publications. Shannon Canney, Senior Editor at Wiley, began by asking the audience which metrics mattered to them. For most people, the answer was citations, which was consistent with Wiley’s research findings: most people think citations are highly important, whereas some think downloads come next, and a smaller percentage believe social media sharing matters.

Joshua Tufts, Editor at Wiley, said that all these metrics matter for research impact, as they contribute to a comprehensive view of a paper’s performance. It is important for researchers to use various channels to publicise their research because search engine optimisation (SEO) is vital in a digital age, and between June 2016 and July 2017, 54% of visits to Wiley Online Library came from search engines (26% had no referrers, 18% came from other websites, and 1% came from social media). Academics and researchers can maximise their impact through SEO in 4 easy steps, including: usage of relevant key words/phrases throughout the article, choosing a smart, descriptive title which incorporates key phrases, writing a good abstract by expressing key points from the article in simple terms, and creating a network of inbound links and citations to one’s article.

Wiley provides a useful self-promotional author toolkit that researchers can utilise to help ensure their work is seen, read, and cited.

It was a very insightful event for researchers in entrepreneurship and innovation, and the organisers would like to give particular thanks to the sponsors, Wiley, and all speakers:

  • Shannon Canney, Senior Editor, Wiley
  • Chris Graf, Director, Research Integrity & Publishing Ethics, Wiley
  • Colette Henry, Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship, Dundalk Institute of Technology
  • Carlo Milana, Editor in Chief, Strategic Change: Briefings in Entrepreneurial Finance
  • Damir Tokic, Professor of Finance, International University of Monaco
  • Joshua Tufts, Editor, Wiley

Birkbeck PhD Students

  • Maryam GhorbankhaniExploitation of Public Sector R&D
  • Maximillian Giehrl – Open Innovation Collaborations in German Manufacturing Firms
  • Dina MansourEntrepreneurship and Economic Development in Developing Countries: The Case of Egypt
  • Peter RossTheories of Diffusion of Innovation and Medical Engagement: Successful Adoption and Assimilation of Healthcare Reform

Presentations from the workshop can be downloaded from the CIMR website.

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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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