“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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“I dedicate my MA to my late mother, who was my rock”

Carolyne Megan graduated last month with an MA in Digital Media Design after caring for her late mother throughout her degree. This is her #BBKgrad story.

Carolyne Megan – © Photo by Joel, Peter Dyers Photographic Studio

I had a thriving career at University College London (UCL), working as a Web/Graphics and E-learning Technologist in Psychology and Language Sciences. I loved my professional career very much. Then in 2013, my father had cancer, so I left UCL to help my disabled mother care for him in his last months.

After my father died in August 2013, I applied to work at Imperial College London in the same role as UCL, but in their ICT department. I was extremely lucky as I was offered a job, and started in October 2013, as I was grief-stricken. After I started at Imperial, I was responsible for keeping my frail elderly mother supported in her home with carers. My main concern was to keep my grieving mother safe in her home and looked after by external social care.

In 2014, I paid for myself to do a Postgraduate Certificate in Web Design and Development at Birkbeck. I had a fantastic time, embracing new skills for my web portfolio. I built a great rapport with fellow students and then later attended the graduation ceremony at Senate House in 2016.

During 2013-2015, my mother’s situation deteriorated, and she was not coping well after my father died so I made a decision to leave Imperial in December 2015. In 2016, I sought low paid temporary Learning Technology jobs and by July 2016, I had reached a crisis with my mother. She was unable to look after herself, so her social worker and I facilitated a move to a good care home that was local to her.

It was an extremely painful process to endure in the summer of 2016, as I had to move my mother’s belongings and clothes into cases and take them from a five-bed detached house to one room in a care home. I was heartbroken for her. I promised her that I would spend three days every month in Sussex visiting her. So that became my routine. I sold her house, auctioned her possessions, gave her clothes to charities, her beloved book collection to refuse collectors as book sellers weren’t interested. It was painful process to go through.

My mother took a few months to settle in the home. She had an IQ of 140, despite being disabled by botched surgery and very frail. After she had settled, I applied for a job at UCL, in the libraries team, which was perfect as I have a love of books! My job involved processing new stock before sending the books to Main Library.

In 2017, I was approached by the Birkbeck School of Arts administrator, to notify me that there was a new MA in Digital Media Design. I was told that my credits from my previous course would enable me to do less modules to get the full MA. I really couldn’t afford it as I was on low pay. But my mother gave me a wonderful gift. She told me that she felt that I had given up my career to care for both her and my late father, and she wanted to pay the fees, so I could continue to ‘stretch my brain’ as she called it.

I wasn’t sure if I had it in me to do an MA, but I jumped at the chance to try. I asked my supervisor if I could do my dissertation in 2018, instead of 2019, and he allowed me to do this. With hindsight this was the best decision I made. I received a Merit for my dissertation and I dedicated it to my mother and gave her a copy of the book. She passed it round to all her visitors and it was full of coffee stains and blotches. She told me she was very proud and we were both emotional.

In February 2019, she was admitted to hospital with a blocked bowel and we were told that she was probably going to pass away. She was such a fighter and was sent back to the care home to be in a palliative care room. She was now unable to get out of bed and had to be turned every two hours. Her life was not really a life. She picked up and managed to carry on until July 2019. She overheard someone say that she was never getting out of the bed, so she stopped her fluids, food and medication and died after two weeks at the age of 95.

I miss her every single day, but I am glad she did not have to live in the year of the pandemic, as we would not have been able to have seen one another.

I dedicate my MA to my late mother, who was my rock.

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The international student experience at Birkbeck: Cooking up a storm

In a follow up to the School of Business, Economics and Informatics’ recent cooking classes at L’atelier des Chefs, students Nomvelo Mlotshwa and Mariem Ben Maallem share their experiences first hand.

“As an international student, the reason why I came to London was to catch a glimpse of the diverse cultures and traditions that are as diverse as the people at Birkbeck, University of London. The cooking classes for international students organised by William Richards have been such a wonderful opportunity to do exactly that.

I have been able to attend the cooking classes at L’Atelier des Chefs on Wigmore Street and all I can say is that it has been a wonderful experience to whip up something so simple and outright delicious in just under thirty minutes. The staff at L’Atelier des Chefs are so friendly and the chefs really make one fall in love with cooking again. The atmosphere of the cooking class starts when we meet at the Malet Street building, the laughs, the walk to L’atelier des Chefs has really cemented friendships that go beyond the class.

The cooking classes have allowed me as an international student to talk to other international students, make friends whom I would have not met as we are all from different levels in our studies. I have met undergraduate and postgraduate students from the Department of Management and this has made my time here at Birkbeck worthwhile.

Not that the time at the kitchen hasn’t come without freak accidents. My first time trying to look all cool and fast with the knife, I then had the knife go into my left forefinger. No one saw really what had happened because it all happened so fast but all I can say is that I have learnt a lesson or two from these classes!

Many thanks go to William and the entire team at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics.” – Nomvelo Mlotshwa, Sport Management (MSc)

“This cooking class is my favourite event and I have not missed any Friday class. We meet in front of our university and we will go together to the cooking class. It is a very nice walk where we look forward to what new dish experience we will have (and also to catch up on our life in London’s premier University😊), some of which I have cooked at home, to the delight of my flatmates.

Our exceptional plate this week was to prepare Japanese noodles with fish.

This was my third class, and I always have the same feeling, impressed by the chef and his passion for his work. As a start, the chef shows us all the steps to prepare our lunch, explaining all the ingredients that we will use for today’s meal. I like this chef, he is very energetic, very communicating, and he will continuously try to get all our interest by telling us the story behind each meal. He will make us understand every technique that he is using while cutting the onions or slicing the pepper. The chef was not only teaching us how to cook, but also sharing the best tips that he learned during his career.

The cooking class was about discovering new recipes, but also, about teaching us how to work in a group, it was teamwork! We were 5 members per table, and were sharing tasks between us, in order, to prepare our lunch. It is not a competition, but we found ourselves competing; who is going to finish the first using the same techniques as the chef, who the chef will say is best 😉. The funniest part of this class is that we all followed the same instructions, the same chef, but almost none of us was doing it in the same way. What is also hilarious, is that we were waiting for the first person to start so we all will follow, and copy, him or her immediately.

This meal was extremely delicious, like all the previous ones, but this time it was with a special flavour “orange”. I ate it all… everything I had on my plate, while also, of course, enjoying the interesting and different company, of fellow Birkbeck international, students. My favourite part was the dessert time. I wait excitedly for the surprise, because we do not know what we are having, but what I know is, that it is always very delicious! Let’s not forget the group photo; it is becoming a ritual to have a picture every time.

I will keep going to these classes because I am truly learning new recipes and I am always trying to cook the same thing at home. Sometimes, I am even adding my Tunisian touch 😎” – Mariem Ben Maallem, Business Innovation with International Technology Management (MSc)

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Challenges and opportunities for university-business co-creation: comparative perspectives from the UK and US

Organised by the Centre for Innovation Management Research, this panel event explored how universities and businesses can build mutually beneficial partnerships from an international perspective.

On Wednesday 19 February, Birkbeck’s Centre for Innovation Management Research was proud to welcome academics and consultants alike to a guest seminar led by Professor Helen Lawton Smith and chaired by Dr Renos Savva.

The title of the discussion was Challenges and Opportunities for University-Business Co-Creation, with Adrian Day, Dr Federica Rossi, Professor Tomasz Mroczkowski and Evelyn Wilson each bringing their individual expertise to the panel.

Throughout this fascinating event, each panellist outlined their view of the ever-changing relationship between universities and private enterprise. With a focus on international perspectives; from Japan to Sweden, the US and the UK, attendees were encouraged to outline their experience of joint ventures. Moreover, in discussing the dichotomy between government policy and evolving attitudes towards innovation, the role of today’s universities was brought into the debate.

In looking to the future, this event sought to compare the varying attitudes towards university-business co-creation, with an aim to building new and sustainable partnerships throughout the academic and entrepreneurial spheres.

Thank you to everyone who attended and made this event such a success!

  • Dr Renos Savva, a Senior Lecturer in Biological Sciences at Birkbeck, and co-founder of the Birkbeck-UCL-ICR start-up, Domainex Ltd., which is now an established biotech sector SME based in the Cambridge area.
  • Adrian Day has spent over 15 years working at the interface between academia and the economy, covering all aspects from design of data systems to providing direct advice to the Minister for Universities.
  • Dr Federica Rossi is Senior Lecturer in Business Economics at Birkbeck.
  • Dr Tomasz Mroczkowski, American University, has studied and written about innovation, the management of change, and economic transition for most of his career.
  • Evelyn Wilson is a Founder/Director of The Culture Capital Exchange, established in 2011 and was Senior Manager at its previous iteration London Centre for Arts and Cultural Exchange.

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