Category Archives: News – On Campus

Vacancies – Business Development Manager – Lamp and Owl

Business Development Manager
The Lamp & Owl is looking to appoint a Business Manager for the 2015-16 academic year. This person will be charged with the day-to-day financial and business management of Birkbeck’s student magazine across its print and digital platforms.

The Business Manager will:

  • Manage the overall budgetary affairs of the Lamp & Owl, liaising regularly with the Communications & Activities Officer of the Birkbeck Student Union
  • Seek opportunities for advertising revenue across both print and digital platforms, in consultation with the Managing Editor (Print) and the Managing Editor (Digital)
  • Manage the distribution of the print edition across the Birkbeck campus, while developing strategies to grow readership across both print and digital platforms (e.g. through market research, promotions, social media)
  • Manage, in consultation with the Editor-in-Chief, the allocation and use of space and equipment in The Newsroom at 43 Gordon Square
  • Develop strategies, with the Editor-in-Chief and Birkbeck Student Union, for alternative revenue streams and business models
  • Attend other regular meetings (e.g. editorial meetings) as required by the Editor-in-Chief

Candidates who would like to apply for the role should submit a CV along with a 250 word statement, outlining how they would fulfil this position at the Lamp & Owl, to by midnight on Sunday 28 June 2015.

Interviews with shortlisted candidates will take place in the afternoon of 8 July 2015. The selection panel for will include representatives of the Birkbeck Journalism Society, Birkbeck Student Union and Birkbeck’s School of Arts.

We welcome applications from any individual regardless of ethnic origin, gender, disability, religious belief, sexual orientation or age.

All applications will be considered on merit

Laughter And Curiosity – Birkbeck Science Week

Birkbeck Science Week has now come to a close, and what an exciting week it’s been. Birkbeck has gained internationally recognized excellence in a number of scientific fields, and it was a treat to be able to see this on display.

Dr Tim J. Smith from the Department of Psychological Sciences began the series with ‘Attention Machine: The science of cinematic perception’ on Monday. Participants were able to become both scientist and subject whilst watching one of the trippiest films I’ve ever seen, The Fountain.

The event had a double focus: testing and demonstrating how filmmakers create shots and scenes in order to keep our attention by manipulating our gaze, whilst also investigating how the use of mobile phones in a cinema is received by other cinema goers. Filmmakers today tend to keep shots very short, rarely lasting more than 2-3 seconds to keep our gaze in the centre of the screen. It was encouraging to find out that the cinema still retained a certain amount of sanctity as far as mobile phone use was concerned, remaining a big no no for most people.

A log of viewers gaze points shown as a heat map (courtesy of Tim J. Smith)
A log of viewers gaze points shown as a heat map. (Courtesy of Tim J. Smith)

Tuesday started with a tour of the Department of Biological Sciences’ electron microscopy lab. This new technology puts Birkbeck at the tip of cutting edge science and enables researchers to study cells closer than ever before and in much greater detail. We saw, for example, how electron microscopes could magnify a red blood cell by up to 132,000 times so that we could see not only the details of the cell but also the malaria parasites this sample had been infected with.

It’s not only malaria parasites that biologists can see in greater detail. Birkbeck has been at the forefront of research into cell-attacking proteins. These are proteins that essentially punch a hole through a cell’s membrane, leaving it open to infection. In the talk that followed the lab tour, Dr Helen Saibil detailed how a team of researchers, using electron microscopy, had been able to see for the first time how proteins can do this.

A cell that has been attacked by a protein called Perforin. The turret at the top of the cell is the protein. (Source: Nature, 2010)
A cell that has been attacked by a protein called Perforin. The turret at the top of the cell is the protein. (Source: Nature, 2010)

Fortunately, it is not just the cells we need that get attacked. As Dr Saibil revealed, the body also produces natural killer cells as part of its innate immune system. These killer cells use the exact same punching-method to destroy infected and tumorous cells as part of an ongoing arms race.

Science Week continued on with more interesting talks and events. Professor Karen Hudson-Edwards gave a talk on ways in which Birkbeck’s Department of Earth and Planetary Science are investigating geochemical pollution from mine waste, and looked at ways the mining industry needs to manage this.

On Wednesday, Professor Martin Eimer looked at the complex ways in which the brain achieves facial recognition, and Dr Alan Lowe continued the theme of investigating cells by looking at ways in which researchers are now able to visualize the inner workings of a living cell.

Thursday kicked off with the second lab tour of the event, this one at the Birkbeck-UCL Centre for Neuroimaging (BUCNI) lab, which looked at the Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanners that the Department of Psychological Sciences use to image the human brain. MRI allows neuroscientists to image brain activity as well as brain structure without having to use invasive surgery or radioactive materials, and enables several centres of brain research within the School of Science to conduct its work.

One of these centres is the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (CBCD) whose BabyLab has been exploring the cognitive development of babies. Dr Esha Massand from CBCD started Thursday’s talks on babies with a look at what infants with Down Syndrome can tell us about dementia. In people with Down Syndrome, the APP gene which contributes to plaques and tangles associated with dementia is over-expressed so that by the time they reach the age of 30-40, they exhibit Alzheimer’s brain pathologies. However, not all individuals with Down Syndrome go on to develop dementia. BabyLab has been studying babies with Down Syndrome to try to uncover what risks and protective factors may exist in the brain, so that in the future early interventions can be made.

It seemed only fitting, however, to end Science Week with two talks, focusing on curiosity and baby laughter. Katarina Begus, a PhD student at BabyLab, spoke about the research that the lab has been undertaking to test for babies curiosity. The research found that babies have a strong tendency to try to interact with adults who are most likely to satisfy their curiosity by, for example, naming the things that a baby points at.

A curious child inspects pet dog. (Source: depositphotos)
A curious child inspects pet dog. (Source: depositphotos)

Katarina also left an open question to us that sent a warning about the future of curiosity. By asking us to write a question on a piece of paper that only we individually probably knew the answer to, and then passing it to the person next to us, she was able to demonstrate just how important it was to us to find out the answers. When then asked to rate from 1-10 how much we wanted to know the answer (10 being very much, 1 being not at all), my neighbour and I both put 9. It was clearly important, and in fact other neurological research has shown that curiosity in adults elicits the same response from the brain as when we yearn for chocolate, nicotine or sex.

However, with information so accessible now it has become necessary to ask: What will happen to curiosity? Is there an incentive to remember when even infants know you can get the information you need on your phone? No one really knows the answer to these questions but Begus reminds us that greater knowledge can help protect against dementia and she finishes by imploring the audience to never stop being curious.

If curiosity is the first message from Science Week, the second is to laugh together. Dr Caspar Addyman gave the final talk, on the surprisingly serious science of baby laughter. He asked us to keep in mind a quote from Victor Borge who said: “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” Dr Addyman’s initial research into a largely overlooked but defining characteristic of babies has highlighted several very important qualities that incentivise laughter.

The two YouTube clips below, which Dr Addyman has shown on his BabyLaughter blog were favourites from his talk.

Laughter is essentially a social process. For babies it not only encourages parents to spend time with them, but is a way for parents and babies to give each other their fullest attention. It is also a powerful learning tool. As Dr Addyman says: ‘babies are little scientists; they have to teach themselves an awful lot of stuff.’ And the most important thing for any human to learn is how to understand other people. Laughter, and the ability to make others laugh is one of the best tools that babies have in order to do this.

Keep laughing, and always be curious!

Still Places Available for Events at Birkbecks Science Week

We’re now halfway through Science week and the events have been thought provoking and well worth attending.

Today’s talks look at how the brain recognizes faces, and gives you an opportunity to see how scientists are able to look closer at cells than they’ve ever been able to before.

Thursday is all about babies: How the baby brain can help us understand dementia, the development of human curiosity, and the surprisingly serious science of baby laughter.

All events are free but make sure you book! And hurry! There are only a few days left to do so.

NUS London Update

Last week, at the height of SU electioneering, a meeting took place in a cramped meeting room on Malet St – and this time it yielded significant results. The gruelling two and a half hour meeting was for the executive of NUS London, the devolved area of the National Union of Students.

The NUS London Area Council had been floundering for some months following tensions on the council, divided along racial lines. Then, as certain members of the NUS Black Students’ campaign progressed onto national conferences and discussions, the area group was left rudderless. It was not until last month that the organisation had fresh life breathed into it by resident activist, Alex Owolade. Alex was the long-running Black Students’ Officer at Birkbeck and continues to be active in the campaigns. He also heads up his own organisation, Movement for Justice, which recently spearheaded a campaign against the Harmondsworth detention centre.

While campaigning for an end to racist deportation, Owolade has been mending the NUS London body since early this year. It is widely believed that NUS London was “set up to fail” by NUS National, according to a member of the Democratic Procedures Committee. Its foundation came as a response to the dissolution of ULU last academic year. Since then, only three meetings of council have taken place – the latest of which was the result of Birkbeck’s own efforts, hosted by us on the 21st February. Owolade and a handful of other Birkbeckers have been busy reaching out to further education colleges across London, preparing for a fully-engaged NUS London to mobilise FE colleges to be part of the national student movement.

Following on from the Council, the executive laid groundwork for a visit to the constituency of Liam Byrne, shadow higher education minister. Coaches funded by several key London student unions will be going up to Birmingham on the 28th of March, demanding a stronger Labour commitment to free education.

At the end of the meeting, attendees cast votes to decide upon the new London area convenor. Following a discussion on the validity of job-shares, Alex Owolade and Hannah Sketchly, outgoing UCLU democracy and communications sabbatical officer, were appointed to the task. “Modest” objectives will follow an expected resurgence of student action in London. Birkbeck will continue to reach out to FE colleges in every quarter of town to get their voices heard.

More to follow.

The New Prevent: Birkbeck and the future of universities

In early February, a former Birkbeck undergraduate student was convicted for terrorist intentions. Last year in May, en route to Serbia, David Souaan was arrested at Heathrow airport on suspicion that he was going to fight in Syria.

His case was minor, nevertheless, the former student is serving a three-and-a-half-year sentence. Souaan exemplifies a phenomenon worrying communities and challenging the government: radicalisation, or the process by which a person comes to support terrorism.

At Souaan’s trial, the court heard that his young age and immaturity made him vulnerable to extremism. The transition from kind-hearted member of the community to potential national security threat is more common in young people, according to a review published by the government. As many young people study in higher education, universities are under pressure to prevent radicalisation.

The counter-terrorism and security bill, which will soon become law having received royal assent, will require internet providers and airliners to retain data, cancel passports of suspected national terrorists, and place universities, including schools and colleges, under statutory duty to prevent the radicalisation of students.

Most universities already follow a counter-terrorism strategy set by the government. Aptly named Prevent, the strategy recommends ways to spot extremism to universities and other public bodies. The strategy was revised in 2011 when al-Qaida was perceived as the biggest threat to national security. Now the threat is Da’ish, or Islamic State (IS), and ‘start-up terrorists’.

The government blames universities – specifically vice-chancellors – for being relaxed about extremism on campuses, while others argue universities are overly cautious in following the Prevent strategy.

Joint Branch Secretary of Birkbeck Unison Steven Ellis believes the strategy is unnecessary for there are already laws to prevent terrorism. “If anybody in a university becomes aware of anybody actually committing some kind of violence or attack,” Ellis said, “anything that is concrete on that level, they should inform the police.”

Birkbeck has been criticised for cowering to police rather than representing the interests of the staff and students. Late last year Birkbeck cancelled a conference on Islamophobia after receiving threats from far-right organisations Britain First and Casuals United. The Islamic Human Rights Commission had hired a classroom for the daylong seminar but the event was pulled at short notice.

“It is unfortunate that the circumstances surrounding this conference changed,” Birkbeck stated. “Not only was there a significant primary threat of disruption and a genuine threat of counter demonstration, but there was also the potential of an escalating situation given the location within the Bloomsbury university area.

“Of course, our concern was for participants of the conference, but our duty of care is obviously broader, and has to extend to consideration for our students, our staff and our visitors who might become caught up in, and adversely affected by, such a situation.”

Birkbeck’s Facilities Manager Elizabeth Whitehead added: “Like Higher Education and Further Education institutions across the city, Birkbeck works with the London Prevent team. Through our networks we access best practice, participate in informed debate and discussion and source training.”

In an open letter, activists and academics retorted: “The decision to withdraw from this event appeared to be as a result of buckling to the Islamophobic threats by far-right groups including Britain First and Casuals United (who threatened to demonstrate this event) as well as pressure from the local Camden Prevent officer.”

They further criticised Birkbeck and the Prevent team for not having supported community groups against extremism.

In their letter, they state: “By reneging on the venue, Birkbeck signalled to all of us that our concerns and fears in dealing with Islamophobia were better silenced than tackled collectively.”

Birkbeck countered: “Birkbeck’s doors are open to one of the most diverse higher education communities in the country; Birkbeck classrooms host people from 18 to 80, and bring together people from a wide variety of social, ethnic and religious backgrounds. The College is very committed to that ongoing tradition.”

For activists and academics, the cancellation of the conference shows that Birkbeck is not as progressive as it believes. They state: “[Birkbeck’s] reputation as a pioneering academic institution with a radical vision of inclusiveness that previously opened the doors for those excluded from higher education, seems merely a nostalgic memory.”

Activists, academics and students fear the foundation of the university as an institute for the freedom of expression will soon also become a nostalgic memory. When the counter-terrorism bill becomes law, the foundation of the university will include the duty to prevent extremism. Universities are to be categorised along with charities as public bodies with the public interest and safety as their principle mission.

Ellis of Birkbeck Unison is concerned extremism could be any -ism attached to a controversial subject, such as socialism: “People study all type of political, religious, cultural ideas, which in everyday life you would describe as extreme.”

A new statutory duty for universities to prevent extremism would make students and teachers think twice before discussing a radical view in class. They would “self-police”, Ellis noted, “squashing freedom of speech.”

The policy legally requiring universities to be responsible for extremism on campuses comes from policy that did not distinguish social integration and counter-terrorism. Home Secretary Theresa May said in 2011: “[The Blair-Brown Labour administration] confused Government policy to promote integration with Government policy to prevent terrorism. … In trying to reach those at risk of radicalisation, funding sometimes even reached the very extremist organisations that Prevent should have been confronting.”

In a speech given after the killing of army officer Lee Rigby on changes to the Prevent strategy, May said: “Unlike the old strategy, there is now a clear demarcation between counter-terrorism work…and the Government’s wider counter-extremist and integration work.”

The division of social integration and counter-terrorism attempts to alter the role of universities as well as the Muslim community. With the unmasking of ‘Jihadi John’ reportedly as Mohammed Emwazi and reports of three London school girls travelling to Syria, along with a number of other cases including David Souaan, the government continues to link the rise in extremism with a failure on behalf of Muslim communities.

David Cameron called on the Muslim community to challenge the ideology of IS and actively prevent extremism. The Prime Minister and other national leaders are of the opinion that this new terrorist group has manifested from a religion uncritical of the violent minority of its followers.

The government has challenged Muslims to prove their nationalism.

In a letter to Muslim community representatives after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Secretary of State Eric Pickles wrote: “You, as faith leaders, are in a unique position in our society. You have a precious opportunity, and an important responsibility: in explaining and demonstrating how faith in Islam can be part of British identity. … There is a need to lay out more clearly than ever before what being a British Muslim means today: proud of your faith and proud of your country.”

Zakariya Mohran, member of UCLU Islamic Society, told the Lamp and Owl: “British values are Muslim values, and Muslim values are British values.”

Mohran and the president of the Society, Yusuf Zakaria, believe IS is not alone in abusing the teachings of Islam – the British government and the media do as well.

The portrayal that “Islam is about violence, and Islam is unaccepting of other faiths, that Muslims generally want to take over [the world], is completely not true,” Mohran said. “When an event happens that is evil [the media] link it up with something to do with Islam, which it’s nothing to do at all [with Islam], and vilifies Islam as a whole.”

He gave the example of how dawah – opening dialogue to teach Islam – has been linked to the act of killing, such as with the murder of Lee Rigby.

“They are implicating a whole bunch, a quarter of humanity, that are devout followers of a religion to a bunch of nut-jobs who just want to go out and do some evil stuff,” Mohran said.

The Society has been criticised for inviting extremist speakers who have supported terrorist attacks. Mohran said the speakers’ comments have been “blown out of proportion” and “taken out of context.”

Speaking on the counter-terrorism bill, Mohran said the legislation “makes extremism applied to whatever they want to apply [it] to – it’s very ambiguous.”

The theory of radicalisation is also ambiguous. For such a complex process, it is often reduced to deceivingly simple terms. Cameron has used the analogy of a “conveyer belt”. This brings to mind the image of a young student going through a machine marked ‘terrorism’ and coming out as a balaclava executioner.

Some critics see radicalisation occurring in a different way. The advocacy organisation CAGE suggests Mohammed Emwazi was radicalised in reaction to harassment and pressure from MI5 officers to join their agency: “Emwazi’s treatment by the UK fuelled his radicalization, and not the other way around.”

The Home Office have neither confirmed nor denied that MI5 attempted to recruit Emwazi.

Other critics see both interpretations of radicalisation as one-sided: they do not factor in other contributing elements such as British foreign policy and the fragile state in the Middle East.

For all of the thwarted plots Home Secretary Theresa May has boasted before, recent debate in the government has focused on the management of intelligence agencies and their failure to prevent crimes related to terrorism. They have been criticised for not monitoring closely Lee Rigby’s killers, Emwazi and the three travelling London schoolgirls.

The counter-terrorism bill was not required for the authorities to become aware of David Souaan. Nor was it by using the Prevent strategy that the former Birkbeck student was flagged up. By their own volition, students informed the authorities about David Souaan, concerned about his extreme views.

“Hello from Syria” Souaan texted to a friend at the start of last year. Squatted on top of a shelled, destroyed tank, Souaan faces the camera wielding a machine gun. He is the only person in the picture. There are palm trees behind, blue sky above and rubble about. The battle seems to have moved on – Souaan late on the scene. The photograph was taken January 2014 when Souaan travelled to Syria.

At his trial he told the Old Bailey the reason for his trip to Syria was to help collect his grandfather’s belongings after Assad forces fired rockets at the family’s hometown of Deir ez-Zor.

The prosecutor, Sarah Whitehouse QC, told the court Souaan’s friends might have exaggerated the photos he had shown them, but further evidence supported he was preparing for terrorist acts.

When Souaan was arrested at Heathrow, police uncovered documents on his laptop and smartphone revealing his “extremist sympathies”. One such document was a video clip of a man slitting the throat of another.

Other footage reportedly showed Souaan at a demonstration in the UK calling for the flag of Tawheed, used by IS, in London. Along with text and Skype messages, all this evidence suggested Souaan’s record of “extremist sympathies” equated to extremist activities.

According to the Press Association, Judge Peter Rook admitted to Souaan in court: “…his case was at the lower end of the scale but nevertheless serious.”

The increasing influence and power of IS, and Western withdrawal of support for Syrian rebel groups likely factored in the jury’s verdict to find Souaan guilty of terrorist activity.

Souaan’s lawyer Ali Bajwa QC described the defendant as experiencing “loneliness and isolation” from family when studying Global Politics and International Development at Birkbeck. The homesick student was “emotionally immature and naïve,” Bajwa said.

The UK is not Souaan’s native country. His home is Serbia where his Christian mother was born – his Muslim father is Syrian.

Replying to the question of why he posed with guns in Syria, Souaan said: “At the time when I was there I felt something like I wanted some trophy – the photos.” He added, as though he was much older: “As the teenagers say nowadays, it looks ‘cool’. So that was the reason.”

It hasn’t been that long since Souaan was a teenager. He is 20 years old. He is serving a three and a half year sentence at a young offenders institution.

What about the Welfare? #BBKelects

A week ago Monday, the Birkbeck hustings saw two big personalities take to the stage to argue the merits of voting for them to become the 2015-16 Welfare Officer. There had been some significant competitive steam on the Internet in the runup to the hustings after Darren Shaw of the Psychology society and Steven Hayden of the Law Department released campaign videos.

I’ve been at Birkbeck for a few years now and this was the first time I saw campaign videos as part of social media campaigns on Facebook, despite having regularly seen it from friends in more conventional universities. Although one of the competitors was a first year at Birkbeck, both contenders at the hustings were grown men.

The first year, Hayden, had tried to court my vote over a pint by evoking negativity around the other candidate, just prior to the opening of the two-week polling period. This bitter attitude continued into the hustings, where candidate Shaw heckled Hayden in Jamaican Patois for making a passing insinuation of his inability to run the Welfare portfolio on the basis of his successful Psychological society.

A week later, it materialised that both these candidates had stood down from the race. Steven Hayden, regardless of his opinion of Darren Shaw, made a good point that the Welfare Officer position would entail a great deal of work. Housing, he stressed, was the main area of issue for Birkbeck students.

We will never know what either would have brought to the job beyond rhetoric. Hayden and Shaw’s supporters were keen on discrediting the other on the grounds of an “All Flash, No Substance” argument. The Law clique affiliated in the Students Not Profit slate passed accusations on Darren on the basis on his having different Facebook profiles; meanwhile, Tony Halliday’s changing array of names, which ended up as Steven Hayden on the bill, raised the same questions of integrity.

Regardless of what truth was in their names, there is only one recognizable union name left standing on the Welfare bill. Sofiya Ahmed is a 3rd year PPH student and Kashmiri liberation activist. She was originally Anti-Fascism, Anti-Racism Officer at Birkbeck before ascending to joint Women’s Officer of NUS London. Her base in the Islamic society and politics department gives her a real chance of winning. The question remains: What do Birkbeckers expect of someone in this important role? As she did not attend the hustings, there is little clue of what is being offered beyond a generic commitment to “free education”, among other buzzwords seen on her flier.