Humans of Bristol University

Walker Grevel and Patrick Shannon

Walker (4th Year Civil Engineering) and Patrick (3rd Year Biology) met in Clifton Hill House back in their first year. They remained close friends ever since. I caught up with them back in March to talk about their university experience at Bristol…

Taken in The Life Sciences Sky Lounge on March 7th 2019.

What made you decide to come here to study?

Patrick: I just had a really good feeling about the city. Funnily enough though, it was actually one of the only universities I didn’t visit… I still firmed it though! I just thought it would be a good place to be, the student life was good and the course was highly regarded. Bristol had this ‘prestige’, whilst also being very relaxed, lively and liberal.

Walker: Well, I went to an open day…

Patrick As you should! * laughs *

Walker: It was great! I went with my mum, it was a beautiful sunny day…I had also visited Bath the day before, but I thought the campus and city were a bit too small for me. Bristol was larger and more interesting. I spent a lot of time exploring the city, going to the Harbourside, the markets, and I completely fell in love. I remember telling my mum I wanted to come here to study.

Did you always know you wanted to go to university?

Patrick: I never entertained the thought of not going! I think that’s a product of the college I went to. They would say that there are alternatives out there, but they didn’t give you an awful lot of information about that. They would say, ‘Oh, I guess there are apprenticeships’ but everyone had to submit a UCAS application whether you were going to university or not. It was a way of keeping future options open!

It was very much pushed on us that university was the way forward, that it was a good career move… I don’t think I was influenced by that college mentality. I was very much into learning and biology. But I think there are people who were influenced by that and felt ‘pushed’ into it.

Walker: For me, I didn’t view this as an option or choice. I always thought it was something I was going to do. I guess it is because of how I was brought up. My parents taught me ‘once you go to school, you then you go to university.’ Unlike Patrick’s college, most people didn’t go to university at my school. It wasn’t really pushed upon anyone. But if you had ‘okay’ grades, you were expected to apply because that was seen as the normal thing to do. I think most people in my sixth form were open to explore other options.

Do you remember what your expectations were for university? Have they been met?

Patrick:  You know what, I don’t know what my expectations were! I really don’t think I had an image in my head…  I was nervous about the independence and the social aspect of it. I thought it would be challenging to make friends because I was really shy when I first came.

I was most excited for the academic side of university. I was excited to be taught by the best and to interact with the best researchers in the country… But I did expect the course to be more hands on. Biology is very, very independent. I don’t know if that independence is part of every course, everywhere in the country, but if I could change anything, it would be that I wish it was more interactive. I think I expected it to be a bit more like college.

Walker: I just assumed life would start when I got to university. Before that I didn’t do much. I just went to school and did my homework… It was a bit dull. But once I started university, there was so much to do and so many people to meet. I think you do meet new people that you will probably stay friends with for the rest of your life.

Patrick: I also think every university experience is personal. There are so many options out there for what you can and want to do! You’ve also got such a broad spectrum of people here… Some people are extremely active and constantly social. Some are more reclusive and not doing as much because all this change is overwhelming. There is a bit of pressure for your university experience to be great all the time, which is not good.

Walker: I agree. When I went abroad, people always used to tell me ‘this is the best thing that is going to happen to you in your life.’ I don’t think this should be advertised like that because that is not always the case. Change is hard and many people find that difficult. I didn’t really enjoy being in a new place for the first part of my study abroad, I really struggled. But once I started to meet people I connected with, things changed.

Patrick: I also think those ‘best’ experiences can kind of sneak up on you. You shouldn’t feel pressured to have the greatest time. It’s probably why I enjoyed second year more than my first year. I was doing a lot with societies, keeping on top of work…etc. But I wasn’t actively doing things to make my experience the ‘best’ time. I was just doing what I wanted to do.

What would you say to your first-year self?

Walker: Well, in first year I wasn’t as social or as chatty to new people. I’ve become more mature and more confident as time has gone on. I was, and still am involved with the Third Culture Kid Society, but initially, I was avoiding their socials because I was intimidated by meeting new people. My friends kept telling me ‘Go, these are exactly the people you would get along with.’ I resisted going for the longest time, but when I eventually did go, it was amazing.

I think I would tell my first-year self to push herself a bit more! It would have gotten involved in societies a lot earlier!

Patrick: I would tell myself to stop spending so much money. I got Dominos a stupid amount and I really saw my overdraft as free money… It’s not that at all!

I think I was very carefree and I think I made the most of it in a lot of ways. I wouldn’t say too much to my first-year self. For the age I was and the place and setting I was in, I made a lot of friends and I kept on top of my work pretty well… That’s all you can really hope for in first year and it went well!

Walker: I was too stressed in first year. I wish I wasn’t like that.

Patrick: You were too stressed in first year.

Walker: * laughs *I think I treated my university work like A-levels and spent way too much time studying instead of trying new things. I was basically a fourth year in first year.

Patrick: But it’s good to keep up that level of work, because I think it’s easy to drop your working habits drastically between sixth-form and university… It’s also easy to forget how much is expected of us as years go on. I find it hard to maintain my productivity now!

Has there been an academic or member of staff at Bristol who really engaged you and inspired you? What did they do?

Patrick: Yes, many of them, but I wouldn’t say a single person did that. I think the teaching staff is strong here, but it is also quite varied. There are lecturers who make research their priority and don’t enjoy teaching. But there are other members of staff who love lecturing and who really care about students getting the most out of their experience at Bristol.  They want to make sure you’re dealing with things ok and that you’re getting on with work.

There’s one lecturer, Rosemary Crichton, who always does little meditation sessions in the middle of classes. She’s also done other fun little bits and bobs… You can tell she’s gone away and read about education to learn how to keep people engaged and how to keep their concentration levels up. She’s always pushing to try new things in class.

I know that some of my friends preferred getting more straightforward lectures, but I really appreciate seeing someone making an effort to make us learn in new ways.

Walker:  James Norman, he is amazing. He’s one of our favourite lecturers ever. Especially back in 2nd year, we had 3 hours of lectures every Thursday and Friday morning at 9am for the entire year… That was hard. But he would always lecture for 20 mins, then take a break for a couple of minutes to get water and relax, then he would resume lecturing for another 20 minutes and repeat this throughout the class… He just knows how to keep us engaged, even when some students were half falling asleep!

My supervisor Rachel De Ath is also incredible. She is so inspirational. She works part-time, lectures part time, has a family, is a chartered engineer… It’s incredible how she manages to juggle it all! Working two jobs and taking care of two kids, I don’t know how she does it!

We also have this lecturer called Dimitri who is hilarious. Always talking about football with the boys in my year…

What do you do to relieve stress?

Patrick: I do a lot of running. It’s something I discovered at the end of first year. Initially, I hated it. But I thought I needed to do something active because I realized I never did anything before. I wasn’t particularly good at any sports in school and that kind of turned me off. I always felt I was getting compared to my peers.

It was nice to find an independent activity like running where you’re only judged against your own standards. You’re aware that you’re better today than you were yesterday, you’re quicker today than you were yesterday… You could even go an extra kilometer today!

I think that was the activity I needed because I finally learned ‘ you should only compare yourself to yourself.’ Also, if I run at the start of the day, it energizes me and makes me want to keep up that streak of productivity. But I can’t lie, doing it first thing in morning is the hardest part.

Walker: I’m with Patrick. I just love running because it really helps you clear your head. It puts you in the right place. I also started bouldering, which is super fun and challenging. It’s great because anyone can try it out and get good at it. I also really enjoy meeting up with new people, grabbing a coffee or having dinner and catching up with friends! It distracts you from other things that might be stressing you out.

Finally, what’s your favourite thing to do in Bristol?

Walker: When I have time, I just love going on walks around the city with friends, exploring new areas of the town,  trying out different restaurants, taking photos…things There’s so much to do, I don’t think I can choose a single thing!  I also absolutely love being here in the summer. Between 2nd and 3rd year, Patrick and I stayed back in Bristol and got to enjoy the city under the sun…

Patrick: I really like all the different events that go on around the city… ‘Wildlife Photographer’ at M-shed was so good. There are so many varied events for every person’s interest. I just love that you can search ‘What’s on in Bristol?’ and there will most definitely have something that will catch your eye.


This interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.

Humans of Bristol University

Dr. James Norman

James Norman is a Lecturer in Civil Engineering and an Academic Fellow for BILT. I caught up with James on the 10th of May to talk about his path into academia, his passion for teaching and engineering, and student engagement.

Taken at Coffee + Beer on the 10th of May 2019

Tell us a bit about how you got into academia.

My path into academia was a little different from everyone else’s…

I did an engineering degree at Nottingham, which is pretty normal! After I completed my degree, I got a job working in industry. I worked for about 3 years, then started doing a PhD and became a Research Assistant.

Research Assistants are usually hired after completing a PhD, but I hadn’t started mine at that point. What I had was industry experience. That definitely persuaded the university department to give me that post-PhD position without even having a PhD. That job was a lot of fun!

After 3 years of payed research I managed to finish my PhD! It was so satisfying but it was also one of the most difficult moments of my life. Only because, my second son was born 3 months into my 6-month write up. I was up with my son until 10-11pm, then worked on my PhD until 2-3o’clock in the morning, I was also working to earn enough money…

I was not a pleasant person for a little bit. Really unpleasant actually, my wife did not like me for a little while!

 I then persuaded the university to let me work for them on an hourly basis teaching one course unit. I did that for about 3-4 years, then I finally asked for a contract. I wanted a contract to have the security of knowing I would be teaching this every year instead of getting to that point when you think ‘Uhm, ok, it’s September, and I’m not even sure I’m going to be able to teach this again.’  

After working part time, I thought ‘I like working in industry, but I love teaching!’

So about 4 years ago, I asked my head of department for a full-time position as a lecturer. I kind of gave him an ultimatum… But that got me the job!

How difficult is it to secure a job in academia?

Getting an academic job isn’t easy. It feels like there’s a lot of serendipity involved.

I get to interview a lot of people for these jobs, and I don’t think I could get a job in academia nowadays. It is so difficult and competitive! There are days when I think, I shouldn’t really be here doing what I’m doing.

But ultimately, even though my experience was quite different from what people expect academics to do, it’s not better or worse.  And everyone has their unique path into academia. Not everyone knows they want to get into it.

All I knew was that I loved designing buildings! And I also knew I wanted to work in industry and at university.

How did you combine your work in industry with your interest in teaching?

It’s great to look at buildings that you designed and say ‘That is mine! I did all of that!’ Nothing beats that. But, ultimately, I also felt I had something to offer at the university. I didn’t want to just teach the norm of how things are in engineering. I think it is important to look at the industry and think about where we are going, what things might look like looking forward, and what are the challenges we are going to be facing in the future.

I like to bring in unusual buildings materials to my lectures. I like to tell students about them in the hope that they would go out into the world equipped in ways that I was never equipped.

I believe that teaching offers the biggest impact for change!

Would you say you do more teaching than researching at the moment?

I think I’m a bit more of a polymath. There is a company mantra that states ‘do one thing well’, well, I’m absolutely the opposite of that! I think it’s fun to do a bit of everything.

But I also need a bit of a focus. I am supervising 1 PhD student at the moment and I love doing that! But I’m not keen to have 100 PhD students at one time. That would be a lot!

I also love my research area on sustainable materials, specifically timber. It’s going to be an extremely important material. My students know how fond I am of it.

Would you be able to name most of your students?

I would love to be able to name all of them obviously, but I don’t know if my brain capacity is that big. I’ve got 300 names to memorise across 4 years. But I do try and take a personal interest in everyone. I think it’s very important to have a relationship with your students!

What are your thoughts on anonymous marking for big group projects? Is it possible?

That’s a hot topic! Most of the time, these projects are double marked, or even triple marked depending on the situation. But it is almost impossible to mark anonymously because group work involves supervisors and other members of staff to talk to students about their projects all the time.

 One solution would be to give everyone the same project. But we also don’t want to give all students the same challenges, it would be boring!

That’s why group projects tend to be more diverse. We want to make students have a choice in what they study. We tend to offer about 30 real-life projects that students can choose from. It is great to be able to give students a wide scope and range of topics. If you’re interested in international development, or water, or infrastructure, there should be opportunities catered for students’ and groups’ interests.

How do you get students to be engaged in their studies?

I don’t know how you feel about lectures, but I love lecturing! It is one of my favourite things to do!  But, it might be for a selfish reason. It is a bit like performance, like an actor or a musician. Everyone is looking at you and ready to listen to what you have to say… I think a lot of people like doing it, but don’t confess to that. Of course, I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily the best way to learn. But it is a great way of delivering information, so we should make it a performance that students enjoy and find interesting.

We also have smaller classes where we work through teaching material together. I find that it is sometimes hard to bridge that hierarchy between teacher and student. Therefore it is important to have times where teachers and students can discuss course material together. Students get worried if they are stuck on material from week 3 when they are supposed to be on week 7… But at the end of the day, it’s ok if you aren’t on that specific week. You should be able to ask lecturers anything because that is what we are here for. It is important to break down the barriers between academics and students to make their learning comfortable.

In my mind, the healthiest relationship between students and professors is seeing myself as a senior engineer and the students as graduate engineers. There is obviously a hierarchy of knowledge but you shouldn’t feel like it’s because you don’t know, it’s just that you haven’t learned about it yet.

Would you say that knowledge is collaborative?  

I don’t know. I would say that knowledge is acquired through a variety of ways. I remember going on a training course with ‘We The Curious’. The activity leader presented 3 different ways of making Bolognaise. The 1st approach, we were told how to make the bolognaise. The 2nd approach involved having a conversation about the recipe and asking audiences for suggestions. The 3rd approach was a facilitated discussion with the audience.

Even though most people thought we would like approach 3, all the Engineering staff liked approach 1.  I think it’s because we’re used to that kind of methodology: we take information and learn to apply it. And I don’t think it’s an unhealthy way to learn at all! I always look for experts to learn about new things because they use the right tools to learn from. It is obviously very different from collaborative learning, but it does not mean it is better.

The creation of knowledge is far more complex than you think and there isn’t a single ‘tool set’ to learn from.

Do you think Arts subjects will ever adopt a scientific methodology?

I was terrible at ‘the Arts’ when I was a student, so I’m not sure I can comment on that. But I do think that there are many ways we can design our thinking process. I think the sciences like to over-glorify the rationalization of ideas. But we should remember that not all ideas are naturally accepted.  Not everyone has the same views.

For example, I love music, and the music that I love, I love for an irrational reason. Because they are quirky and different. I find that the more people don’t like it, the more likely I am to lean towards it and listen to it. We all have our preferences and our own valuable ways of learning.

If everyone was learning the same way and doing the same thing, it would be very boring!

I also think that there is always a sense of narrative to explain how we’ve learned what we’ve learned.

For instance, when you write an essay, you should view it as a document journeying your learning. You have to have a conversation about what you’ve learned and how you learned.   Reflection is an important practice.

What’s one thing you learned as a teacher?

Learning is one of my favourite things to do. I am currently learning a lot about pedagogy! But One important lesson I learned was through a scheme called CREATE.

I had to write a reflective piece on my teaching practice. When I wrote the draft, I thought, ‘I nailed it.’ Everything was going very well, so I thought this was going to be brilliant. But when I got my work back, the reviewer really tore it to pieces, but in a very healthy way!

I remember sending about 10 revisions of my statement to Jane, who runs CREATE, and learned a lot through those revisions…

There are times you think you’re great at something, and when you suddenly aren’t, it can be a shock to the system. But it is important to experience these moments, both as a student, as well as as an academic.

Wwhat were your perceptions of teaching from when you were a student?

I think I had a pretty unhealthy relationship to teaching and learning when I was a student. I was pretty good at exams and cracked the system by memorizing past papers and answers. It was only in my 3rd and 4th year that I knew I wanted to design buildings and understand how they came to be. I remember walking through a building with a friend and finally seeing the connection between what I was learning and what materialized in real-life.

Honestly, I was a bad student… When I graduated, my tutor said I was one of the laziest students he’d ever had. I used to talk to my friends in lectures, and got in trouble because I had a pencil case full of toys that I would use during tutor time… I would get in trouble.

But education was very different back then. We didn’t have handouts, we wrote everything down, it was far less personable. One great thing was that one of our lecturers knew us all by name! I was always really impressed by that.

As a teacher now, I would never use ‘bad’ to describe any of my students! It’s not true and its certainly not helpful! As an academic, you have to remember that you are not necessarily your cohort. Not all your students are like you.

Do you think students get a bit too stressed about their education nowadays?

I can see both sides to the story. Students do worry a lot about their grades, and to a certain extend, so do employers. But if you have a degree and a portfolio of work that shows that you are a creative and collaborative person, these are also important assets.

Grades are important but are not everything. People are obsessed with the number, and it’s just a number. A number is immaterial; your job offers are placed around your portfolio.

Of course, we cannot ignore the fact that people put a lot of money into their education. It is an important investment and people want to see students succeed. Although it is easy to say the stress is self-imposed, it is because students want to do well, and so do academics!

This might be controversial, but I am often tempted to make the grade boundaries go from 0 to 75. And for every mark you get above 75, you get marked down. So if you got an 82, you would end up with a 68.

The reason I say this is because I don’t think we ever teach people that actually, in life, perfection is not necessary. Good enough is necessary. I don’t think people learn when to stop. They keep going and going and end up getting phenomenal marks, but the personal costs resulting from that are too much.

Teaching people ‘you can stop there, you don’t need to do that’ is important. I do have a lot of students come into my office worried and concerned about the future. But, in industry, you learn something very quickly… You learn that there are so many other priorities in your life too. We need to let people know that ‘good enough’ is a healthy attitude to adopt!

How do you usually tell yourself ‘good enough’ is enough?

I’m terrible at that actually. It’s always a dilemma! As university staff, you care a lot about what you do, but there is a point when caring too much can be detrimental to your teaching. I would love for all of my lectures and feedback to be perfect, but I need to balance that against the cost of other parts of my life as well as the sustainability of my work. I’d rather be doing 20 years of teaching really well, but not perfectly, rather than 3 years perfectly and then stop because of the stress I built up for myself. 


This interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.


Humans of Bristol University

Dr. David Bernhard

This interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.

Dr. David Bernhard is a Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Bristol. He was born and raised in Switzerland and worked as a software developer before coming to Bristol to start his PhD. I caught up with David to talk about his path into academia and his passion for teaching…

Taken in David’s office in Merchant Venturers Building on March 19th 2019.

Tell us a bit yourself and your academic path!

I’m David, my accent is German and I’m a teaching fellow in Computer Science!

I  grew up in Switzerland, completed my undergraduate degree there, then I worked for close to a year as a software developer. I then came over here to do a PhD. I liked Bristol so much I decided to stay on. I’ve been in Bristol ever since!

Who inspired you to go to University and study Computer Science?

My dad’s side of the family were mostly farmers and council employees. Going to university wasn’t really a thing they did. On the other hand, on my mum’s side, my grandparents were the first to get a formal education.They got this education as part of the military actually, because my grandfather was a soldier and my grandmother was in the Royal Navy Reserves.

After the war was over, they were able to train as engineers and teachers. As a result,  my grandma encouraged her daughters to go to university… So, I suppose my mum and her family motivated me to go too!

What were your expectations for yourself as a student?

I think that when I was doing my undergraduate, my expectations were a bit misleading. My mum told me about the university experience in the UK which was very different to how things worked in Switzerland. Going to university in Switzerland almost felt like a job… You turned up, went to lectures, listened to content and then went home and did extra work if you needed to. That was it.

So what are the main difference between education here versus education in Switzerland?

The biggest difference for me, and the part that I really enjoy contributing to as a lecturer in the UK, is the student support system. We don’t really have that in Switzerland.

If you go to a Swiss university, polytechnic school, or a skilled apprenticeship, you get told to consider other academic options or choose different education schemes if you don’t perform well enough.  There’s also no such thing as a personal tutor which means there is little one-to-one support.

There’s no tuition fees or strict admissions process either, which means that when you apply to university, anyone is guaranteed admission. But, 1 in 3 students are expected to fail or drop out at some point. Big reputable schools tend to only keep the top performing students.

However, over here, if we give you an offer to study at an institution, you are most definitely going to graduate. As educators, we really try to do everything for you to get your degree in the end!

What makes a great teacher to you?

The single best thing you can offer is time for your students. Time to stay back at the end of the lecture to talk to students and answer questions, time to hold office hours, time to go to events held by the Computer Science Society…  I truly believe that the ideal university would allow staff and students to support each other, have a coffee or grab lunch and chat about life outside of studies!

Did you always know you wanted to become a teacher?

I always wanted to do something that involved teaching. I think, like lots of undergraduates, I had the idea that a university was a higher teaching institution.  Then, when I came here I learned that Russell Group universities tend to be known as a research institution with a teaching dimension attached. But, I think that we are gradually emphasising the importance of teaching because it is an important part of getting a first class education!

As an academic, do you find the balance between teaching and researching challenging?

Right now, it’s a challenge to maintain a balance between teaching and administration. There’s quite a lot to do at the moment and there are jobs have to be done!  I currently have 24 personal tutees and I want to find the time to support all of them too. I recently had meetings with all my final years to ask about how their degree is going and how they are coping in general. I love to get to know my students as people!

What is a rewarding or surprising story you experienced as an academic in Bristol?

I can say this, since they will remain anonymous… We recently set up an online forum where people could give feedback about lectures or teachers they particularly liked. One person submitted an entry stating that they were struggling with mental health issues but that they got through it. They said ‘David literally saved my life.’ It felt great to get a message like that. It made me feel like I was doing something right as a personal tutor and I want to continue supporting my students in that way.

Do you think it’s a big responsibility for personal tutors to give pastoral support for students?

There are students who may need more professional support, like students with disabilities or long term mental or physical health conditions. But as personal tutors, we should still know how to guide them to the right people.

For the majority of students, tutors should create a place and time where they can talk about their problems openly. Talking and being supportive during those tutor meetings is important. I think everyone is qualified to do that!

Do you have any advice for students who might be worried about the future?

There are certainly big changes coming up, like our future with Europe! I’m actually more optimistic than the media, perhaps, but my personal feeling is that we will be ok. I know that the media headlines always tend to say that everything is terrible, that we are all doomed.

Those negative thoughts do concern me…  But I would tell people that worrying and fixating on the problem doesn’t fix the problem.

We should calmly talk to friends, family, tutors, even strangers, to get advice from other people in a similar situation. Sitting around worrying about it and making posts online complaining about the terrible things that are happening without talking to others doesn’t help.

We need to have discussions about what we might disagree on instead of ignoring each other’s concerns.  Even if things are terrible, we want to be using the bit of energy that’s left within us to try and do whatever good we can for the future!

What is your remedy for stress?

For many years, and I should actually start doing it again, I went hiking. As a PhD student, I was part of the hiking club committee. It was great because you would go on hikes almost every weekend and get to spend a full day outside.

There is a place in Wales called the Four Waterfalls Walk. It’s absolutely amazing and delivers what it says on the tin. It’s just a two hour drive away from Bristol. You should go there if you have the chance.

What’s one thing students should do before they graduate?

I would say that every student should get involved in one thing that has absolutely nothing to do with their course. It can be going on a hike with new friends, it could be playing a sport, it could be doing something creative, perhaps musical…. But getting involved in something different will allow you to invest in energy in something that you love and that you are proud of!

What’s your favorite thing to do in Bristol?

On a nice day, I really like walking around the Harbourside.  You don’t even have to go there for an event! Walking alongside shops, restaurants, bars and enjoying the scenery is enough. There’s also so much to eat there!


Come To David’s BoB Talk on the 26th of March at 1pm:

https://www.facebook.com/events/234597184151306/

Humans of Bristol University

Dr. Emma Robinson

This interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.

Dr. Emma Robinson first came to Bristol as an undergraduate student in 1992 and has stayed at the university ever since! She is a professor of Pharmacology at Bristol specialising in psychopharmacology and neural behavioural studies. I caught up with Emma to talk about her recent BoB lecture and her passion for research and teaching…

Tell me more about what your Best of Bristol lecture covered.

I was nominated by students to do this lecture to integrate material that I teach about drugs and their impact to the human brain, and my own research in the area of mood disorders, in this case, depression. Recently, the  FDA (Food and Drug Administration) licensed treatment for the drug of abuse, ketamine to be used to treat depression. There has been a lot of media hype about it. But, a lot of people are also concerned about these exciting developments.  I believe it is a transformative drug. Ketamine is definitely a great new treatment for depression. It works very well, but comes with challenges.

We can’t forget that it is a drug of abuse. Concerns about addiction and potential toxicity that comes with it are important and it is very timely to talk about that. I believe this drug is doing something unique and novel to the human brain. What that is, we just don’t know yet!

Were you always interested in this area of research?

Absolutely not! I initially thought about doing veterinary medicine. I was going to do a vet’ postgraduate degree.

But, I changed my mind when I did a research project with Hilary Little about alcohol withdrawal symptoms in mice.  During the experiment, we gave mice alcohol then withdrew the substance from them. This made them develop anxiety and the same symptoms that human alcoholics have. I found it so fascinating to be able to look at animals to study and understand human behaviour. That’s what got me into my research.

Did you enjoy doing your PhD?

I enjoyed all aspects of it. Especially the teaching! I of course love doing research and being able to answer my own questions and carrying out investigations, but being able to maintain that teaching job and interact with students is great! I’m very lucky because there wasn’t a time I didn’t do a lot of teaching.

What is the most rewarding thing you’ve learned as an academic?

I absolutely love data. Designing an investigation and experimentation to test and learning how to unblind and decode things is so rewarding. Nothing beats that. If it works, it is so satisfying and great.  I love trying to unravel data and understand research.

What’s the weirdest thing you can make a rat do?

Rats are extremely intelligent animals. I can’t think of just one thing, but what we notice in the labs is what we call a ‘eureka moment.’ In an experiment, we tried to make them learn how to get a food reward from touching a lever. We obviously can’t tell them what they have to do. We have to wait.

The rats explore their environment, they accidently touch the lever, then they get a reward. Over the course of a couple of days, they understand that something is going on. They realise that they are the ones who control it. You can tell that they are rationalising: ‘Press the lever, get the reward’ You can just see them understand it.

I actually believe that sometimes the rats can unconsciously train the students. Students don’t even know that they are being trained by them!

What inspired your research?

I really love to answer tough questions that I have. That is the nature of great research.  Academics are always determined and focused on their own questions. I am always interested in knowing why modern society can sometimes be detrimental to mental health. I really want to know how treatments and developing treatments can help treat that.

I’m very fortunate to have had my training experience in psychology and biology to learn more about this area of research. I really want to show how the brain is a complex product of your experience in this world.

What do you think about current conversations around mental health? Do you think there still is a stigma around it?

Conversations about mental health have changed. There certainly still is a stigma in areas of our society, but now everyone is talking about it. We have to be clear about the difference between mental health, and mental illness, which is a disease. Depression is a continuum from people who are having a period of difficulty, through to people who are so ill that they won’t be able to function. These are people who are clinically unwell. It is a massive spectrum. Being able to differentiate these different populations is important because the treatments for them are all unique and different.

We are seeing a big shift in people being more willing to talk about mental health and illness. But we have to be careful to keep that in perspective. Feeling sad is normal, emotional responses are normal. It’s only when you get to a certain point that it becomes a bit more complicated, which is why understanding the difference between mental health and mental illness is important.

The more we understand the causes, the more we can find ways to protect people from these illnesses.People have to take responsibility for their mental health just as much as their physical health. We are a long way off from understanding what makes for good mental health. We understand what’s good for us physically, but we need to learn what is good for us mentally and emotionally.

What should students know about mental health?

Students should understand and be aware that being emotional is normal!

Since our society is relatively calm and stable, we aren’t used to emotional responses from stress or trauma. We have not routinely experienced emotional challenges and ups and downs. But, you will go through emotional challenge to learn from difficult experiences. We cannot over protect ourselves from difficulties. This is when we have to consider our resources: counselling, socialising…etc. in order to help people understand how to take care of themselves.

We know social support is important and social stress is bad. We should be allowed to worry, but we need to remember to keep things in perspective!

What do you do if you want to relax?

I have 2 dogs and get to walk them twice a day. They are the vet school teaching dogs, Lichen and Hadron! So I get to see them at work every day!

I also bought a farmhouse in Devon about 5 years ago and go back there pretty regularly. On Fridays, I get to leave the city and academic world behind and go to a country existence on the weekends. It’s completely different, it’s a great change of space.

What’s your favourite thing about Bristol?

Ashton Court! It’s beautiful. We’re very lucky as a city to have that kind of green space near us. We can go from the city to the countryside in 20 minutes. I sometimes walk to work from home and get to see the wildlife as I walk through Ashton, up the Clifton Suspension Bridge and into university.  I can’t think of anything better to start off the day, really!


Watch Emma’s Talk below…

Humans of Bristol University

Dr. Thomas Jordan

This Interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.

Thomas Jordan is a Lecturer in Mathematics. His BoB Lecture ‘How Can Mathematics Improve Your Baking?’ will examine how a complex dynamical systems theory could be applied to our home baking skills. I caught up with Thomas to talk about his maths research, as well as his academic journey…

This picture was taken by Corrie on the 1st March in Howard House Math’s Common Room .

When you were a student, did you know you were going to become an academic in your field?

So… I come from a family of mathematicians, both my parents are mathematicians, my older brother is also a mathematician.

To be honest, I never really plan to get into mathematics, until I realised it was the subject I enjoyed the most at school and at university. As I got more invested in my degree, I particularly enjoyed  the pure side of maths. From there, I just went into a PhD and drifted down into the academic route.

There never was a specific time when I thought  ‘I’m definitely going to be an academic!’

Did you ever feel stressed when you were doing your PhD?

I certainly did.  When you’re trying to come up with original problems in maths, about 95% of work is realizing how stupid you are…Realizing that what you’ve been doing for the last couple of weeks doesn’t work at all is a very standard experience as a mathematician.

It’s challenging because anybody researching maths can at some point feel they’re not good enough or that what they’re doing isn’t actually relevant after all… All of these issues can come up when studying the subject, it’s difficult. Of course, that’s stressful, but you kind of go along with it! You have to remember not to be discouraged.

Do you think students tend to worry too much about the future?

I think you should look ahead and think about the future. But if you’re enjoying what you’re doing at the moment, then things do tend to work out and fall into place.

What do you think of the balance between your maths research and teaching?

It’s important to have a balance between researching and teaching. As I said, Maths research can be rewarding when it works out, but a lot of the time, it doesn’t. So, to have something more concrete to do is also extremely satisfying. Teaching does provide that.

I’d also say it’s very rewarding when you have students you see graduate, growing in confidence, going on to be successful through their time at university… It’s the most rewarding thing you experience as an academic.

Do you know all of your students by name?

No *laughs*

Do you try to remember your students names as much as possible?

So, when I’m teaching in smaller groups, I try to learn their names. I mean, when I’m teaching first-year lectures, where there are around 350 students, it’s impossible to know! You basically have certain faces and students you recognize. You will also occasionally meet with students who obviously know who I am, but I have no idea who they are… When that happens,  I then tend to assume that they’re probably a first year Maths student.

Do you remember who your favorite professor at university?

Yeah a couple!  I was s a student at St. Andrews. Dr.  Nik Ruskuc and Dr. Lars Olsen were a big influence on me. They were both very engaging lecturers. Both of them knew everybody in the class by name. They also always encouraged you to go beyond the standard curriculum and spend time working on harder problems beyond the syllabus, it was not about setting material around an exam.

What’s the most surprising thing that you learned about teaching and mass or anything?

I’m trying to think… Plenty of things have surprised me.

I think one thing is that when lecturing Maths, you can be better when you do ‘live’ calculations and risk making mistakes rather than being overly prepared.

If you over-prepare, you can make things look too easy and you don’t really get a clear idea of how you think about problems or calculations. You don’t reflect. if you actually think about it, you actually think about how you learn and practice math beyond what’s provided from reading a textbook.

That goes for every subject I think. You have to think about how you know what you know.

So, how did you make this connection between your research in Maths and Baking?

When I got the invitation to give my Best of Bristol Lecture, it came with a topic suggested by the students.  I thought it was a bit of a joke at first… the subject was cooking! Then I decided I would actually go ahead with that topic. In the area that I work – dynamical systems – there is something called the ‘Baker’s Map’, which is a system named after the process of kneading dough … It’s a bit complicated to explain but, hopefully, the content of my lecture will make a good ‘general audience’ talk.

You told me earlier that your favorite thing to bake was chocolate cake and that the secret ingredient was good chocolate. Are there other baking secrets you can share?

There’s one thing I like to bake: a dark chocolate cake that has Guinness in it. People love it, but I usually can’t tell them I made it with Guinness because that puts them off. I don’t usually tell people about that secret ingredient… I mean, between good chocolate and Guinness, good chocolate always wins people over!

Are there other things besides Baking that you do to relax?

I really like going hiking. Going on a weekend hiking trip is definitely a good way to relax.

What’s your favorite hiking spot around here?

I love going to  Quantocks, Mendips and  Abergavenny. You can actually take a bus there! And the bus tours halfway between Taunton and Minehead. The route is beautiful.

Come to Dr. Thomas Jordan’s BoB Lecture on the 14th of March at Orchard Heights! You can learn more about the talk right here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1959251517715752


The oral transcription was edited for the readers.


Watch Thomas Jordan’s Talk below…

Humans of Bristol University

Dr. Mark Schenk

This interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.

Dr. Mark Schenk is a Lecturer in Aerospace Engineering. His research area focuses on the application of origami in science. His BoB lecture ‘Folding the Future: How Origami is Transforming Engineering’ will explore the fascinating link between the Japanese Art and Engineering. I caught up with Mark yesterday to talk about his research and his path into academia…

Taken on the 7th of March 2019 in Dr. Mark Schenk’s office

Tell us about your upcoming BoB lecture, Give us a pitch!

It’s going to be about origami! Most people think of it as an art, they mostly think about those  familiar paper crane structures that are a classic example of origami.

I want to show that there is more to it than that! There is science involved. In fact, origami has an important application in engineering. Civil Engineering, Aerospace Engineering… What I want people to get out of my lecture is that it’s a lot more than just child’s play, it’s more than just paper folding. That’s my pitch for the talk!

How did you first get interested in the topic?

When I started my PhD.  Basically, I was given a rough topic area,  then I was told to go away and come up with a proposal. I was also influenced by mum’s love of origami. She used to do them quite a lot when I was a kid. My supervisor’s area was in structural engineering and it was really by chance that these two fit together.

Had I not been exposed to origami as a child, I don’t know if I would have done by PhD that way. Obviously I didn’t just make my childhood hobby my research, as they are two very different things, but it was great to find how they linked.

My interest were in deployable structures, structures that can package up and unfold… My research group seemed interested and that really led the rest of my research. I guess it just came out of the air and fell into place nicely, really!

Are you going to do an origami demo during your talk?

Not a demo, but I’m thinking of bringing this structure up.

(Holds up red structure shown in image)

I made this with one of my my PhD students. This is the classic pattern, it’s also very big. It’s a flat sheet,or at least, it was a flat sheet which was cut and folded with our laser cutter. This is often used in retractable satellite structures that are sent into space!  It’s fascinating because the structure can be folded very compactly but can also be extended.

Do you think this structure would ever be applied to housing designs in the future?

There are people who are working on that area. I’m not sure about housing as you have to take into consideration different materials and structures… but I know, for instance, there are people who work on these structures in the US army, they’re using these great origami principles to develop rapid deployable shelters!

As an academic, what do you think about the balance of research and teaching?

I think I need both. I don’t think I could do just pure teaching because I do like the freedom that comes with research and investigation. I also love supervising projects with fourth year students and teaching my undergraduate courses. There’s always something new to experience and something interesting to learn from both!

What’s the most rewarding thing about teaching?

There are two parts to my answer. I love being able to share what I discover with people who also share the same passions and interests that I do. I also love seeing my students get interested in the topic and understanding these concepts. Seeing their faces when the ‘penny drops’ is great.

I don’t know how big your cohord is, but I know that in a lecture hall with 100 aerospace engineering students, you can’t always see every single student’s reactions… But, when you do see them grasping concepts and understanding, it’s truly great.

I’ve been in Bristol for 4 years now and seeing that first full cohort change from year 1 to year 4 is amazing.  To see how much my 4th years developed and changed from the first time I met them when they first got to Bristol is great!

I also learned that the first years tend to ask the toughest questions. They ask questions about our teaching as well as our mindset. It’s refreshing to get asked “How do you really know what you know?” “Why is that the case?”

I sometimes have to think about it and get back to them later!

When you were a student, did you know you wanted to become an academic?

I think I kind of rolled into becoming an academic rather than being inspired by a particular person or moment. Back at my university in the Netherlands I just knew I was good at maths and physics and that engineering would fit for me. I was right!

Do you think students get pressured into worrying about the future?

There certainly are external pressures, like family expectations, university rankings etc… It is valuable to think about your future, of course, but take time to explore your options a bit before going down a certain route. You already made big decisions before university with your subject choice at A-levels and university, you are on track already.

Engineering students do a lot of summer internships because it’s seen as an expectation for them to secure a job…  Of course it is important, but you should also use those summers to get out of the house and enjoy yourself, because you won’t have as much time when you’re actually working. Just remember to enjoy the experience!

What were thoughts on your future when you were a university student?

I picked engineering because I was good at math and physics, but I never really thought I was going to become something specific. I just really enjoyed learning. The engineering degree just seemed to be a good fit and I’m so glad I followed that path! As a student, I didn’t really plan on becoming an engineer, but now that I am an engineer, I can’t imagine myself NOT being one!

Do you have any advice for students?

If you’re not sure what you want to be at age 18, that’s fine, because you don’t have to know. Everybody is different.  Of course, degree systems can make it difficult to switch subjects, but you have to remember that you are not defined by your degree. There are plenty of aerospace engineers who then go work in completely different, fulfilling industries.

No one expects every student to be a subject geek when they come into university. If you come in focused, knowing what you want,  that’s good, that’s excellent! But, at the same time, if you come in saying you don’t know what you enjoy, that’s important too. That’s why you’re here. To discuss, to learn and to discover. That’s when you’ll learn what your interest is.

What do you do to relax? I noticed you have a bike in this office.

I don’t actually bike… This was a broken bicycle I was supposed to use for one of my classes… But I never got around to fixing it!

So, to relax, I really do like to walk. I find that it is therapeutic to just step outside, leave the office and explore the city. I also walk to work every day and that walk always helps me clear my mind.

What’s your favourite thing to do in Bristol?

Go to North Street in Southville! Quite a few lecturers go there actually. On Saturdays, there are so many things to do. It’s perfect. You can explore bakeries, go to the butchers, local grocery stores and cafés or catch a show at the Tobacco Factory!

I also would recommend going to the Bristol Balloon Fiesta in the Summer. I know that a lot of students are probably home for the summer, but if you get the opportunity, head to the Downs and watch it! It’s absolutely beautiful.


Watch Mark Schenk’s Talk below…


Humans of Bristol University

Dr. Alix Dietzel

The interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.

Alix Dietzel is a Lecturer in International Relations and Global Ethics. Her ‘Best of Bristol’ Lecture on the 4th of March presents her research on just global responses to climate change and its ethical impact on societies. I met up with Alix to chat about her research, but most importantly, to learn about her journey into academia.

Taken on February 22nd 2019 in Alix’s office on Priory Rd.

Tell us a bit about your upcoming BoB lecture on Climate Change

My lecture will focus on climate change as an issue of justice and discuss to what extent the political global response to it is fair. My research is broadly about the human side of the climate change problem – I look at which human rights will be threatened, who will be in danger, why these individuals deserve protection and how fair decisions around climate change should be made. The lecture will reflect on all of these aspects and I hope students will come away with a new understanding of the climate change problem.

When you were a student, did you always know you were going to become an academic?

No, not always. I knew I wanted to teach from a young age (six or seven), and I initially planned to study literature to become a school teacher. My parents weren’t very encouraging of this idea, however. My mother told me I would be a good lawyer and because I wasn’t quite sure about my decision to become a teacher, I agreed to study Politics and International Relations. My aim was to become a human rights lawyer – I thought I’d be able to ‘help people’ that way, maybe do some good in the world. It was during the 2nd year of my undergraduate degree at Sheffield that I first considered becoming an academic. I had a good friend who wanted to do a PhD in History, and my conversations with him made me realise that I could still become a teacher, but at university level.

Were you always this passionate and interested in your area of research?

Not exactly. My first PhD idea was to research ‘European identity’ and how we might work towards a ‘global identity’ to tackle global problems more effectively. I tested out this subject during my master’s dissertation but found it a bit boring and dry. I then took a year out to consider changing topics (and worked for an NGO!). I knew I wanted research a topic that had to do with solving global problems. My prospective supervisor proposed a few different ideas, including doing a PhD focusing on climate change, and that’s what I ended up finding most interesting when I did further research and wrote a new proposal!

When you were doing your PhD, did you ever think, ‘did I make a mistake’?

Every academic has moments when they think they’ve made a mistake.  You sometimes wonder: Am I crazy to be doing this? A PhD is hard work and it can be quite lonely. It’s also scary to share your ideas because they might be criticised and rejected. However, I started teaching in the second year of my PhD and I really loved that part of the job – it motivated me to keep going. Eventually, I also got more confident in my research abilities, and I am so glad I finished my PhD. It led me here and I really love my job.

So, what’s the most rewarding thing about teaching?

It’s hard to pick one thing, but I’d have to say it’s watching people grow as intellectuals. It’s so rewarding to see a student say they find the topic difficult or boring (political theory is a hard sell!) and then eventually see their interest in the topic grow as their confidence develops. The people that doubt themselves are usually the cleverest, so it’s an easy job in some ways. You just have to help them find their way a little bit.

What makes a great academic?

It’s hard to say because academics wear a lot of hats! They’re involved in research, public engagement, administration, and teaching. Ultimately, for me, it has to be someone who cares about teaching and learning, not just their own research or career. So, an ideal academic is passionate about their research, but also passionate about teaching this to students and sharing their knowledge with the wider public.

What is the most surprising thing about being an academic?

Probably realising not everyone just like you were as a student. When you start teaching, you have a memory of how you were, and you remember the things that you liked. A lot of academics, including me, were ‘nerds’ as students. We were at the front of the class, participating and doing the reading. But I realised very quickly that not everyone is like that. People are shy, people sometimes aren’t motivated to read because they find it difficult, people don’t always like studying… I had to realise that not everyone is like me, and that’s ok! The key for me was to find a way to engage all of my students, and that took some time to figure out.

What’s your advice for students who aren’t really sure about their future?

I think everybody is worried about what they are doing to some extent. Even me, an academic at one of the best universities in the world, still worries about the future and whether what they’re doing is the right thing. Ideally, you should be comforted by the idea that your self-doubt is not something unique. Everybody doubts themselves sometimes – that’s part of life. The best advice I would give is to talk about your worries! Tell your friends or family how you feel, I am sure they’ll share their own concerns. You’ll quickly learn that you’re not the only person who’s scared of the future.

What do you do to relax and get out of your head when you get these tough feelings?

It depends. Sometimes I like to work out at the gym after work or go for a hike on the weekend because it clears my brain. When I’m stressed, I am often not physically tired, but rather just ‘brain tired’ – exercise helps me with that! If I’m not in the mood, maybe I’ll order some nice food or take a relaxing bath.

It’s very trendy at the moment to say, ‘self-care matters’, but it’s true! It’s important to recognise that when you’re stressed, you need extra kindness from yourself. How would you talk to a friend who was feeling stressed? How would you help them? Treat yourself with the same respect and kindness.

If you’re too short of time for any of that (for example, if you’re about to give a presentation), the best thing to do is to acknowledge the stress, take a few deep breaths and face the anxiety. The presentation (or whatever challenge faces you) will never go as badly as you’re imagining. And, once you successfully face your fears, it’ll be slightly easier next time.

What’s one thing students should do in Bristol?

Take a street art tour! It takes you to areas that are not Clifton, side streets you wouldn’t usually explore, and it’s a different way of experiencing the city. You get to see beautiful, huge pieces of street art you never notice until you go on a tour with a street artist!

You can watch Dr Dietzel’s BoB Lecture right here:



The content of our oral transcription has been edited for the readers.

News

Surveying the Students

The following post was written by Corrie Macleod, a BILT Student Fellow. 

Lisa, Zoe, Phoebe and I were stationed outside of Senate House, ready to seduce students with free tea, coffee and biscuits in exchange for their raw and honest opinions about their course, their student life and their state of mind.

 We were ready to hear honest, unedited student thoughts during this post-exam January blues. Were they worried about the results they were going to get? Were they anxious for the semester ahead? Surprisingly, none of them were.

‘I’m having a hoot today!’ ‘To be honest, it’s been really good’ and ‘Yeah I had a great night at Lizard Lounge last night and my lectures were alright’ were one of the few happy responses we got from students. Given the unexpectedly beautiful sunshine and clear blue skies that kept us company throughout our 1h30 of questioning, it’s maybe no surprise people were feeling more positive today.  

We spoke to more than a dozen students, both undergraduate and post-graduate, from courses ranging from Politics, to Neuroscience, to Mechanical Engineering. No one seemed to be having a bad day and we were starting to wonder if students were just giving us polite and agreeable answers to thank us for the freebies? We then worried that our survey wouldn’t be an accurate representation of what students were feeling given its small sample size and the absence of Arts students (most of them are currently on Reading Week). Furthermore, could it just be that those students who were miserable simply weren’t on campus and were commiserating in the comforts of their homes? There were obviously some drawbacks to our little informal survey, but, as we continued these conversations with students, their answers became more and more layered and articulate.

We were most surprised by an almost unanimous agreement that having fewer assignments that count for a large chunk of degrees created unnecessary pressure for students to perform well without being given time or opportunity to improve. To have a summative assignment worth 100% of a module made students stress out and scared to fail – it does not successfully gauge the performance of scholars or their level of engagement with their degree.

‘This might be controversial, but I wouldn’t mind having more assignments…’ said an Anonymous final year Neuroscience student. But little did she know, she was actually in the majority of people who thought that more frequent assignments would enhance their understanding of their content and their relationship to their course. Some students, namely in Computer Science and Mechanical Engineering, felt that they had a lot on their plate already. But could this be because their degrees were already shaped up by a diversity of short assignments, group projects and exams spread out throughout the year?

What we do know, is that these responses we got today are not meant to fully encapsulate the feeling of the entire student population, they should provide an interesting snapshot of it. We obviously need more opinions to determine whether there is a strong correlation between student engagement and the frequency and diversity of assignments they receive throughout their education. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to these concerns. But, there is definitely a discussion we need to take part in to find this multifaceted answer towards greater student satisfaction.

Without greater conversation, there is no way of knowing what students truly want.