An interview with..., Humans of Bristol University, News, Student Voice

Lizzie Blundell

Lizzie Blundell is about to graduate with a first-class degree in Liberal Arts. Bathed in the blossoming summertime sunshine, Lizzie and her daughter, Maria, joined me on Brandon Hill to blow some bubbles, to eat some treats, and to discuss the state of university accessibility.

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Taken on 1st June 2019 on Brandon Hill

So Lizzie, how did you come to take Liberal Arts? What was your journey into your degree?

I didn’t do conventional A-Levels. I physically couldn’t take them because of my health. I had a load of surgeries at that point, and I was in A&E pretty much every other day, so it wasn’t really feasible to continue at the school I was at. There weren’t many access things out there for me to be able to use, and I was in a wheelchair at the time.

But I did want to go to university, and I was a bit upset to see everyone else go before me in my year. It was my mum who actually found the course called the Foundation Year in Arts and Humanities at the University of Bristol, and she suggested that I go for it.

The Foundation Year is a relatively new initiative, isn’t it?

Yeah, so I was in the second year that it ran in 2014. You complete the foundation year and then you can apply to get into the University of Bristol again the next year for undergraduate study, where you can choose specifically what you want to do.

(NB: The Foundation Year is a fantastic educational initiative founded by academics at Bristol, and you can read more about it here: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/study/foundation/)

Could you talk a bit about what the Foundation Year exactly entails?

It’s a bit like Liberal Arts in the sense that each week you have your set reading with seminars and lectures, but it’s from a different department each time. You get to try a bit of everything.

Because the classes were so small, you’d have such a great relationship with your tutors, like Josie McLellan, and I was still able to access the other things that undergrads would be able to do, such as accommodation and the experience of being a fresher.

And I guess there’s going to be so many people from different walks of life as well. When you enter a conventional undergraduate degree, everyone tends to be from very similar backgrounds, traversing similar academic trajectories.

There were more mature students on the Foundation year, and people from different backgrounds. Some people had been out of education for years, so coming back to university was this big thing, and it was still exciting.

That’s what I especially like about this course. It’s suggesting that education is for whatever point in your life, a lifelong thing. It’s not just something that you do from 0 to 21. You can come back and dip in and out of it throughout your life.

Exactly. And the Foundation tutors were so supportive of me because my health went in and out at some points, and I ended up back in a wheelchair. They were rallying behind me and trying to push for changes at Bristol, because I had loads of issues with accommodation. They put me in Durdham Hall which is at the top of a very steep hill. Let alone the fact that I couldn’t reach any of the things in the accommodation when I was in a chair, and the doors couldn’t open automatically. But I was able to talk to Sarah Serning and Josie and they said “look, this is what we’re going to do” and I really appreciated that.

How did you find the change to Liberal Arts and the transition into your undergraduate following the Foundation Year? What were the biggest changes?

It was mainly the difference in who was actually around, especially as I’d been used to people who were mid-thirties minimum. But because I already knew the university setting, I felt more at home and more comfortable with speaking up in class.

That being said, I felt quite a shock when I was in seminars. Suddenly I seemed to be the only one who didn’t come back from a “normal” background in education, and I sometimes felt that I couldn’t speak up because I didn’t have their experience, even though I was used to that university setting. I also suppose it was obvious that I wasn’t the same age as everyone else.

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That’s interesting. At least the Foundation Year is starting to ease that transition and democratise the academic voice irrespective of backgrounds. So going on from that, and this is a big question: what do you think about the state of accessibility at this university – physically and maternally speaking?

So physically, it’s hard to get around the university. We’re in a city campus, so you have to understand the limits there. But also we’re on hilly terrain, so actually getting from A to B can involve quite a lot of steep areas, especially depending on the care that you’re in or depending on how well your mobility is that day. It can be completely different from one day to the next.

In somewhere like Woodland Road, the parts that are wheelchair accessible are still quite steep, and recently with the new renovations to the Arts complex, they did put in some ramps. But these ramps were quite small, so they wouldn’t fit every type of wheelchair.

So you go in there expecting to have the same level of treatment as an able-bodied person, but you don’t. And you don’t want to make a fuss about it, because you don’t really want to think about what you can and what you can’t do because it’s already quite physically exhausting, let alone the emotional exhaustion of constantly having to push and be like “Please just get me a ramp!”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role that buildings play in the identity of universities. There’s a pride in old buildings as they point to prestige and tradition and stuff, but this pride can be isolating for people if they’re not willing to adapt the building to make it accessible for everyone as times change.

So I have an invisible disability. I have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which means that I dislocate everything quite frequently, like earlier today I dislocated my jaw. Not a big deal! But having to use the things that I need to get by and looking the way I look, especially when I’m not in my chair, is quite isolating as my disability cannot always be visibly seen.

Those are the main mobility issues, but Sarah Serning, who I believe is the greatest woman that the university has to offer, is always there to help with these things and she’s amazing and I don’t think people know enough about her.

What is Sarah’s specific job?

She’s a senior tutor, so she’s there to just help you, in the most basic of terms. You think “senior tutor” suggests that you only go for academic purposes, but no! She’s there for everything. And it was great to go and talk about the problems I had.

But I suppose this year has been more about me being a mother. When I was on maternity leave, I was worried about how it was going to be coming back. Because firstly, I had taken a year out of education, so I wouldn’t be at the same level as everyone else doing their third year, academically speaking. And then it was a case of just being able to navigate everywhere financially physically and emotionally, so Sarah was really great at helping me with all of this.

For more context, I found out that I was pregnant when I was on my year abroad. I also found out that I was pregnant when I was 32 weeks. So I had 6 weeks of pregnancy. I had to come back from America because I was studying in Boston at a Jesuit college, nonetheless.

Wait, Boston College is a Jesuit university?

Yeah! The first question they asked me when they found out that I was pregnant was “How has your faith been moved?”

And what did you say?!

“I think I just need to talk to my mum.” It was down the phone as well! They had me in this tiny room. There was even a crucifix!

But anyway, I decided to email my personal tutor, Emma Cole, saying “Hi Emma Sorry for the late email, just found out I’m 32 weeks pregnant. I’m going to fly back on Friday.” She sent a lovely email back laying out all my options.

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And what were your options?

 Either to come back or not to come back to Bristol. So I came back and decided I was going to finish my third year.

But obviously I had a lot to figure out. At that point I was on universal credit because I had no income and I was a lone parent. Her father decided he didn’t want to be involved. So it was just us two, and my parents who were very supportive.

I had to figure out accommodation for me and Maria, as well as how I was going to manage being at university, so had to sort out nursery and its fees. Money was the big issue. I came back with a huge economic disadvantage. I had more money coming through student finance but more coming out.

I now have my accommodation through the university which is for parents, but it’s not great. I’m in a one bedroom small flat. Maria won’t let me sleep next to her, so I have to sleep on the floor. There’s no washing machine, so I have to wash everything by hand. There’s also a bit of damp which has given her asthma, and I pay quite a lot. It was going to be a push, I knew that from the beginning.

My place doesn’t have wheelchair access, so I had to choose between my physical ability and my maternal needs. There’s a duty of care with this accommodation which I don’t think is being met. I thought I could get through it, but it’s the end of the year now and I’m ready to move out of that flat.

So what’s happening next year?

I’m going to be doing distance learning for a research master’s. It’s easier for me. I think that’s one of Tom Sperlinger’s things isn’t it? He’s a big fan of distance learning, and the notion of education being an ongoing process. Next year, I’ll be undertaking a research on breastfeeding and metaphors of the body.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about breastfeeding on campus!

There’s no place to breastfeed on campus! There’s no parents’ room or anything. I’ve only seen one other mother breastfeeding at the university, and that was at the library. Now I am very pro-breastfeeding. I used to breastfeed in public. But I also always liked having my own space to do it as well. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it in public, but there’s something more secure in a private space, especially if you’re feeling uncomfortable. I think it should be a right to have that space and change your child, to sort out anything they need.

Recently in Beacon House, I even had an issue where they didn’t want me to enter the building at all with Maria. I’m guessing because of health and safety, and I know other student parents who had similar issues with different buildings. But if you’re not being given the same respect or treatment as other students and the main cause is having a child, then that’s maternal discrimination. There’s no other way to put it.

So there are times when it’s tough, when she’s teething, when I haven’t slept the night, and I still have to go in and still be the same student as everyone else, while being very aware of my limitations. But the fact is that, as I wrote in my dissertation acknowledgements, maternity should not be a barrier to education.

For me and other student parents, we are constantly trying to navigate being a student and being a parent and having two separate mind frames when at university. I can’t push myself as a student because then I’m not being a good mum if I’m tired and stressed, and being a mum is my priority. It’s trying to find that balance.

As we said, it’s about getting that shovel and digging everything up and readjusting it all to make education truly accessibly. No longer thinking of education as something for young people or for one particular demographic. If education is a universal right, it’s got to be for everyone at whatever age or stage of life you’re at. And that’s actually difficult to implement when education was not founded to be like that. It can feel like you’re hitting a brick wall sometimes.

So much research at university is being focused on gender relations at the moment, and that’s hugely important, but many people don’t see maternity as part of that parcel. I don’t really understand that.

Maybe it’s just internalised judgement on my behalf, but I feel guilty for being on benefits and being a young mum, especially as I chose to go back to education rather than choosing to go to work straight away.

But that internalisation is still significant, because we live in a society that allows you to internalise that guilt; the system makes it very difficult for you to balance all of these facets of work, learning and maternity.

I never expected to come to university and get pregnant, and so I also feel the guilt of having to rely on friends and family for emotional support. But I was raised to believe that education is one of the most important things, and I stand by that.

At this point, Maria gets bored of blowing bubbles, so we carefully take her down the steep path to the play park at the base of Brandon Hill. Lizzie rocks her on the swings and answers some quick-fire questions.

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What’s been your favourite class at Bristol, and why?

I really loved ‘Literature and Medicine.’ I’ve been really been getting into medical humanities. One of my last essays was on the relationship between sign language, AIDS and posters. With most of my units, I tend to take an interdisciplinary approach, and I find it quite liberating.

I actually really enjoyed ‘Public Role of the Humanities.’ I wasn’t expecting to as it was a compulsory unit for Liberal Arts. We had a guest lecturer each week from around and beyond the university. And the question they each answered was “What is the public role of the humanities?” They would respond from their own discipline, and most of lecturers came from an interdisciplinary angle.

One of the core elements of the module was a work placement, so I chose to work in a library. Someone worked at Colston Hall. Someone worked in a theatre. People did loads of different things.

Whenever you get a chance, what do you do to relax?

Drag Race. I love Drag Race. I love watching films. I suppose I feel sad I can’t read that much anymore during the day. At night I just need to switch off, so I never read for fun anymore. But I’m hoping now that the dissertation’s over, I get more time to do that. When Maria’s in bed, my head turns to house work. I can’t really switch off and of course I worry about her.

Aside from the academic side of things, what has university taught you?

Don’t underestimate students from different backgrounds. They bring so many different arguments and experiences. For me, that’s defined everything I do because I relate to things differently and see things with an alternative perspective.

What advice would you give yourself if you were starting university now?

 Just because it went differently doesn’t mean that it’s not ok.

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Interview conducted by Phoebe Graham, BILT Student Fellow.

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, News, Student Voice

John Gilbert

In the crisp sunshine of a Saturday morning, I walked to Whiteladies BTP to have a coffee with John Gilbert, fifth year medical student and former Faculty Rep for Health Sciences. John pioneered the establishment of the University-wide Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Survey. We talked about John’s journey into medical school, his university experience and his time working as a faculty rep. Imagine coffee clinks and a persistent hum of steam in the background, which underscored our conversation.

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Taken on the 25th May 2019 at Boston Tea Party on Whiteladies Road

Content Warnings: discussions of issues pertaining to mental health, suicide and self-harm.

So John, what inspired you to apply for medical school?

I suppose it’s probably because my brother and sister are both doctors – that had a lot of influence. I looked at other things to do, but medicine just seemed right at the time. It’s quite young to decide what you want to do, but I think I’ve been quite lucky because I’m still enjoying it.

I used to live with a medic and I was really interested in the Bristol medical course because, despite being a degree that is quite scientific at heart, you do creative and practical, as well as more traditional forms of assessment, and I was wondering if you could tell me about the kind of things that you get up to in journey to becoming a doctor?

 So there’s an element we do call ‘whole-person care’, so instead of just focusing on the disease and the treatment, the medical school are really keen for us to focus on personal treating, as that’s what makes a good doctor – you don’t just come in and treat the cancer or the lung condition, you treat the human that’s sat there and it makes the process a lot nicer for everyone. So a lot of it is focused around the dualism between the doctor as a scientist and the doctor as an artist – we explore how creative you need to be for innovation and to make change in medicine, and there was a lot of opportunity to be creative.

The other quite fun ones are called ‘OSCE’s’, Objective Structured Clinical Examination. It’s made up of ten-minute stations where you’re asked to break the bad news of Cancer or do a cardiovascular examination, all checking that you have the real-life skills to be a doctor. Depending on the unit, we might have to do a presentation or an essay as well, it’s really varied which is quite nice.

Absolutely. What did you do for your whole person assessment?

I think I did a print about Alzheimer’s, and it was just the Alzheimer’s word repeated. At first it started multicoloured and then it faded to grey scale, and then the word just faded out completely – just that sense of losing everything.

See that’s what I think is so good and interesting about this course – I find your diversity of assessment, while I guess it is tailored to becoming a doctor, should nevertheless be applied to lots of different subjects. How do you find that range?

I think it reflects the whole spectrum of specialities that doctors end up in, and I think that’s the key thing. You’ve got surgeons at one end, or psychiatrists on the other and the range is just trying to satisfy and get people interested from an early stage in what they want to do.

 I guess it goes back to the fact that if you only have one form of assessment, then that’s only favouring one kind of brain and one kind of speciality. Medicine’s variety of assessments is much more democratic.

 The nice thing about medicine is that in the past couple of decades, there’s been a massive focus on evidence-based medicine and that has transferred into medical education and medical assessment. In terms of all the ways we are assessed, medical schools across the UK try to evidence that these are valid tools of assessment, shown to make a safe doctor. So as a student, you can feel confident that you’ll be good enough if you pass, which is quite nice.

Yeah absolutely. Just to feel like you have a safety net, and you feel secure. What’s been the highlight of your university time so far?

I’ve been really lucky to be involved in a lot of societies. I’ll be going into my sixth year of university next year, so I’ve had a lot of time to do fun things. I think one of my favourite trips has been diving in Gozo in the Mediterranean with the university’s underwater club, and that was incredible. It was a really fun trip and a great society. Other things that have been really fun…just sports at Bristol. I know they get a bad rep, but if you’re just looking for something fun to do, I’ve enjoyed it.

I don’t think it’s the sports themselves that get a bad rep, it’s the wider culture.

 Yeah, sometimes the culture of intense initiations can exclude so many students. One of my friends was really involved and became the chairman of the medic’s rugby and completely changed the culture of it. He got so many more people involved and opened it up to vets and dentists, and essentially anyone who wanted to play. He got the highest turnout to training ever. They have fun drinks but there’s never any pressure to drink and it completely turned the club around.

So tell us a little bit about your time working as a faculty rep for health sciences. When did you do that? What initially compelled you to apply? How did you establish the Mental Health Survey?

At the time was as I was applying, a lot of my friends were suffering from mental health issues but they weren’t really willing to go to the university about it, and that really shocked me. I was asking them why and people were scared of things like Fitness To Practice, so potentially being struck off, not being allowed to complete the year, or being forced to take the year out. There was a big myth around what the General Medical Council did, and how willing it was to stop you studying medicine, as you have to show that you’re fit to practice. And I think that was partly one of the issues around students not approaching the university for mental health help.

I guess it means you have to grow up very quickly, as well.

 You do, yeah. And when you’ve got mental health issues and you know you’re being overseen by a professional body, it’s a massive barrier to seeking help. So the survey started when I spoke with Zoe Backhouse and Helen at the SU, and we just wanted to do a small in-house survey at the SU, so we designed a survey and started asking a few personal questions about drug use, self-harm and suicide. It got quite serious and the university said that we couldn’t ask these questions unless you get ethical approval. Eventually after three attempts, with the help of some really kind academics from the School of Social and Community Medicine, we got ethical approval and ran the survey in May of 2017. We got a really staggering response rate of over 50%, and some really useful data for the health sciences, so that’s the short story.

We wanted to run the survey again, and the university suggested that we disseminated it across the whole university. I haven’t been involved since, but I think there hasn’t been as much student involvement since we first did it. Since a student hasn’t been directing it, it hasn’t really got as good a response rate, which is a bit annoying. Students are always hounded with requests to do things, and I think I was particularly persistent in trying to get students to fill it out because it was so important at the time.

It’s difficult isn’t it. Most people will always respond to a Student Union dissemination, and obviously the Student Union does need to be separate to the university to hold them to account, but at the same time that divide also creates a rift of engagement.

 Yeah, so I think the challenge for the future will be, as with all surveys, trying to get a better response rate. I’m obviously very biased but I think it is the most important survey that Bristol has to do.

Off the back of that, what steps can be taken to improve response rates?

 You need big billboards in libraries with a QR code, you need to get the SU on board, lecturers involved, you need heads of student societies and presidents on board and it just needs so much more student involvement and engagement, and getting an email from someone you’ve never met before from the senior management team at the university probably never gets read. They should be monitoring if these emails are being opened and if the link’s been clicked on, and they definitely have the capability to do that.

What steps do you think this university, and universities across the country, can take to improve their stance on mental health?

 I think Bristol is under a lot of pressure because of the suicides that have happened here, and that puts a big spotlight on Bristol. One thing that I’ve noticed recently, especially in the press and with peers, is that everyone’s been very critical of Bristol. And they’re allowed to be, and I fully understand why they’re being critical, but not many people are offering solutions or ideas for change. All I’m seeing is an anti-university rhetoric instead of a ‘this isn’t good enough – change it’ attitude. That’s what I feel, but I’m not sure if that’s right and I’d be happy to debate that with people.

The NHS used to provide a lot of these services, and it’s faced massive cuts over the last few years. Coming from an NHS background, you do see these cuts in person when you visit psychiatric hospitals or see that a GP only has ten minutes to deal with any patient. The NHS also has a massive role to play in student health.

In terms of the university, mental health services need more funding, we need to cut down key student concerns like waits for student counselling, or encourage more positive help, such as group therapy and better access to mental health services. It’s a really difficult question and I think if there was an easier answer it would have already been done. Nothing that’s worth doing is easy. We need to start thinking about, not just universities, but how we as a society and a national health service, are to look after these students and provide for them.

Aside from academic knowledge, or medical knowledge, what has your time at university taught you?

 I want to say, more than I’ll ever know. I don’t think I’ll know what it’s taught me until after I’ve left university and I’m a few years away. I’ve gained so much from being at university. Just being a more confident person, engaging more in things, dealing with when things go wrong, growing up as an adult – learning big adult things. Learning how to relax is a really important one. The most important thing in life is just to have fun, and enjoy yourself.

I think that’s an interesting point about feeling the impact but not being able to articulate it yet – that’s a sign of personal transformation. Following on from what you were saying about the importance of relaxation, what kind of things do you personally do to chill out?

 Whilst I was studying in Bristol, and I wasn’t away working at hospital, I joined a lot of clubs, I did diving, Judo, I did a triathlon for a year just to get a bit fitter. Nowadays, I just do a bit of cycling. I really enjoy making pizza. Otherwise, just a bit of Netflix – often I’m just a bit tired so I like to lounge around and do nothing!

This takes us back to the importance of sports and exercise. I find for me that exercise, and the release of endorphins, is often the best way to make me feel better when I’m feeling a bit lower than usual.

 I have the perception at Bristol that sport is a competitive thing and you need to be good at it. This goes back to the previous question of what I would do to try and improve mental well-being at the university. I’d try to create far more opportunities for inclusive sport where people don’t need to feel judged or good at something.

Performance sports is all great, but if you’re applying for performance sports as a club, and you have to show that your top teams are completing at a high level, how are those clubs expected to provide for people who used to play social netball or hockey or rugby or swimming at school? Those people aren’t going to turn up anymore, as it’s not the right environment, and you’ll be forcing people who used to do it for a bit of fun into a highly competitive atmosphere. This puts so many people off from doing sport and I disagree with that entirely. I think there needs to be a major rethink of sport and exercise at university.

I completely agree – there’s not enough opportunity to take up a new sport as well!

 I think a lot of students at the university would do more sport if it wasn’t so exclusive and competitive and there’s definitely not enough opportunity to go and have a bit of fun, and do something once a week, or just to try things. The Sports Officer a few years ago did a good job of trying to change that around and make it a bit more inclusive, so there was freshers’ week and a second week in January when you can go and try another sport, as a taster.

So speaking of tasters, if you could take on another subject aside from medicine, what would it be and why?

 I’ve always really loved planes and helicopters and part of me really wants to be a pilot, so probably aeronautical engineering, I find it so fascinating and cool. I love those really boring plane documentaries about airports and how do they do it and how do they build it – it’s really dull, but I love it.

What are your top three places to hang out in Bristol?

 Cabot Tower’s a really nice, free place to go and get an amazing view from Bristol. I like places with really good views, so the suspension bridge. Then either the top floor of the Bristol Royal Infirmary or the top floor of Biomedical Sciences, where you can look out across the whole city.

Shout out to biomedical sciences, that’s such a beautiful building! Do you have anything else you would like to throw in before we wrap up?

Just make the most of university, get involved, make mistakes, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes – it’s the only way we learn. We’re all very afraid of getting things wrong, failing and whatever.

I think we could do a whole other interview about fear of failure among students.

I really think we need more life lessons from a younger age: learn to fail, relationship advice, money advice, all the things we never get taught – there’s more to life at that age than learning how to do trigonometry and calculus.

I think we’re facing so many problems in this world that we have no idea how to solve, so we need to instil a better sense of discussion and critical thinking in the next generation. I just think there’s a much larger place for philosophy and critical thinking in our education system. I just think there needs to be a massive reform in the nature of our education, as it stands.


This interview was carried out and transcribed by Phoebe Graham, BILT 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 Bex Lyons

Dr Bex Lyons is a Teaching Associate in English and Personal Development. She is a late medievalist with research interests in book and reading history, particularly female owners and readers of Arthurian literature in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England. Her BoB lecture ‘Medieval Romance: Unexpected Journeys and Meetings’ considers the transformative value of the arts and humanities in modern and personal contexts, using herself and her experience of reading medieval romance as a case study. I caught up with Bex over a cup of tea, to talk about her research, her academic journey, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and the therapeutic benefits of river swimming.

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Taken on the 15th of March 2019 in Bex’s office

So Bex, who inspired you to go to university?

Well, I’ve always loved books. And I think I can probably trace that back to my mum, because she always took me to my local community library once a week to pick out a new book. And so that really instilled a love of reading into me. She always wanted to go to university herself, so I think she was really supportive and encouraging when I said, you know, I love academia. I love learning. I want to keep doing this.

Also the English teachers that I’ve had. I don’t know what it is about the English teachers that I’ve had in my life, but they all seem to have been really inspirational in their own ways. Particularly a lady called Ms Waters from my secondary school who was terrifying to all the other students. She had this really scary Victorian way of dressing and she was one of these teachers who could control a room without raising her voice, just with a look. And one day on my birthday, she came and knelt down next to my desk and she said, ‘all the best people are born today, you know?’ It turns out she had the same birthday as me! She really brought out the best in me in terms of love of learning.

What were your expectations for yourself as a student?

Probably fairly low. When I moved to Bangor from London as an undergraduate, I had taken a gap year. I had gone off and traveled and become marginally independent by doing that. But when I moved to university, it was my first extended period of living away from home. And I didn’t even know how to boil an egg for the appropriate amount of time. So I was really busy learning how to be an independent adult, and sometimes my studies took a bit of a back burner to that and, you know, all the fun exploration that you do as a teenager.

So I started as an undergraduate in 2005, and graduated in 2008, the month before the financial crisis hit. And I look at the students that I teach now and I think a lot of the pressures that they face I didn’t necessarily feel in the same way. I get a lot of students coming to me now and saying, ‘I really need to differentiate myself’ because it’s so competitive out there. I totally get why they feel this pressure because I think the world has changed. And I do think that things are much more challenging now, especially economically, and the pressure to know who you are, and to be able to specialize so early on.

I think there’s a lot to be said for meandering. I’m a great meanderer, my life was taken lots of meandering turns. And to me, that’s been a real blessing and a privilege and I just wish that I could grant space to my students to do some of that meandering. You know that Baz Luhrman song ‘sunscreen’, he says some of the most interesting people I know at 40 didn’t know what they wanted to do.

I’ve made a career out of enjoying reading books. So it’s going to sound so cheesy, but find your bliss and follow it. If you can. I realize that sometimes following your bliss and making money don’t quite tally up, but if you can make it work, it’s great!

Following from that, when you came to the end of your undergraduate, did you know that you wanted to go into academia? Or did you know specifically what you wanted to do after uni?

When I finished my degree, I did feel a bit burnt out and a bit fed up of essays and exams and studying. So I got a job the month after I graduated working as an editorial assistant for Arden Shakespeare, which was, you know, Dream English Literature Graduate Job!

I worked as an editor and worked my way up in academic publishing for a few years, but I always had this like niggling doubt, this feeling that I was missing something. Because although I was editing other people’s writing, and working with authors really closely, I wasn’t producing anything myself research wise, and I think that part of me really missed doing that.

So, in 2010, I started a part-time masters at King’s College London, because I was working in London at the time, while I was working full time as an editor, so I’d run off to seminars and then run back to work and make up the hours. And by the end of that two year, part-time masters, I really felt like I hadn’t 100% dedicated myself to either my academic work or my publishing job. And I thought, right, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to have to do it properly. So I decided to quit my glamorous career in publishing, and go and do a PhD full time and be a student again. Everyone thought I was mad, but I wouldn’t change anything for the world. I wouldn’t look back at all.

So at university did you ever feel stressed? And if so, how would you go about managing that stress?

Yes, I think probably more so the older I got. Particularly during my master’s, when I was juggling work and studies, I found that very pressured, very stressful. And what do I do to counteract that? Well, I’m a qualified Yoga instructor – that’s one of my many hats.

No way!

Yeah! So I do a lot of Yoga and breathing techniques. Being in nature as well. During my PhD, I moved down to Wiltshire or the Shire, as I affectionately call it, and I live really close to this patch of ancient woodland. For my PhD, I’d be sitting at my laptop for 14 hours a day, sometimes. Just hunched over, not seeing sunlight, eating absolute crap. And so taking myself out for a walk in the woods was, for me, a really good way to reset, rebalance and re-center. So being in nature and yoga – two top tips!

I know you’re a fan of wild swimming, as well.

I am! This is a more recent thing. So last summer when we had that blissful, beautiful, hot, long summer, I just used to go and fling myself in rivers and swim about, so I’d also recommend that – very de-stressing. Being in nature, that’s where it’s at.

Obviously the whole mindfulness discussion is so popular nowadays. For students, it’s just so important, especially if you are spending, as we do, just so much time in your own head thinking and writing and you’re really just not in contact with the rest of your body at all, and it’s the essential fusion of the mind and body that we forget…

Absolutely, I mean, even just something as simple as breathing and actually paying attention to your breathing can really re-centre you. So even if you have to stay at your desk, and you don’t have the time or liberty to go anywhere else, just pay attention to what your breathing is doing, and really try and slow it down. Breath a bit more deeply. That will help.

What inspired you to become an academic?

So the thing with academia is, I just love it. Even with all its systemic issues…there is so much that is probably quite wrong with academia, like precarity and issues with contracts. But for all its faults, it’s the only job that I’ve had, where my mind is stimulated.

And teaching, as you know, because I’ve taught you Phoebe – I love teaching. And when I first started teaching during my PhD up in York, it was like a revelation to me, because research can be so arduous sometimes and so thankless. You can spend days in archives and not find anything useful, but you go and teach a class and that’s instant gratification because you can see these young minds being inspired. And you’re connecting with them. And I just think it’s such an important, beautiful thing that I’m so privileged to be able to do, and I don’t know any other job that would let me have all of that

That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard! I also love your nails.

Thank you! It’s my hen weekend, next weekend, and I said, ‘make me look like a unicorn!’

Do you think a connection can be found between your passion for river swimming and your career as a late medievalist?

Ooh I like that question. Yeah, I think there is a connection, and I think that connection is my own hedonism. Because life is very short and death is long, and so I like to do what makes me happy and those two things make me very happy. 

Well there we go – that was quite easy! Have you got a favourite Arthurian legend?

Anything about Morgan le Fay! Morgan le Fay is my home girl. I just love her…so for those who do not know, I’ll explain:

She’s Arthur’s half sister, King Arthur that is, and she often pops up in Arthurian legends to antagonise him and his knights in some way or to kidnap someone, or to just generally be a bit of a pain. But I think she’s awesome because if you didn’t have Morgan le Fay during times of peace, you’d have a lot of very fat lazy knights who are just feasting and dancing and not getting any exercise. So I think she keeps them on their toes. And the fact that it’s her lap that Arthur’s head rests on when he goes on this final voyage to be healed of his wounds in Avalon, I think it shows that, you know, she’s alright.

Keep the men in check! So I know that for your lecture, you want to integrate personal anecdote with your research, so in light of that, how can the values of your lecture which, as I was reading, are centred on medieval conceptions of fantasy, magic, love, chivalry, relate to the contemporary day?

So my lecture is obviously aimed at a general audience rather than medievalists, so that was the first thing I had to bear in mind and not be too geeky and specialised. But what I really want to do is to explore the value of the arts and humanities quite broadly in modern contexts. And I’m using myself as a bit of a case study, because what really struck me when I first got into medieval literature as an undergraduate was not how weird it was. So some of my fellow classmates were like, ‘Oh, I can’t read this, Middle English is to it too weird, too hard, I can’t do it.’

But what struck me was how familiar so many things felt. The same things crop up: love, friendship, death. Medieval people have the same worries and fears and preoccupations as we do. And so to see myself in a literature that was so alien in so many respects, felt really meaningful, and it still does to me.

And this is partly why my specialist area of research is looking at women reading Arthurian Literature in 15th and 16th century England, because I’m a woman who reads Arthurian literature, so for me it’s really fascinating to see how they were doing it back in the day. And I think that being able to see yourself in people who are from totally different contexts to you is such an important lesson that carries through to every aspect of life.

I think that’s really inspiring as well, because we, especially some students, often think of the academic world as this ivory tower where you go to get a degree, and then you go into the ‘real world.’ So to be able to have that outlook on academia, where what you’re doing is still very much rooted in the personal and still wanting to inform how we’re living today. It’s really, really refreshing.

I think it’s just so important, especially now when people who Shall Not Be Named want to build walls, or separate us from the European Union…I think it’s really important to remember that we are all connected and that we’re all much more similar than we are different, and I think studying medieval literature really reminds me of that. And I think I never want to forget that.

How on earth do you go about researching the women who read Arthurian literature?

Lots of rummaging in archives! That’s my happy place, being surrounded by medieval manuscripts, poring through them, looking for readership marks in the margins of books, or sometimes you see women writing letters to each other about stuff that they’ve read and it’s a bit like being a detective. It’s very cool.

And finally, who is your favourite drag race superstar?

*gasps* How did you know?!?

Because I follow you on Twitter and every time you respond to me, it’s always a gif of RuPaul’s Drag Race…

How amazing is that? I mean, just that in itself, that you follow one of your tutors on Twitter. That did not happen in my day, which I think is brilliant. Oh, favourite, favourite favourite? Possibly Latrice Royale whose saying, ‘Good God Girl, Get a Grip’ is kind of a mantra for life I feel.

Can you make any links between RuPaul’s drag race and your research?

Yes, definitely. drag queens are fierce. And I love them and again, hedonistically speaking, they make me very happy. I think, because I’m a very tall woman. Your readers will not know this, but I’m 5 foot 11. And I’ve always kind of struggled to feel feminine. And so I think seeing drag queens, who are so tall, so super feminine – I’m just very jealous. And I guess the feminine really interests me in all its iterations and the construction of gender. I teach a lot of this stuff in my classes.

Any there any drag queens in medieval England?

Well! One of the units that I did on my masters at KCL was queer theory. And one of the things that we looked at was some court cases that showed people living in medieval London as different genders and living trans lives, which was amazing. And there was this one case, now I’m going to get all the names wrong, but I think it was someone called John, and they were born biologically male, but were living as a woman and working as a prostitute, as a woman. But I don’t think they were in court for that. I think they were in court for theft or something.

So it’s really interesting, seeing all these layers and the names that were used in the court documents to refer to this person. So certainly, gender has always been much more complicated than just the male/female binary.

Again, this ties back to the fact that these ideas are not new. What a lot of people regard as a contemporary phenomenon of being able to question one’s gender, or to be able to look at gender in a different way, is not by any means recent.

And that’s another reason why I think that looking at medieval and earlier literature and other documentary records is so important because we are living in a post-Victorian era, and potentially I think the Victorians might have a lot to answer for. So it’s important to go back and realize that these things are much more complicated and fluid and interesting than perhaps we might think.

This interview was carried out and transcribed by Phoebe Graham, BILT student fellow. 


Check out Bex’s medieval journey 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…