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Check out our next of the Humans of Bristol University, this time in video form! Today, we shine a light on Damien McManus: Subject Librarian for English and Modern Languages, and track his journey into Librarianship.
Interview conducted in the Special Collections of the Library, by BILT Student Fellow Phoebe Graham.
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…
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:
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! Its 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!
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.
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 cameand 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.
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.
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…
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?
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.
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…
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.
Tricha Passes is a Teaching Fellow in History of Art. Her ‘Best of Bristol’ Lecture on the 14th of March explores the role of the Parisian Café as a meeting place for the exchange of art and ideas in the early twentieth century.
Who inspired you to go to university?
My parents encouraged me to go, and I went with the goal and expectation of increasing my knowledge and understanding of art history. The lecturers at the Courtauld Institute were very inspirational.
Tell us about your favourite teacher.
Dr. Robert Ratcliffe was a brilliant teacher, and one who really made me think about the power of looking and pausing to look and reflect. He was an expert in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, particularly on Paul Cezanne.
Did you know what you wanted to do after university?
I was unsure exactly what I wanted to do after university, but I knew I wanted to work in the creative arts!
What kinds of things do you do in the classroom to engage your students?
I like students to think about the cultural impact of the period that they are studying and researching. The use of music, film and poetry all play a very significant role in aiding our understanding.
Have you got any surprising stories from your time as an art historian?
I think my most surprising stories come from the fascinating interviews I have undertaken with a range of artists and their families. I remember taking the railway historian and travel writer George Behrend out for a midsummer meal in the Scottish Highlands while I interviewed him about his father’s commissioning of Sir Stanley Spencer for the Burghclere murals. He had been a chauffeur for a time to Benjamin Britten, the composer! He had some good stories to tell.
What do you like to do to relax in your free time?
I like to wild swim or go for a walk in the woods.
What advice would you give students who are worried about the future after university?
It is as important to know what you don’t want to do, as well as what you want to aim for. Use all the university and friend networks to help you on your way. Don’t be shy about writing to people or companies you want to work for. Nothing ventured, nothing gained – shoot out those arrows!
Have you got a favourite café in Bristol or Paris?
My favourite café in Paris is one facing Place des Voges in Le Marais, and my favourite in Bristol is The Albion in Clifton, though that’s technically a pub.
Describe your lecture in three words?
I can do it in six: ‘A journey to a past time.’
Watch Tricha Passes’s Best of Bristol lecture below…
Jez Conolly is the Head of Student Engagement for Library Services at the university. See below to listen to the full interview or check out the text for the best bits!
I was an art student for many years back in the 1980s. I’ve worked for the university since 1990 by the way, so I go back a long way. My academic background is also in film research, so I’ve always tended to gravitate towards writing about cinema. My dad was a cinema manager for over 40 years, from just before the Second World War to 1980! So that’s probably where my general interest stems from.
I started writing articles for an online magazine in 2008 and started making a few connections with different publishers. Along with my wife, we co-edited three volumes in a book series called World Film Locations for Intellect Ltd which is a Bristol based publisher. We covered city locations, so we did Dublin, Reykjavik (which is a difficult one because there aren’t very many films made in Iceland at all) and Liverpool, which was quite a nice one to do.
You’ll actually find that there are quite a few creative people with creative backgrounds amongst the library staff. A member of my team, Beccy Pert, won the Cheltenham Literature Festival First Novel Prize last year! We have quite a few people who are writers and we have someone who’s involved in the graphic novel market, so there’s a whole load of really talented people working for the library.
I think it’s really nice to have that arts and creative background to draw upon in terms of what we do as a service because I think the thing with libraries is that, to your average user, there is often the potential for the service to be regarded as a little bit dry but necessary, so we try and moisten it a little bit to make it interesting and engaging. It helps to know that there are library colleagues out there who have the drive to get their teeth into something more creative when called upon to do so.
We’re really keen to contribute to links between the city and the university. In 2017, Bristol had UNESCO City of Film status bestowed upon it, which is not terribly widely known. I would really like to see how the university can do something around that. I’m working with the subject librarian for TV and Film to see if we can forge links between that department and what’s going on with UNESCO.
I always think the student experience should be porous; they should feel able to go into different spaces or have different experiences during their time at the university and within the city, and there’s no reason why that experience shouldn’t merge and become all part of the same thing. I think staff should be attempting to encourage and enable that porousness to happen. If that means, you know, making a point of going out and doing a thing that is beyond what is on my job description, I’m more than happy to do that. I can talk until the cows come home about this sort of thing!
A course is like a vehicle, and you jump on and jump off and the world carries on anyway; I think it’s very healthy to be as aware of that as you possibly can from as early a point in a course as you can be. I know what it’s like to be on a course and feel almost enclosed by it, and thinking the outside world can go hang, but it can’t really because one day you’ll rejoin it, so it’s better to be aware of that from the outset, I think.
The interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.
Alix Dietzel is a Lecturer in International Relations and Global Ethics. Her ‘Best of Bristol’ Lecture on the 4th of March presents her research on just global responses to climate change and its ethical impact on societies. I met up with Alix to chat about her research, but most importantly, to learn about her journey into academia.
us a bit about your upcoming BoB lecture on Climate Change
My lecture will focus on climate change as an issue of justice and discuss to what extent the political global response to it is fair. My research is broadly about the human side of the climate change problem – I look at which human rights will be threatened, who will be in danger, why these individuals deserve protection and how fair decisions around climate change should be made. The lecture will reflect on all of these aspects and I hope students will come away with a new understanding of the climate change problem.
you were a student, did you always know you were going to become an academic?
No, not always. I knew I wanted to teach from a young age (six
or seven), and I initially planned to study literature to become a school teacher.
My parents weren’t very encouraging of this idea, however. My mother told me I
would be a good lawyer and because I wasn’t quite sure about my decision to
become a teacher, I agreed to study Politics and International Relations. My
aim was to become a human rights lawyer – I thought I’d be able to ‘help people’
that way, maybe do some good in the world. It was during the 2nd year of my undergraduate
degree at Sheffield that I first considered becoming an academic. I had a good
friend who wanted to do a PhD in History, and my conversations with him made me
realise that I could still become a teacher, but at university level.
you always this passionate and interested in your area of research?
Not exactly. My first PhD idea was to research ‘European
identity’ and how we might work towards a ‘global identity’ to tackle global problems
more effectively. I tested out this subject during my master’s dissertation
but found it a bit boring and dry. I then took a year out to consider changing
topics (and worked for an NGO!). I knew I wanted research a topic that had to
do with solving global problems. My prospective supervisor proposed a few
different ideas, including doing a PhD focusing on climate change, and that’s
what I ended up finding most interesting when I did further research and wrote
a new proposal!
you were doing your PhD, did you ever think, ‘did I make a mistake’?
Every academic has moments when they think they’ve made a
mistake. You sometimes wonder: Am I
crazy to be doing this? A PhD is hard work and it can be quite lonely. It’s
also scary to share your ideas because they might be criticised and rejected. However,
I started teaching in the second year of my PhD and I really loved that part of
the job – it motivated me to keep going. Eventually, I also got more confident
in my research abilities, and I am so glad I finished my PhD. It led me here
and I really love my job.
what’s the most rewarding thing about teaching?
It’s hard to pick one thing, but I’d have to say it’s watching
people grow as intellectuals. It’s so rewarding to see a student say they find
the topic difficult or boring (political theory is a hard sell!) and then
eventually see their interest in the topic grow as their confidence develops.
The people that doubt themselves are usually the cleverest, so it’s an easy job
in some ways. You just have to help them find their way a little bit.
makes a great academic?
It’s hard to say because academics wear a lot of hats! They’re
involved in research, public engagement, administration, and teaching. Ultimately,
for me, it has to be someone who cares about teaching and learning, not just
their own research or career. So, an ideal academic is passionate about their
research, but also passionate about teaching this to students and sharing their
knowledge with the wider public.
is the most surprising thing about being an academic?
Probably realising not everyone just like you were as a student.
When you start teaching, you have a memory of how you were, and you remember
the things that you liked. A lot of academics, including me, were ‘nerds’ as
students. We were at the front of the class, participating and doing the
reading. But I realised very quickly that not everyone is like that. People are
shy, people sometimes aren’t motivated to read because they find it difficult,
people don’t always like studying… I had to realise that not everyone is like
me, and that’s ok! The key for me was to find a way to engage all of my students,
and that took some time to figure out.
your advice for students who aren’t really sure about their future?
I think everybody is worried about what they are doing to some
extent. Even me, an academic at one of the best universities in the world, still
worries about the future and whether what they’re doing is the right thing. Ideally,
you should be comforted by the idea that your self-doubt is not something
unique. Everybody doubts themselves sometimes – that’s part of life. The best
advice I would give is to talk about your worries! Tell your friends or family how
you feel, I am sure they’ll share their own concerns. You’ll quickly learn that
you’re not the only person who’s scared of the future.
do you do to relax and get out of your head when you get these tough feelings?
It depends. Sometimes I like to work out at the gym after work
or go for a hike on the weekend because it clears my brain. When I’m stressed,
I am often not physically tired, but rather just ‘brain tired’ – exercise helps
me with that! If I’m not in the mood, maybe I’ll order some nice food or take a
It’s very trendy at the moment to say, ‘self-care matters’, but
it’s true! It’s important to recognise that when you’re stressed, you need extra
kindness from yourself. How would you talk to a friend who was feeling
stressed? How would you help them? Treat yourself with the same respect and
If you’re too short of time for any of that (for example, if
you’re about to give a presentation), the best thing to do is to acknowledge
the stress, take a few deep breaths and face the anxiety. The presentation (or
whatever challenge faces you) will never go as badly as you’re imagining. And,
once you successfully face your fears, it’ll be slightly easier next time.
one thing students should do in Bristol?
Take a street art tour! It takes you to areas that are not Clifton, side streets you wouldn’t usually explore, and it’s a different way of experiencing the city. You get to see beautiful, huge pieces of street art you never notice until you go on a tour with a street artist!
You can watch Dr Dietzel’s BoB Lecture right here:
The content of our oral transcription has been edited for the readers.