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Yenching Academy Scholarship: A life-changing opportunity in China

GuestBlogger7 August 2019

By James Ashcroft

The Yenching Academy of Peking University aims to build bridges between China and the rest of the world through an interdisciplinary master’s program in China Studies. UCL History graduate James Ashcroft was among the first recipients of a fully funded scholarship to the programme. Here, he blogs about his experience at the Academy.

I still remember being asked by my then tutor Dr Vivienne Lo to forward an email to my fellow students about a new scholarship programme at Peking University. I had seen so many emails in my time at UCL that I didn’t bother to open it, so I just shared the email and left it at that. For some reason, I later on decided to open that email. I am so fortunate that I did because it quite literally changed the course of my life.

The Yenching Academy Scholarships give graduates from around the world the opportunity to experience China in a very international environment. It’s a fully funded scholarship at one of the best Chinese universities in the world. You get your flights paid for and your accommodation paid for, and you’re taken care of in the most incredible way.

Authentic Chinese experience

It’s a programme which gives you the opportunity to study alongside and make lifelong friendships with some of the brightest and most talented people you’ll ever meet. And for me anyway, it goes beyond your average study abroad programme in a way which makes it a truly authentic Chinese experience.

In my experience, the Yenching Academy Scholarships are relevant to anyone at UCL, whether or not they speak Mandarin or know much about the country. As someone who grew up with lots of friends who spoke multiple languages, it was always jarring that I could only speak English.

The Yenching Academy Scholarships didn’t seem like an obvious fit for me and I couldn’t speak a word of Mandarin at the time I applied. I also didn’t know much about China or its history. This is a really important point to make as I wouldn’t want any student to miss out because they don’t see the relevance to them.

Extremely rewarding

I grew so much during my time at PKU and always felt empowered to step up and contribute to the community of scholars and the university more broadly. One of my highlights was sitting on the executive organising committee for The Yenching Global Symposium, which brought together 100 or so Yenching scholars, alongside 50 graduates from PKU and 50 other students from around the world. The event has taken place every year since and it’s been extremely rewarding to see it become the success that it has.

My education at PKU was essentially a Masters in China Studies, and the qualification included elements of economics, history, international relations, law and society. I was also required to study four hours of Chinese a week, and could choose between attending classes taught in English, Mandarin or both.

My thesis analysed the Chinese government’s long-term development plan for the game of football in China in order to explore the intersection between economics, politics, and the country’s sense of place in the twenty-first century world order.

Incredible conversations

Education was only part of the picture though – as with any programme like this – and whenever I think about my time in Beijing, I think about the people I met there. I got a tremendous amount from speaking to my classmates, and we had the most incredible conversations and invigorating debates on some really important global issues.

When you’re living in another part of the world, these things can really bring you together. I’m still in touch with so many people with whom I studied – some even on a daily basis. I often meet up in person with Yenching Scholars when they come to London and I’ve visited a number of them in their home countries too.

Truly global environment

My time at Peking University has opened my eyes to working in the 21st century within a truly global environment, and I am certain that countless other students would benefit from this great opportunity.

I am always happy to speak to UCL students about my experiences as I feel very passionate about the university being represented each year in the latest cohort of Yenching Scholars. When that email comes round this year, please think carefully about opening it because it might change your life as well.

UCL alumni interview: Himani Gupta, artist

Sian EGardiner1 August 2019

Himani Gupta, UCL alumnusHimani Gupta studied international real estate and urban planning at The Bartlett from 2011-2012. Having worked as a spatial designer and a consultant for Ernst & Young in Delhi, Himani is now working full time as an artist, specialising in painting.

We spoke to her to find out more about her experience at UCL and how she stays in touch with the UCL community.

How did you come to study at UCL?

Firstly, because I love the campus and I’d been following it for a while. Secondly, I found the work that’s been done at the Bartlett very relevant to the direction I wanted to go in professionally. Before doing my masters I used to be a spatial designer, but I wanted to get onto the other side which was understanding the business of cities and how infrastructure and real estate are developed around them.

How did you find studying at UCL?

It was a really enriching experience because I got to learn about the politics of space in Europe and the real estate markets in China and the Middle East. The freedom we had in terms of things like choosing our dissertation was great. I could also make it more India-centric, which helped me immensely after UCL in terms of getting a job in Management Consulting in the Urban field in India, as I’d written on similar topics for my masters.

Compared to my undergrad degree in Business Studies in India, UCL was more analysis-based. It took some time but once I got used to the structure of the course it opened up a new way of looking at things, which helped me in my job in the real world and still helps me now.

What was it like living in London?

I’ve always loved London so the city was very familiar to me. I lived in Bayswater in West London so I’d cycle or walk down to the campus. We organised Thursday drinks at the UCL bar, which became a hub for us each week. I found the balance between a lot of study and a lot of socialising quite enriching.

It’s all so centrally located and I liked that we had classes in different locations across the campus; I explored all sorts of hidden buildings. Now I’m an artist and my work is about psycho-geography and understanding layers of space, and the fact that I walked quite a bit while studying in London has shaped my approach to my work.

What would your advice be for a student in India looking to study at UCL?

Figure out funding very early on and give yourself a strict budget. Once you have that figured out life at UCL and in London is very easy.  At UCL, you have an account to access a student/teaching portal where all the modules and submissions are in one place. It’s really cool because one can study anywhere. UCL has a lot of libraries and quiet corners to study, which was one of my favourite parts. I’d say try and explore as many nooks and corners as possible around the campus.

What aspects of the culture did you enjoy?

The fact that you get to hear a different language every square foot or two. Because I’m a walker I take in and absorb London as I walk through it, and as you do you get an insight into how many cultures and backgrounds exist together in this city.

The art scene and the number of galleries in London is phenomenal and the shops that offer material really works for me. Also, the food! Which is a direct function of the number of cultures that exist here.

Even after graduation, I make it a point to visit UCL on my trips to London to catch up with old and new connections.

How have you kept in touch with the UCL community?

I moved back to India in 2013 but I recently wrote to another good friend of mine from my course who’s very active in New York with the UCL alumni group there. He put me in touch with UCL’s alumni team, and through them I got involved with volunteering in Delhi. I organised a reunion event in Delhi a few months ago – about 26 of us came together for a casual mixer event at the art-themed homestay I run.

I was curious to bring together people from different professions and initiatives not just for myself but for everyone present. It’s also a great way to form new social groups. I now look forward to more events and more people volunteering in Delhi. I’m happy to open up my studio (which can accommodate up to 35 people) to those interested in having an Arts and Culture themed reunion mixer.Himani Gupta art

Tell us about your work.

I’ve got my hands in a lot of pies! I used to work in spatial design before doing my masters then I came back to India and I started working as a consultant with Ernst and Young. So I used to be in management consulting in the infrastructure and smart cities team.

I’ve also been a painter for the last fifteen years and after deciding to leave consulting I wanted to focus on it full time. My visual arts practice is drawn from my very diverse experiences in education, professions and travels. Urban and spatial exploration has been a research interest of mine for a long time and what I try and study through my art is the idea of psychogeography and understanding the materiality of space. My medium in art is painting primarily and I create large pieces of work. I work with pigments and paint. Lately, I have been creating a lot of smaller works based on mapping.

What are you working on with the Slade?

Through my work as a UCL volunteer, I was introduced to Deborah Padfield, an artist and professor at the Slade who is exploring how chronic pain is communicated through the arts in a project called Visualising Pain.

She wanted to work with a local artist and although pain is not my direct subject, the fact I could use paint and pigment in order to help chronic pain sufferers communicate their pain better motivated me to get involved. I ended up co-facilitating a workshop with Deborah (and others) in Delhi in May 2019. It went really well and made an impact on our participants who battle chronic pain everyday.

How has UCL helped you to achieve your ambitions?

It’s interesting because before coming to UCL I wasn’t particularly motivated to do ‘well’ in the conventional sense – whether that’s an educational qualification or a job – my pace was a lot slower. Which is not necessarily a bad thing but in my case I wasn’t achieving too much or doing too much with my time.

I think UCL and my experience of living in London really inspired me and opened up a channel which I never knew existed in me, which is that of wanting to achieve and working hard. I got into the habit of maintaining a diary, organising myself better, understanding before speaking or describing. I started being meticulous about my work and had I not gone through this change I would still be very bohemian and less results orientated.

UCL would love to hear from more alumni in India and around the world.  

Get in touch and find out more about volunteering at ucl.ac.uk/alumni

Ask an Academic: Professor David Osrin

GuestBlogger24 July 2019

By Ian Morton

Professor David Osrin is Professor of Global Health at UCL and a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow in Clinical Science. Based in Mumbai since 2004, he works in an urban health research collaboration with SNEHA (the Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action).

Researching within the broad remit of urban health, he is particularly interested in complex social interventions and research ethics, and art and science’s utility in raising public awareness of health. We spoke to David to find out more about his life and work in India…

Can you give us a brief overview of your research in India?

My research has come a long way since I first began working in India in 2004. I started out looking at ways to improve the health of newborn babies in the Mumbai region, working with an excellent organisation called SNEHA. More recently though I’ve been working with organisations like SNEHA to tackle violence against women – an increasingly important issue in India.

I also work closely with the Municipal Corporation of Mumbai, the Family Planning Centre of India, and other health professionals in the area.

What got you interested in the subject in the first place?

When I first began working here, I noticed how committed and passionate everyone was about improving public health in India. It was this passion which inspired me to pursue my research to the extent that I have.

While public health has been an issue for a long time, it’s only in the last decade that violence against women has been a mainstream topic in India. Thanks to a number of landmark legal cases the Government has begun to take the issue much more seriously, and I’m so pleased our research techniques are being used to make a difference.

What difference do you hope it will make?

My vision is to contribute to a social transformation that is taking place throughout the world with respect to equality. In the case of India, my hope is that it will continue to lead to a reduction in violence against women. One of the things that stands out for me is that when we bring the local community together, anything is possible!

Can you tell us about the Institute’s relationship with India?

The Institute of Urban Health is not the only part of UCL working in India of course, and there are other colleagues at the Institute doing great work here too. Together with our partners, we’ve succeeded in engaging state level government in India to bring about some significant policy changes. As well as the work I’ve been doing there, Dr Audrey Prost has also achieved some great results with another Indian NGO called Ekjut – on improving the health and nutrition of new born children and adolescents.

What can UCL learn from your time working in India? What can the UK learn?

Aside from collaborating with people with a different background and outlook to my own, I’ve seen the power when communities come together to tackle societal challenges like public health. Legal intervention, emotional support and shelter are needs that we all share, so what we learn in India can be applied to the UK and vice versa.

What are some of your highlights from living in India?

Having being involved in some hugely important and large-scale research projects, in true collaboration with equal partners, to deliver world-class research.

I’m proud of the fact that during my time here we’ve seen the transformation of countless individuals. I’m also really proud of the public engagement work we’ve done, bringing together the disciplines of health, art and science, which led to a hugely successful festival called Dharavi (or Alley Galli) Biennale.

What has it been like working in the Indian slums?

I am very privileged to spend my working days in an informal settlement but not to live there. Not everyone has that privilege. The impact on me has been profound, and the importance I place on certain things is very different now to when I was living in the West.

The challenges associated with finding clean water, a shelter to withstand the elements, and the need for electricity have all given me a greater appreciation of the basic health and wellbeing needs we all share.

What would you like to say to other academics at UCL thinking of collaborating with others in India?

I think they should absolutely collaborate here if they can. In my view, the academic and research capability of teachers in India is on a par with the UK. Also, I’ve never experienced being hampered by the government structures in place in India. In fact, quite the opposite.

The number of people who are willing to participate in the research has also been incredibly valuable for my research. There’s a lot of enthusiasm in India among the public for taking part in research – perhaps more so than the UK.

It goes without saying that the intercultural interaction which informs my research has also enhanced my experience here.

Ask an Academic: Professor Sue Hamilton, Director of the UCL Institute of Archaeology

Sian EGardiner30 May 2019

Professor Sue Hamilton is Professor of Prehistory and since 2014 has been Director of the UCL Institute of Archaeology.

Sue is Principal Investigator of the Rapa Nui (Easter Island) Landscapes of Construction Project (LOC), which has been substantially funded over the past decade by the British Academy and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. 

It has been undertaken in collaboration with UK Universities of Bournemouth (co-investigator), Manchester (co-investigator), Cambridge and Highlands and Islands, together with representatives of the Chilean Council of Monuments, MAPSE (the island’s museum) and the indigenous peoples communities of Rapa Nui.

Sue and her team were the first British archaeologists to work on the island since 1914, when the English archaeologist and anthropologist, Katherine Routledge carried out the first true survey of the island.

We spoke to Sue to find out more about her unique partnership with the local indigenous community of Easter Island, and how she navigates the relationship with both the local community and the Chilean government while conducting her research.

What is the project about?

The project studies the sites and artefacts of the Easter Island statue building period (AD 1200-1550) as an interconnected, integrated whole, on a landscape scale. It has involved excavation, mapping of monuments, assessment of threats to preservation and studies of the island’s ancient and present environment.

What’s it like to work on Easter Island?

It’s a remote place, being a tiny Pacific island some 5000 km from the nearest mainland of Chile and 2,500 km from the nearest island, Pit Cairn. The local indigenous community is highly politicised, so all sorts of major internal events continually happen. If you have just a few months away it’s likely there will be completely different ground rules when you get back.

I have been formally working on Rapa Nui (which is the local name) since 2009. Much of the island is covered in prehistoric remains and is a UNESCO designated World Heritage Landscape.  In 2017, the Chilean government and National Parks Authority signed over the management of the National Park to the local indigenous community, Ma’u Henua and in 2018 we signed an agreement with the community that ‘LOC’ would advise them on archaeological issues in the park. By the time we got back in January 2019, there were several new people involved in discussing what LOC might work on and the methods to be used. Alongside this, there were new island tensions and new agreements of access to land and methodologies of documentation. Such negotiations to undertake work and its precise format can only be resolved by face to face meetings on each occasion of return to undertake fieldwork. It’s very much based on people trusting you; being able to talk to different individuals, and importantly giving people your time.

How does this partnership differ from others you might have, say with the local community in Camden?

There’s a lot of delicacy that comes with global partnerships. There are all sorts of tiny nuances. Easter Island is famed for its colossal statues and these prompt high profile discussions of the apparent collapse of the society that produced them and of the threats to the conservation of the island and its archaeology in the present; and any work on issues of its heritage always hits the newspapers – even the tiniest thing. Today the local community do at last have a very powerful gift in their hands in managing their heritage, and equally they have had a very embittered history of enormous threats to the survival of their society and traditions, which must be touched upon with empathy and sensitivity.

From the time the island was discovered by Europeans in the 18th century the local community had all sorts of terrible things happen to it, in no small part because of European contact brought disease, and ultimately loss of access to their lands. Katherine Routledge in 1914 recorded just 250 islanders compared with a population of maybe 6,000 during the statue building period. With the increasing return of land by the Chilean government in the late 20th century, and the current role of Ma’u Henua the islanders are significantly economically empowered because they have a heritage that tourists pay a heavy Park admissions fee to see.

There are currently about 6,000 islanders and 75,000 tourists go there every year. But this means that there are things that we might think are best for Rapa Nui’s extraordinary archaeology that might not be so good for tourism. We need to take things slowly and take care in giving opinions as  ‘privileged academics’, and not for example just leap in with a comment because someone says that’ll make a great quote in a national or international newspaper.

You have to remember it’s not your past, it’s their past, and I think it’s particularly so on Rapa Nui because it’s living heritage – the statues and associated monuments still have an active meaning to the Rapanui; they are not ruins of a now dead past. So a living heritage is something you can’t dabble with and think it won’t affect people.

How did you first come to work on the island?

I was working in Italy and invited my colleague, Colin Richards who worked on similar sites in the UK to come out and see the Italian ones. He spent rather a lot of time on the beach rather than working! So I went down to the beach one day and he was reading Thor Heyerdahl’s Aku-Aku, which is a 1950s popular book about Easter Island. Colin said we ought to go visit Easter Island and when we did we were just stunned by the archaeology and its great potential for new work. It was a great leap for both of us but we ended up co-directing our AHRC funded LOC project. It’s the most amazing archaeology I’ve ever worked on.

How closely are you now working with the Island’s local community?

We are currently doing research into the impact of soil erosion on the island’s archaeology and have been working on the massive ceremonial monuments by the sea and recording the extent to which many are near collapse. Conservation-related work is a good way to be working with the local community and stakeholders, and trying to do something that they want. For instance, they will put their effort into sites that tourists would particularly want to go and see, because that makes current economic sense. For us, this concurrently generates research information about the range and distributions of different categories of archaeological site. There are however numerous archaeologically very important sites beyond the tourist trail that may be key for better understanding Rapanui’s past and we have to find a pathway between both considerations.

Currently, most media people contact me about Easter Island to ask about climate change and rising sea levels and threats to the statues and their associated ceremonial monuments which wrap the island’s coastline. In many cases it’s not actually the sea that’s the most significant problem; it’s mismanagement of the landscape in modern times and the erosional impact of increased rainfall. Huge surfaces of the island are losing their soil. There are about 1,000 statues – which people don’t realise, and a lot of them at the main site where they were quarried are buried so there might be around 3,000. They are variously deteriorating due to lichen growth and the effects of atmospheric salt which penetrates the whole island environment.

Residential fieldwork uniquely creates local friendships; we stay with a local family business for a month each year, and the family have become special friends and are very supportive.  A few years ago I obtained a bursary  for a Rapanui archaeology student, Fran Pakomi, to come over to the UK and she was  trained on our UCL fieldwork course and stayed in my house. It’s these types of visits and exchanges that maintain and solidify connections and trust with distant local communities because they are at the cross-over between work and friendships.

What’s been your best archaeological discovery over there?

I suppose that one of the most dramatic is something that people knew a little bit about, but which we’ve documented and rediscovered many more of, are the carved  giant pairs of eyes on the walls of  the statue quarry. I always remember reading that in the Marquesas they believed rock to be living and that when rock was taken for monument building, the rock regrew again. We’ve found eyes that you can no longer see by using photogrammetry .

The other one’s a bit more esoteric – it’s just how interconnected things are and how many little stones were moved and how in being impressed by the physically big (such as enormous statues) you can lose the insights provided by small scale things. The builders of the statue period took giant flat cobbles from the beach and must have moved millions of them inland to make pavements and terraces outside of the houses they built. On land, large screes of volcanic rubble were move to create rock mulch, to protect the soil. The kind of human chains involved in moving millions of stones hand-to-hand from seashore inland and redistributing the volcanic rubble is quite incredible.

In the 20th century, the local community was provided with Chilean social housing, which is now seen by many as something to be rejected and demolished. We are now studying this housing and how interestingly a lot actually incorporates aspects of ancient traditions. Now on Rapa Nui there is beginning of building a sort of Polynesia of the modern imagination and an aligned very inventive local architecture that incorporates what they and potentially tourists may think Polynesia is. It’s fascinating to live through these changes as a regular visitor and it gives and insights into local priorities.

Fieldwork in distant places, and living with a local community over numerous years, accretes to make the dynamics of ancestry and heritage recording and isolating conservation and preservation priorities a mixture of diplomacy, empathy and co-production of research to secure the futures of a living past.

Ask an Academic: Dr Adriana Silva De Albuquerque

Sian EGardiner22 March 2019

Dr Adriana Silva De Albuquerque is a Research Associate at the UCL Division of Infection and Immunity. Her research interests broadly relate to the study of clinical models of human immunodeficiency.

She was among recent recipients of the UCL Global Engagement Funds, and last year used the seed funding to travel to a lab at the Karolinska Institutet in Solna, Sweden. We caught up with her to find out more about her research and her partnership with scientists in Sweden.

What are you working on at the moment?

My current project aim is to understand the pathogenic mechanisms of a group of rare, inherited conditions where individual components of the immune system are missing – known as ‘primary immunodeficiency syndromes’.

Our clinical team cares for the largest UK cohort of adults with primary immunodeficiencies for which whole genome sequencing has been performed. I’m developing new immune assays on patients’ cells as well as in cell lines and genetically modified cells, in order to assess the impact of novel genetic variants on immune cell function. With this project, we hope to expand our understanding of the underlying causes of primary immunodeficiencies, as well as to contribute to the development of new diagnostic tests that will hopefully lead to improved treatment of patients.

You were among recent recipients of UCL’s Global Engagement Funds (GEF). What led you to apply for the funds?

The possibility of visiting another lab [at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden] and the chance to become involved in the cutting-edge research they are doing. Having a curious mind and being very enthusiastic to learn more about immunology, I thought this would be a great opportunity for me on a professional level.

 Could you give a brief summary of the project that the funds supported?

We are interested in understanding the mechanisms underlying ‘LRBA deficiency’. LPS-responsive beige-like anchor (LRBA) deficiency is a severe primary immunodeficiency characterised by increased susceptibility to infections associated with autoimmune and inflammatory complications. The immune dysregulation caused by this disease results in a significant morbidity and mortality. The only curative approach is hematopoietic stem cell transplantation, which has only been done in a small number of cases.

How did your partnership with the Karolinska Institutet work?

UCL’s Global Engagement Funds enabled me to visit Dr Lisa Westerberg lab at the Karolinska Institutet, our collaborators on this project. Dr Westerberg has a strong expertise in primary immunodeficiencies and I was able to learn and exchange experiences with the PhD students and Post-Docs working in her lab. The time I spent in their lab was very rewarding as I was able to learn new techniques important for our current projects. I also had the opportunity to discuss our data with them, which contributed to the development of new research ideas.

During my stay in Sweden, I also visited the clinical lab based at the Karolinska University Hospital that does all the immunological tests for the diagnosis of primary immunodeficiencies. This was very interesting as I was able to learn some of the tests they are performing and also participate in the daily routine of a top level diagnostic lab.

How did you find the experience of collaborating overseas?

The experience of spending some time in the Karolinska Institute was very positive for me. What contributed most for the success of my stay was that I was able to analyse the LRBA knock-down cells we have genetically modified by electron microscopy, as the Karolinska Institute has a strong expertise in this technique and it was key for this project.

What would your advice be to anyone else hoping to collaborate globally?

Try to identify specific groups you might be interested because of their expertise, knowledge of specific techniques you want to learn or specific projects and ideas you would like to discuss with them. I would say the best way of approaching them would be in international conferences. Try to engage in discussions with scientists of different backgrounds and different levels of expertise. From my experience, scientists are very receptive to this kind of approach.

UCL Medical students: How our new app could transform global healthcare services

GuestBlogger20 February 2019

By Abdulkadir Elmi, Abdel Mahmoud and Yasmin Abedin

Student founders of Beba with UCL provostThrough research into global health during our Medicine degree at UCL, we were constantly faced with shocking statistics. For example, did you know that at least 50% of the world’s population do not have access to essential health services? Yet, there are more mobile phones than people in this world.

So, we asked ourselves, if most of the world’s population has access to SMS technology, can we leverage this to deliver a simple and accessible service?

So we built Beba.

The concept is simple: Beba leverages SMS technology to provide digital healthcare, beyond the hospital, to mothers and children in resource-poor settings.

Extending the reach of healthcare

Using natural language processing via an intuitive chat interface, Beba extends the reach of essential healthcare by using software to enable clinicians to ‘on-board’ mothers during their first antenatal care visit.

Once mothers are signed up, they can use our service to address their various healthcare needs. For example, mothers can retrieve their healthcare records, request or change appointments and receive tailored health advice via SMS.

Identifying red flags

Beba will also send vaccination reminders and milestone checks for her baby. Should red flag symptoms be identified, appointment booking suggestions are sent to mothers to enable immediate contact with the relevant healthcare provider.

Quality of care increases while the burden of work for clinicians decreases.

Research has shown that SMS reminders help increase the rate of medication adherence (Montes et al., 2012), non-medication treatment adherence (Balato et al., 2013), and vaccination coverage (Stockwell et al., 2014). As proposed in the ‘transtheoretical model of behaviour change’, these reminders can serve as cues to help facilitate behaviour change and improve health outcomes (Prochaska et al., 1994).

We were extremely honoured to present our company at UCL’s annual ‘Celebrating Global Engagement’ event, welcoming kind words from various senior UCL staff members including our very own Provost and President, Michael Arthur.

Improving health of newborns and mothers 

Our solution has many benefits to society. We work to strengthen existing healthcare infrastructure and improve the health of both newborns and mothers alike. Through our vaccination reminders, Beba improves the health of a society. Vaccines are essential in reducing and maintaining a low burden of communicable diseases. Prevention of diseases is key and has financial benefits: for every $1 invested in child health, the state recoups $13 over their lifetime.

The most exciting news is that we have partnered up with the charity Maternal Aid Association (Maa), and will be launching our service this summer in Bangladesh. We believe this is just the beginning of our journey in transforming healthcare for mothers and children across the globe.

Visit the Beba website 

Empowering women in Bangladesh: My time volunteering with the Maternal Aid Association

GuestBlogger28 January 2019

By Yasmin Abedin

Yasmin is a fifth year Medical student at UCL. Here, she blogs about her time spent volunteering for the charity Maternal Aid Association (Maa) in Bangladesh. 

Empower (/em-pow-er/) verb
Make (someone) stronger and more confident, especially in controlling their life and claiming their rights.

Women globally experience inequalities in all areas of society, from the workplace to healthcare.

Growing up in an all-female home, my mum instilled in me the importance of feeling positive about yourself, but also of being a force of positivity for those around you, especially women who have not had the same opportunities.

Guided by this driving force, in August 2018, I worked with the charity ‘Maternal Aid Association’ (Maa), leading their flagship project in Bangladesh, JourneyMaa.

Maa has a simple aim: to revolutionise maternal healthcare in resource-poor settings across the developing world.

Maternal health camps

JourneyMaa is a stepping-stone towards this goal and provides free maternal health camps and education to hundreds of pregnant women living in rural Bangladesh, by establishing a unique collaboration between volunteers from the UK and healthcare professionals from Bangladesh.

The maternal health camps involved conducting basic health checks, which are vital in preventing and detecting complications during pregnancy. These included blood pressure, urine dipstick and blood glucose measurements to screen for conditions such as gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia, some of the leading causes of maternal mortality in Bangladesh.

Emotional strength

From speaking to pregnant women, I was struck by how common it was for women to miscarry and experience neonatal deaths in Bangladesh.

The emotional strength it must take to overcome such a tragedy is unimaginable. What makes this even more shocking is that with better maternal healthcare, many losses could have been prevented.

In addition to health camps for pregnant women, we provided educational seminars for young girls to tackle the deep-rooted stigma surrounding the topic of menstruation. In many cultures, including Bengali culture, women are generally considered ‘unclean’ during menstruation. 

Due to these beliefs, there are various restrictions placed on menstruating women, as well as unsafe sanitary practices that occur.

For example, menstrual rags are used repeatedly and often improperly washed without soap and dried in damp conditions, which can fester with bacteria and insects. This poses a potentially life-threatening infection risk to girls.

Combatting stigma

To address this, we delivered educational talks and created an open space for discussion about periods to combat stigma and help the girls understand how to maintain good menstrual health. It was inspiring to hear the thoughts of the girls both before and after the seminars as it highlighted how their confidence had improved when speaking about what is traditionally a taboo topic.

Pre-seminar, they were apprehensive and shy when asked about their experience with periods. However, post-seminar, the confident manner in which they were discussing menstrual hygiene was fantastic – I was moved by their enthusiasm for learning and progression.

Bottom-up approach

I believe female empowerment through education is a strong tool to make long-lasting and widespread change. Educating women and girls has positive ripple effects in society, particularly through bottom up approaches. A bottom-up approach refers to the idea that individual actions can have a huge impact when adopted by many.

The girls we spoke to were keen on spreading their knowledge to their mothers and aunts, which meant the knowledge they acquired would span across multiple generations. These girls are the ambassadors of charge that is so desperately needed.

Educating a girl is a critical investment into their future, as well as the future of their country. As stated in a UNICEF report: “When you educate a girl, you educate a whole nation”.

Working with Maa has been incredible, and I am thrilled to be working again in Bangladesh this summer as the project manager of JourneyMaa 2019. With passionate individuals at its forefront, Maa is on its way to revolutionise global maternal healthcare, one step at a time.

Ask an academic: Dr Jennie Golding

Sian EGardiner28 January 2019

Dr Jennie Golding is a lecturer in Mathematics Education at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE). Her research focuses in particular on teacher development for policy change in both the UK and a variety of second and third world contexts.

Jennie regularly works with teachers, policy makers and teacher educators in developing countries to support the growth of evidence-based, effective maths education. We spoke to her to find out more about her recent work in East Africa, supported by a UCL Global Engagement Fund (GEF) grant.

You started out as a mathematician and moved into teaching – what interested you in education?

I had enjoyed working with three-18 year olds on a voluntary basis – and I think enjoying being with young people is really important. Then I began to analyse the different functions my teachers at school and university had played, and to appreciate the difference a good teacher makes to clarity and enjoyment of the subject I love.

The rest is history – except that after a long career classroom-based, but working in teacher development alongside that, in this country and the developing world, I felt I wanted to capitalise on that by moving into HE.

You were among recent recipients of UCL’s Global Engagement Funds (GEF). What led you to apply for the funds?

I have a passionate belief in the power of education to transform individuals and society – and in equitable access to that. In particular, young people can’t access 21st century science and technology without knowing mathematics in a meaningful way – and yet, many developing countries have an education tradition that majors on rote learning, and teacher as authoritarian and source of all knowledge.

The initial GEF funding enabled me to engage with, and visit, a range of teachers in Tanzania so I better understood their context – but more importantly in the long term, to meet and begin to work with teacher educators and mathematics education researchers in the region.

In August 2018 I was able to build on that visit by working with researchers from across East Africa, who identified the development of teacher educators in the region, together with the policy-related local research capacity, as the most effort-effective focus.

You were recently in Uganda, following up on the project. How did the visit go?

I was running a course for primary mathematics teacher educators from across East Africa, alongside teachers from each of Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda, focusing on developing active learning with meaning-making – in ways that can be enacted in low-resource classrooms with sometimes up to 180 learners.

That took quite a lot of preparation and background work, and needs to be refined further, but was exciting, stimulating – and as always, humbling. And Uganda is such a beautiful country!

How will you measure the project’s success?

We know from a multiplicity of sources that it’s important for embedding of course learning that teacher educators and teachers take this back to their local contexts, explore, adapt and experiment with it in manageable ways; are supported to reflect on what they’re finding at frequent intervals; and gradually commit to new ways of working in collaborative ways. So all the course participants now have three months’ supported distance learning, during which they have three assignments.

Already participants are talking of the course as ‘life-changing’ for both them and their learners, but of course, the proof of any success will lie on the ground in their home contexts. Importantly, I’m also following up these teacher educators’ experiences in a systematic way together with a Ugandan mathematics education researcher, to mutual benefit since I have more research expertise than she does, but she can access participants’ experiences through use of their home language.

Along with Tanzania and Uganda, you’ve worked in countries including Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Armenia and Jordan. Why do you think it’s important to work on a global scale?

Essentially, I do believe we are global citizens − and in this country, we’re exceptionally privileged in the opportunities we’ve had available to us, especially in education. So I think there’s a moral imperative to share the fruit of those opportunities. But I also believe there is always so much to be learned from working in different contexts and cultures, so that although I’ve been lucky enough to have a variety of overseas opportunities, I’ve always returned having learned at least as much as I’ve given.

Professionally, working in low-resource contexts has helped me focus on what are the essentials, the core of my work as a teacher and mathematician, and that’s been really exciting.

What’s your best memory from these global experiences?

Where to start? I think the core satisfaction has been when the mathematics has begun to make sense to teachers and teacher educators in ways they’ve not expected or experienced before.

One teacher educator in Uganda said at the end of the face to face course, ‘I had no idea there was a mathematical world out there that’s just so beautiful – and such fun’ – and if teacher educators have ‘caught’ that, there’s hope then for it to spread to young people in classrooms. That’s immensely satisfying.

Researchers: How to use your global networks to benefit students

GuestBlogger25 January 2019

By Victoria Shaw, Strategic Programme Manager, UCL Global Engagement Office 

UCL’s Global Engagement Strategy sets out the goal for 30% of our undergraduate student body to have an international experience as part of their degree programme by 2020. This reflects a growing body of evidence that study and work abroad leads to better degrees and better jobs.

UCL is home to one of the UK’s most international academic communities and researchers travel all over the world to build networks and partnerships. So how can globally engaged academics use their connections to further inbound and outbound student mobility?

Short-term global opportunities

Demand for short-term global opportunities is accelerating among undergraduates worldwide and UCL students are no exception.

In 2017/18, UCL Study Abroad supported 306 students for short-term mobilities, a 115% increase on the previous year. Students took up a variety of opportunities, ranging from research on howler monkeys in Mexico to the study of Chinese language and culture in Shanghai.

“Given the interest in and clear appetite for short-term opportunities, we are working to expand this exciting area,” says Owain Evans, Short Mobilities Coordinator.

“If academic colleagues learn of interesting international summer schools, research or volunteering opportunities while visiting partner institutions or through conversations with collaborators, please get in touch – we’d love to hear more and explore new options for UCL students.”

Current summer schools, research placements and other openings can be viewed on the Short-Term Global Opportunities web page, along with information on UCL’s Global Experience Bursary, which provides financial support for students.

UCL Summer School

UCL’s own Summer School has grown rapidly since its launch in 2016 and receives outstanding feedback on the experience it provides for students.

Last year, students attended from over 240 universities, attracted to the small group teaching and wide choice of modules. Students can apply individually or under an institutional agreement, and many use it as a stepping stone to postgraduate study.

“Academic staff have great connections and play an important part in promoting the Summer School internationally,” says Rhod Fiorini, Head of Programme.

The Summer School team can provide publicity materials for UCL staff wishing to promote the programme and explore group discounts for partners.

Global internships

Scholars with links to companies and NGOs abroad should be aware that UCL Careers is seeking international internships for UCL students.

“Organisations around the world are increasingly seeking graduates who are adaptable, curious and resilient,” says Rhiannon Williams, Global Internships Manager.

“An internship abroad helps students develop these skills whilst kick-starting their global careers. It also allows employers to create a pipeline of globally-minded talent for their business, particularly valuable if they are looking to expand into new markets.”

Last year, 76 students visited over 25 different countries as part of the Global Internships Programme.

If academic staff make a referral, UCL Careers will work with the organisation to identify internships, advertise them to students and shortlist applicants.

UCL has secured Erasmus+ funding, managed jointly by Careers and Study Abroad, for students undertaking positions within the EU, making this a particularly desirable destination for new internships.

Contacts

For more information or to discuss proposals:

  • Short-term Global Opportunities: Owain Evans, Short Mobilities Coordinator (o.evans@ucl.ac.uk)
  • UCL Summer School: Rhod Fiorini, Head of the UCL Summer School (r.fiorini@ucl.ac.uk)
  • Global Internships: Rhiannon Williams, Global Internships Manager (rhiannon.e.williams@ucl.ac.uk)

UCL Qatar students changing libraries in Doha through UCL ChangeMakers project

GuestBlogger21 January 2019

By Bruce Bulmuo 

Master’s degree students at UCL Qatar have completed a UCL ChangeMakers project which offered students the opportunity to work with a school library in Doha to enhance practice-based learning for students in the Library and Information Studies program.

The students spent several months working with Al-Rowad International School to provide assessment and consultation services.

Recommendations were made to the authorities of the school on potential changes to the library to meet standards set by Qatar National School Accreditation (QNSA).

Meeting international standards 

To be eligible for full accreditation, schools in Qatar are required by QNSA to have well-resourced and functioning libraries that meet international standards. After a rigorous search, Al-Rowad International School was selected to be the first beneficiary of ChangeMakers in Qatar.

Led by Asma Al-Maadheed, the team of five students worked under the supervision of Dr. Milena Dobreva, Co-ordinator of the Library and Information Studies program at UCL Qatar, to write a library policy and install an automated library system for the school’s library.

Staff of the school were given basic training on how to operate the library system that was installed on their main library computer to ensure efficiency in the management of the library.

Fostering collaboration and innovation 

The UCL ChangeMakers project fosters collaboration and innovation to further enhance the learning experience of students. The project also forms part of commitment at UCL Qatar to prepare students for the work environment.

The project titled ‘Practice-based Team Learning through Assessing and Supporting School Libraries in Qatar’, also served as a hands-on practice for students in line with UCL’s mission of developing professionals through research based-based learning.

The students also considered the project as a form of corporate social responsibility that allowed them to give back to society the knowledge they have gained from the lecture halls.