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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.

UCL-backed AHRI launches groundbreaking health research programme in South Africa

Sian EGardiner8 January 2019

The Africa Health Research Institute (AHRI), led by UCL Professor Deenan Pillay, is bringing cutting-edge health screening and scientific research to an area of northern KwaZulu-Natal with one of the highest rates of HIV and tuberculosis in South Africa.

Dubbed ‘Vukuzazi’, which means ‘wake up and know yourself,’ the new research programme is designed to produce a disease profile of the community, which will guide future healthcare plans.

Comprehensive health screenings

People living in AHRI’s health and demographic surveillance system site in uMkhanyakude District are being invited to participate in a comprehensive health screening at a Vukuzazi mobile health screening fair.

The easy-access screenings will test for diabetes, high blood pressure, nutritional status, tobacco and alcohol use as well as HIV and tuberculosis, in a bid to lower the prevalence of diseases such as TB and to tackle the stigma still often associated with HIV screenings.

AHRI aims to reach 30,000 participants over the course of 18 months, with the mobile camp coming within one kilometre of each participant’s home.

State-of-the art equipment

The state of the art equipment will allow AHRI’s clinical team to examine this information in real time, link it together and make referrals to the public health system for people as needed.

“There are very few surveillance sites of the sort that we are building on,” said AHRI Deputy Director for Science, Professor Thumbi Ndung’u in a recent statement. “AHRI has been monitoring 120, 000 individuals for the past 15 years. We are now building on to that a new level of clinical testing and diagnosis, together with biological sampling.

Understanding the genetic makeup

“One of the key aspects of Vukuzazi that will push this research agenda forward is understanding the genetic makeup of our population, but in particular what is it about those genetics which determines who is protected from disease, and who gets disease,” said AHRI Director, Professor Pillay.

“There is a paucity of data from Africa, sub-Saharan Africa in particular, and we want to redress that balance. We want to ensure that the potential benefits that are being shown to populations in the West can also be provided to the population here.”

Significant academic partner

Launched in 2016, AHRI’s inception was made possible through £63m in grants from Wellcome Trust and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), with UCL and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) as significant academic partners.

In 2018, UCL launched funding via the Division of Infection and Immunity for South African students to study at UCL through AHRI on studentships.

Links

Why individual actions can make a world of difference: My time at the 2018 One Young World Summit

GuestBlogger20 November 2018

By Isha Kulkarni

Once every year, over a thousand people between the ages of 18 and 30 are chosen as One Young World delegates and a prominent city somewhere in the world prepares to host them for four unforgettable days.

Representing organisations large and small – multinationals, non-profits and universities – and countries far and wide, there is only really one thing that binds them: the belief that anyone can make a difference.

If someone had told me when I started my first year at UCL that I would be the university’s representative at One Young World this year in the Hague, Netherlands, I would have laughed in their face. I come from a privileged family, well-off enough to afford overseas tuition. I have never done anything incredibly extraordinary; I just grew up with the values of giving back ingrained in me. I may be fortunate, but there are so many that are not, and the least I can do is help in any way I can afford.

Power of the individual 

So, I did. I volunteered for local NGOs in Mumbai while in high school. I aided waste management initiatives in the community. I worked in drought-prone rural Western India and realised that pursuing civil engineering was not only something that interested me, but also something that would help me make a difference. After I started university, I volunteered with Engineers Without Borders UCL and then UCL Engineers in Action. I continued volunteering in Mumbai during the summers and worked on affordable technology during my research internship after second year.

This is why UCL Global chose me as the university delegate – and One Young World made me realise that it was acceptable that I had not made a world-shattering discovery or received an armful of awards. I had still pitched in, in any way I could. That is what One Young World is about: speeches, workshops and excursions that inspire you and remind you of the power of the individual. The fact that one person can create change, however small that change may be. You do not need to have the largest bank balance or the greatest personality: you can change things just as you are.

Community feel 

One Young World also reminded me of the power of togetherness. Tabata Amaral, a delegate speaker at the summit, said: “A dream that’s dreamed together becomes a reality.” One Young World was more than a summit in that sense – it was a community. It was the feeling of being in sync with 1,900 other people from around the world, from countries I had never heard about. It was about a group of people wanting the same thing for the world and taking steps to accomplish that.

The summit was divided into a multitude of topics such as Environment, Health, Peace & Justice, and Human Rights – but the primary message I took from each of the plenary sessions, each of the workshops and each of the keynote speeches was the same. Changing the world is an uphill task: we cannot escape the problems that plague society today.

Doing our best 

Be it the refugee crises in different pockets of the world, the fundamental gender issues brought to attention by the #MeToo movement, or global warming affecting our oceans, forests, and cities, we have a long way to go before we can justifiably say that we have been triumphant.

But we also have so much to celebrate. Somewhere in South Africa, a woman builds and runs schools for underprivileged youth after quitting her job at a multinational private equity firm. Somewhere in Colombia, a young man has dedicated his life to influencing legislative changes for improved social welfare.

At UCL, we conduct an awe-inspiring amount of research on sustainability, education, human rights, global cooperation and the Sustainable Development Goals as a whole. We are doing our best in any way we can. And this concept, at its root, fuels me.

Every one of us can change the world if we put our minds to it. Following One Young World, I have promised myself to do just that. I hope that in some way, shape or form, you will, too.

Alumni interview: Stella Lu, co-founder of the Shanghai Alumni Club

Sian EGardiner14 November 2018

Stella Lu is one of the co-founders of the Shanghai Alumni Club. We spoke to her to find out about her experiences as an international UCL student and her activity as an alumni volunteer.

How did you find studying at UCL, in the centre of London?  

The first thing I’d highlight is the culture: UCL is right in the centre of London, near to the British Museum, so we could walk there right after work. You really feel the combination of the traditional and the modern in London. It’s a great lifestyle: the student halls are located in the centre too, so it’s really convenient for people to travel around the city – and to get to the best shopping areas!  

Stella and Sky, UCL alumni

How has your time at UCL helped you to achieve your ambitions?  

I studied Law, specifically international arbitration, which is quite a new and emerging area. The UK is actually the starting place for arbitration, so studying at the UCL law school really equipped me with the skills and knowledge to help my clients.   

Since graduating in 2011, how have you stayed in touch with the UCL community? 

After graduation I went back to China with my husband – who I met at UCL – and we found there was no UCL alumni association here in Shanghai. As we’d loved our time there, and wanted to communicate with other UCL alumni, I started the Shanghai Alumni Club together with some friends.  

Since then, we’ve organised various events to help people to get to know each other. All of the events have one common theme: that we all graduated from UCL and we’re all really proud of that.  

How often do you meet up? 

It depends: we have at least ten events throughout the year. The biggest event is the annual party, where the Provost comes to celebrate with alumni in Shanghai. We also organise academic events and we’ve had forums on subjects such as architecture, finance and real estate. Last week, we held a UCL Connect event about entrepreneurship.  

We also have inter-uni mixers, with other UK schools, where people can relax and get to know one another, along with cultural events. We organise trips to movies or operas – last week, we organised for alumni to see the musical Kinky Boots together. There are also smaller group events, like paintball or picnics, together with other schools. It’s quite a range: from big ceremonies to small events.  

What motivates you to volunteer?  

It gives me a real sense of achievement. We have a committee here at Shanghai, with nine members, and we really feel like we’re family. Whenever we see that an event has been a big success, we feel a huge sense of accomplisment. We also strive to strengthen the relationship between China and the UK; we have good relationships with organisations such as the British Consulate and British Council here, and our work supports theirs.  

What advice would you have for Chinese students looking to study in the UK? 

I’d strongly recommend choosing UCL because of its location, right in the centre of one of the best cities in the world. Also because of its impressive academic achievements – if you study at UCL, you’re sure to have your own. As a student, I always felt UK people were very friendly to us, and UCL is very open to international students.  

  • This interview originally featured in the UCL and China resource: an in-depth look at UCL’s current and historical connections with China.

Ask an Academic: Daisuke Kawata, Professor of Astronomy

Sian EGardiner5 November 2018

Daisuke Kawata is Professor of Astronomy at UCL’s Department of Space & Climate Physics, based at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

He was among the recipients of the inaugural UCL-University of Toronto seed funding in 2017, to encourage collaboration between academics at the two institutions. A year on from the initial funding, we caught up with him to hear more about how the collaboration is progressing.

How did you first become interested in astronomy?

My undergraduate degree was actually in Engineering, but when computer simulations started getting bigger and bigger, I became interested in using computers to understand physics and how the universe is made up. I then became fascinated with the evolution of the Milky Way. So I moved from undergraduate Engineering to a master’s course in Astronomy, and I did a PhD in Astronomy in Japan.

Where has your research taken you?

After my post doc in Japan, I worked in Australia for about four years, and I then went to California in the USA. I worked there for three and a half years or so. Now, at UCL, I feel lucky to be part of this research-intensive institution. The research level in the UK is very high and lots of people gather in London: it’s an international environment. At the moment I’m working with colleagues in the Computer Science department, so the opportunities to work with people elsewhere in the UCL family is exciting.

You were one of the recipients of the UCL-University of Toronto seed funding for collaboration with academics at Toronto in 2017. What are you working on together?

Our research aims to understand the structure of the Milky Way, as well as how it formed and evolved. It’s quite an exciting moment for us because the European Space Agency launched a space craft called Gaia in December 2013, which is observing the motion of over a billion stars in the Milky Way, and they release intermittent data to the community so that we can use the satellite data for our research.

As you can imagine, if you’re in the forest looking out at the trees, it’s very difficult to understand how big the forest is and how the trees are distributed – and the same applies for our galaxy. You need a physical, computer model to understand the Gaia Data. So that’s what our collaboration has set up. It’s a computer simulated Milky Way model, and our hope is that this computer model will be used to picture the whole structure of the galaxy.

How did the connection with Toronto first come about?

We met Jo Bovy, my counterpart in Toronto, at a conference about the Milky Way about eight years or so ago, when he was still a PhD student. I knew him because he was making quite advanced statistical models to understand the Milky Way. I knew he was a rising star in our field, but it was two years ago when I was at one of the institutes in New York and he was doing a sabbatical there that we were able to spend a week in the same location and really discuss this modelling technique, ‘Made-to-measure.’

We talked about advancing this computer simulation model, which my PhD student Jason hunt and I had already made a prototype of. We had an intense discussion with Jo on how we could improve it and made a big road map for how we could do so. So that was the starting point, almost two years ago.

What was the outcome of your recent visit to Toronto?

We visited at the beginning of October, and had a series of meetings almost every day, which meant lots of discussion time. We came up with ideas for improving the Made-to-measure technique and other ideas about using Gaia Data to understand the structure of the galaxy. We also started working on some papers together.

Do you have advice for anyone who hasn’t collaborated on such a global scale before? How do you make an international partnership work?

Conferences are always a good starting point – with a couple of hundred people there, there are plenty of people to talk to. And tea time is a good time to start! The next step is, if you’ve met a scientist you want to work with, try and spend an extended period of time at the same location to talk about a specific topic.

What are next steps for the project with Toronto?

We’re going to try and apply this Made-to-measure model to the Gaia Data. Before this application we will try to understand it in a more local neighbourhood: we still don’t know much dark matter is around us, and using this technique we hope we can get more accurate measurements of the dark matter density in the solar neighbourhood.