My parents come from Harar, a timeless, ancient city in Ethiopia that is on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's World Heritage List. When I was 2 years old, my father graduated from the University of London in the United Kingdom with a master’s degree in social sciences. Today, I am doing a Ph.D. in cell and developmental biology at University College London (UCL), which puts me in the second generation of college-educated people in my family. My parents have always encouraged me. They are the driving force that has propelled me to where I am.
Of course, not everyone has the kind of support I’ve had. So when The Brilliant Club came to my attention a few months before I began my doctoral studies, I recognized at once that it was something I wanted to pursue. The Brilliant Club is a London-based nonprofit organization that promotes wider access to highly selective universities in the United Kingdom for students from U.K. communities with a low rate of participation in higher education. Just like supportive parents, The Brilliant Club can act as a catalyst, and it can help convince talented students they can achieve anything if they really want to and are willing to work hard.
It makes me proud when they present with confidence and conviction, as they often do.
During my studies, I grew increasingly aware of the disproportionately low number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering highly selective universities; it’s an issue that has lately received much media attention in the United Kingdom. These students’ underrepresentation in elite universities is especially troubling in the light of several recent studies showing that, once they’re in, students from low-participation backgrounds (with comparable grades on entry) outperform their peers from elite backgrounds.
I was educated at a low-participation school in London where the large majority of pupils received free meals, an indicator of economic disadvantage. At my school, the pass rate of the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), a subject-based qualification, was below the national average. As I’ve said, my parents were dedicated to ensuring that I (and my siblings) excelled at school—but I have seen other excellent students become disengaged and lose confidence because they lacked such support. Knowledge of the system is important, too: GCSE selections made by 13-year-olds can be paramount in future acceptance to university courses, which highlights the importance of early awareness of university requirements.
Despite having supportive parents, I hesitated to apply to the very top universities. Even though I was one of the highest achievers at my school, I was not encouraged by my teachers to consider the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge. Like my classmates, I saw those elite institutions as foreign and out of reach. I couldn’t help thinking that I was not good enough, that I wouldn’t get in, even though I had the required grades.
Nevertheless, I did well. Instead of Cambridge or Oxford, I attended King’s College London, earning a degree in biochemistry. I followed that with a Master of Research degree in biomedical science at Imperial College London. I am now in the second year of my Ph.D. at the London Centre for Nanotechnology (a joint venture between UCL and Imperial), working to understand the structure and protein assembly of the cellular actin cortex.
To help level the playing field in U.K. higher education, in 2011 The Brilliant Club started placing Ph.D. students and postdocs into schools to deliver university-style tutorials to talented pupils between the ages of 10 and 18. Over the course of 5 weeks, these Ph.D. and postdoctoral tutors help students develop the knowledge and skills and make the good decisions that are essential for eventual university entry. We—I now am a tutor—also offer support and encouragement.
This is the second year that I have participated in the program. My first year, I taught at the school my sister and brother attended before leaving for university. Our topic that year was evolution, and we had some very good conversations. The students were engaged and stimulated.
This year I am working with two schools, including my old secondary school, and the topic is Ebola. This is especially exciting because it is so current. We have left the lessons not knowing whether the next week would bring a groundbreaking drug discovery or the spread of the virus to another country. Students start the lessons by telling me about the latest stories they’ve seen on the news.
Aside from the biological aspects of viral infections, our main focus is on fluency in writing about science, critical analysis of literature, the reliability of sources, and ethics of experimental drugs. These key skills are assessed through weekly homework tasks and a final literature review of 1500 words. Students also ask me about the courses they wish to study when they reach university.
All tutors at The Brilliant Club receive training from qualified teachers in how to teach, facilitate higher-order thinking, and grade assignments. Through my participation, I have become a more confident teacher. I have learned how to engage students with debate and dialogue. I have learned about student assessment. While this is a paid position—I realized this only after I read the application guidelines in depth—for me the experience alone has made it more than worth pursuing.
The most satisfying thing, though, is seeing the great progress students make over a very short period. For the final tutorial, students are required to present a summary of everything they have learned. It makes me proud when they present with confidence and conviction, as they often do.
I began my Ph.D. intending to pursue a career in academia. Thanks to my experience with The Brilliant Club, I have also come to appreciate how important it is for young students to have early engagement with research. Even a brief exposure to a research-stimulated educational environment yields vibrant minds that are able to do well and think in original, creative ways. As an academic scientist, I would like to continue my efforts to help create a world in which the only factors that influence success or failure is students’ ability, determination, and drive.
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