Phenomenal Woman – celebrating the life of Maya Angelou with poetry

by YPU Admin on October 30, 2014, Comments. Tags: blackhistorymonth, celebration, inspirational, MayaAngelou, performance, poetry, and workshop

“Write for 5 minutes without stopping”, she said, and the stopwatch started. Easy-peasy, I thought. I can certainly talk for 5 minutes without stopping. The paper began to fill with my ramblings, but as the minutes ticked on my wrist started to ache and my brain began to freeze. I glanced around the table at the other workshop participants, each lost in his or her own thoughts and writing. They were a diverse group, in age, race and gender, brought together by one woman’s words.

We were all taking part in a poetry workshop for Black History Month, inspired by and celebrating the life of Maya Angelou, whose death earlier this year was a sad loss to literature. While many people know her best from her autobiographies, her poetry encapsulates her spirit in a very direct and powerful way, so a poetry workshop and performance seemed a fitting way of paying our respects.

Shirley May from Young Identity (Young Identity Website), who was leading the workshop, had begun by talking about the influence that Maya Angelou had had on her own writing, and her sharing of personal experience made it easier for us to open up, even those who were new to poetry workshops. It was inspiring and encouraging to learn that Shirley had only begun writing in her thirties.

We looked at three of Maya’s best-known poems during the course of the workshop - ‘Caged Bird’, ‘Still I Rise’, and the poem from which the workshop had taken its name, ‘Phenomenal Woman’. The words inspired us, and there was an electricity in the room:

It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth
The swing in my waist
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman

In the spirit of Maya Angelou we each wrote about important people in our lives and the way in which they too were phenomenal – a parent, a teacher, an aunt, or even ourselves. Some people were a little shy about sharing their work, but all the participants were supportive of each other, and poems were met with applause and appreciative finger clicking.

We were all having such a good time that the workshop ran over its allotted time, and we had to rush from the quiet, book-lined surroundings of the Chief Librarian’s office to the library’s performance space to set up for the open mic session - a chance for people to share their own poetry, their favourite Maya Angelou poems or poems by other writers they admired and found inspirational.

One poem stuck in my mind which summed up the mood of the evening – ‘Ailey, Baldwin, Floyd, Killens, and Mayfield’ (Full Poem). Maya Angelou tells of how the death of ‘great souls’ affects us, and ends by saying:

Our senses, restored, never
to be the
same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and
better. For they existed.

Maya Angelou, thank you for existing.

-Written by Angela Smith, Audience Development Officer at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre 


We all have the power, it starts with an idea

by YPU Admin on October 24, 2014, Comments. Tags: black, blackhistorymonth, BME, celebration, diversity, equality, ethnicity, history, and month

Black History Month UK was put into October to empower students to start the academic year as they wish to end it – successfully. Unfortunately, many institutions fail to directly engage students during this vital month. It is an opportunity to reach out to those students whose ancestry does not lie in the UK and demonstrate the success of their culture. Similarly, it is an opportunity to teach their peers to appreciate the diverse world we live in and just how closely connected we all are – whether that be sharing resources, cultural practices or swapping cooking tips. Where one has the resources and ability to do so, we should reach out to the student community and work to bring it together to empower, enlighten and celebrate the Black cultures. As BME Student Officer, this is what I have been working towards – cohesion among the BME communities in Manchester.

There is often confusion when we use the term Black, BME and even BAME in our daily lives – which is politically correct? Which do you fit into? If you do not self define as Caucasian, then you fit into them all as they are all used interchangeably across different organisations. This then leaves the question of what does this make of Black History Month which traditionally works around the history of African and Caribbean cultures; that choice is left down to you. There is no right or wrong answer. This year with Black History Month, I used it as an opportunity to unite as many different cultures across Manchester as possible under the theme of empowering, enlightening and celebrating. Working with a number of supportive students, we were able to employ the plan that has led to a month of celebration and education for staff, students and local community groups.

There are some individuals such as Morgan Freeman, who believe that Black history should not be confined to one month but incorporated into the mainstream archives. Although I understand his purpose, I disagree. Within the current way of the world we are living in, we need a period of time to focus attention on BME history. All cultures, including the English, have contributed to the world in their own way and no matter where you are in the world, this should be recognised. Black history (and BME history), will not be confined into one month forever, but for the time being we need to utilise it and educate ourselves as well as those around us in order to move forward, together into a future of diversity and equal opportunity.

Written by Tanisha Douglas.


Using The Force: Cell Signals

by YPU Admin on October 2, 2014, Comments. Tags: biology, cells, and Research


My name is Ben Stutchbury and I am a second year cell biology PhD student, looking at how cells sense and respond to the environment around them. I did my undergraduate degree in molecular biology, which I also did at the University of Manchester.

For a long time, the way that cells sense and respond to the environment around them was thought to be only due to chemical signals. Cells produce different chemicals and proteins that attach to other cells, transmitting a message and triggering a response, just like sending and receiving a text message. However, recently it has been seen that cells are also able to sense and respond to mechanical signals, rather than just chemical signals. I am trying to figure out how cells are able to do this, and the important role that these mechanical signals play in the cell.

In depth

The mechanical properties of different tissue types vary all over the body. Brain is extremely soft, muscle a bit stiffer and bone the most rigid. Studies have shown that these different mechanical properties can affect several different aspects of cell behaviour such as how fast they grow, how quickly they move or even affect what type of cell they become.

Now imagine you are a cell, how do you know where you are? Cells don’t have a sense of sight, smell or hearing, but… they do have an extremely sensitive sense of touch.

Hundreds of proteins come together in a defined and intricate order to form streak-like structures known as focal adhesions (shown in green in the picture). These form at the edge of the cell, and reach outside, literally grabbing onto the surrounding environment. Basically acting like a cell’s tiny hands. Using these hands, the cell then blindly pulls and probes on the external environment, feeling its mechanical properties and the forces acting on the cell. Now, as I said before, as well as feeling their environment, cells will also respond it. If the environment around it changes, for example becomes softer or stiffer, then the forces acting on the cell will change. The cell, via its focal adhesion hands, is able to feel and respond to these changes. They are quite literally using the force! This signalling is extremely important for the cell to function correctly and can go wrong in a number of diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

So we know that cells are responding to physical changes to their environment. But, we don’t know exactly how the cell is able to feel these mechanical signals and convert them into a response. My work is to try to determine the exact molecular events that are involved in sensing, and responding to, these mechanical signals. I am trying to work out HOW the cells use the force. This could lead to a better understanding, and treatment of, a number of associated diseases.

I particularly enjoy studying this topic because it is a very ‘new’ area of biology. For years biologists focussed on the chemical side of cell signalling; however, now we are just beginning to see the importance of this more physical-based signal interpretation. This means there is still a lot to be discovered, which makes it a very exciting field to work in. We work a lot with various biomaterials, in order to manipulate the ‘stiffness’ of the artificial environment that the cells are growing in. This uses aspects of physics and engineering and really highlights the importance of cross-collaboration between these different areas in order to fully understand the complexity of our bodies.

I also write a blog about science that we come across in our everyday lives, but is often ignored. Please check it out here:

Going further

As I mentioned, this is a relatively young field, so there aren’t a huge number of websites with further information that aren’t boring research papers! Here are some that I could find.

Our lab group:

For general info about cell signalling:

The mechanobiology institute in Singapore has some pretty cool videos on their YouTube channel.


Understanding Autism

by YPU Admin on August 12, 2014, Comments. Tags: autism, psychology, Research, and senses


My name is Dan and I am in the third year of a four year PhD in Cognitive Psychology.  Cognitive Psychology involves developing and testing ideas about the processes that take place in the brain. I work with people with autism in my research.

My route to the PhD

I took a gap year after finishing my A levels in which I volunteered as a teacher in South Africa. I then went to the University of Leicester to study Psychology with Sociology. During my undergraduate degree I developed an interest in working with people with autism after doing some voluntary work for the National Autistic Society. On finishing my undergraduate degree I worked for a charity which offered supported living to people with autism and learning disabilities. I then worked in a mental health ward as a health care assistant before beginning my PhD.

In Depth

What is autism?

Autism is a developmental condition which affects people throughout their life. It impacts on how a person interacts with others and understands social situations. Sight, touch, hearing, smell and taste can all be experienced in different ways by people with autism (more on that below). People with autism can also experience problems with movement and may be very clumsy.

Autism exists on a spectrum: some people may have a learning disability and require daily support, while others can live independent lives and reach high ranking professions. It is a relatively common condition, affecting about 1% of the population. However, we currently know very little about autism, its causes and the exact way it affects people.

The senses in autism

People with autism may show increased sensitivity in how their senses work. For example, they may have problems with bright lighting, particular sounds or the way things feel. Alternatively, people with autism may be under sensitive. They might not notice extremes of temperature or have a very high tolerance to pain. These differences can have a great impact on a person’s day to day life and make the world a less accessible place. However, sometimes differences in how the senses work can actually create positive experiences for people with autism. For instance, some people may find the feeling of rocking back and forth relaxing.

What do I investigate?

Understanding all of these differences in how the senses work is very complicated. In my research I am focusing on the processes that take place in the brain to combine information from the different senses to help us understand the world. Think about crossing a busy road: we must combine the sound of a passing cars engine with the sight of the car moving when crossing the road safely. Generally the brain is very effective at bringing this information together. However, it may be that this process does not work as effectively in autism, which may lead to differences in how the senses work. To test this idea I run a number of experiments in which we present adults with autism with things like simple light flashes and vibrations. We then compare how people with autism respond with a group of adults that do not have autism. We hope that improving our understanding of how the senses work differently in autism may lead to the development of treatments that will help people with autism to interact with the world around them.

Going Further

The website for the lab I work in at Manchester:

The National Autistic Society website which includes a lot of information about autism

A short clip from a recent BBC documentary on autism:

A post on one of the processes by which information from the different senses work together 

An illusion involving the automatic combination of information from the different senses including an explanation

Neuroskeptic a blog on neuroscience, psychology and scientific criticism


The politics of young people

by YPU Admin on June 27, 2014, Comments. Tags: politics, Research, social sciences, and Sociology


My name is Aimee Harragan and I am just coming to the end of my first year of a PhD in Sociology. My research focuses on young people aged 16 – 30 years and what politics means to them. There is no right or wrong answer to this, instead my work aims to talk to young people and understand if and how politics affects their day-to-day lives. I am particularly interested in the role media (TV, Radio, Papers and News Apps) plays in young people’s daily routine.

In Depth

A PhD is like an extended project and allows students to spend 3 years focused on one piece of research. Sociology is the study of human societies and the way they work. I became interested in young people and politics through my experience of citizenship classes at school. The government had just made these compulsory, and despite being at a good school, these classes were a boring hour of box-ticking! Citizenship classes were supposed to be a chance to explore current issues, have debates and understand ways that we can challenge the government on the decisions which impact everything we experience everyday; from the price of milk to the length of the school day. The media also likes to highlight examples of young people seeming uninterested in politics – like voting, young people are the least likely group to vote in government elections. But if I was not being taught how to understand politics, and other people don’t vote in political elections, how does everyone else come to understand and take part in politics?

I decided to follow this trail of understanding politics and decision-making through my A-Levels, my Undergrad Degree and Master’s Degree in Sociology and finally here, my PhD.  I hope that my work will help to clear up what we mean by politics and the ways young people can influence decisions, maybe this will be through education but also through broader organisation in the community.  I hope to show people that young people are interested in current issues and the decisions that affect their lives; this is overlooked by politicians and other authorities. I really enjoy this research because I meet lots of interesting young people who are the future decision makers!

Going Further

Find out more and get involved with some of these great organisations dedicated to the views and opinion of young people:

·  Bite the Ballot: is a not for profit organisation that empowers young people to speak up and act, to make their votes and opinions count.

·  Youth Parliament: Run by young people, the UK Youth Parliament provides opportunities for 11-18 year-olds to use their voice in creative ways to bring about social change.

·  British Youth Council: empowers young people across the UK to have a say locally, nationally and internationally.

·  Citizenship Foundation: The Citizenship Foundation inspires young people to take part in society as equal members.

·  Reclaim Project: is a leadership and mentoring project based in Manchester. The project empowers young people across the North West to make positive changes in their communities and to find inner strength and self belief.

Click here: to find out more about Sociology at the University of Manchester, or about other research taking place in the Social Sciences: