Kidney Stakes

A small team of scientists at the University of Malta is trying to determine what causes children to be born with serious kidney defects. Laura Bonnici speaks to Prof. Alex Felice, Dr Valerie Said Conti, Esther Zammit, and Alan Curry to find out more about this ground-breaking programme.

‘I’d sell a kidney for that!’ Most of us have been guilty of using this expression when faced with something desirable. But do we fully appreciate the real value of what we are offering before the words escape our lips?

Kidneys are our body’s official waste disposal system, filtering out toxic build-up from our blood, which can poison us if left unchecked. With kidney failure posing such a threat, renal research has become an ongoing global goal.

A team of scientists from the University of Malta is currently honing in on what may cause children to be born with ‘CAKUT’, or Congenital Anomalies of the Kidney and Urinary Tract.

With between three and six cases recorded per 1000 live births worldwide, CAKUT is the most common cause of end-stage kidney disease in children. Since early identification of these anomalies may reduce kidney damage later in life, the LifeCycle Malta Foundation has raised funds for a renal research programme which targets CAKUT and its causes.

‘We know that a number of children are born with a kidney defect, but in many cases, we are not sure why,’ explains the programme’s principal investigator, Dr Valerie Said Conti . ‘There are many factors that can affect the development of the kidney, both genetic and environmental. We are trying to understand those influences so that we can carry out preventative strategies, diagnose issues earlier, and target personal therapeutic interventions.’

A number of children are born with a kidney defect, but in many cases, we are not sure why.

For this team of renal researchers, the first three years of initial research has been the first step in a far longer journey. ‘We hope to contribute our data to the international literature pool,’ continues Prof. Alex Felice, consultant and supervisor on the programme. ‘We will need a massive amount of data to create a robust theory with which to progress. We hope that our findings regarding CAKUT will be useful when we come to the stage of creating new interventions.’

It’s an end-game that has kept the small team focused as they approach the programme’s expected completion date this year. Having had to start literally from scratch, they collected biological samples from patients with a range of kidney diseases, including CAKUT, nephrotic syndrome, and Bartter syndrome. This allowed them to build the renal disease collection at the Malta BioBank, a vital storehouse for scientists.

‘For research projects like this, you see what material is available and you work with it,’ explains Said Conti . ‘A big part of it so far has been sourcing the samples from families attending the clinic with their formal consent for the material to be used in this project. We are hugely grateful to those who accepted to take part in the research. Without them, it would have been impossible.’

This project has set the groundwork for renal research in Malta to continue. ‘Without funding, projects such as this one simply could not exist,’ Said Conti remarks of the €100,000 donation LifeCycle Malta Foundation made to RIDT. ‘It enabled us to employ a full-ti me Research Support Officer, involve other laboratories, attend international meetings to share insights, perform ultrasound tests, and invest in ‘Next Generation DNA Sequencing’, genetic technology that maps out genes, revolutionising our world.’ But there is much more to come.

The Founder of the LifeCycle Malta Foundation, Personal Fitness Consultant Alan Curry, agrees. ‘Renal failure is an ever-increasing problem with figures going up every year, and LifeCycle is the only NGO that is actively supporting renal patients and their families in Malta. Our annual LifeCycle Challenge, which this year is routed from Dubai to Oman, aims to raise €150,000. It’s a huge responsibility, but we are sure that, by funding research programmes such as this, we will significantly improve the lives of kidney patients.’

  Author: Laura Bonnici

Grassroot legacy

Capitals of Culture want legacy. Wrocław 2016 established a microgrant system for small operators that is still in place. Aarhus 2017 combined qualitative and quantitative methods to evaluate a city’s cultural sustainability. Valletta 2018 wants to leave behind a vibrant grassroots movement actively shaping the country’s cultural policy. Rachel Baldacchino speaks to Szilvia Nagy to find out how this is possible…

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Luzzu Truths

Strolling along Malta’s coast, you’ll be mesmerised by the rainbow of traditional fishing boats ambling on the water—that and all the eyes ogling at you from their bows. Katre Tatrik takes a closer look at the hidden meaning behind the luzzu’s colours.

The Maltese luzzu dates back to the time of the ancient Phoenicians. For generations, Maltese fishermen have painted them in a kaleidoscope of bright colours, turning them into a national icon. But is there rhyme or reason to the hues they choose? Lifelong fishermen, brothers Charles (62) and Carmelo (70) from Marsaxlokk, paint their luzzus twice a year in bold blues, reds, and yellows. It’s no easy task, requiring thorough cleaning and six layers of paint. Despite their dedication, Charles and Carmelo, like many others, are largely unaware of the hidden meanings the colours on their boats carry. ‘They’re all the same,’ Carmelo says. ‘It’s just for beauty.’ Charles adds that ‘these boats have always looked the way they look.’

But in 2016, Prof. Anthony Aquilina from the University of Malta embarked on a project that would uncover more. ‘Contrary to what you have been told, there is a lot of meaning in the way our traditional boats are painted,’ he explains. Aquilina edited and published The Boats of Malta – The Art of the Fisherman, written by world-famous anthropologist Desmond Morris.

Morris resided in Malta for six years in the 1970s, visiting each of the fishing villages on the islands. During his stay, he sketched some 400 of the 700 traditional boats anchored in the coastal villages. He wrote: ‘to visit a Maltese fishing village is like entering a huge, open-air art exhibition.’

Summing up Morris’ work, Aquilina says that ‘even in a small country, you can see the difference between one locality and another. But at the same time, there is the individual stamp of the fisherman, of that particular person.’

To visit a Maltese fishing village is like entering a huge, open-air art exhibition.

Morris’ main findings show that some traditional rules come into play when choosing the colour palette for a luzzu.

Whilst reddish brown or maroon was typically painted on the lower half of the boat to mark the waterline, the locality of a boat’s owner could be identified by the colour of its mustaċċ. The mustaċċ is the band above the lower half of the boat, shaped like a moustache, which gives the feature its name. A red mustaċċ would indicate that the boat came from St Paul’s Bay, for example. A lemon yellow indicated a boat from
Msida or St Julian’s, whilst an ochre yellow one would identify the boat as hailing from the Marsaxlokk and Marsascala area. When a mustaċċ was painted black, it denoted mourning for a death in the family.

In addition to colours, decorations also send a message. In more than half of luzzus, signature eyes are painted on the bow or the stern—symbols of protection for fishermen out at sea. Where the eyes are not seen, other symbols such as a rising sun, a Maltese cross, fish, shooting stars, or lions are painted on. The gangway, usually varnished brown, can be heavily decorated or engraved with symbols of the sea and the island: shells, mermaids, birds, flowers. Religious insignia are common too, with doves, olivebranches, and lambs often making an appearance.

Political or religious influences also come into play where a luzzu’s name is concerned. During the time we spent in Marsaxlokk, we saw San Mikiel (Saint Michael the Archangel, patron saint of Isla), John F. Kennedy, and Ben Hur.

Even if Charles and Carmelo couldn’t tell us what the luzzu’s colours mean, their dedication to tradition is undeniable. Before we left, they said they were fearful that this part of Malta’s heritage may fade away as featureless carbon-fibre boats wade in. I hope they’re wrong.

  Author: Katre Tatrik

Accidental science

Do scientists need to have a clear end-goal before they dive down the research rabbit hole? Sara Cameron speaks to Dr André Xuereb about the winding journey that led to the unintended discovery of a new way to detect earthquakes.

Some of science’s greatest accomplishments were achieved when no one was looking with a purpose. When studying a petri dish of bacterial cultures, Alexander Fleming had no intention of discovering penicillin, and yet he changed the course of human history. Henri Becquerel was trying to make the most of dwindling sunlight to expose photographic plates using uranium when he stumbled upon radioactivity. A chance encounter between a chocolate bar in Percy Spencer’s pocket and the radar machine that melted it sparked the invention of the household microwave.

One would think that with this track record of coincidental breakthroughs, the field of science and research would continue to flourish by embracing curiosity and experimentation. But as interest piques and funding avenues pop up for researchers, there has been a shift in mindset.

Dr André Xuereb

Money changes things. And while it does allow people to work hard and answer more questions, it has also fostered expectations from stakeholders. Investors want fast results that will improve their business or product. We, the end-user, want to see our lives changed, one discovery at a ti me. We’re no longer satisfied with research for research’s sake. At least for the most part.

Quantum physicist Dr André Xuereb (Faculty of Science, University of Malta) is all too aware of this issue and its effects on scientific progress. Xuereb explains scientists’ frustration: ‘A lot of funding, in Malta and elsewhere, is dedicated to bringing mature ideas to the market, but that is the ti p of the iceberg. There is an entire innovation lifecycle that must be funded and sustained for good ideas to develop and eventually become technologies. The starting point is often an outlandish idea, and eventually, sometimes by accident, great new technologies are born,’ he says.


Over the past few years, Xuereb has been exploring new possibilities in quantum mechanics.

The field of quantum mechanics attempts to explain the behaviour of atoms and what makes them. Its mathematical principles show that atoms and other particles can exist in states beyond what can be described by the physics of the ordinary objects that surround us. For example, quantum theorems that show objects existing in two places at once off er a scientific basis for teleportation.

Star Trek fans know exactly what we’re talking about, but for those rolling their eyes, the reality is that many things in our everyday lives wouldn’t exist without at least some understanding of quantum physics. Our computers, phones, GPS navigation, digital cameras, LED TV screens, and lasers are all products of the quantum revolution.

The starting point is often an outlandish idea, and eventually, sometimes by accident,
great new technologies are born

Another technology that has changed the way we live and work is modern telecommunications technology. When you pick up your phone to message a friend overseas, call a loved one, or email a colleague, telecoms networks spanning the earth carry the data across continents and under oceans through thousands of kilometres of optical fibres.

The 96-kilometre submarine telecommunication link between Malta and Sicily was Xuereb’s focus in 2015. He organised a team of European experts to begin investigating the potential for building a quantum link between the two countries.

The Austrian, Italian, and Maltese trio were particularly interested in a strange property called ‘entanglement.’ This is a curious property of quantum objects that can be created in pairs of photons, connecting them together. This entanglement can be distributed by giving one of these photons to a friend and keeping the other for yourself, establishing a quantum link between you and this friend—an invisible quantum ‘wire,’ so to speak.

Through this connection, you and your friend can send data faster than over ordinary connections; by modifying the state of the photon at your end, you can instantly affect the state of your friend’s photon, no matter how far apart you are in the universe. Using quantum links such as these, all manner of feats can be performed, including super-secure communications. ‘We wanted to demonstrate that quantum entanglement can be distributed using a 100km-long, established telecoms link, using what was already available, with no laboratory facilities in sight,’ explains Xuereb. His team also wanted to demonstrate that entanglement using polarisation of light was possible. Previously it was thought impossible in submarine conditions, even though it has some very technologically convenient properties.

Two years and several complex experiments later, Xuereb and his team have indeed proven the possibility of quantum communications over submarine telecommunication networks. And with one question answered, a slew more lifted their heads.

The Italian subteam, led by Davide Calonico (Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica, INRIM), now turned their attention to a different set of questions for the Malta-Sicily telecommunication network.


Atomic clocks keep the world ticking by providing precise timekeeping for GPS navigation, internet synchronisation, banking transactions, and particle science experiments. In all these activities, exact timing is essential.

These extremely accurate clocks use atomic oscillations as a frequency reference, giving them an average error of only one second every 100 million years. Connecting the world’s atomic clocks would create an international common time base, which would allow people to better synchronise their activities, even over vast distances. For example, bank transactions and trading could happen much faster than they do at present.

This can’t be done by bouncing signals off of spaceborne satellites, since tiny changes in the atmosphere or in satellite orbits can ruin the signal. This is where the fibre-optic network comes back into the picture. Researchers have recently been looking at the telecoms network as a way to make this synchronisation possible. Scientists can use an ultra-stable laser to shine a reference beam along these fibres. Monitoring the optical path and the phase of the optical signal of the beam can then allow them to compare and synchronise the clocks at both ends.

Whilst Calonico and his team were testing this idea on the submarine network between Malta and Sicily, a few thousand kilometres away, meteorology expert Dr Giuseppe Marra was monitoring an 80km link in England. On October 2016, everything changed. One night, he noticed some noise in his data. Unable to attribute the noise to misbehaving equipment or a monitoring malfunction, his gut told him to turn to the news from his home country, Italy. There, he saw that the town of Amatrice had been devastated by an earthquake of 5.9 magnitude.

Further testing confirmed that the waveforms Marra saw in the fibre data matched those recorded by the British Geological Survey during the earthquake. His system even recorded quakes as far away as New Zealand, Mexico and Japan. This was huge news.

Diagram illustrating how even the smallest underwater seismic waves can be detected.

In simple terms, the seismic waves from an earthquake tremor cause a series of very slight expansions and contractions in fibre-optic cables, which in turn modify the phase of the cable’s reference beam. These tiny disturbances can be captured by specialised measurement tools at the ends of the cable, capable of detecting changes on the scale of femtoseconds: a millionth of a billionth of a second.

The majority of seismometers are land-based and so small that earthquakes more than a few hundred kilometres from the coast go undetected. Conventional seismometers designed to monitor the seabed are expensive and don’t usually monitor underwater seismic activity in real time. Telecoms networks could offer a solution that would allow us to observe and understand seismic activity in the world’s vast oceans. They would open up a new window through which to observe the processes taking place underneath Earth’s surface, teaching us more about how our planet works. In future, it may even make it possible to detect large earthquakes that cause untold devastation earlier.

The beauty of this discovery is that the infrastructure already exists. No new work is needed. All that is required is to set up lasers at either end of these cables, using up a tiny portion of a cable’s bandwidth without interfering with its use.


Marra got together with Xuereb and Calonico, who were already working on the undersea network between Malta and Sicily, to conduct some initial tests. The underwater trial, published in the world-leading journal Science this year along with the terrestrial results, was able to detect a weak tremor of 3.4 magnitude off Malta’s coast. Its epicentre was 89km from the cable’s nearest point, which reinforced the idea that cables can be used as a global seismic detector. ‘We would be able to monitor in real time tiny vibrations all over the planet. This would turn the existing network into a microphone for the Earth,’ Xuereb explains.

If we don’t fund the initial few steps of the innovation lifecycle,
how will we ever develop new technologies?

The system hasn’t been tested on an ocean cable. An interesting target would be a cable that crosses the mid-Atlantic ridge, where the drifting of Eurasian and African tectonic plates creates an area of high seismic activity. Based on the results so far and on conservative assumptions, trials are being planned for the near future on a larger scale, which will give us a better idea of the possibilities.


In many ways, it is understandable that agencies that fund science favour smaller, more goal-driven research programmes. They seek tangible results in a timely manner to reap quick rewards. But as this story goes to show, a change in mentality is needed.

‘If we don’t fund the initial few steps of the innovation lifecycle, how will we ever develop new technologies? This is a problem that affects scientists from many countries and comes from a mismatch in timescales. A year is a long time in politics, but a decade is often a short time in science,’ Xuereb comments.

Innovation has to start from somewhere, and it often starts from ideas which may have no apparent relevance to our everyday lives. We need to support researchers by keeping an open mind to unknown long-term possibilities—or the world might not only miss the next earthquake but also the next life-changing discovery.

Author: Sara Cameron

Cycling to University: motives and barriers

This time last year, I decided to start cycling to my office at the University of Malta. Though much of my work focuses on this kind of behavioural change, I would be lying if I said that I did it for environmental or research reasons. I did it out of sheer despair: I felt like I was wasting my life, stuck in traffic for hours on end. I will also readily admit that when I started, I was not adequately prepared: I was not fit enough for it. Nor did I have the agility and speed to compete with cars while balancing on two narrow wheels. But I somehow hung in there. And somehow, before I knew it, a whole year had gone and I had never used a car to come to university—nor ever wanted to.

One of the forces that made a real difference was ‘others’. While I’d long marveled at my friends and colleagues at universities overseas who cycled to work without much fanfare, it was finding a community of commuting cyclists here in Malta that really made a difference. Gathered as the ‘Bicycle Advocacy Group‘ on Facebook, they are a new cyclist’s best allies. They helped me find bike-friendly (and unfriendly) roads, plot routes ahead of time, and consoled me after bad incidents. They organise group rides. They advocate and educate. Groups on campus such as the Green Travel Plan people were also great. In the world of cycling, unlike that of driving, the more we are, the merrier it is!

The second major step in this journey was to make it increasingly easy for me to choose the bike over car. A car key always looks so easy to pick up. Instead, I prepared my bike, my bag, my helmet, and all my accessories by the door. I left some extra clothes and toiletries at work, ready when needed. I changed my days around to make them cycle friendly, clustering meetings, avoiding heavy loads. I also made it a point to reward myself for cycling by keeping snacks handy for energy. This probably explains why I did not lose any weight despite a whole year of pedaling.

While I’d long marveled at my friends and colleagues at universities overseas who cycled to work without much fanfare, it was finding a community of commuting cyclists here in Malta that really made a difference.

All this said, the main barrier for lots of people (and myself) is the fear of being hurt on the road. I learnt a few practical tricks that made cycling less scary. The first is that lowering risk is entirely possible. Some times are better than others for cycling. In peak traffic, cars are moving very slowly or at a complete standstill, making it somewhat safer for you to cycle! Some roads are also better than others. With time, I found out that it is possible to use country lanes or smaller urban roads for most journeys. Where traffic is unavoidable, I stick to the middle of the lane, especially if a driver cannot safely pass while leaving a meter of space. Traffic will wait behind you (often the speed limit is 30km/hr anyway). This is even more important if there’s a row of cars to your right where anyone can open a door and knock you off the bike. Thirdly, I learnt to signal large so drivers know my intent. I also learnt cycling is a mental and physical work out. You need to be completely focused and watch out for any possible danger. Where needed, I get off my bike and cross roads on foot.

While poor public infrastructure and law enforcement remain a constraint, I gradually bought things that made the cycling life easier. My first purchase was the bicycle. I started with a basic folding bike (€200 or so). I chose a folding bike to give myself a parachute in case I got too tired and needed a lift home. The climb to Gharghur from University was nothing short of exhausting. I walked most of it for the first few weeks. Then a very attractive grant was issued for e-bikes. This changed everything: you may pedal less on an e-bike but you will certainly cycle more frequently. Later, I stuck a rack and a basket to the bike. I bought a trekking backpack (which means I sweat less), a good water bottle (which also comes in handy to wash my hands), and a helmet (even though it’s not a legal obligation to wear one). I got a high visibility vest (free from several campaigns), white and red lights and reflectors (though I’m still rather scared to cycle at night), and a mirror, which helps me see cars coming from the rear without having to turn my head and risk losing my balance. I’m still angling for a good bell, better fenders, and flat tyre-changing supplies. I eventually bought a good lock—a must.

Like other positive habits, the more you do it, the more you love it. I especially love not having to look for parking, getting to places quickly and on time, and discovering new routes. I love smiling at people, feeling younger and fitter. In hindsight, and with a rather limited sample size of one, I can see that what made it work (consciously or not) was quite in line with research: a break in habit, a combination of lower barriers, and stronger motives.

  Author: Dr Marie Briguglio

Player 1: ready to learn

Can digital games form part of the answer to dwindling attention spans in the classroom? Sara Cameron attended the ‘Playful Learning in STEM’ Seminar at the MITA data centre in June to hear entrepreneur Dr Lauri Järvilehto’s thoughts on the matter.

Our attention is constantly bombarded by the likes of mobile games, social media, Netflix, and Google. Adults are having a tough enough time focusing, let alone children sitting at their desks trying to wrap their heads around algebra and particle physics. Textbook lessons are fighting a losing battle with personalised entertainment. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Dr Lauri Järvilehto, co-founder and chairman of Finnish startup Lighteneer, believes his team might have a solution. Games see kids experience progressive challenges. Children, as players, use diverse problem solving abilities, then receive instant feedback, satisfaction, and a sense of achievement. To ignite that same fire for games in learning, education needs to tap into that world and harness what makes it special. The feat, Järvilehto explains, is finding balance. We need games that contextualise mathematical or scientific concepts, allowing players to master these concepts, all while being engaged and having fun. A tall order.

Gamification has the potential to ease the introduction of subjects that are normally considered complex. It can make them more approachable, allowing students to grasp the basics before undertaking formal learning to further deepen their understanding.

‘Our thinking is that great learning games can work as the first spark for the love of learning in future generations. They can convey the awe and wonder you see shining in the eyes of our scientific experts as they tell us about the wonders of particle physics,’ says Järvilehto, speaking at a seminar called Playful Learning in STEM organised by the Science Centre (Ministry for Education and Employment) in collaboration with Malta Information Technology Agency and the Valletta 2018 Foundation.

But whilst digital learning is becoming all the craze, Järvilehto warns that educators should be wary of jumping on this trendy bandwagon. Technology is not a cure-all; there is no magic wand. Lighteneer aims to develop games that complement, rather than compete with, formal learning. He also believes that, even with an abundance of tech-based tools, an engaging teacher is still the best way to improve education and inspire the next generation. Games should be used as an initial spark to reel students in at the outset. ‘Perhaps kids will soon grow to think about particle physics and atoms as something as cool as collecting Pokémon.’ Game learning can be the key to unlocking students’ potential, offering a more accessible route to developing an understanding of complex topics.

To keep up with a fast-changing digital world, we must acknowledge its challenges and adapt. Games can’t solve this puzzle alone, but used in the right way, they can be a tremendously useful addition to a teacher’s toolbox.

  Author: Sara Cameron

English for medicine: Bridging worlds

You come to Malta to attend Medical School, and you end up in an English class. Nicola Kirkpatrick talks to Dr Isabel Stabile, Omar N’Shea, and Edward Wilkinson about the often unappreciated value of the University of Malta’s Medical Foundation Programme and its impact on international medical students’ lives.

A sea of blank faces stared him down. Omar N’Shea had asked his students a question, but no reply came. None of them wanted to be there. The University of Malta’s Medical Foundation Programme (MFP) aims to equip high school graduates with less than 13 years of formal education with the skills they need to enter Medical or Dentistry school. But its focus on academic English is what receives the most ire. N’Shea, one of the programme coordinators, understands. ‘They don’t see the value initially. They think to themselves: ‘I didn’t travel thousands of miles away to sit in an English class. No, I want to study medicine.’ The frustration is understandable,’ he nods.

Omar N’Shea

But when so many international students were struggling with the medical course due to language and communication difficulties, something clearly had to be done.

Looking back at the challenges she was facing when the Medical School opened its doors to international students, Director of Studies Professor Isabel Stabile notes the discrepancy in language skills. What was expected was quite distinct from the reality of the situation. ‘What is interesting about our student body is that their spoken level of English is really high,’ says N’Shea, ‘but their written level of English needs work to keep up with the demands of an academic course.’

English Programme Coordinator and tutor Edward Wilkinson agrees, highlighting that ‘resources were lacking. Teaching exercises and materials were sourced online and everyone did the best they could. But a gap quickly emerged as far as Medical English was concerned.’ Stabile further clarifies, ‘Most books available were aimed at teaching doctors and nurses bedside manner and care for patients, but there was little to none out there that focused on academic medical English.’

Prof. Isabel Stabile

With this philosophy in mind, Stabile, N’Shea, and Wilkinson joined forces to develop a series of books called Academic Medical English for Pathway/Foundation Programmes. These books provided a framework for students to deal with the language in which scientific subjects are taught. The material improves their academic literacy in ways important to medical students, equipping them with skills such as reviewing research papers, writing reflective essays, and answering essay questions.

The book was ‘born out of the needs of these students and the medical program,’ says N’Shea. ‘The concept is to present to the students the core skills required by the medicine and surgery degrees, so that students become aware of the differences between using English as a lingua franca and using English within the framework of academic literacy.’ To enable this, the team included topics to reflect those covered in the science classes that students attend throughout the course. ‘So if they’re doing pulmonary topics in science classes,’ N’Shea says, ‘then they’re discussing them in English classes too. We used the science as a framework for our English lessons, and that was essential. Rather than teaching two disciplines with no dialogue, we created a bridge.’

This approach saw immediate shifts in perception. Dr Hussein Alibrahim, now a house officer in Kuwait, says his primary and secondary education was all in Arabic, and the foundation course, where English and science stood side by side, ‘was an advantage and a necessity. Skimming carefully through an article, identifying keywords, summarising, criticising, asking questions, and looking for the right answers are all skills that I learned for the first time in the foundation course and are skills I still use today,’ he added.

Edward Wilkinson

But the programme was not only useful for medical school. Alibrahim noted how it changed his day-to-day life as well. It taught him important lessons on punctuality and work ethic. ‘If you don’t learn [these things in foundation school] then maybe you’re in the wrong place,’ he notes.

With time, the team refined the course. After looking into the discrepancy between spoken and written levels of English, N’Shea and Wilkinson determined that the most probable reason behind it was a lack of reading by the students. Due to this, reading is now a core element of the course and is based on science topics to keep students’ interest piqued.

Now that the coursework has been implemented, positive results can already be seen. Students are so ready and raring to go that ‘sometimes they even want to take over the sessions,’ says N’Shea. ‘A student came up to me in class one time and asked to explain a concept to the others. It was such a dramatic shift.’ This has made it a joy to be in class, he adds, saying that ‘it became an active classroom. Students are totally immersed now.’ He feels that, through this course, the students are empowered ‘because they feel they can bring into the classroom all the things they know from science, but explore them through language.’ This way, ‘English is presented as a skill set to enable them to better achieve their goal in the career path of choice. It makes English less of an extra subject and more of a tool,’ he adds.

N’Shea, Wilkinson, and Stabile all agree that they will continue to perfect the programme. Currently in the works is a coursebook dedicated to developing listening skills. It will concentrate on areas such as note writing and identifying and differentiating words even when people speak with different accents. However, before the ‘listening book’ (as they fondly call it) is released, we will see the ‘reading book’, which will provide scientific passages for the students to read and be assessed on. All editions of this book will have the added bonus of a teacher’s book, meaning that the coursework can be taught by any teacher around the world, even if their knowledge of science is lacking.

With students communicating more, isolation is less of an issue and this is immensely beneficial. ‘We have to remember the dramatic shift that these students are going through,’ Stabile says. ‘They’re moving country, dealing with culture shock, all while fending for themselves for the first time in their lives, an adjustment local students do not need to make.’ This, along with the pressure that comes with a course you only get one chance to pass, is significant.

With students communicating more, isolation is less of an issue and this is immensely beneficial.

The fruit of their hard work is evident. According to research conducted by the team, between 2008 and 2015, 86% of MFP graduates progressed through Medical School. Moreover, the proportion of MFP students who repeat Year 1 of their medical degree is only 8.2% compared with 8.8% for EU (mostly British) students between 2014 and 2017. They also found that MFP students who started in 2010 and graduated medical school in 2015 achieved the same average grade over the whole five years as did local students in that cohort.

That said, all this work is not just about grades. Stabile says the team’s intentions go beyond seeing students pass exams. What they want to do is to ‘place them on a trajectory for success.’ And that is definitely a goal they are achieving, one year at a time.

  Author: Nicola Kirkpatrick