Relationships are based on trust, communication, and mutual respect. The same can be said of Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). Behind all the new ideas, it all boils down to a group of people, hailing from different walks of life, coming together to try and create a better future for everyone. At the fourth annual NUCLEUS conference, researchers, academics, science communicators, creatives, and business people flocked to the tiny isle of Malta to share their stories and attempts to embed RRI into their institutions and communities. As everyone settled in, dialogue flowed among delegates and the room was abuzz. University of Malta pro-rector Prof. Godfrey Baldacchino opened the conference with a question: How similar are universities and Valletta, the fortified capital that was hosting the conference? Having been constructed following Malta’s infamous Great Siege, the Knights encased Valletta in massive bastions, allowing only four small entry points. ‘Valletta is an island on an island,’ Baldacchino said. ‘Are universities the same? Are we trying to protect our own?’ The question had many heads nodding in response.
Most people in the room expressed a feeling of obligation to render knowledge more accessible, more relevant, and more digestible to a wider audience. But they encounter a myriad of challenges. Engaging with publics or policy makers isn’t easy. It means addressing different needs in different ways, sometimes even pandering to whims and flights of fancy. Most people noted issues with time, funding, and resources, calling for processes to be formalised. Others pointed to a lack of creative skills and, sometimes, general interest across the board. What also quickly emerged was frustration with the term RRI itself, creating confusion where there needn’t be any.
With all of these difficulties, however, came solutions. Dr Penny Haworth from the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, said that in her experience ‘we need to look at what universities are already doing and work smart. Win hearts and minds.’ University of Malta’s Nika Levikov also pointed out that ‘there are a lot of people practicing RRI who are not conscious of it.’ And for those who do not believe it to be a priority, for those who do not want to engage? ‘You have to set them aside and show them it is possible in a way they understand,’ says Zoran Marković from MISANU, Serbia.
Picking up Baldacchino’s thread on bringing down the walls of universities and research institutions, Dr Annette Klinkert from Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences in Germany summed up her main takeaway from all the discussions. ‘What we can learn here is that it’s time to burst the bubble in which we work. Especially this field of RRI. It is time to leave our cosy little community with our results.’ The results are the various projects that NUCLEUS has been championing over the past years, bringing research to its audiences. ‘All the projects are useless if they can’t merge and get out [into society and communities],’ she emphasises. ‘If they don’t merge, they’re pointless. It is time to burst the bubble.’
What is it that separates innovation in the lab from successful multi-million euro ventures that make money and have a positive impact on the world? The Knowledge Transfer Office’s Andras Havasi writes.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
In this age of specialisation, finding a niche is key to most people’s career progression. But it is not the only way. Cassi Camillerisits down with philosopher poet Prof. Joe Friggieri to gain insight into his creative process.
It was a very warm April day when I found myself sitting in front of Prof. Joe Friggieri. My heart was racing—I had just run up three flights of stairs for a rescheduled meeting after having missed our first earlier in the day. I had lost track of time while distributing magazines around campus. My eyes briefly scanned his library, wishing it was mine, then got right down to the business of asking questions.
Friggieri balances between two worlds: the academic and the creative. His series Nisġa tal-Ħsieb, the first history of philosophy in Maltese, is compulsory reading for philosophy students around the island. His collections of poetry and short stories have seen him win the National Literary Prize three times. I ask Friggieri if he separates his worlds in some way. ‘I can’t stop being a philosopher when I’m writing a short story or play. Readers and critics of my work have pointed that out in their reactions,’ he says. ‘I do not necessarily set out to make a philosophical point in my output as a poet, short-story writer, or playwright, but that kind of work can still raise philosophical issues.’
‘Dealing with matters of great human interest—such as love or the lack of it, happiness, joy and sorrow, the fragility of human relations, otherness, and so on—in a language that is markedly different from the one used in the philosophical analysis of such topics can still contribute to that analysis by creating or imagining situations that are close to the experiences of real human beings,’ Friggieri illustrates.
The urge to write
In reality, Friggieri is usually inspired by day-to-day moments, things normally overlooked in today’s loud and busy world. ‘In my literary works, I am inspired by what I see, hear, and feel; by people and events, by what I read about and by what I can remember,’ he says. It could be anything from a news item to a painting, a whiff of cigarette smoke, a piece of music, or a word overheard at a party. ‘All of that can trigger off an idea. Then, when I’m alone, I seek to elaborate the thought and to convey it to others by means of an image or series of images in a poem, or as part of the plot in a short story or play.’
While on the subject of inspiration and starting points, I wondered: how does Friggieri work? First, he swiftly explains his aversion to using computers for his writing. ‘I do all my writing the old-fashioned way,’ he notes. ‘I use pen and paper. I find it much easier to write that way than on my computer. It feels like my thoughts are taking shape literally as I push my pen from left to right across the page. I think with my pen, much in the same way that a concert pianist thinks with her fingers and a painter with her brush. It’s that kind of feeling that makes me want to go on writing.’ At this point, the subject of the Muse comes up. Is this something Friggieri believes in? ‘Waiting for the Muse to inspire you is just a poetic way of saying you need to have something to write about and you’re looking to find the right way of expressing it,’ Friggieri explains. ‘I write when I feel the urge or the need to write,’ he tells me with a smile.
The sheer volume of work Friggieri has built up over the years seems to imply that he writes daily. But in reality, his workflow is more akin to sprints than a marathon. He tells me deadlines are a good motivator for him to write, providing a tangible goal he can work towards. ‘My first two collections of short stories were commissioned as weekly contributions to local newspapers,’ Friggieri says. ‘That’s how ‘Ir-Ronnie’ was born.’ Ir-Ronnie is a man who finds himself overwhelmed by life’s pressures: family, work and everything in between. As he starts to lose touch with reality, ‘ordinary, everyday living becomes an ordeal for him, an obstacle race, a struggle for survival,’ says Friggieri. More recent works, such as his latest collections of short stories—Nismagħhom jgħidu and Il-Gżira l-Bajda u Stejjer oħra—also reflect this realism, exploring the complexity of interpersonal relations between different people from different walks of life. On the other hand, Ħrejjef għal Żmienna(Tales for Our Times) finds its roots in magical realism, which makes these stories a very different experience for his readers. The books have been well received, with translations into English, French, and German. Paul Xuereb, who worked on the English translation, described the tales as ‘drawing on the dream-world and waking reveries to suggest the ambiguity and often vaguely perceived reality of our lives.’
The Creative Philosopher
When it comes to talking about his other works and creativity, Friggieri often refers to language. When I asked him about his thoughts on creativity and whether he believed everyone to be ‘creative’, his response was positive. ‘As human beings, we are all, up to a point and in some way, creative,’ he says. A prime example is humanity’s use of language. ‘Think of the way we use language. Dictionaries normally tell you how many words they contain, but there’s no way you can count the number of sentences you can produce with those words. Language enables us to be creative in that sense, because we can use it whichever way we like, to communicate our thoughts and express our feelings freely, without being bound by any definite set of rules. In a very real sense, every individual uses language creatively, in a way that is very much his or her own. I think the best way to understand what creativity is all about is to start from this very simple fact.’
Language enables us to be creative in that sense, because we can use it whichever way we like, to communicate our thoughts and express our feelings freely, without being bound by any definite set of rules.
Is Friggieri creative when he writes his philosophical papers? ‘Yes,’ he nods. ‘Each kind of writing has its own characteristic features. But creativity is involved in all of them.’ With philosophy, ‘you need more time,’ he notes. ‘You need to know what others have said about the subject, so it involves researching the topic before you get down to saying what you think about it. When it comes to writing a poem or play, you’re much freer to say what you like, much less constrained.’
In fact, Friggieri has five plays under his belt. Here is where the two worlds of academia and creative writing merge. ‘In three of my five full-length plays, I make use of historical characters (Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Socrates) to highlight a number ofissues in ethics and aesthetics that are still very much alive today,’ says Friggieri. Taking L-Għanja taċ-Ċinju (Swansong) as an example, Friggieri explains how ‘Socrates defends himself against his accusers by raising the same kind of moral issues one finds in Plato’s Apology. The Michelangelo and Caravaggio plays, on the other hand, highlight important questions in aesthetics, such as the value of art, the relation between art and society, the presence of the artist in the work, the difference between good and bad art, and the mark of genius.’
Talking of theatre, Friggieri remembers how, before writing his first play, he had directed several performances. This was where he learnt the trade and what it meant to have a good production. ‘I have also had the good fortune of working with a group of dedicated actors from whom I learnt a lot. In my view, one should spend some time working in theatre before starting to write for it.’
As time was pressing, and the sun was starting to move away from its opportune place in the window, I asked Friggieri one last question, the one I had been obviously itching to ask. What advice does he have for writers? The answer I got was one I should have expected. ‘Budding writers should write. Then they should show their work to established practitioners in the field. The first attempts are always awkward. As time goes by, one learns to be less explicit and more controlled, to use images to express one’s thoughts where poetry is concerned, to develop an ear for dialogue if one is writing a play, to produce well-rounded characters in a novel, construct interesting plots, and so on. All this takes time, but it will be worth the effort in the end.’ And with that, we had the perfect closing.
A frontline fighter for Malta’s accession into the European Union andformer Head of Representation of the European Commission office in Malta, Dr Joanna Drake speaks to Teodor Reljic about how she got where she is, and what keeps her going.
While it may have taken a few hard knocks of late, the European Union (EU) is still a cornerstone in the lives of the continent’s citizens. And with the rising tide of populism the world over, fuelled by values which are the polar opposite of the EU’s unity-in-diversity model and putting into question the sustainability of the EU, it becomes easy to forget about its advantages.
It also becomes easy to forget just how impassioned and hard-fought the road towards accession was for some countries—Malta included. For millennials, the EU referendum in 2003 was, in many ways, our first truly ‘political’ moment. Beyond the rote rhythms of party politics, the event gave us the feeling that something larger than us was happening. History was being shaped right in front of our eyes.
But as this moment ossifies into nostalgia for some, and others edge towards a rising euroscepticism, one person that holds steadfast to the EU and all that it stands for is Dr Joanna Drake.
Acquiring her Doctorate in Laws from the University of Malta in 1988 was the spark that paved the way for an eclectic career for Drake. She prefers to characterise it as ‘varied with lots of spice’, and it is one in which the EU has played a central part from early on.
‘Yes, throughout everything, there has been a major common thread—the European Union. I pride myself in having such a powerful and inspiring reference point in my career. It has opened so many doors, and it keeps on being enticing in the challenges it presents,’ Drake says.
It has been a journey with many rungs and steps along the way… all of which Drake diligently and patiently takes the time to enumerate during our conversation.
In 1990, Drake’s world transitioned from the academic to the professional. She joined Malta’s first-ever professional team at the Malta Foreign Office, which was charged with preparing Malta’s EU membership application —a seed that would of course bear its most significant fruit just over a decade later.
Another significant step forward came five years later, when Drake took up teaching at her alma mater for a period that would last from 1994 to 2002. The position was no small feat. It meant that, at the relatively tender age of 30, Drake was lecturing in the Department of European and Comparative Law (Faculty of Laws) at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.
‘I was humbled to be teaching EU law to many of Malta’s preeminent lawyers, judges, magistrates, journalists, researchers, and politicians, including those who went on to become prime ministers and Presidents of the Republic,’ Drake reminisces, adding how her experience also dovetailed into the private sector. This part of her career overlapped with the ‘EU Moment’, as Drake served as Head of Legal and Regulatory Department for Vodafone Malta Limited from2000 to 2005,during a stretch of time she describes as being a ‘very challenging period of transition for Malta’s telecommunications sector’.
Juggling so many high-profile, high-responsibility jobs was a big challenge for Drake, especially considering the social expectations on women. But she is quick to point out that all of that has its own silver lining. ‘Being a woman from a non-privileged background and facing tough competition, and even betrayals, including by those whom you had loved and respected, all go towards galvanising your resilience and bringing out the best in you while allowing you to grow.’
Despite such hardships, Drake has not been stopped from living a fulfilling life. ‘Of course, during this period, my private life did not stand still: I was also bringing up my two adorable kids, with whom I have been blessed and who continue to enrich my life every day…’
For millennials, the EU referendum in 2003 was, in many ways, our first truly ‘political’ moment.
Drake’s value of human rights and justice have given her career a crucial focus point, which would reach its critical point come 2003. Serving as the Chair of the YES referendum campaign, whose Maltese-language rallying call ‘Moviment IVA Malta fl-Ewropa’ is bound to stir memories in all those who experienced it, Drake remains unequivocal about the importance of this position for her.
‘My direct and visible political involvement in persuading the Maltese voters to vote YES in the EU referendum of March 2003 is something I remain immensely proud of. Standing up to be counted is always something that resonates deeply with me, and I would say that my involvement with the referendum was an ideal example of all that.’
Malta’s successful entry into the EU led to another key stepping stone in Drake’s career. In 2005 she took on the role of the Head of Representation of the European Commission office in Malta. She was then promoted to Director of Entrepreneurship and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) as well as deputy SME Envoy. She now serves as Deputy Director General in the Directorate-General (DG) Environment in Brussels.
As deputy SME Envoy, she was directly involved in shaping EU policy and helping SMEs face contemporary challenges, like the rise of industries such as Airbnb and UBER. This work yielded positive results in her previous posting as Director of SMEs and Entrepreneurship at DG GROW, where she represented the Commission in high-level dialogues and negotiations in China, US, Tunisia, Abu Dhabi and most EU member states.
It was also a post that allowed her to deliver presentations at numerous major events, cementing a career built on both practicality and advocacy.
The University of Life
With such an impressive CV in hand, I wanted to find out what drove Drake to such success. And it turns out that the University of Malta helped lay the groundwork of some good habits for her.
‘I’ve learnt plenty of lessons along the way, and I keep discovering new ones all the time! But I would certainly highlight the following: passion helps you achieve your goals. Keep investing in knowledge and real friendships. Networking is key. Keep it simple. Reach out, always. Stay humble. Don’t shy away from inspiring others. Take every opportunity to grow as a person, and in your conscience,’ Drake emphasised, adding that: ‘These are some of the stimulants that make my getting up in the morning and going off to work so much more worth it.’
Building your career is about adding your personal value to what you have learned and churned out at university. If those ingredients are in place, a true professional may very well be born.
And what about the new generation of graduates or to-be graduates? Students which, we should point out, have reaped the benefits of EU accession and all that that implies? Drake’s advice to any who dream of following a similarly heady and rewarding path is quite simple, though it requires both commitment and passion. ‘Keep an open mind as to how and where you could deploy your newly learned skills,’ Drake says—a reminder that self-knowledge and self-awareness truly go a long way.
In fact, Drake is keen to stress that a career—as opposed to a one-off and possibly dead-end job—is something that requires the full implementation of your personality and the gravitational pull of your most deeply held passions.
‘So in this way, building your career is about adding your personal value to what you have learned and churned out at university. If those ingredients are in place, a true professional may very well be born. Think about this when preparing for your next interview.’
Her parting-shot of advice is, however, far more to the point, but it resonates all the same: ‘Remember to just enjoy the journey! It’s loads of fun.’