Aisha Islam joined The Brilliant Club as a Scholars Programme tutor in September 2018 and has taught Year 9 and 10 students at The Durham Federation in Durham and The King Edward VI School in Northumberland. She taught her course ‘Currents and craniums: the effect of ageing on cognition and motor control’ until February this year.
The Brilliant Club caught up with Aisha this month to speak about how being a tutor helped with her doctoral research, and why The Scholars Programme was one of the best things she did alongside her postgraduate research.
Aisha’s Scholars Programme course was designed around her doctoral research, which investigates brain and motor changes during walking for those with healthy ageing and Parkinson’s disease.
She initially found it quite challenging trying to condense her PhD content to make it suitable for Key Stage 4 students. To start, Aisha broke down the thesis into smaller chunks, and only focused on the basic concepts of neurophysiology (studying the nervous system), motor control and how the effect of ageing interferes with these processes.
“It was easier showing big schematics and saying to students ‘these are all the different components which I look at, but we’re going to focus on one component, which is still equally as important. I was thinking about how I could make it applicable to their lives and trying to make it a bit more exciting.”
For Aisha it didn’t matter what her tutees wanted to pursue in the future, as she believes they could all benefit from learning about ageing and the brain.
“Irrespective of whether they wanted to take a STEM (science, technology, engineering or maths) route or go to university, because a lot of my pupils didn’t, I told them that it would be really interesting to know all of these things.”
Aisha feels particularly connected to the work of The Brilliant Club as a first-generation university student. She said she recognises why it may be daunting for some students from less advantaged backgrounds to think about going to university, and that she had some initial difficulties when she did her undergraduate degree in neuroscience at the University of Leeds.
“It was the first time I was exposed to people from a different social background to me. That comes with huge challenges. You wonder if you have the social and cultural capital to even engage in conversations with other students, to build rapport and a bond and then have friendships.”
This experience at undergraduate level, as well as her experience during postgraduate study at the Newcastle University, informed the way she approached teaching in her own classroom.
“I can definitely empathise with a lot of concerns that the pupils on The Scholars Programme had about university – the finances, making friends, being away from home and being in a foreign environment.”
“That is why I reiterate to my students that they are competent. I tell them that if they’re competent enough to be on The Scholars Programme, it means they have the capacity to pursue higher education if they want to.”
Aisha has also found that being a Scholars Programme tutor has helped her reconnect with the “essence” of her work and that it has been “a nice reminder of the bigger picture” of her research.
She acknowledges that as a researcher, she must be able to communicate complicated ideas to a variety of people. She says her time as a tutor really helped her brush up on her communication skills.
“You’re forced to strip your work back to the bare bones. You have to think about what you’re truly trying to communicate, and who it will influence and benefit. That’s really what’s been one of the best things that has come out of The Brilliant Club for me: becoming a better researcher and becoming a better communicator.”
Aisha is very interested in activism and believes that change is best achieved incrementally.
“I think The Brilliant Club is a form of campaigning because you’ve gone into a school and worked with a small group of individuals, and because of that you may have done enough to influence and inspire them. It’s really nice just to know that there’s a lot of people working on something that’s close to my heart.”
As someone who has experienced educational inequality, Aisha felt very passionately about tackling it through her role as a tutor in rural areas of Durham and Newcastle.
“A lot of the students told me that they’d never left their city, or they’d never really gone beyond their vicinity of a couple of streets. I think it’s important for them to know that there is a degree of solidarity from me, because they have got someone who has come in and understands their issues. I’m here to support them and help them because I really care.”
Aisha speaks incredibly highly of her time as a tutor, which concluded in February this year after she obtained a full-time job as a senior researcher. She says she would recommend it to anyone who is considering it alongside their postgraduate study.
“The Scholars Programme is one of the best things I’ve done throughout my PhD. Not only has it been really satisfying being able to do something charitable, but it has also improved my skills as a researcher, strengthened by ability to communicate my work, and to view my research through a different lens. I’m really glad I did it.”
Interview by Ella Devereux, freelance journalist, @ella_devereux.
You can find about more about becoming a tutor with The Brilliant Club here.