UA Global Summit Speakers

Being an Academic Today: A Speech by Prof. Fiona de Londras, November 9th 2016

The UA Global Summit, which ran from the 8-11th of November 2016, welcomed over 150 students from 38 countries to Dublin, Ireland to celebrate their academic achievements and encourage interdisciplinary collaboration. During the Opening Dinner on Novemeber 9th, one subject that was on everyone’s mind was the recent election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.

The Undergraduate Awards were honoured to have Professor Fiona de Londras, Professor of Global Legal Studies and Deputy Head of Birmingham Law School, in attendance on the night to offer her thoughts on the recent election and the role of academia in these changing times.

Professor de Londras’ speech was greeted with a standing ovation and we have no doubt that her words will go on to inspire many students to pursue their passions and to make a change in their world.           

Being an Academic Today: Thoughts for Undergraduates

Fiona de Londras, University of Birmingham

Speaking notes—minor deviations likely in the version as delivered

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, good evening.

It is a great pleasure to be here with you all in Dublin this evening. Let me start not only by thanking the organizers for inviting me, but also by warmly congratulating you all for your success in these Undergraduate Awards. I hope that you will all enjoy being here in this wonderful city and this country that is my home, and that you will return to your universities and home countries even more curious, even more ambitious, and even more engaged than you were when you arrived in Dublin.

Today has been an extraordinary day, and this has been an extraordinary year.  I could not help this morning but be struck by the contrast between the US Presidential election this year, and the election—almost 26 years ago to the day—of Mary Robinson as the first woman President of Ireland. That campaign was a brutal one; it was one in which all of Mary Robinson’s so called faults as a feminist, a working mother, an active campaigner for women’s reproductive autonomy and especially the availability of contraception, and so on were hurled against her. And it was one in which the People, and especially the women of Ireland, mobilized to elect as our President someone who believed in progress, in kindness, and in possibility. I was nine years old when Mary Robinson became president. My mother had her three children—all daughters—stay up to watch the result being announced. That was the day that I decided to become a lawyer. During her presidency, Mary Robinson did things that for the 1990s in Ireland were truly extraordinary: she opened the official residence of the President up to gay and lesbian Irish people, she spoke eloquently and intelligently about justice and about social justice, she literally reached out a hand of peace in Northern Ireland, and she taught me—by then an early teens, dumpy, intense, gay child in rural Ireland—that there was a place for me in this country, and that through my intellect I had something valuable to contribute. She reaffirmed the messages of love, support, and affirmation that my family gave. That was when I decided to be an academic lawyer. All day I have been wondering about what messages smart, ambitious, slightly different, little boys and girls and children who identify as neither boys nor girls have received this week in the United States.

And so what I want to speak about this evening is being an academic. And specifically being an academic in the social sciences, the arts, and the humanities.

You all know academics—you have been in their classrooms and offices, and corresponded with them by email. Some of you may even have been encouraged to apply for these Awards by an academic. However, in spite of this we may still seem a slightly exotic breed to you all. You might well wonder what we do all day.

Research is huge part of the academic’s role. For those of you who are chemists or engineers or medics, for example, the concept of ‘research’ might seem pretty straightforward, but it is not unusual for people to say to me: ‘research? Well, what kind of research could you do in law?’. Of course, law and all of the social sciences and humanities are just as amenable to research as any other field, because fundamentally research is just what you all did in the papers that brought you here today: the application of method, sources, intellect, curiosity and imagination to challenge received wisdom about how the world works.

The core concerns in my work are pretty straightforward. I am interested in why and how we seem to hold the state to lower standards of self-restraint and human rights when there is some kind of declared ‘crisis’ (such as terrorism, or a putative moral crisis of ‘sexual irresponsibility’ or ‘mass immigration’ and the like) than we do when there is not. Furthermore, I am interested in how we might limit the state’s ability to take advantage of that by manufacturing crises and acting irresponsibly, by causing harm and hardship, and by perpetuating inequalities in society. This core enquiry allows me to explore a lot of different issues, such as how we hold states accountable for excessive counter-terrorism. And how we challenge and, ultimately, reform constitutional and legal structures that hamper our human flourishing, rather than enabling us, such as the 13th Amendment in the United States or the 8th Amendment in Ireland.

I am sure you will all agree that this sounds quite interesting, but the ‘so what’ question still lingers. So what if I do this kind of research? After all, I am not going to discover a cure for cancer, or find out something about a distant planet. I am not going to make a discovery that can be patented and which will lead to a multi-billion dollar spin off company creating hundreds of jobs. But that does not mean that the kind of research I do, and which is done by humanities and social science academics the world over, does not have value.

Without independent, curious, rigorous, and creative research in a field like law, we struggle to find the tools that we need to challenge, change, understand and revolutionize the underpinning structures of society. Structures of inequality and systemic oppression that mean some people cannot afford that cancer drug my colleague in pharmacology helps to develop, that millions of children will never attend a school where they find out about the planet my colleague in astrophysics helped us to understand, that many are not enabled to acquire the skills and qualifications that mean they can access the jobs in that spin-out industry my colleague in nanotechnology started, and that far, far too many can never exercise the freedoms that underpin all of our abilities to access education, to maximize our potential, and to challenge power.

I know that we have award winners here today from all over the world, including from Turkey, Hong Kong, South Africa and the United States. At this time, these students will know perhaps more than others how important strong, vibrant educational institutions are; how attacks—both blatant and less explicit—on academic independence and freedom are core to attempts to centralize power and dominate the polity; and how fragile the settlement between the institutions of the state and ‘the People’ can be. They will also know, as we all should, that in states where authoritarianism is on the ascent it is not the chemists, the physicists, the medics and the biologists to whom power first turns its gaze; it is the philosophers, the poets, the artists, the historians and the lawyers. It is these disciplines that so fully enliven the public square, that provide the democratic pulse of critique and criticism through which we find the ways to both benefit from the scientific advances of our colleagues in the ‘hard’ disciplines and to critically discuss the ethical implications of their astounding advances in knowledge, that most gravely threaten power. Even for despots who reject the power of the human spirit to invent and reinvent, to value knowledge and challenge received wisdom, and who are taking power in states often considered to be among the most vibrant democracies in the world, it is the arts and humanities, the social scientists, and the lawyers who are the danger. This is because they know, as we do, that through our curiosity, critique, and critical distrust of what they assert as ‘truth’ we shake the foundations upon which they attempt to build their appearances of unassailable power.

Even in countries where authoritarianism is less overt, the role of lawyers, artists, philosophers, political scientists, historians and other humanities researchers cannot be understated. I myself live and work in a country where academics are not only encouraged but expected to make an impact, based on our research, on the world outside of academia. This is not only a neoconservative, ‘value for money’ trope to justify the investment of tax payers’ money in academic research; it also reflects the idea that a strong research base can better enable people and groups to challenge state power by developing more persuasive and informed arguments against the status quo. So too, it can result in better and more effective governance and regulation based on evidence rather than on whim. Of course, we do not always succeed in this, and as many of you will know “experts” are rather in the bad books for many in the UK at the moment, accused of an elite conspiracy against the will of people. Those of us the Prime Minister has derided as “activist left wing human rights lawyers” are accused of “harassing and haranguing” the armed services by insisting on accountability for the use of state force, and judges are called “enemies of the people” on the front page of a national newspaper when they interpret and apply the law to force the government to comply with the Constitution. Rather than intimidate the so-called elite intelligentsia, however, this has led—rightly—to both critical self-reflection about whether as a group we ‘talk down’ to ‘little people’ from whom we seem disconnected, and a refusal to be quieted, demonstrating the vibrancy of the academy and the importance of academic independence.

Here, in my home country of Ireland, critical economics continues to show the acute and unequal impacts of ‘austerity’ and is finally beginning to bring about some change to fiscal policy to some extent. We have a former academic serving as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in Cabinet whose policies are deeply informed by both ‘hard’ research from the sciences and research from the humanities. And we have a poet, ethicist and philosopher as our elected President. Academics continue to work hard, often as allies to advocates and marginalized groups, to try to force our state to face up to the historical injustices of our shameful ill-treatment of women, the disabled and Travellers in this country, and to use best international practice in law, ethics and medicine to reform our archaic and harmful approach to reproductive justice and maternal medical care which continues the ill-treatment of women.

These are merely illustrations of the value to society of being an academic. And of course I have so far omitted what I consider to be the most important contribution that we, as academics, can make to our societies: guiding our students to become informed, intelligent, self-aware, reflexive and critical thinkers, committed to making the world around them a better place both through their individual pursuit of ethical behaviours and through the work that they will go on to do in the world.

These Awards recognize and reward some of the very brightest lights in our current undergraduate communities all around the world, and all 150 of you here will go on to do great things, and to make enormous contributions through your work. I hope that some of you do that through becoming academics, challenging power and working towards a more equitable, more ethical, and kinder world.

My request to you, as I finish, is this: whatever your field, and whatever you go on to do, remember the importance of the arts, humanities, and social sciences to the world in which you do it. If you become become a politician remember to protect education and the arts because they are as critical to progress and prosperity as the sciences and technology; if you become a teacher remember to learn from your students and to expose them to things that will challenge and excite them; if you are a business leader remember to endow, fund and support the arts, humanities and social sciences; and if you become an academic remember to look outside of your own mind and to undertake your work with an ever present consciousness of its wider significance and a commitment to the ethical pursuit of knowledge.

Let me close by congratulating you all, once again, on your wonderful achievement, and by inviting you all to pursue life with curiosity and conscience, which I hope will start with these four days here in Dublin.

Thank you.

Mae Jemison Announced as Keynote Speaker for Global Summit 2016

We are honoured to announce Mae Jemison, physician, professor and NASA astronaut, as the keynote speaker for The Undergraduate Awards Global Summit 2016.

Mae Jemison in July 1992

Mae Jemison in July 1992

As the first African-American woman in space, Jemison is credited with paving the way for women and people of colour in science and space exploration during the 1980s and beyond. Moreover, her pioneering innovation in diverse disciplines and professions has made her a crucial voice for the promotion of an interdisciplinary approach to research and activism.

Despite the barriers African-American women faced at the time, Jamison never doubted her ability to realise her dream of space travel:

“As a little girl growing up on the south-side of Chicago in the ‘60s I always knew I was going to be in space”

In pursuit of this childhood aspiration, she entered Stanford University in 1973 at the age of only 16 and graduated 4 years later with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering, while also having fulfilled the requirements for a B.A. in African and Afro-American Studies. She then shifted the focus of her study to Medicine and obtained a Doctor of Medicine degree in 1981 from Cornell Medical School.

Jemison has always been hugely committed to providing medical services to those most in need and during her time at Cornell travelled to Cuba, Kenya and Thailand. From 1983 to 1985 she worked with the Peace Corps and was responsible for the healthcare of Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

In 1987 her dream of becoming an astronaut become a reality when she was accepted on to NASA’s astronaut training programme, as one of only 15 successful candidates from over 2,000 applicants.

Mae Jemison talking to UA students at the Global Summit 2013

Mae Jemison chatting to UA students at the Global Summit 2013

She flew her only space mission from September 12-20 1992, where she conducted research experiments on bone cells, weightlessness and motion sickness. She also had the opportunity to look down on her home from thousands of miles above:

“The first thing I saw from space was Chicago, my hometown. I was working on the middeck where there aren’t many windows, and as we passed over Chicago, the commander called me up to the flight deck. It was such a significant moment because since I was a little girl I had always assumed I would go into space.” 

Jemison has never limited herself to the fields of science and medicine but rather is enthusiastic about a huge variety of subjects including education, dance, art and activism. In Stanford she served as the President of the Black Students Union and has used her platform to speak out about social issues in the US, healthcare in the developing world, as well as to promote a message of “reconciling and re-integrating science and the arts.”

Jemison was previously a speaker at The Undergraduate Awards Global Summit 2013 and we are extremely excited for a new generation of UA students to be inspired and moved by her passion and intelligence, because, as she put it herself: “Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t just have a dream, he got things done.”

Watch Mae Jemison at the Global Summit 2013:

UA Global Summit Speakers Announced

We are delighted to announce the first eight speakers for the 2014 UA Global Summit, taking place from November 19th-21st. The Summit, taking place in Dublin, Ireland, is an exclusive three-day event for the category winners of the 2014 Undergraduate Awards. Highly Commended entrants in each category will also be given the chance to attend.

At The Undergraduate Awards our main aim is to identify the world’s top students across all disciplines. As part of recognising these brilliant minds, we want to inspire them to continue being ambitious – but also to inspire a sense of responsible leadership among these future thought leaders. The UA Global Summit provides the appropriate forum in which to achieve this. Students from across the world come together for a though-provoking, challenging and enlightening three days in Dublin.

Our first confirmed speakers below will contribute to that aim later this year. Students participating in the 2014 Programme have the opportunity to meet and listen to these amazing individuals.

Lord David Puttnam is a British film-maker, educator and member of the British House of Lords. He is best known in the film world for working on such pictures as Bugsy Malone, Midnight Express and Chariots of Fire. He has previously served as the Chancellor of the University of Sunderland and currently serves as Chancellor of the Open University. Lord Puttnam is also Ireland’s Digital Champion.

Patricia O’Brien is an Irish barrister who served as United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs from 2008-2013. She is a world-renowned expert on legal issues pertaining to foreign policy, having gained extensive experience in the area serving as Legal Advisor to the Office of the Irish Attorney General, the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and the Irish Permanent Mission to the European Union.

Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock has spent her career making novel, bespoke instrumentation in both the industrial and academic environments. Dr Aderin-Pocock runs her own company, Science Innovation Ltd., through which she conducts “Tours of the Universe” and other public engagement activities, showing school children and adults the wonders of space. Dr Aderin-Pocock also spoke at the 2013 UA Global Summit.

Ariane Koek is a renowned cultural producer and strategist. She is currently head of International Arts Development at CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, located outside Geneva. She created and implemented the laboratory’s first arts policy. She has previously worked as a producer and director for BBC Radio and TV, as well as the CEO of the Arvon Foundation for Creative Writing.

Ingrid Vanderveldt is the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Dell, where she created and manages Dell’s $100 million credit fund. Ms Vanderveldt is also a member of the UN Global Entrepreneurship Council and is the leading person behind “Empowering a Billion Women by 2020.”

Paul Adams is the Vice President of Product and Design at Intercom. He previously worked as Global Head of Brand Design for Facebook. Paul is internationally recognised as one of leading thinkers in social design and technology. His work on social networks and brand design has been widely published and cited.

Dr Rachel Armstrong is an Applied Scientist and Sustainability Innovator, who creates new materials that possess some of the properties of living systems. She is a huge advocate of inter-disciplinary co-operation – both within the sciences, but also across the arts and humanities. Dr Armstrong is a TED Fellow.

Kyle Abraham is a critically-acclaimed choreographer. He has previously performed with a variety of modern dance companies before starting his own company, Abraham.In.Motion. As well as winning a Bessie Award and a Princess Grace Award in 2010, Mr Abraham was also awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2013.

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