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Academia Spotlight

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Educational Researcher and Educational Consultant, Fellow of the International Society for Design and Development for Education (ISDDE)

Board Member of the African Congress for Mathematics Education (AFRICMA)

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Dr Mariam Makramalla, FRSA

by the p2i Network

Mariam's Journey

It would be great if initially, you could give us a snapshot of your research background, how you got to your current position and what led you to pursuing a career in academia.


“I studied engineering as an undergraduate and then did a masters in engineering at The University of Cambridge. It was during my masters that I got really impressed by the way we were educated as engineers at Cambridge, and this was an experience I wanted to take home – home being Egypt! So that’s when I switched to a more pedagogical track, completing another masters in International and Comparative Education. I was interested in exploring how we can unpack different education systems and find things that work that are not foreign to the local culture, but that at the same time, take into consideration a philosophical ethos that is guided by 21st century skills. My PhD was situated at a time when education reform was sought nationally. As part of the reformed curriculum, problem solving was to be introduced in the mathematics classroom as a skill that ought to be acquired by learners. For my PhD at the Faculty of Education, at the University of Cambridge, I am exploring the contextual possibility for teachers (to whom problem solving is a very foreign construct) to adjust themselves to the reformed mathematics curriculum.

Is there a recent achievement you are especially proud of?

“So the one thing I am really proud of lately, is receiving a public engagement seed grant from the University of Cambridge. The fund was granted to support a community engagement proposal I had written that brings together an interactive project for Egyptian schools. So I found this really engaging because it was building on my research. I had a lot of passion for it and we managed to recruit a lot of schools onto the project.  One outcome was the establishment of an ongoing partnership with one national school in Cairo. Currently we are looking forward to running the second successful round at the school.

What has been the biggest challenge you faced and how have you, or how are you, overcoming this challenge?

“I think one of the biggest challenges you face as an educator is that you realise that shifting people's mind-sets is not as straightforward as teaching curricula. It’s easy to change the curriculum, or get new textbooks, or change the way the classroom is set up. The hard thing is shifting people’s mentalities – the way people approach things. This was the main challenge I was facing all the time, so I said why not look at this from an entrepreneurial perspective and find ways to solve this.


I realised that I existed between two very different cultures. I can relate very much to both, but I realised some things are not as easily transferable as one would want. So for example, a curriculum that might work well in Italy or France might not work in the Middle East, and vice versa. Existing between these two cultures, I realised that you really need to take in the value of the context - the power dynamics and the culture of the society. This helps to make sure that the actual enactment of a given curriculum is aligned with the vision of whoever wrote the curriculum had in mind, and this translation can only happen when people buy into it as a mentality rather than just ticking boxes.


I think one of the very difficult things in teaching in general is teaching skills and mindsets because it's not as simple as teaching a subject. Teaching mindsets and skills is very difficult because students tend to not take these courses seriously -  when it comes to classes about professional skills, communication skills or entrepreneurial skills,  they think it's pretty much common sense. I think this mentality needs to change at the institutional level, and we need to instil a culture institutionally that respects these fields more, because often you discover the importance of such skills very late in life.”


What do you think the mindsets of innovators are? Are they similar between those in industry, entrepreneurs & academics?


“One of the things I have realised is that there is an unspoken myth that innovation will come naturally. While it does happen that you can get a good idea, and it does happen that you can collect data whilst studying something for many years, and you do have the ability to put your finger on areas of struggle, the innovation process itself is something that needs to be taught. It’s something I had to learn on this entrepreneurial route – that there is a process and it needs to be taught; it’s not just going to appear. So that’s required a mental shift on my end.”

Can you give an example of how academics can be entrepreneurial /enterprising? (the obvious way is to start or be involved in a start-up; but what are some of the other ways?)


“I think the trouble is we segregate things. We think “you’re an academic, you’re an entrepreneur, you’re a researcher, whereas I think it’s a question of how you think. You become an entrepreneur when you start thinking like an entrepreneur. And when you start thinking like an entrepreneur, your world view and the way you see other people, and life around you, is very much fixed around this mindset. As academics, the one thing we are good at is thinking. We spend hours thinking! So developing a mindset is something most researchers and academics do for a living. You can still be an academic and think like an entrepreneur!

Can you list a few aspects (mind set, skills and competencies) you have observed in yourself after participating in the p2i opportunity, in terms of an innovator/entrepreneurial mind set, and how has this has helped you in your career in academia?


There were certain elements of the entrepreneurial training I did that I found helpful and brought into the curriculum of the entrepreneurship course I now teach. It’s about helping the academic students develop an entrepreneurial mindset. I’ve never studied business officially - I’ve studied engineering and education. It merges everything very nicely because I’m based at the faculty of engineering right now, teaching a course on entrepreneurial mindsets, and using everything I have learned in education to make this course engaging and hands-on. 


First year students have very fresh minds, and this is why I am really interested in teaching these aspects and skills at an undergraduate level -  I think the earlier you embed this way of thinking, the more likely you are to get people at a postdoc level to engage with entrepreneurial projects. And this way of thinking can be embedded in a 2-3 session course or as information sessions – it doesn’t have to be as intensive as this programme.

Would you recommend engaging in entrepreneurial activities to other researchers? Can you explain why?


“I think researchers have the tendency to get really isolated. You can be doing excellent research but sometimes it’s not translatable into practice because it’s becoming very specialised. I think even if you don’t want to start your own business, entrepreneurial opportunities offer you a bridge to practical, real life.

Why do you think Arts/Humanities & Social Sciences researchers do not engage in entrepreneurial training programmes as much as STEM researchers? How would you persuade colleagues to participate and why do you think they should?

“I think there is very little awareness about it; nobody ever talks to us about it. Also, when someone does, it’s usually through an email or newsletter and if humanities researchers read the word ‘entrepreneurial’ in a circulated email, they instantly think it’s a business course and jump to the conclusion it’s not for them. It’s only when you engage with it that you realise that it shifts your perspective. You don’t have to become a full time business person to gain the benefits of entrepreneurial thinking.”

What do you consider as key messages or takeaways from the p2i online course: Empowering researchers to innovate that have stuck with you?


“So as an educator, I usually focus more on the way the course is designed, rather than the content. One of the things I really enjoyed about the course was the accessibility and simplification of the topics. You cover quite an elaborate bit of ground, and when you think about the amount of learning that has happened, it’s quite intense. And this is only possible when you simplify concepts so that people can grasp them. 


For example, complex concepts were presented in the form of a video or a diagram and there are opportunities to reflect on it and relate it to something you have seen/experienced yourself which was really helpful. I found the freedom of time very nice. I was able to tailor the course around my schedule, so there were weeks I would give 1 day to the course, and other weeks I would fit it in around deadlines and spend less time on it. I found this flexible way of learning particularly helpful, as speaking from my own personal experience, there’s so much you are trying to squeeze into each day like looking after your home, your own family, and trying to finish a PhD. I had many home responsibilities to deal with during the pandemic and the flexible nature was really helpful with balancing everything. 


Of course, you have to establish your own discipline and a way that works for you. In my case I wasn’t going to finish it if I didn’t establish my discipline. So for me it was 1 day a week. So even if I had a meeting, I would slot in a number of hours where I was going to do it. If I missed a day, I would find a way to compensate for it later in the week. There were some modules I found really interesting so occasionally, this day would then merge into the next day. And other weeks where I had a lot on I would just squeeze in an hour or two just so I didn’t miss a week. But overall, if you have this discipline, it was a really nice format. 


I enjoyed the fact I was watching videos of real people with real stories, each at different stages in their career but all talking about the same concept. It’s the closest you can get to real live interaction. If I were to just read an article these people had written, I wouldn’t be able to tell if they were young, old, male, female, etc. But seeing them speaking throughout the course modules, you feel like you are getting to know your teacher. 


As the key learning point, there was one module that focused on how developing an entrepreneurial mindset does not only mean you have to channel this energy into starting a business. An entrepreneurial mind-set is beneficial everywhere. This really stuck with me.

What are the top skills would you encourage an entrepreneurial postdoc to develop, regardless of their career path?


Seeing problems as opportunities. That’s one of the things you learn when you develop an entrepreneurial mindset. Because as academics we are excellent at analysing the root cause of the problem, and as much as they enrich my understanding of the problem, these don’t lead me to a solution.


For example, the other week, my washing machine was giving me electric shocks when I went to remove my clothes. I called my friend and she advised I had probably left a coin in a pocket which had caused the energy to build up as the washing machine was spinning. I said “that’s great, but it still doesn’t help me! How do I get my washing out of the machine without it shocking me?!“


And this is a perfect example of a researcher's mind. Our minds are programmed to analyse why the problem is happening, which is great, but in practical life, you need a solution. So when this happens, what is the best way for me to take my clothes out of the washing machine? So someone might create a device to help. This device would be based on the root cause, but provide a solution. For example, a pair of gloves that protects against the shocks when you take your laundry out of the machine. So,  learning to approach problems as opportunities to offer solutions.


I also think financial sustainability to create impact is something that you have to learn as an entrepreneur/entrepreneurial postdoc which you never learn as a researcher. You think you have a brilliant idea which solves all our problems, and if it's very well researched, it's going to work. But the trouble is you need to think of it being financially sustainable, and for it to be sustainable, it has to go into the cycle of creating its own money so that you can put the money back into it, and that's something you learn as an entrepreneur. It makes you think about who's willing to pay for it, and who believes in it, and the person who's paying for it might not necessarily be the person who's benefiting from it. You don't learn that as a researcher. So I think the idea of understanding how business models work and how this ties into sustainability of a business is really important, as a researcher quite often the last thing you are thinking about is how your idea can make money to create the impact you’ve envisaged or how it can be sustainable." 

Is there anything you would have done differently in hindsight?


“One thing I have learned, not only through my career choices but in my life choices too, is to never underestimate my gut feeling & instincts. Sometimes a situation just doesn't feel right or a decision just doesn't feel right and you try to rationalise it, so you try to use all the different strategies you've learned to figure out why you don't feel good about it. You may have thought through it,  listed the pros and cons, and it all seems right on paper… but it just doesn't feel right when you're doing it. Over the years I’ve learned that if something doesn't feel right, and you are not comfortable around a certain work situation or or life decision, to trust myself more and listen to my instincts. That’s a lesson I would teach my younger self."

Is there any advice / parting pearls of wisdom you would give to postdocs who want to pursue a career in Academia?


I would advise that one of the worst things you can do to yourself is focusing on one career track alone. You can always have areas that you prefer working on - for example, I really prefer working in maths education because I love maths and I love working with maths teachers. However,  I’ve realised that the more I engage with the wider space around that area, the richer I become as a researcher in that field. I think pursuing different routes that are at the periphery of your research enriches your personality and it makes you more aware of the reality around you, and hence a more realistic researcher. 

Researchers tend to look at their project under a microscope, and that's all they can focus on, whereas when you engage in this kind of training, it's almost like you can step back and look at the bigger picture, and then be able to take concepts of that back to your own project. Through entrepreneurial training such as the p2i online course: Empowering researchers to innovate, you might learn how to deal with people who are different from you, how to be a good team leader, or how to be more sustainable. Anything you learn, you can take back into your research life. So I think it's something that will only make you a better person. You can pursue it to the extreme of being a multi-million dollar business owner, or you can just pursue it through the sense of getting the skills that would make you a better researcher. In any case, it's worth it."

Read More p2i Researcher Spotlight Interviews

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