The New SU

Top: Muntaha Naeem, Adil Ali, Nicole George; Middle: Milly Orr Ewing, Rachel Kwok, Natania Varshney; Bottom: Elena Torrell Pedreira, Chris Oldfield.

In our socially distanced society, the future of university life is looking extremely uncertain. Thankfully, whether we’ll be living it large on campus or zooming in from the comfort of our homes, we’re not without leadership. 

We caught up with the new ICSMSU Committee of 2020-21 and got their thoughts on lockdown, the St Mary’s sale, BLM and more. This interview took place on Sunday 28th June 2020.

For ease of reference:

Adil: ICSM Gazette Events Editor (interviewer, questions and comments highlighted in bold)

Muntaha: ICSMSU President

Nicole: ICSMSU Deputy President

Rachel: ICSMSU Academic Chair

Chris: ICSMSU Clubs and Societies Chair

Milly: ICSMSU Entertainments Chair

Natania: ICSMSU Welfare Chair

Elena: BMB President

The energy in the zoom is practically electric as we kick things off over a mildly unstable 4G connection.

Adil: Obviously, we’re in the presence of some academic powerhouses. 

We’ve got Rachel who was SurgSoc pres last year – obviously one of the biggest and most well respected academic societies –  who is serving as ICSM’s Academic Chair this year. 

And of course, we’ve also got Muntaha who was President of Muslim Medics, another hugely successful academic society – I actually heard you ran a particularly outstanding PotMed event this year so congratulations on that.

On the academic side of things, what developments and improvements can we look forward to seeing this year in ICSM?

Rachel: Firstly, I think we have to navigate the aftermath of the COVID interruptions and all the different changes it’s made – I think that will be really interesting and really integral to the year. I think there’s also still a bit of gap in communication between students and Faculty – it will really help to get more feedback and tailor the academics to what the students want and expect.

Muntaha: Like Rachel said, coronavirus is definitely going to be a main one, and how we mitigate the academic effects of that. That will involve changes to teaching in person, shifting things online and changes to the actual exams that people take. I think our responsibility is to try and get as much information as early as possible, and ensure that decisions are being made in the best interests of students. There’s also the new curriculum which is in place for the second years for the first time – we need to hone and refine that by collecting feedback.

Adil: With regards to the new second year curriculum, what exactly does it look like?

Muntaha: A lot of the modules that they’ve done in first year, like lifestyle medicine and biological systems, are going to be moved across into second year to build upon that knowledge further. I think the Faculty are keen on making the curriculum more integrated, for example honing and refining clinical placements.

Adil: Sounds good. Muntaha, you’re so scared of fifth year that you actually took a year out, but Rachel and I are starting very soon. Rachel, how do you feel about the ‘Pathology’ course being remotely delivered?

Rachel: I’m looking forward to seeing how it pans out – for those who don’t know, we have a whole bunch of lectures at the start of fifth year, and this year they’ll be delivered on Zoom and recorded too. It’s a good way of doing it, bearing in mind all the people abroad in different time zones.

Adil: And looking ahead to firms restarting later this year, we’ll be one of the first cohorts to return to hospital. How are you feeling about that?

Rachel: Kinda excited! I think it’ll be a nice change of scenery to be back in clinical medicine. One thing will be to see how the Faculty is reacting to government advice and PPE. Hopefully they’re quite well prepared, but I think it’ll be a challenge for the hospitals as well to see how they deal with all these students coming in. 

Adil: And Muntaha, talking about your sabbatical, we have to touch upon a truly unprecedented season of election campaigns – mainly because you weren’t in the first one. For our readers who are unaware, we were lucky enough to have RON as our President in the Spring Elections before Muntaha graciously took over earlier this summer. Why didn’t you want to run initially, and what made you change your mind?

Muntaha: That’s a really….hard hitting question.

Adil: That’s what you get from the Gazette, my friend.

Muntaha: It’s like an exposé, like the Daily Mail. 

Adil expresses his distaste at being compared to a Daily Mail reporter. Muntaha retracts the statement.

Muntaha: In the first round of elections, I actually was considering running. I had the passion, ideas and experience but I felt like I just needed a bit more time to really think things through. I wanted to be really sure that it was something I wanted to do and that I wasn’t just getting caught up in hype. The couple of months in between were really useful to reflect, and I ultimately decided that it’s just far too good an opportunity to miss out on. The opportunity to make real change on an unprecedented scale…..I just knew that I had to do it.

Adil: Good answer to a pretty tough question. And what you said is very important – taking time to reflect, thinking about how it will affect you and taking care of yourself……speaking of taking care of yourself, let’s move to our Welfare Chair, Natania, who was also Welfare Vice Chair last year. Student welfare and looking after one’s mental health is always important, but it’s perhaps more relevant than ever given the circumstances of lockdown. What kind of welfare improvements and initiatives can we look forward to next year?

Natania: We’ve already tried to work on a couple of initiatives across the pandemic season. We worked closely with FEO Welfare to set up ‘support for success’ programmes, which include advice on how to motivate yourself for exams and how to look after your mental health. The transition from physical teaching to a virtual environment has definitely been a big change for a lot of students. As we move into next year, we’ve developed some new campaigns which we hope to run on how to engage with remote learning and how to provide support if you need it.

Adil: Have you got any advice for students on how to take care of themselves over summer?

Natania: I think people should have a well deserved break. A lot has happened this year, not just academically but in the world – spend time with your family, do some exercise, eat well and then you’ll feel energised to come back and have a really good year. 

Adil: Couldn’t agree more. And stay hydrated too – skin, energy, mood, it’s just high yield.

Adil would like to impress the importance of staying hydrated on all readers of ICSM Gazette.

Adil: Let’s move to another fourth year, Nicole – our Ex Ents Chair and current Deputy President. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but as Deputy President, your role is basically to do the dirty work whilst Muntaha gets paid, right?

Nicole: That’s exactly it, honestly.

Muntaha chuckles – it’s a deep, wealthy laugh.

Adil: For some of our readers who are perhaps less aware, what are your day to day responsibilities and what do you see yourself doing this year?

Nicole: I was Ents before and it could be really overwhelming, and the reason I stuck with Dep Pres is that it’s more of a pastoral role – you get to make sure every member of the SU is okay and surviving. I wanted that step back and more of a focus of checking in on everyone – I’m down to do a motherly role. I also wanted to be involved in areas outside of Ents. As for my goals for this year, I really want to get the SU officer training up to scratch so they feel competent in their roles. 

Adil: I look forward to seeing those competently trained officers in their roles. So, moving from the old Ents Chair to the new one – Milly, I think it’s safe to say that for the past few months, many of us have been finding ourselves pretty far from entertained. Since lockdown started, how have you been keeping yourself occupied?

Milly: It’s been the same as most people I reckon: the odd Zoom quiz, drinks over Zoom etc. It’s nice to get a change from home into different social circles. 

Adil: Is there anything new and exciting we can expect from Ents this year?

Milly: For obvious reasons, Ents are going to have to change, especially for the first half of this year. I think we’ll have to look at remote ways to deliver existing events or figure out how to make them more socially distanced – I think that can work from a central SU point but also contacting individual societies and making sure they can put things on.

Adil: On the topic of clubs and societies, let’s hear from our Club and Societies Chair this year. Chris, a big concern for a lot of clubs and societies will be Freshers’ Fair, and first term in general given the situation we’re in. Can you give us any insight into how we can expect the normal first term that we know and love to change this year?

Chris: I don’t think anyone is really certain to what extent we’ll be able to run events like Freshers’ Fair. What we can say is that it won’t be called off completely – there’ll be some kind of online version. I think the main message is, despite these ‘covid-y’ times, clubs and societies are not just going to stop happening. For example, ICSM Music have been running daily tutorials and weekly work out sessions. One person held a Zoom every single morning at 8:30 so people would have someone to have breakfast with so they weren’t alone. People are incredible, and they’re going to keep being that incredible, and keep doing clubs and socs things over Zoom if they have to.

Chris reclines into a stoic silence as we reflect upon his words. He holds an aura of being wise beyond his years.

Adil: Elena, let’s talk about you for a moment – you are the BioMedical Society president. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most Gazette readers are like me: ignorant medical students who don’t know as much about the BioMedical Society as they should do. So for the sake of me and the others, do you mind telling us a bit about BioMed Soc? How is it different from the rest of ICSM?

Elena: All of us are part of ICSM, but we are a special society within it. One of the greatest things about it is Mums and Dads – I’ve been helped so much by mine. Most of our course involves working through modules in teams, so the society is a great way to meet people outside of that.

Adil: And what would you say is your favourite part of the society?

Elena: I really enjoyed a pub crawl that we did with students from other Bio courses. We’re a really new society – I’m in the second cohort of the new BMB degree – so hopefully we can grow to bigger and better things in future. 

Adil: Am I right in thinking that the new degree allows you to do either 3 years or 4 years with management?

Elena: Yes – I enrolled in the 3 year course but you can decide in 3rd year if you want to carry on. BMB is based heavily on team learning. In Year 1 and 2, most of the modules are very science based. In Year 3, we move onto placements –  I’m really thrilled to have got my first choice. Unlike most of my cohort, mine is a work placement rather than being lab based, and I’m really excited.

Adil: That actually sounds really interesting, and best of luck for when the term starts.

The committee breathes a sigh of relief as their painstaking profile pieces have finally been completed.

Adil: Now that we’ve got a flavour of each of you, let’s touch upon some of the more pressing issues within the community. 

The Sale of St. Mary’s

Adil: The first topic is the sale of St. Mary’s. For anyone who isn’t aware, the College announced in July 2019 that they were selling off the St Mary’s Medical School building and related facilities – in terms of how that announcement was received….. it could have gone down better. This was followed by a rather scathing ‘town hall’ style meeting in early September which saw many medical students grilling representatives from the medical school and college. Things were fairly silent through this past academic year, but we were just told earlier this June that the sale has been completed and the 4 year process of transition now begins. What are your thoughts on this?

Muntaha: I think first of all, let’s just put on record our dismay at the unwelcome sale of St. Mary’s and the outlandish way in which it was conducted. 

The outlandish nature of the sale has been noted.

Muntaha: At the end of the day, it is a building for medical students – the fact it was sold behind our backs without consultation is wrong. There was a lot of anger and raw emotion felt by not only students, but also alumni and the St Mary’s Hospital Association (SMHA) who were there at St Mary’s before it became a part of ICSM. I hope that lessons have been learnt. For us, our job as an SU is to ensure that as much money from the sale as possible is pushed into the student experience and provision of services. 

Adil: At the St Mary’s ‘town hall’ discussion meeting last summer, we heard a very passionate speech from the previous CGCU president. He essentially issued quite an ominous warning that each constituent union used to have a lot of autonomy and that they had all been swallowed up by College – except for ICSM. He advocated for us to hold onto our freedom. In terms of looking ahead to the future, what do you see the relationship being between ICSM and IC? Would you be pushing for more integration or more independence?

Muntaha: I think if we were to be integrated into the College, it’s important to remember our own heritage – I’d be worried about losing that. I think the autonomy in ICSM is very unique, because we are very unique as a medical school, but at the same time it’s always good to have positive engagement with the wider College. 

Adil: I guess to all of you as a wider question – do you take pride in being an Imperial student, or an Imperial Medic? If they gave us the option to become a standalone medical school, with the same international reputation but not affiliated with Imperial College, is that something you’d be interested in?

Chris: For me personally, I am so proud to be a member of ICSM, which is both Imperial College and the School of Medicine. I don’t think you need to be separate to have an identity of your own – we’re still part of Imperial, but we have a strong sense of community within ourselves.

Milly: We can take great pride in having such a developed community of our own – for example, just look at how we have our own separate Freshers Fortnight. It makes you proud that, despite being a part of IC, we’re our own free standing organisation as well.

Elena: I personally feel completely integrated into the ICSM community as a BMB student, whereas I don’t get that same sense of community within IC. I think some BMB students go into ICSM with the mindset that they won’t fit in, but Light Opera was one of the first societies that I joined and it’s probably the biggest and longest standing family that I’ll have as an Imperial student. 

Adil: Very good answers all round – you’re not easily shaken. 

Black Lives Matter

Adil: The last thing I wanted to talk about is a topic which I’m sure is close to all of our hearts, the BLM movement. The tragic murder of George Floyd in Minnesota sparked international outrage, leading to protests across the world and a much needed dialogue regarding the huge problem of racism that still exists in our society. Much of this conversation has also been on covert racism, a term that relates to the many institutional and subconscious biases that can lead to discrimination. This could include how employers hire candidates, to the British history that is or isn’t taught in schools. As a medical school, what is the most appropriate way to respond to a global situation of this nature? What responsibilities do we have, and how do we ensure that we fulfil them?

Nicole: I think this will be a pressing issue in every institution. Our Welfare team has been working crazily hard to come up with so many different campaigns to support this cause. For me, one thing I knew I wanted to work on at the SU was widening participation – it’s something that started at the end of last year and I hope this has given us the drive we need to carry that on and change the culture.

Natania: At Welfare, we developed three different scenarios that a student might find themselves in: taking part in racism unknowingly, experiencing racism, and witnessing racism. We worked with FEO Welfare to formulate different methods that students might be able to use to tackle those situations. There are also constantly evolving resources on MedLearn, but we’re moving towards another project which is a survey – a real opportunity for students to have their say on how to improve inclusivity via changes to the medical school. One important point that came up recently is Dermatology, where we aren’t taught about how some conditions present differently on minority ethnic skin. I think it’s important that what we learn is as diverse as the community that we will serve in the future. 

Chris: I think ICSM’s response to this is a perfect example of how people get involved at every level. ICSM Welfare have been doing such amazing work with their campaigns, and then you also saw the RAG Yoga morning – nearly 100 people paid £5 for charity, organised by the SU and attended by students and Faculty. It’s just a great example of how the community can come together, as they have done this time.

Adil: Definitely – I think when Sohag dons the yoga pants, you know it’s got serious. To finish off, can I get one thing from each of you that you’re really looking forward to when uni reopens?

Muntaha: Seeing people again – chatting to friends, those impromptu socials, going off in a car to somewhere random for a quick munch.

Chris: It was so strange just being at home after exams this year. For me, one of the greatest feelings of life is the post-exam relief and community spirit. So in a year’s time, I’m looking forward to that spirit once again.

Elena: The environment – I’m looking forward to being way more motivated and being able to continue with life again.

Natania: Returning to normality and having some sense of routine, but also being able to invest time in the things that matter now that I’ve had time to reflect during lockdown.

Rachel: It’ll be interesting to see how the SU operates online, like how many events we can run and the changes we can make – I’m really excited!

Nicole: I’m excited for Freshers, in whatever version it appears – it’s the best two weeks of being on the SU. I’m also looking forward to getting to know the SU in person instead of on Zoom, and a good old library social.

Adil: The CX library social slaps like no other.

Milly (on chat): A pint with friends in Reynolds.

Chris (on chat): Slug.

ICSM Gazette does not officially endorse Slug.

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