An academic career that started at Birkbeck

Dr Bernard Cohen, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Molecular Cell & Systems Biology has had a full career at The University of Glasgow and it all began as he chanced across a Birkbeck brochure.

‘It was 1948 and I was in the first year of sixth-form at my East London grammar school, preparing for the Higher School Certificate examination that would, if I did well enough, qualify me for a place at university.’ But Bernard’s year had been challenging; his schooling suffered as he spent much of his time caring of his dying mother and he knew that he wouldn’t get the grades he needed in chemistry or physics. He faced a difficult decision; at the time, the quality of local authority evening classes was unreliable but he didn’t want to give up on his goal of university study.

While carrying out a school essay, he happened to discover Birkbeck; ‘I was in the local Reference Library standing in line to ask the Librarian a question, my eye was drawn to a display-rack of brochures including Birkbeck’s short-form calendar. Curiosity led me to read it and discover a completely unknown alternative route to university, a 1-year Intermediate BSc course and exams in only Botany, Chemistry and Zoology. By sheer accident, I had discovered my salvation! My father agreed that I should leave school, find a job as a laboratory technician, and study at Birkbeck.’

Following his course, Bernard completed compulsory military service before returning to Birkbeck to undertake a part-time BSc course whilst continuing his work as a laboratory technician. He graduated top of the university list in 1957 and qualified for a funded PhD degree at The University of Edinburgh. Before his PhD was complete he was appointed to a junior teaching post in Glasgow and stayed there until his retirement. ‘My whole life’s work depended on Birkbeck College; it enabled me to give expression to my schoolboy interests and provided the foundation for a worthwhile academic career. In this, I’m sure I am not alone!’