Your stories: spring 2019

We'd love to know where your Birmingham education has taken you! Send us a photo of yourself at your workplace or location that shows what you are doing now. Use the hashtags #hellobrum and #wearebrumalum on our Twitter and Instagram channels, or get in touch.

  • 1961

    John W Purdie (DPhil, 1961)

    John Purdie in a garden

    Following my PhD at Birmingham, I moved to Canada where I conducted research in several fields. My most significant work was elucidating the mechanism of action of the drug Amifostine. This ultimately led to approval of the drug for use in cancer treatment. Amifostine works by protecting healthy cells against ionising radiation such as x-rays and gamma rays during radiotherapy.

    I am currently writing science fiction novels; a medium that allows me to explore ideas which could not be taken further in scientific journals or government reports. I specialise in science fiction that sticks to the basic laws of science. I am currently publishing my first novel, A Teardrop in Space, one section at a time, to allow for possible feedback at

  • 1970

    Derek Sellen (1970)

    Derek wearing a while jacket in front of a painting

    I recently published a collection of poems inspired by Spanish art, titled The Other Guernica. The poems explore how we might relate to works from the era of Velazquez up to art by living Spanish artists and see our own times reflected there. Reviewed as ‘a daring exploration of what might emerge when word meets image’, the poems are the culmination of decades of work in poetry, plays and short stories, from winning the Birmingham University/Birmingham Post Poetry Prize while studying in 1969 to Canterbury Festival Poet of the Year in 2018.

  • 1984

    Nick Norton-Smith (BSc Chemistry, 1984)

    Nick Norton-Smith

    I didn’t just learn Chemistry at Birmingham – I also took up the saxophone, playing in various Drama department productions in my third year. The University of Birmingham was an incredibly significant part of my education and early adult years after which I studied music in Birmingham for an additional two years before leaving for London. The rigour, application and the ability to study and learn facilitated a successful music career grounded in my three years at the University.

    My performing career included “Best Musician” at Edinburgh International Jazz Festival, performing in 15 West End shows and I have worked with artists including Frank Sinatra, The Brand New Heavies and many others in 22 countries across four continents.

    In the last 13 years I have been composing for film and television, with numerous commissions on all major UK TV channels with placements of my music worldwide. If you’ve seen MasterChef on the BBC, you’ve heard my work, I’m also co-composer and the voice of BBC1 hit quiz show !mpossible

  • 1985

    Alison Miles (BMus, 1985)

    A big group of graduates in a building with wood panelling

    On 19th January 2019, 20 BMus and MDD graduates (graduating dates 1982-86) got together to put on a commemorative concert for one of our dear friends from our very happy Birmingham years. Philippa Smyth (nee Goble) died in September after a six-year battle with cancer. She and her family were greatly helped by Marie Curie and we wanted to celebrate her life and raise some funds for the charity. The concert took place in the Wesley Memorial Church in Oxford as Philippa was originally from Oxford, although she had lived in Belfast since graduating. We travelled from far and wide to come together for the concert, which found us performing as an ensemble - playing and singing - for the first time in 34 years! Philippa's father was able to attend which was wonderful. We performed the Hummel Mass in D Op.111 with Gregory Rose conducting us, just as he had back in the 1980s. Another one of our former lecturers, Jan Smaczny, came along to sing. It was a great occasion for us all and, I hope, a fitting tribute to Philippa.

  • 1985

    Bob Aston (BSc Mechanical Engineering, 1985)

    Life in Birmingham has taken me from engineering to medieval castles. As an apprentice at a factory in Dudley, I gained a Higher National Certificate at a local Technical College. I'd failed the eleven plus, but having been born in Oxford I always entertained the hope of gaining a 'proper' degree somehow. While employed as design engineer, I learned that there were jobs available at the University where you could get a degree by doing research work 'on the side'. As a Research Engineer in 'Mech Eng', I was awarded a BA degree and was then given the chance to present my research findings in a thesis for an M.Phil. I always prided myself on writing clear instructions so that students could operate complex engineering equipment without danger to themselves or to the machines.

    In retirement, the desire to write never left me. Could I write something with people in it? A short course on Creative Writing included submitting a piece about a building in Dudley. I chose the Castle. This led to 40 episodes of medieval adventure being published in a local paper. I’m three books deep into the tales of 'Jack o' Dudley' now, and am immensely grateful to the University . . . and the old Mech Eng department in particular.

  • 1986

    Emma Darwin (BA Drama and Theatre Arts, 1986)

    Emma wearing a white t-shirt looking at camera

    On 12th February (Darwin Day) my new book, This is Not a Book About Charles Darwin: a writer’s journey through my family, was published by Holland House Books. Part memoir, part biography, part book about creative writing, it explores the creative thinkers in my family, from Erasmus Darwin’s role in Birmingham’s Lunar Society to Tom Wedgwood, the first photographer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and poet and radical John Cornford.

    Through the lens of my own creative struggle to write fiction about them, the book embodies the battle between my heritage and my own identity as a writer. The Literary Review recently described it as “Unsparingly honest…thoroughly researched…a wise, witty and informative guide for aspiring writers.”

    I wrote my first two novels after spending 1982-86 happily buried at the bottom of Muirhead Tower. Since then, I have contributed to Darwin Day events organised by Professor Mark Pallen, and to a day conference organised by the Arts Faculty on careers in the arts. I also represented Birmingham in Christmas 2016, as part of the Celebrity University Challenge Team. We didn’t win, but it was great fun to be there, to meet my fellow panellists Joanna Gosling, John Hammond and Pamela Relph, and swap experiences of our lives as students.

  • 2000

    Hannah Feldman (nee Levy) (BA Medieval and Modern History, 2000)

    Hannah looking at camera in a blue, black and white top

    Inspired by my young twins, I created tech business Kidadl, an online platform that helps parents instantly find events and activities in their area, tailored to their budget and interests.

    I am passionate that the technology industry needs more female founders and that diverse teams benefit from the perspective of women with families. Since launching Kidadl with co-founder Sophie Orman, the business has partnered with leading brands including Disney and Wembley Stadium, and has over 100,000 members. Read more in the Evening Standard.

  • 2001

    Katie Entwistle (nee Greaves) (BA Media, Culture and Society, 2001)

    group of three, the person in the middle holding up an award

    I was very excited and proud to win a National Television Award for Best Factual Entertainment this year, as Series Director of ITVs Paul O’Grady for the Love of Dogs. In the picture I am in the middle celebrating with the award (and champagne). You may remember me as Katie Greaves on the course - and I have kept my maiden name for television work too. I’ve worked on all sorts over my career - making films for The One Show, Peter Andre’s reality show My Life, Nickelodeon, Dinner Date and Piers Morgan’s Life Stories.

  • 2016

    Jack Apperley (BMus, 2016)

    Jack in a white shirt and black jacket

    In October 2018 I was awarded Second Prize at the inaugural London International Choral Conducting Competition. I was selected to represent the UK in the Grand Final at the Royal Academy of Music with five other conductors from France, Sweden, Germany, Russia and New Zealand. The experience was incredibly intense and rewarding. I met conductors, singers, composers and musicians from across the world who were all united by their passion, interest and commitment to choral music.

    My Birmingham connection remains strong, as an assistant conductor for the London Symphony Chorus, working with the University’s Director of Choral Studies, Simon Halsey. Simon was my mentor when I was at Birmingham through the Alumni Leadership Mentoring Programme. With his support, I conducted several ensembles during my time at Birmingham, including the Music Society Chamber Choir and Summer Festival Voices. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities I enjoyed at Birmingham. I know that without benefiting from the wealth of experience within the music department faculty I would not be able to pursue my goal of being a conductor.

    In addition, I work across London directing many choirs, from workplace choirs at the John Lewis Partnership, the Royal College of Physicians and the Silicon Valley Bank to choral societies, chamber choirs and university choirs including the Imperial College Chamber Choir.