In 2020, Mikkaila McKeever-Willis (MRes Chemistry 2017) and Sophie Finnegan (MSc Physics 2017), both current computational chemistry PhD candidates, launched kotikoulu, a free networking service to connect those requiring homeschooling help with those with the time to volunteer.
Kotiloulu aims to provide support to caregivers who have found themselves suddenly loaded with the responsibility of maintaining education for their children amid the COVID-19 crisis, often with their own full-time job to contend with and little guidance.
More information and a free signup form can be found at kotikoulu.co.uk.
We caught up with Mikkaila and Sophie to find out more about their studies and kotikoulu.
Why did you choose Imperial as the place to follow your interest in STEM subjects?
Sophie: "I joined the Theory and Simulation of Materials Centre of Doctoral Training (CDT) because the scope of the Masters course they offered was exciting. It allowed me to learn materials science, physics, programming skills and was an excellent platform to enter a PhD."
Mikkaila: "Tom Welton was really instrumental in giving me my opportunity for graduate study in chemistry. It is no exaggeration that I would not be here without the opportunity he gave me."
How do you find life at Imperial as a woman?
Mikkaila: "A little tiring – I personally feel a responsibility to undertake outreach and mentoring that many of my male colleagues do not, which is an added pressure on top of research. It is rewarding though."
Sophie: "The thing I always find hard with questions like this is that I have never experienced it as a man, comparison obviously brings the best perspective. I definitely suffered from imposter syndrome throughout my masters, I was convinced that I was only really on the course to boost the female numbers."
What did you learn during your time at Imperial, in class or out?
Mikkaila: "Writing is literally the worst! But worth it."
Sophie: "Too much to fit into one response!"
Who do you find inspiring at Imperial and why?
Mikkaila: "Jess Wade – she is relentlessly wonderful. My supervisors Tom Welton (see above) and Patricia Hunt – her enthusiasm for research is infectious, her kindness and support show that though academia has a reputation for dog-eat-dog it doesn’t have to be that way."
Sophie: "Anthony Spice, a coursemate from my masters, he always offered a different perspective and I owe a lot to his support throughout that year. Kim Jelfs, my current PhD supervisor, she helps me try to keep everything balanced and I don’t actually understand how she does everything that she does. Finally, Mikkaila – her ideas, optimism and drive to make things work, to be able to help contribute to her great idea of kotikoulu is incredible."
You recently launched a free networking service, kotikoulu. Could you please tell us more about this service and how it supports homeschoolers during the COVID-19 crisis?
Mikkaila: "At kotikoulu we act as a matchmaking service, connecting the homeschooler with the right volunteer to offer the support needed.
Volunteers can offer two kinds of support – either helping with curriculum work or by providing enrichment. We have such an amazing array of volunteers already, offering to talk about cosmic dust, sustainability, creative writing and theatre-making – or just do some reading and counting.
The form of this support is up to the match – video calls are popular, but we also suggest the volunteer can put together tailor-made resources. There is so much available online but sifting through that can be time-consuming. It took me long enough to come up with my lesson plans when I was teaching – I really feel for caregivers covering multiple subjects!"
How does kotikoulu work?
Mikkaila: "There is a short form on the website for caregivers and volunteers. Using the information provided we at kotikoulu make the best match possible and email introductions. What happens next is up to the caregiver and volunteer to agree!"
How is COVID-19 impacting students, parents and caregivers in the UK?
Mikkaila: "With schools closed, caregivers are suddenly loaded with the responsibility of maintaining education for their children, often with their own full-time job to contend with and sometimes little guidance. Homeschooling takes huge amounts of time, from face-to-face activities with the child, to researching and finding the best things to do. But it is so important to continue!"
What made you launch this free service?
Mikkaila: "I wanted to do something to help during this pandemic – it felt better than just raging into the ether. I used to be a schoolteacher, and I was conscious that suddenly homeschooling was going to be tough on caregivers. I looked around for some way to offer my help and there wasn’t really anything, so I enlisted Sophie and we set kotikoulu up."
Please tell us more about the volunteers you are working with. What criteria do volunteers need to fulfil to qualify for your initiative?
Mikkaila: "We’ve had a real range of volunteers sign up! As you’d perhaps expect tons of scientist, from undergrads to professors. We’ve also had teachers, filmmakers, artists, actors, historians and more. Our volunteers aren’t just from the UK, but from all over the world – which is fabulous as though we’re UK based, we love the idea of connecting people across borders. At the moment all volunteers need is a little time they are willing to donate."
Where do you see opportunities for other alumni to make a difference in these challenging times?
Mikkaila: "They could sign up for kotikoulu – I’m sure Imperial alumni would have heaps to offer!"
What are your plans for the future?
Sophie: "To get through the PhD and then we’ll see! The great thing is that I don’t feel limited, my experience at Imperial has provided me with the skills to explore a wide range of possible careers."
What advice would you give to girls who are thinking about studying STEM, particularly at Imperial?
Sophie: "To steal from a popular sports brand ‘Just do it’ – don’t let anyone, including yourself, hold you back."
Mikkaila: "You might not feel it but you absolutely belong here."
What makes you proud to be an Imperial alumna?
Mikkaila: "The community achieves such incredible things. It is humbling."
Sophie: "Being part of a rich community that continues to be engaged."
What one word or phrase would you use to describe Imperial alumni?
Do you have a favourite quote or saying?
Sophie: "But first, breakfast."