Talent in Diversity: Black History Month 2019 Part 1

We’re celebrating Black History Month 2019 with PRISM, the Crick’s race equity network, by highlighting the diversity of talent we have here at Crick. Throughout October, we’re sharing interviews and biographies highlighting Crick colleagues, colleagues at other UK-based research institutes, and historical figures.  

In the first group of interviews, we’re talking to Faith Uwadiae and Yolanda Ohene from the Crick and UCL, and hearing about John Edmonstone, the naturalist and taxidermist who inspired Charles Darwin. 

These biographies will eventually be used in engagement projects with schools and communities in Camden and beyond to help young people to learn about and pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and related fields.

To find out more about the project or to nominate a colleague or historical figure, email prism-network-committee@crick.ac.uk

Faith Uwadiae, postdoc, the Crick

What’s your current role at the Crick?

I currently work as a postdoc in Jean Langhorne and Dinis Calado’s labs. My work predominately involves using mice to understand the immunological link between malaria and a type of cancer called Burkitt’s Lymphoma.

The project is really interesting to me because, while people have known for more than 50 years that the two diseases are connected, they haven’t known the reasons. If you eliminate malaria from an area, you also eradicate cases of Burkitt’s but the connection is really understudied.

In my work I try and replicate this link by giving malaria to mice that have the ability to develop Burkitt’s Lymphoma-style tumours and assess what happens next. This means that on a daily basis I spend a great deal of my time in the Crick’s animal research facility with the mice, sometimes hanging out with mosquitoes and the rest of time doing experiments in the lab.

As my studies require my mice to develop tumours, they can take months or years. I have to plan my experiments very far in advance to make sure I get results in a timely fashion. My work requires a great deal of juggling to line up the mosquitoes, mice and the tumours. I am nine months into this postdoc, so I am excited to see what I find out.  

How do you feel that your background benefits your work?

I am a Black British scientist from Nigerian descent and I personally feel like this identity really motivates me to do what I can to improve our understanding of malaria. For instance, when I told my mum that I was moving into malaria research she was so pleased because this is a disease that significantly affects Nigerians. 

Nigeria actually has the highest malaria burden worldwide and my first-hand connection to the country motivates me to enhance understanding of the disease and its associated complications to improve outcomes.

Growing up, I constantly watched my parents and family friends having to take anti-malarials whenever they went back home. While anti-malarials are great there is a lot that we don’t understand about malaria and the more knowledge we gain, the closer we get to eradicating the disease and this motivates me to play my part. 

What were your motivations to study and work in STEM?

When I was in Year 9, I was 100% sure that I did not want to pursue a career in STEM at all. In fact, I was pretty sure I would do something art-based. However, I had a teacher who made me take GCSE sciences to keep my options open and I am so glad that she did. 

Faith Uwadiae.

I started to fall in love with biology during my GCSE and fell head over heels for it in my A level classes. My teacher got me super excited about different bodily systems, including the immune system and nervous system, and I just wanted to keep learning more.

At university I studied biomedical research at King’s College London because I was unsure if I wanted to pursue a medical career or a scientific one. I figured I loved science, and if I was still interested in medicine I could apply after my degree. 

By the end of my first year I had decided medicine was not for me because I had too many questions about why things were happening. So I switched to a biochemistry degree. It was during my degree that I discovered the field of immunology. 

Since then, apart from a brief stint outside of research, I have worked in immunology. For me, being paid to learn about how the body protects us or contributes to disease is the best thing in the world.

As it’s Black History Month, who is your Black Hero?

Outside of my mother I would say one of my absolute Black heroes is Malorie Blackman. Growing up I remember reading her book Noughts and Crosses, a young adult book that discussed race with the roles being reversed with Black people being on top and White people being second class citizens. 

The book followed two young kids from different races and how they navigate their lives from young children to adults while growing up in this racialised society so reminiscent of our own. This book was probably one of the first books I had ever read by a Black author and this book honestly shaped my understanding of the concept of race as a social construct. 

And seeing Malorie Blackman as a prominent and celebrated Black author made me think that being an author was something that I could feasibly do.

Yolanda Ohene, PhD student, UCL

What does your work entail?

I develop new MRI techniques to try to target the early changes in the brain that might occur in neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s Diease. I enjoy my work because it is multi-faceted. I spend my time working with the MRI sequences and doing brain scans, but also I use biology techniques to look at the molecule components of samples.

On top of all that, I use mathematical modelling and computer analysis. Working on the interface between physics and biology brings new questions and variety every day.

How do you feel that your background benefits your work?

I think that it is difficult to interpret how my background plays a role in the physics that I do, but certainly I can see the environmental factors that influence health and disease. Being from an ethnic minority background, I see how important it is to incorporate these factors into our studies.

What were your motivations to study and work in STEM?

I wanted to study physics because I have always been really curious about the world around us, and always asking “but why?”. Now, I find it fascinating that we are able use physics to try to solve some of the most important healthcare problems.

 

Yolanda Ohene.

As it’s Black History Month, who is your Black Hero?

My Black Hero has to be Audre Lourde. Reading her work has both challenged and supported so many of my thoughts, ideas, and opinions in equal amounts. She has really opened my mind and given me the courage to keep on fighting.

John Edmonstone

John Edmonstone was a black enslaved man probably born in Demerara, British Guiana (present day Guyana in South America). After he moved to Scotland and gained his freedom, he went on to work at Edinburgh Museum stuffing birds and teaching taxidermy to students at the University of Edinburgh, including Charles Darwin. 

Edmonstone inspired Darwin with accounts of the tropical rain forests in South America and is thought to have encouraged him to explore there. The taxidermy Darwin learnt from Edmonstone proved extremely useful in his job on the H.M.S. Beagle as the ship’s naturalist during its 1831 voyage.

These skills would have helped Darwin form his theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin’s ground-breaking theory of evolution traced all races and species back to a common ancestor, which challenged the mainstream theory of the time that white people had a different origin from black people and were, therefore, a separate and more superior species.

John Edmonstone.

In 2009, a plaque honouring John was commissioned and unveiled in Lothian Street, close to where he once lived in Edinburgh. A small but important reminder of an overlooked pioneer, whose teachings and mentorship shaped scientific progress.

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