Personal Histories: Anne Oyewole

This October is Black History Month, a month dedicated to celebrating the history, achievements and contributions of black people in the UK. Although we should honour the successes throughout the year, it provides a special focus on their lives and experiences. 

We want to honour our own staff around the University, by learning more about their interests, likes and dislikes and aspects of their culture, to get a sense of their stories and histories. 

For our first blog, we spoke to Anne Oyewole, a Research Associate currently working with the Stroke Research Group, to find out more about her.

How did you end up in Newcastle?

About 13 years ago I applied for an MRes at Northumbria University and ended up being awarded the post which was a collaboration with a chemical company, so that was unique and fun. I thought at the time because I was coming up from London that I would only be here for a year, but one year evolved into thirteen years! Since then I have completed my PhD at Newcastle University and held a few postdoc positions, so it’s great to still be here.

How did you become involved in your role?

I completed my PhD in Dermatology followed by a couple of postdoc positions in this department. I then joined  the Neuromuscular team within the John Walton Muscular Dystrophy Research Centre (based at the Centre for Life) as the Post-marketing Surveillance Coordinator. In this role, I was responsible for supporting pharmaceutical companies with Phase IV studies for their licensed therapies. I was keen to gain more hands on experience setting up and delivering a clinical study, so I moved to the Stroke Research Group, where I am coordinating a clinical study evaluating the diagnostic accuracy of a point of care device. All the expertise, knowledge and experience I have gained over the last decade have been extremely valuable and helped me to secure my new role (which I’ll start in December 2019) as the Programme Manager for medical devices, diagnostics and digital technologies within the NIHR-Innovation Observatory, the national medical horizon scanning facility based at Newcastle University.

What are your main hobbies and interests outside of work?

I’m very passionate about dancing. I love dancing, in particular Bollywood dancing which I do at Dance City. I also enjoy ballroom and Latin dancing and Afro Mix, which is a mixture of different African styles of dance. I love cooking dishes from all over the world and I’m often inviting friends over, so that I can cook and bake for them. Over the last few years, I’ve set myself cooking/baking goals and this year my goal is to improve my bread baking skills as well as perfect my pastry techniques. So far this year I’ve enjoyed making croissants, naan bread, shortcrust pastry, bagels, Challah and all sorts.

What would you regard as your proudest achievement?

Though I have a lot to be proud of, one that stands out for me is having done my A levels and not getting the grade that I was expecting. Getting a lower grade meant I didn’t get into my first choice university and I remember at that time feeling my whole world had crumbled around me, it seemed very difficult to see how I was going to move forward. My family were all very supportive, and said, “It really wouldn’t be terrible to go to your second choice!” Although I wasn’t expecting to go to my second choice university, I continued and had a great time there. My passion and joy for science didn’t diminish in that time – if anything it increased, and so I was inspired and encouraged to go on to pursue postgraduate studies.

I think the thing I am proud of is that at the time it was difficult to see how things would come together, but actually things have turned out really well. Something that my parents instilled within me was to appreciate my education and to be disciplined and work hard. Being disciplined has been a real blessing as I’ve been able to go on from my Biology degree to complete my MRes (Masters) and PhD as well as to go on with my research career.

What’s the biggest challenge you have faced?

Completing my PhD thesis!

I think some of the challenges I experienced before and during my PhD journey helped me to develop a good measure of resilience, which was so important in getting me through the writing up phase of my PhD, along with a supportive supervisor (Prof. Mark Birch-Machin) and my family and friends. Obviously in life there are always going to be challenges we face that don’t always lead to a positive outcome but I’ve been reminded recently through personal challenging circumstances I’m facing, that these times can be good opportunities to learn and grow.

What inspires you?

One of the things that shapes me would be my Christian faith. My trust in and love for Jesus inspires and encourages me to look out for and love other people. My faith is also the reason I love science – I love learning more about our universe and understanding more about the human body.

Can you give me a selection of your favourite things from your culture?

I mentioned dancing and that’s definitely something from my culture as well as listening/dancing to Afrobeats, there’s a real joy in being able to move so freely and rhythmically to the beat – I love that! I love wearing colourful clothing and eating Nigerian food such as jollof rice with plantain and moi moi. Growing up in London meant that I was exposed to a lot of different cultures, so as well as enjoying eating food from other countries I enjoyed learning about different cultures too.

In the Nigerian culture it’s very important that you respect your elders and this is instilled within you from a child. I’m really thankful that this is the case, as It’s sad when I see older people in our society not being respected or just ignored because their ideas, opinions, knowledge, expertise and life experience are not seen as valuable, which is not the case! Older people have so much to contribute to our society.

What do you think about when you hear “Black History Month”?

Firstly, I think of the legacy left by great heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr and Harriet Tubman and countless unsung heroes. It’s great that we have the opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of so many black people throughout history this October. Whilst there is lots to celebrate, Black History Month is still a reminder that there is still lots to be done to bring about further change. Going forward it’s important to see more engagement and open dialogue on current racial issues across all sectors of our society, as so many people today still face discrimination because of their ethnicity.

Thank you so much to Anne for taking the time to speak with us. We hope you enjoyed getting to know a bit more about her and her story (and maybe have been inspired to try some baking?).

We’ll hopefully be running this blog series for the next few weeks, so if you would be interested in talking to us about yourself, or know someone else who would, we would love to hear from you! To take part, please contact Claire Bailie.

Why make a Faculty Athena SWAN application?

We submitted our first application for a Faculty Silver Athena SWAN Award in May 2018. All our eligible schools and institutes had already engaged with Athena SWAN, and nearly three-quarters of our academic and professional staff were in units already holding Silver awards. However, rather than continue to make lots of separate awards, we decided to change our approach and move to making a single Faculty application. In this blog, we explore why we made this decision, what the benefits (and costs) are, and some reflections on the process. We welcome any comments or questions, and are more than happy to talk to any other Athena SWAN and EDI teams already taking this approach, or thinking of doing so.

Why make a Faculty Athena SWAN application?

This was the question we asked ourselves over two years ago now – should we keep making 10 or more individual Athena SWAN applications, or just make a single Faculty application? We hold 5 Bronze and 4 Silver departmental awards: with around 75% of our staff in Silver departments, was it time to make a Faculty Silver application?

It was a big question, but in the end, one that had a very easy answer.

We discussed the pros and cons widely: centrally with the VC and Dean of Diversity, internally with our Faculty Executive and EDI Committees; and also sought advice externally from other universities, and of course, the ECU. What became clear to us during all these discussions was that the potential benefits far outweighed the potential costs, and that making a single Faculty application was the right thing for us to be doing.

The five most compelling reasons for change were:

  1. We could be fully inclusive of all our staff and students. Our Faculty, like many others, is a complex place, and not all academic and professional staff sit in units that are eligible to make applications for Athena SWAN. We also have a satellite campus in Malaysia, NUMed, with staff and students moving between the two. We wanted to include all our students, wherever they are in the world, in our EDI activities.
  2. We could more easily develop a cohesive and ambitious Faculty-wide EDI vision and strategy, one that could increase visible leadership and engagement in our staff and students, and leave a lasting legacy.
  3. We could tackle those bigger issues, many which lie outside the immediate control of each unit. I’m sure anyone who has attempted to change an HR form or a central policy knows what we’re talking about here. By joining together, we have more clout and also more resources for achieving change.
  4. We could pool all our data to identify issues that can otherwise remain invisible in larger datasets. We have 1800 staff and 5500 students, meaning that we can explore intersectionality for the first time. Datasets can also be too small to be conclusively informative at departmental level, and we wanted to see how far we had come as a Faculty.
  5. We could free-up time from making multiple (and often overlapping) applications and actions plans. We could spend more time exchanging and embedding good practices and addressing joint areas of concern, and more readily expand our EDI work outside of gender equality.

Of course we also had to consider the potential costs. We were concerned that a Faculty award could reduce engagement from staff and students, and that units might lose momentum with the action plan held at Faculty level. We decided to address this by each department continuing to hold a local action plan that not only supports our joint Faculty ambition, but also identifies and addresses local cultural and discipline-specific issues based on their own data. We are also trying to make sure that staff and students are all increasingly aware of the agenda and the part they can play in creating inclusive work and study spaces.

And of course, being a medical faculty, there were concerns about us losing our Silver Athena SWAN status, and the immediate impact that could have on funding success. Not holding a Silver award would also potentially mean that the institution could not apply for its Silver renewal in April 2019. This is where talking to ECU really helped us to identify a workable solution. They listened to what we had to say and, acknowledging the benefits and the potential challenges and risks, have offered us two bites of the cherry. If we don’t get our Faculty Silver award at first attempt, we can keep our current departmental awards and apply again next April. Fingers crossed we don’t have to do that given all the work involved, but this arrangement encouraged us to take the plunge.

At the end of the application process, whatever the result on October 19th, we feel we have made the right decision. We may not have got everything right yet, and we acknowledge that this is just one step in our journey, but we are certainly moving in the right direction towards becoming fully inclusive.

Faculty EDI Team,