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Dr Sara Nasserzadeh

Social Psychologist

PhD School of HSSC, 2010

What drew you to Middlesex?

My decision to go to Middlesex over other universities was in three folds: 1) their social research and policy was one of the top ranking departments in the UK. Dr Betsy Thom (a world-renowned sociologist in the field of sociopolitical context of risk-taking behaviour) and Dr Lesley Hoggart (a prominent researcher in reproductive health and policy with an interest in young people and marginalized groups) were amongst the faculty of the program. 3) the campus was in greater London which then meant a rich socio-cultural experience for an international student.

What was the highlight of your time here, or what did you enjoy about studying here?

The richness of culture, exposure to true democracy, maturation of mind and intellect, making meaningful connections and friendships for life, sociocultural experiences that London offered (e.g. some of the best museums in the world are in London and are free!), plus the opportunity to work, study and be immersed in the British culture.

What inspired you to go into your line of work?

The passion to be the change I wanted to see in the world. In my case, to shed light on the lives of unseen populations, touch subjects that were considered taboo, contribute to the well-being and overall life satisfaction of our human community. I am fascinated by the way “connections” work and am most passionate to explore how they lead to meaningful and fulfilling relationships, how they help one grow, how they contribute to one’s awareness of self and others, and how these all could be seen similarly or differently across cultures. Since the turn of the century, I had the privilege to work with individuals, young people, couples, mental health and medical professionals, government agencies, corporations, press and media outlets, advocacy groups and so on in 37 countries around the world. The underlying theme for all the work I do is my deep observation and interest in understanding how people connect to themselves, their significant other(s) and to the society around them. I then enjoy decoding how these could be utilized to create effective strategies to nurture individuals and systems for the overall growth of our human community. I made a conscious choice to specialize in the field of human sexuality as potentially the most intimate, vulnerable, mysterious, and satisfying connection of all. Through the understanding of this level of connection, I then developed a framework to explain how individuals connect with the people closest to them, people who serve functional purposes in their lives, and the whole world around them. My life is summarized in studying and practising two arts: Art of inquiry and the art of connection.

When did you realise what your life goals were and then how did you go about planning to achieve them?

My father’s nickname for me was the Little Black Fish, a character of a children’s storybook that lived in a small pond with her parents. She always believed that there is a world out there, she ventures out and along the way meets different creatures that generously share their wisdom with her in response to her questions. She uses that wisdom to help others along the way and loses her life over it in the end. When you grow up with such a nickname, you cannot become anyone but someone who lives to learn and be genuinely interested in others around her. Having that on the back of my mind, when I started to work at the UNFPA offices in Tehran (2002), I noticed a huge gap between people’s knowledge about sexual and reproductive matters which shaped their attitudes and practices in their everyday lives. I conducted a thematic analysis on all the available educational material in the country at the time. For this, I worked with the ministry of education, the ministry of health and literacy movement. The result became a basis for a joint meeting of the ministries to recall the books for revisions. The first step was a novel venture on its own and huge success, however, there was not much expertise within the country to offer informed revisions. I left for England to gain the knowledge and skills to feedback to the process. I gained much more than only knowledge and skills which provided a much richer resource to the country as I created the BBC program and travelled back and forth to train colleagues, policymakers and so on.

How did Middlesex enable you to achieve your goals?

In one sentence, studying in the UK and Middlesex taught me how to BE not to DO. My education at Master's level (research methodology in social sciences) changed the way I thought about acquiring as well as eliciting knowledge.

I came from a system of learning that rewarded consumption of knowledge and descriptive analysis of a phenomenon. At Middlesex I learned the art of inquiry, seeing things in their context and mastering analytical evaluation of what otherwise have been taken for granted.

At the PhD level (social psychology and policy) as a phenomenologist who is also heavily influenced by social constructionist viewpoints, I learned how to question the common sense that was taken for granted. I learned that it is not what you look at that matters but what you see. I had the opportunity to practice the art of inquiry to look into the literature, elicit information through my empirical research methodology and to make sense of the qualitative data.

I learned to ADD to the existing knowledge not to simply CONSUME it.

On a logistical level, after I finished my master’s degree, Middlesex offered me a student-tutorship scholarship for my PhD program which made it possible for me to continue my academic growth. I was the only international student honoured by such privilege at the time, which was another blessing that I can count in my life.

What difficulties have you had to overcome along the way?

A shift of mindset from an educational system that was exam-driven and valued memory-based learning to a system that valued critical thinking and the production of knowledge rather than just consuming it was a big challenge for me at the beginning.

The other aspect was the general assumptions some individuals made around me being a young woman from Iran (with the general picture many have from the country and the whole region in their mind these days) who is interested in understanding the patterns of sexual and reproductive health of others. I found myself explaining myself over and over again as to why I became interested in this field and not others, why me, why I left Iran, how this fits with my values, my husband’s reactions to my interest and so on. On the other hand, these all helped me in my journey of self-awareness and provided me with an in-depth knowledge of other people’s struggles in their journey of choosing an unexpected path that I use to this date. So overall I am very grateful to the growth that these seemingly challenging aspects of my studying in England offered me.

Would you do anything differently if you were re-living your Middlesex experience?

Would it be ok to say no! I think I made the best out of my experience with the help of generosity of my professors (on top of the list Drs. Hoggart and Thom), my friends and caring individuals that I met over the years when I was in England.

What advice would you give students who are about to start at Middlesex?

If your time allows, get engaged in the community as much as possible, link up with the professors who have an interest in your areas of interest. They might have a volunteer or student job that you can get involved in. Be open to change, learn and grow. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the professors if you feel you are struggling in an area. Expose yourself to as many events, talks, and gatherings as possible. Most often you find that something tickles your interest that you didn’t know existed or could be of interest to you at all. You don’t know what you don’t know after all! If you see a gap, come up with an idea to address it, share it with the appropriate person at the university and you might be able to create something for yourself and others to benefit from. You are spending some years of your life at this university, you might as well make the most of it (whatever that means to you and in your life).

What is the proudest moment of your career so far?

After almost a decade after my graduation, I had the privilege to start the first Radio, Online and TV program on BBC World Service that provides evidence-based and candid information about sex and relationships in a delicate and culturally-respectful way.

I worked in 37 countries and across sectors. I am proud that I am trusted by some of the world most influential leaders to bring new perspectives and offer meaningful experiences that lead to the change of paradigm to these leaders. I see my work as offering meaningful change at the source, the spring that feeds the stream. I have seen how leaders’ change of paradigm towards how connections work could lead to devising strategies that influenced millions of people’s everyday lives in positive ways.

I just finished a 10-year research project and I can claim that I have found the critical ingredients of satisfying and thriving relationships at multiple layers. I help couples with their intimate relationships while facilitating high-level UN meetings to reach agreements and elicit best practices to include “hard to reach” groups. I work with communities where access to services and information is challenging and help companies and policymakers to make meaningful connections with their customers and communities they serve.

The peer respect I developed is another point of pride for me. By serving at the board of various organizations and initiating paradigm shifting discourses, I could influence and shape future discourses in the field of psychology in general and sexual and reproductive health specifically. This also allows me to foster the talent of our next generation that is immensely rewarding.

I am an awardee for the BBC Innovation of year award for “the Whispers” and for Social Impact by the British Council these are also both huge honours and something I am extremely proud of.

I am truly blessed, proud and honoured. Middlesex was a great choice for me!

To read more about Dr Sara's amazing work you can visit her website, follow her on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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