Chemistry and biochemistry senior lecturer Dr Sandra Appiah has taught at MDX for 15 years and before that studied her PhD at the University. As Black History Month 2022 begins, she explains that previously she had held back from social justice activities because they seemed all-consuming and risked not going anywhere, thinking she would wait until she became a Professor and confident she would have impact. But two years ago, on the day the Black Lives Matter movement burst onto the scene, she had a change of heart: "I just thought how long am I going to wait," she says.
She was discerning about the approach she wanted to take to exploring barriers facing those from black and minority backgrounds. "I am an Analytical Chemist by training. Where is the evidence that students’ grades are compromised because of being Black or Brown? I needed data, not just that they are".
She convened a team from across MDX of academics, technicians and students to look at factors including student progression and attainment. "We started off with the question - what is the problem?, as scientists do," Sandra says.
She applied for and won a grant from the Royal Society of Chemistry to extend the work to surveying the whole UK HE sector and enable students working on the project to be paid. In partnership with MDX, publishers and education training providers McGraw Hill conducted an audit to see how many of their UK and US authors were Black. Students including then-MDX Students’ Union Vice Presidents Jaudat Alogba and Anastasia Calin examined universities’ staffing diversity and designed informational posters.
"Building the website was a labour of love... It was designed by all of us," says Sandra. Successes in Academia was chosen as a name for the project collectively by staff and students working on it, having gone through many iterations. "We don’t want something that says “Black" or "Brown” because it excludes people. Half of the team were White in any case" says Sandra. "Everything we do we wanted to make as inclusive as possible”.
One aspect was looking at how MDX was doing - "are we making any progress, how do our students feel and how they felt about MDX - how it had helped them and any discriminations they felt”. In December 2021, Successes in Academia held its first Black Chemists' Conference and a workshop supported by the Royal Society of Chemistry. Now Sandra and colleagues are building a global Knowledge is Change consortium, to drive inclusivity in research.
A series of blogs profiling Black chemists has been published by McGraw Hill's US branch to showcase their research. The ultimate goal is to diversify the curriculum in higher education by embedding the work of these scientists in learning resources.
Sandra and Successes in Academia’s objective of encouraging underrepresented groups comes to life hearing about the experiences of high-flying recent MDX doctoral students.
Archie Archibong, who since 2001 has worked as a nurse, midwife and health visitor, describes the special qualities of MDX as follows: “the environment gives opportunity to people from different backgrounds, with different capabilities and who speak different languages. You see people from different cultures interacting with each other - the learning environment is very inclusive. The lecturers are passionate to see you succeed. MDX gives you a chance to explore your dream and your career”.
Archie studied for his BSc, MSc and most recently his PhD at MDX, after a brief interlude to earn his postgraduate diploma at another institution. In March he was appointed research lead for 0-19 services in Newham, covering health visitors and the likes of school nurses. Before that, he was senior health visitor for Hackney for 7 years. As a nurse he worked in forensic healthcare settings and supporting services in young offenders’ institutions and adult prisons.
“I see a lot of young people from very troubled backgrounds,” he says. “When you look at what caused their traumatic experiences, it boils down to parenting and families”.
It was the lack of good opportunities to enable young people to thrive and his awareness of the network of social, cultural and economic factors critical to outcomes for children that brought him into health visiting. His PhD was in the role of health visitors in decision-making about care for vulnerable infants.
Part of his inspiration to go from practice into research, Archie says, was to put his varied healthcare experience into context, “and to bring out a better version of me to benefit the community,” he says.
He praises MDX Nursing Professor Michael Traynor and Dr Helen Hingley-Jones from the Department of Mental Health and Social Work for seeing the impact of his proposal - which brought health visiting and social care together - and the School of Health and Education’s open-minded and supportive ethos across the board. When he presented his original, imperfect PhD proposal, “they didn't just judge me by my flaws,” he says. “They were not dismissive of me - they thought I had something to offer, I had potential. They said have you thought about this, that, have you looked into that area?”
Dr Sandra Appiah will be taking part in an EDUBATE at MDX on Thursday 6th October on Acknowledging Black Achievers’ Success, chaired by Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management and co-chair of the MDX Anti-Racism Network Dr Doirean Wilson, alongside Dr Jak Beula of CEO of Nubian Jak Community Trust, MDX Senior Lecture in Criminology Dr Rima Saini and singer and actress Dr Patti Boulaye. Further EDUBATEs will follow on 20th October and 27th October.