Black researchers shaping the future

As the UK marks Black History Month, researchers from across the University talk about their route to Cambridge, their inspiration and their motivation.

The Archaeologist

Chioma Vivian Ngonadi

PhD student (Gates Cambridge Scholar)
Department of Archaeology
& King's College

I explore the relationship between agriculture and iron working in Lejja in South-eastern Nigeria.

I’m usually found at the George Pitt-Rivers Laboratory for Bioarchaeology analyzing seeds, pottery, charcoal, and writing up my thesis, but I’ve just come back from a conference in Morocco.

My primary aim is to investigate how iron smelting in this part of Nigeria sustained life and integrated with the quest for food between c.2,000 and 3,000 Before Present.

In south-eastern Nigeria, scientific studies on prehistoric subsistence practices and plant exploitation are very few and are mostly based on hypothetical assumptions, oral history and ethnographic data. My research is the first thorough archaeological investigation of the ancient food history of this area.

I’m concerned about the dwindling state of archaeology in Nigeria as more attention is given to oil and gas exploration, and tourism development. Archaeology needs to be preserved and protected, not least because it has so much to contribute to sustainable development and education across Nigeria.  

I completed my undergraduate degree in Nigeria and my master’s in Tanzania, both in the fields of archaeology. I then joined the academic staff of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In 2015, I applied for a PhD position in Archaeology at Cambridge, and I was awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship to start up my PhD programme. Being a part of a global network of outstanding Gates Scholars who use their education to improve the lives of others really inspires me. 

Funded opportunities for MA and PhD studies are limited in Nigeria and so undertaking a PhD at the University of Cambridge will put me at the forefront of archaeological research and enable me to develop the next generation of African archaeologists on my return. I would like to use my academic position to create spaces for others along the way and build bridges through my subject. 

Cambridge is a great place to study because of its world-leading scholarship in Africa, archaeology and examining the development of food production in other parts of the world. The existence of the Cambridge African Archaeology group, African Studies Centre and more importantly the Cambridge Bioarchaeology and Geoarchaeology Laboratories gives me the opportunity to develop skills and knowledge to build a lasting international career in archaeology

Black History Month promotes the knowledge of black people, their history and contributions to the world. It is a month dedicated to celebrating our diverse communities and culture in Britain and other parts of the world.

The Speech Detective

Calbert Graham

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow & Research Associate, St John’s College
Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics

I use computer programmes to analyse the structure of speech in different contexts. One application of this is building systems which automatically detect the linguistic background of speakers for forensic purposes.

Forensic phonetics is concerned with the analysis of spoken language for investigative purposes where the characteristics of an individual’s speech are critical to their identity. More and more court cases involve the need to establish the speaker of recorded speech such as a hoax emergency call or a fraudulent phone transaction.

A person’s voice is not like their fingerprints or DNA because it varies, but speech is still subject to structural constraints that make processing by both humans and machines possible.

My work also has exciting educational applications. Currently, I’m comparing the different patterns of English spoken by speakers with different native languages to determine how their native language or dialect contributes to their retention of a foreign accent in English.

If we can isolate the influence of a speaker’s native language on their English, then we may be better able to build pronunciation training systems to help them to reduce that influence.

Cambridge is a great place to work because there are excellent opportunities to collaborate with researchers in related disciplines across the University. The Cambridge Language Sciences research centre has played an essential role in making this possible for linguists and other language researchers.

I’ve been a member of St John’s College for almost ten years now – as a student, research affiliate and College Research Associate – and it has been the most welcoming place. Diversity is respected and everyone is afforded the freedom to make their own unique contribution to college life.

Black History Month is a time to reflect not just on the struggles for equality for which so many have fought and are still fighting, but also on the positive contributions black people have and continue to make to society. For me, it is not just about overcoming struggles – of which there are many – it is also about leadership, integrity and being a positive force for change in my little corner of the world.

The Cancer Decoder

Lynn Asante-Asare

PhD student, School of Clinical Medicine,
Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute
& St John’s College

I remember the exact day that I decided to become a cancer researcher. It was in a hospital in 2011 when a very close friend of mine passed away from an aggressive form of cancer.

I was fresh out of sixth form college with no idea how to become a cancer researcher or what a career in academia entailed. Although I knew nothing about cancer academically, emotionally I felt like I knew everything I could know.

Seven years later, that experience still drives me as I enter the final year of my PhD. Within that is a desire to help people, take opportunities as they come, challenge myself intellectually along the way and continue to diversify my skills.

My research focuses on molecules called ‘glycans’, which are found on the surface of tumour cells. These appear in different patterns depending on the aggressiveness of the cancer. If we can catch a glimpse of these on an MRI scan, we can work out how the cancer might behave and therefore what we need to do to help the patient.

The practical side of my research involves me growing prostate and breast cells from normal and cancerous tissue, pulling apart the cells, and studying the characteristics which the cancer cell has gained to make it so aggressive and dangerous.

I use a variety of techniques to do this, all of which I conduct in labs at the CRUK Cambridge Institute on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus. I also work with researchers in the Department of Biochemistry in the city centre and spend some time there too.

I once showed a local cancer support group what breast cancer cells look like up close under a microscope and explained the importance of high quality imaging machines in studying cancer. After my talk, a lady came back and asked: "How many races do I have to run to get you another microscope to allow you to further your research?”

Vast donations are made to charities such as Cancer Research UK, who subsequently fund researchers like me. So I feel a real responsibility to share our work with the public and show that scientists in the lab, and people running CRUK’s Race for Life, for example, are equally important in our efforts to beating cancer.

Black History Month is more than a time to celebrate famous black pioneers. Many of our parents moved to the UK from African and Caribbean countries, got jobs, put their hands to work, started businesses, sent us to school, and now many of us are strong members of society.

This is all part of black history. It’s a time to wear your cultural attire, cook food from your country of heritage and share it with all races. I love to attend Black History Month events and see people of all races attending, celebrating our history together.

The Pollution Detective

Olalekan Popoola

Research Associate, Department of Chemistry
& Queens’ College

An estimated 12.6 million deaths are caused every year by an unhealthy environment, mostly in low and medium income countries. And the combined effects of air pollution and second-hand smoking account for about 8.2 million mortalities.

My research seeks a better understanding of air pollution using very low-cost, portable devices so the challenges of air pollution can be tackled more effectively.

I’m originally from Nigeria, where I studied for my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Chemistry. I came to the UK in 2009 for my Doctoral degree in the Centre for Atmospheric Science. I continued my research in the group as a research associate working on air pollution and its impacts on human health and the environment.

Today, I’m usually found analysing air quality data from instruments which we have deployed in the UK (Cambridge, London, Cranfield, Norwich) and through our collaborations in Nairobi, Kenya, Dhaka, Bangladesh, Lagos, Nigeria and Beijing, China.

I also use measurements to validate and interpret sophisticated air pollution models which are used to forecast future air pollution events under specific source emission scenarios and changing climatology.

My research is helping to revolutionise air pollution studies and deliver a cheaper option for monitoring air pollution, especially in low income countries. In developed nations, my approach complements the existing infrastructure used by air pollution monitoring agencies and regulators.

I’m also contributing to studies of how poor air quality impacts on human health. Previous exposure studies have mostly relied on limited ambient measurements, extrapolating to larger spatial and temporal samples using models. But low-cost, portable air quality sensors now make it possible to more accurately study individual exposure.

Cambridge offers excellent research facilities and mentorship for both students and research staff.  In addition, the University fosters international collaborations both with academic and industrial partners.

Black History Month is an important opportunity to engage and inspire upcoming aspiring talents from my community with the opportunities which are available to them.

The Sun Seeker

Sandile Mtetwa, PhD student

Department of Chemistry
& Peterhouse College

I’m helping to transform the provision of clean and cost-effective energy alternatives in Africa and other parts of the world where sunlight is abundant.

Converting sunlight into a storable and clean energy resource would not only allow the majority of Africa’s energy needs to be met, it would also reduce health risks posed by hazardous fuels.

My research focuses on the development of materials with the ability to convert sunlight into hydrogen. These materials are known as monolithic metal-organic frameworks and they offer various advantages such as high thermal and mechanical stability as well as high surface area and porosity which are key in the sunlight-to-chemical-energy conversion process.

In the future, I would like use my lab work as a foundation to start up practical and implementable energy resource projects. My passion is to reach out to marginalised communities as well as resuscitate some industries that have been negatively impacted by high energy costs.

I hope my research will make a significant contribution to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 7, which is to ‘ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all’.

I work in the Department of Chemistry most days of the week. I carry out experiments on synthesis of materials as well as characterisation and general research work on my computer. I work mainly with PXRD, TGA and FTIR spectroscopy techniques. I occasionally work at the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology where my co-supervisor is based.

Cambridge is a science hub full of greatness. Walking in the footsteps of Isaac Newton, Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking gives me confidence to pursue a PhD here. I also have a very supportive network that includes my supervisor, academic mentor, fellow research group mates and endless resources to help me through the challenges in my research.

Being on the Gates-Cambridge scholarship has been a blessing because of the rich network provided by the other scholars. I have joined amazing people in projects which they have started, such as Promoting Girls in STEM, a programme which inspires eight to twelve-year-old girls to be more enthusiastic about taking up science subjects. 

For me, Black History Month at Cambridge is a reminder that we too are Cambridge. I’ve been inspired to learn about alumni like myself, in particular the international businesswoman Winnie Muriithi, who completed her PhD in Chemistry here.

Earlier this year, I was part of the organizing committee of the Africa Together conference in Cambridge. As a moderator for the Women Empowerment Panel, I met incredible leaders such as Dr Amani Abou-Zeid, Professor Mthuli Ncube and Lucy Quist – it was such an honour to interact with them.

The Risk Governor

Othman Cole

Senior Faculty in Management Practice (Finance),
Judge Business School
& Fellow of Hughes Hall

I aim to help improve the lives of the least fortunate around the world. It can be argued that countries with significant natural resources have a head start in developing prosperous economies but we tend to see the opposite.

I hope my research makes a contribution to understanding how vast natural resources can be better managed to achieve sustainable economic growth and prosperity for all.

I obtained my MPhil in Finance and PhD in Management Studies at the Judge Business School. I then held a position as Assistant Professor of Finance in London before returning to Cambridge as a senior faculty member and deputy director of the Executive MBA. I am also a Fellow of Hughes Hall, where I am an alumnus.

I investigate how countries rich in natural resources can better manage them and diversify their economies by developing other sectors to achieve long-term sustainable economic growth and stability.

I also look at the financing of large infrastructure projects and specifically Public-Private Partnerships or Private Finance Initiatives. Better understanding of the risk allocation for these projects can have a significant impact on their delivery and serve society better.

I believe the achievements of black people should be celebrated and brought to the fore. One of my key passions in life is to inspire young, under-privileged, sometimes disillusioned ethnic minority students by showing that they too can study and work at Cambridge University and go on to great success!

Cambridge is a truly wonderful place and I cannot imagine doing what I’m doing anywhere else. The ecosystem of highly collaborative curious minds combined with the resources available across the University enables my work to thrive.

The Knowledge Disseminator

Samuel Asare

Postdoctoral Researcher,
Research for Equitable Access and Learning (REAL) Centre, Faculty of Education

Africa has made tremendous advances in widening access to education but learning outcomes have been low, especially for students who are disadvantaged due to poverty and disability. To address the learning crisis, we need to make better use of research conducted in Africa that takes account of local context.

I come from Ghana, where I did my undergraduate and masters degrees, before completing my PhD in New Zealand.

I’m currently mapping research about education in Africa conducted by researchers, institutes and networks in sub-Saharan Africa. At the moment, it’s difficult to find this research mainly because it’s scattered across several outlets, which restricts its visibility and use.

By developing a common platform online, I will make it easier for researchers and other stakeholders to access this valuable knowledge and help identify areas for further research. In doing so, we can better inform African education policy and practice, as well as global debate on these issues.

Very broadly, I’m interested in why students undertake a university qualification but within this, I have examined the role that parents and teachers play in students’ learning.

My supervisors and colleagues show great interest in my professional development and I’ve gained so many opportunities. I have benefited from Cambridge’s national and global standing – my reputation as an early career researcher has increased considerably since I joined the University.  

Black History Month is an opportunity to learn about the tremendous contribution of black people to humanity and to inspire the current generation to achieve excellence. 

The System Designer

Alexander Komashie

Senior Research Associate, Engineering Design Centre,
Department of Engineering and THIS Institute Postdoctoral Interdisciplinary Fellow

The NHS and other health systems in the developed world have made great progress in health technology and diagnostics. But if you have excellent clinicians, medication and technology in a badly designed system, patients are likely to have bad experiences. 

I seek a better understanding of how healthcare delivery services operate as a system and then work out how to design them effectively using an engineering systems approach.

I arrived in England in 2002 to do my Master’s degree in Advanced Manufacturing Systems in London. I had a passion for mechanical engineering design but in one lecture I heard Dr Ali Mousavi declare that “Systems Engineers should run the government. We should make the big decisions”. I was taken aback and by the end of the day, I had said goodbye to mechanical engineering and embraced systems engineering.

My PhD, in part, looked at ways of improving patient experience of care delivery without compromising the experience of staff. I used queuing theory to demonstrate how a focus on improving patient experience can impact on staff and proposed a model for understanding the trade-offs.

Moving to Cambridge has added another dimension to my interest in systems. I now see design, as an approach to solving problems, as fundamental to systems that consistently delivery good value to the end users, including in healthcare. To improve patient experience, we need to design better delivery systems.

During the early phases of projects I spend time with patients in focus groups exploring their experiences of the care delivery systems they have used. I also interview doctors, nurses and managers in the NHS to explore their experiences of providing care in the system. This can be a very powerful, challenging and motivating experience.

I’m normally based in the Engineering Department with the Cambridge Engineering Design Centre. While others seek to “transport” what works in engineering into healthcare, our approach is to translate what works in engineering into healthcare, learning from clinicians whilst challenging the status quo. 

This year, I also became a postdoctoral interdisciplinary fellow of The Healthcare Improvement Study Institute, so I’m now also working on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus.

I think Black History Month is important. A true achievement for society would be to see a colourless future based on a deep reflection on, and appreciation of, the past.

Photography: Tom Almeroth-Williams