Michael “Mike” Sulu is a Lecturer in Experiential Biochemical Engineering education, who supports charities and organisations that work towards equity in higher education, and enjoys communicating both science and the importance of equity in all fields.
Below is the full transcript of the episode. Enjoy, and please do provide feedback or get in touch with Mike Sulu via Twitter: @michaelsulu
Dennehy and Dasgupta (2017) Female peer mentors early in college increase women’s positive academic experiences and retention in engineering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Vol. 114(23). Pg. 5964-5969.
Jazmin, Nuzhat, Mike
Hello, and welcome to the What on Earth Podcast. I’m your host, Jazmin.
And I’m your host Nuzhat. In this podcast, we celebrate Earth, environmental and planetary scientists from diverse backgrounds, and get to know what they’re up to.
And we also speak to scientists from different disciplines about how we can decolonise science to make it more inclusive for everyone.
In this episode, we’ll be talking to an engineer about the STEM community and how we can make it more inclusive. So today, we have Mike Sulu. Hi Mike! [Mike] Hello. [Nuzhat] So first of all, who are you? And what is your research?
So, my name is Michael Sulu (or Mike Sulu). I am a biochemical engineer. My job title is a Senior Teaching Fellow. So, my role at work mostly revolves around teaching around experiential engineering. So, it’s more about the practical side of engineering. But my research is really based on growing cells, any type of microorganism, sometimes a macro-organism. So just looking at the best ways to grow them, when you grow them what they can make. And then after that, like how you get the products out either out of the cell or away from the cell, so you can get whatever it is that you’re really wanting to be pure. Sometimes it’ll be simple stuff like, like, we do some fermentation for beer, which is the easiest form, easiest form of fermentation. And then sometimes it’ll be more complex stuff. So, we make some vaccines or some, I guess, like cancer therapies, that kind of thing.
That’s really interesting. So how did you become interested in doing that?
I think quite typically, I went to university-actually not that typically. I went to university and started a degree in chemistry, hated it, it was too much chemistry. And then I thought, I like all of the sciences, so picked by biochemical engineering, because it was a mixture of biology, chemistry, physics, and maths. And then all the way through my undergraduate until my final year, when I did a research project, I thought I was going to leave engineering, and get a typical kind of city job. And then I did my undergraduate research project in fact of that I actually quite liked growing cells to fermentation. And so that led me into a MRes, and then a PhD. And then I’ve been here ever since just like slowly going back together.
I’m going to, at this point, mention that I started working for the Royal Academy of Engineering, as an Education Policy Assistant. And what’s really interesting is that you mentioned that right now, that you almost thought you’d leave engineering and go into the city? And that’s actually, what we’re also interested in here, because we’re trying to see how we could retain engineers, there’s like a shortfall of engineering in the UK. And that might probably increase, especially due to Brexit, and due to like, increasing difficulty in immigration in this country. And so what would you say was the point that you thought, actually, I don’t want to go into the city. Like, what made you want to stay as an engineer?
I guess, there’s a couple of things from that question. And the first one was actually just doing some research. The practical side of engineering is, depending on your discipline can be quite abstract. And it’s also quite difficult to begin to engage with because of the cost of facilities. So especially as a Process Engineer, being able to work in a process within a university is quite, it’s quite hard. And it’s also quite limiting, because equipment is really expensive. So it wasn’t really until, I guess my final year education- of undergraduate education, that I thought, I got the chance to experience working within a lab, deciding what to do for myself, like trying to like as a low level like driving, my own research? And that’s the thing I think, I found the most interesting, you got to be more creative within the engineering space. But there’s also, I guess, the RAEng (Royal Academy of Engineering) of in discussing this shortfall for a few years. And a lot of people especially from Black and Minority, Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds is kind of disagreeing with that, with that kind of idea, or that notion of there is a definite shortfall. Because a lot of people who are from these better- from like more diverse backgrounds, have to go into other areas because they can’t get jobs when they finish their degrees. So, there’s a large pool of people who could have become engineers who’ve been forced out as well as those who have chosen to leave because they don’t think engineering is for them.
Yeah. I think what’s especially interesting in the engineering community is that people who take engineering as a degree, there’s actually an over representation from the BAME community. And I’m just going to preface that and say that that’s quite a vague term ‘BAME’, that number that people call an over representation of engineers doesn’t look into the split between different genders, and also the different ethnic minority groups as well, definitely over representation in some races than other races. But you’ve raised a good point that it’s not that people are not choosing to continue engineering because they’re attracted to something, but they’re also being pushed away from engineering as a career. So, what, what kind of things do you think are important methods that the STEM community, the engineering community can adopt to try and encourage people to continue pursuing engineering as a career?
That’s a really good question. I think we- everyone always focuses on not working from a Deficit Model. So never saying it’s the group that doesn’t know something good. That’s why they can’t- they don’t fit in with that within the wider scheme of engineering? I think, like, there were a few groups who are doing good work, like there’s a group called ‘Equal Engineers’ who are trying to make engineering overall more, more inclusive for all of the protected characteristics. But I think a lot of workplaces just aren’t that inclusive, so if you go there, if you get to the point where you get to go there, and you’re the only Person of Colour, you’re probably going to question why that is. You’re not going to think- you’re unlikely to think you’re exceptional, you’re probably going to think that either they want People of Colour, or that People of Colour have come and they’ve left and they’ve left for a reason.
That’s very interesting, because also with engineering it’s perceived in some cultures, like the thing that you should do, as well as like being a lawyer or medical doctor. But we’ll see when you get there you like, actually, do I want to be here? Because it’s not, it doesn’t feel like I belong here, even though sometimes there is a perception and sort of like a pressure for you to do it, I suppose. I don’t know, interesting parallels there.
Yes. I think if you think about that, that cultural aspect, it’s just a push towards academic and vocational roles. So, there is always law, engineering, medicine, like the big three. And I think it’s just because they are academic. They are they can be relatively well paid. But they also definitely lead to a role afterwards, if you want to carry on with it.
If you can get in it. Yes, a thing as well. [Mike] Yeah. [Jazmin] Yeah.
So, Mike, you mentioned a really important point about how especially ethnic minorities, they can join a predominantly white work force, and then not feel a part of it. And I’ve been trying to look at studies, or research on mentorship for ethnic minorities, and there’s a lot of papers that say, is necessary, but they don’t really talk about the effects or the success rate of mentorship. But there is a lot of studies on women and sciences and how mentorship or help so. Though, there was a study by Dennehy and Dasgupta back in 2017 and they showed that when women had mentors that were other women, they were more likely to stay in engineering and pursue a career in it, compared to people who- compared to women who had no mentors, and they said that when they had women, as mentors, they were more able to see themselves in the engineering community, and they had more confidence in it and they were more likely to stay. What was really interesting is that actually women who received men as mentors, they were, it had like a mixed bag effect. So, for some women who had men as mentors, it was still successful. But sometimes, it had an effect that was similar as having no mentors. And then sometimes I had an even worse effect that they felt even less part of the STEM community and actually push them away. And it’s not just like feeling confident and feeling like you’re part of the community. So that was like an another report by the National Academy of Sciences. They did a gender difference report. And they share that it’s not just belonging, but actually women who had mentors, they were more likely to have grants funded by them. So, they had a statistic, they said that they looked at six different fields. And they said that women who had mentors or 93%, likely to have a grant funding compared to 68%. So, there’s the non-tangible effect of feeling like you’re part of STEM, and you’re another scientist, and but there’s also like, tangible effects, like having the practical skills to become a good scientist. So, in your personal opinion, what do you think makes a good mentor?
I think, so there’s- I think it will, in what you just said, there’s a lot to unpack. I think mentoring is in itself a skill and what’s not something you should like get into lightly and I think a lot of people mix up the kind of tutoring, mentoring, advising, supervising coaching type space, and then you can get it right for the individual, but you may not get it, you may not get it, right. So, if we think about, can we talk about gender? You think about the women who succeeded, who had also had women as mentors, I think for that to happen, there’s something that we people need to understand. And that is that it’s not a zero-sum game. A lot of people, especially when you’re in some way, minoritised want to help you, or mentor you, but don’t want you to replace them. And that can be that can have a net negative impact. And then if we think about the backcross, gender, mentoring, especially with the grant situation, this is obviously just me thinking about it off the top of my head, I think you’ve got to think about the fact that I think that a lot of the grant reviewers will probably be men. If you think about that, and the gendered way in which people kind of through society taught to use language. And to, especially when looking at like criterias of success, which you would have to fit into one. It would probably mean that the gendered use of language would be, could be removed by having a male mentor. And that may support the reviewing of that grant application. I think what actually should happen is that people should review grants better, and have to write that right in such a way that people will feel like this person would- the language is used has a large effect, I guess, on the success and not the science that’s within the grant proposal. Mentoring, like genuinely [is a] difficult, difficult skill. A lot of a lot of it does involve some coaching. Because you are going to be telling people things that they already know they need to do. So [you’re] just reinforcing it, and which is more coaching than mentoring. I think the problem that specifically men, like the ethnic minorities, or people who are racially minoritised would have, is that kind of sense of like, it’s like the middle child syndrome? We have to be mentored and be a mentee. That, yeah, so you’re doing it both ways. You’re always trying to bring people up from beneath you, but whilst always still getting advice from people above you. And that actually helps with your mentoring, say, I’ve done no formal mentoring training. I basically do- I’ve learned a little bit about mentoring in the difference between the forms of advising and supervising that kind of thing. But I do a lot more mirroring of the people who mentor me with the people who I mentor. And it’s often like, like, we keep saying, we don’t like to use a deficit model for anything. But so, there are there are things that you do need to tell people. So, it’s quite it’s a really difficult skill. And it’s I think the probably the biggest thing that you need to have as a good mentor is the ability to listen. But that’s probably one of the biggest things you need to have as a member of academic staff anyway. See, I think many people like to hear the sound of own voice like I am now talking. If you don’t listen, then you will never learn anything.
That is very true. I think especially like, I have two sisters that are 10 and 13 years younger than me. And I think one of the hardest thing is that I’ve been trying to be a mentor to them. Because I think being the oldest child and navigating like a landscape, kind of by myself, because I have first generation immigrant parents that they don’t know, as myself, I’ve been navigating by myself. And I’ve always wished I had a mentor. So, I’ve been trying to be a mentor to my sisters when I could be. But the hardest thing is sometimes like having an idea of what I think is best for them versus what they want, or what kind of advice or what kind of mentoring they want. So yeah, listening is very hard, I think, especially when it’s someone quite close to you or someone that you can see yourself in.
Yeah, absolutely. You also said, you’ve got first generation immigrant parents? How- do they know about the equality work you do? And how do they feel about it?
Oh! They don’t know anything of it to be honest. I have a, I don’t know if it’s a typical relationship to my parents or other first-generation immigrants. Because I’d already talk a lot about what I do to my parents we- It’s quite, I don’t know how to describe it, because they will always be there for me when I need it. But they’re not really involved. I wouldn’t say they know any of this. Partly because, um, you know, they grew up with, with a lot of hardship, being immigrants in this country, being from Muslim background, being from like Bangladesh, and India, they face a lot of hardship themselves. And I don’t talk about this, because I don’t want them to feel like, I don’t want them to be kind of sad about all the work I’m doing against discrimination and inequality, because I don’t want them to be burdened with the difficulties I have. I feel like they have a lot on their plate, and I don’t want to add more to it. So, I don’t really talk about it, if I’m honest, it’s a bit- it’s a pity, because maybe they would be proud of it. But I guess I have more fear about the hardship, I will add to them by sharing this kind of stuff.
Yeah, I understand that. I think that unless you have to do it in a public sphere, that’s going to be the typical response of the child of a first-generation immigrant. They because like they all your parents will have had to go through quite a lot of hardship and would have had to fight their own battles. And they would have fought them in thinking that things would be better for you. And things probably are, but they’re still not good. And you don’t want to have to put that extra pressure on your parents to try and support you. Who just want to make things better for your sisters and the next generation.
Kind of similar but different. My family’s since we’re going off track. So, three out of four for my grandparents were part of the Windrush generation. So, they came over from the Caribbean. Windrush. And of course, they suffered all the hardships associated [with] that particularly the racism and whatnot. But then, of course, then because racism does not stop, it also impacted like my dad. So, my dad definitely got it more and my uncles got it more and my auntie, because obviously they are- they have a darker skin colour than I do. Whereas my mum, she is mixed race, but she’s white passing. So, she didn’t get that much. But when she was with my dad, or consequential partners, that’s when the issues came up. And for them, I suppose they were kind of mentors to me in a way, and like telling me that this is what the world is like. This is what you will probably have to face because we know it will not stop because of how in- so they definitely are more kind of aware about institutional racism. So, they told me and my sister about that, because they’ve had first-hand experience of it. So, in a way I think in terms of mentorship, that’s how they’ve kind of interaction to me. And so like, for example, with the momentum gained for the Black Lives Matter after George was murdered, like my parents did actually be like, are you okay? I’m just like, unfortunately, this is how it’s probably going to be all the time because it’s not on us. Really. It’s mainly on white people to solve this problem. Even though obviously- but it’s also a generational trauma. And I think in that way, in terms of the mentorship, they are there to be like, just to look out for me, I suppose. Because they do know, they am trying my best to be an advocate for equality, and diversity and inclusion, and supportive of me and of course, the same time, they don’t know how to do that, because for one thing, I am the first to be in academia, so they don’t know what the differences are? But they’re just I think- for them, it’s more in terms of being a mentor, it’s more them just being there for me when I need it. There’s probably more emotional support than anything else. Because that’s what they could provide- that was that what they can provide. And also, just kind of because I live with my dad as well, and he does talk about it a lot at work, because he is the only Black man in his kind of- in his manager role. And he’s like saying that it’s, it’s basically- he’s basically saying that these people, these White people need to sort themselves out. It’s like, I’ll see- if I do it, then of course, I’m coming across as the angry Black man. So, like, he’s- for him, he’s tired? I think? But also, he realises that I will obviously I will probably will get tired eventually, because it’s never ending cycle. And most of time, we can try and do our best for others. But at the end of the day, I don’t have that power, and neither do my parents. So, I think it’s just kind of emotional support system in terms of mentorship in that way. So that is one type of mentorship, I guess, in terms of the emotional support you can provide.
Yeah, it definitely is. And also, like you say, it’s like, like this issue is cyclical, aren’t they? So, they will be able to give you advice based on their experiences, historically. And that’s always going to be- it’s always gonna be helpful. And that’s one of those things, I think that should also come into some form of good mentoring is when you when you are confronted with your mentee, having a difficult situation, if you should be able to give them advice to say they know how to navigate that situation. And it’s, it can be very difficult, especially when there are different races, ethnicities, or cultures that are making that situation difficult. It’s like it’s really difficult, I think- I think in some ways, I was really fortunate that my parents chose to leave London before they had kids. Well, I guess my mum more so and then moved to like the middle of nowhere. Because it means that I spent my entire- like from like 0 to 18 by like growing up in an almost entirely white space. And so it means that I’ve been socialised, like relatively white, which means that I can navigate white spaces better than someone who would have grown up, say, in a very like diverse place in central London. Which makes it, you know, makes places like UCL a little easier for me to exist in. And this is something I’ve talked to everyone- who Chris Jackson, who everyone knows about a little bit, because he grew up- he had a very similar upbringing to me, like, you see school pictures, and there’s only one other Black kid, or you’re the only Black kid in the class. You know, he grew up in a town that much like mine, I think my town had maybe 50,000-60,000 people. And there were three black families like 10 black people, there are probably like 10 Asian and 10 Chinese people. And that’s it. And when you get used to spaces like that, you actually then I think going to university makes you question your Blackness because you then you’re perceived as less Black by your peers who grew up in inner cities, but also gives you something to reflect upon and the advantages it can give you- how you can support other people. And this like the code switching you have to do within White spaces is definitely less than you would have to then like my family members have to who grew up in Clapham, who like teach or work in law, they have to do way more code switching than when they go to work. Their work person personas is very different to their home persona.
I’ve not thought about it like that. Because I grew up in a- well, like my school was quite diverse. I grew up in quite a diverse neighbourhood. Um, see, I’ve not thought about it in that way in that sense.
It’s actually interesting that you brought up that point Mike, because I did an interview recently, there was a master student who was looking at PoCs (People of Colour) experiences in Bristol University, those that were studying STEM, and like how their experiences at Bristol University have kind of challenged or changed their career ambitions. And what was particularly interesting was like, basically, it was interesting, because there is also another woman of colour in my department. And we had very, very opposite experiences in the same departments, in a similar timeframe. And one of the reasons is, of course, we were in this different research group, and the culture and the different research groups are quite different, and the supervisors are different. But one thing the masters student mentioned briefly was that she also grew up in a more white dominated school environment, whereas mine was very, very diverse. And that played a part into one of the reasons that we had different experiences at Bristol Uni. And I guess it’s interesting that you perceive this because when I was at Bristol Uni, there was definitely a divide in how people from the Black community responded to their experiences in Bristol University, but also like, there’s a difference in the way that people, my friends, who were, most of them were People of Colour at Cambridge University, I had lots of friends from different- from different races. But what was very interesting that I perceived that, like you said, people from London had a more difficult time at Cambridge University, particularly because they were used to a more inclusive environment. Whereas a lot of the people who came from like more rural, or less diverse cities, they weren’t surprised a lot of the experiences that they had in Cambridge. So, I remember having conversations, both at Bristol University and Cambridge University, people who grew up in white dominated cities being like, why are they surprised that the white students and the white stuff are like this? And- but what I didn’t like was that I found that a lot of people kind of normalised it? They were like, this is normal to be treated this way. So, while they kind of survived a lot better, or they had ‘better’ experiences, and I put that in air quotations, a lot of people kind of like normalised that kind of accepted this. So the thing is, while they did survive, they didn’t challenge it, these kinds of micro/macro aggressions, and I just think that we still need to be able to challenge these micro/macro aggressions, and we shouldn’t be coddling or we shouldn’t be normalising these.
I would hundred percent agree with you. And I think you also have to think about the impact that- so one of the reasons that people don’t believe in micro/macro aggressions, one of the reasons that I am 100 percent sure that they do exist, is because of the way that I am treated versus a Woman of Colour. There are things that people won’t say to me, and it’s maybe out of fear for my response. But they would say to a Woman of Colour. [Nuzhat] Yeah. [Mike] Which I think, kind of lets them know that it’s not- if you won’t say to everyone, it can’t be appropriate, can it? [Nuzhat] Yeah. [Mike] And I think I, one of the things that I would never do is lose that kind of sense of- you know, different cultures deal with conflicts in different ways. [Nuzhat] Yeah. [Mike] And whilst I have been socialised very white, I will still be a West African. And I, I don’t- I really kind of- I reveal in confrontation. Mostly because I know how difficult it makes other people feel. So, I will always call everything out immediately. If I spot it, obviously, because I know that anyone is going to feel way more uncomfortable about this situation than would. But it is it’s I get it you’re right, It’s very difficult. I think, it’s a weirdness, isn’t it? I think when you enter the diverse space, you are going to naturally kind of gravitate towards people who are more like you, even if it’s initially that’s just visibly like you. I think the problem that that causes is that it kind of creates the kind of visible White fragility, where I think white people are like, why are they allowed in a space that I’m not allowed in? That’s why they why it’s tried to be like stopped or broken up or they save it. There is no such the like, people don’t feel more comfortable people who like them. People just feel more comfortable in inclusive situations with, I think, to start off with in a new place, you’re going to gravitate towards people who you think are going to have common experiences with you. And when you can only go by what people visually look like, you’re probably going to go. And like for me, I’m going to, I’m going to look at if I was a new university student now, like I did when I was 18, I did, I did two things, I started playing basketball. And I joined the ACS (African and Caribbean Society). And I think it’s just I think it’s just a natural kind of need to kind of form tribes. And they can be broken down, of course, and the types can mingle. But I think the initial thing you’re going to do is gravitate toward people who just like you.
And I kind of like going back to mentorship, like- [Jazmin] I think we’re going off topic [Nuzhat] No the point you made about tribalism is very important, because one of the biggest was one of the biggest reason that mentorship is so successful, especially when it’s by someone that you identify with it, is because they remind you that actually your tribe also exists in the career and the ambitions that you are working towards. Yes, you do belong. Yes, you are a scientist or an engineer, mathematician.
I will say that there is always a benefit in having more than one mentor.
Oh, I definitely agree. I think you mentioned a point about, especially when it comes to grants. And you say that a lot of grants are mostly reviewed by men. And I think it’s really important to have different types of mentors, because you can get different perspectives and you can get, you also learn that the route to success, there’s multiple layers of it. But you can also have multiple perspectives of a problem that you can have. So I spoke to a, an earth scientist, she’s a Black woman, and she was saying that maybe it would have been while she had a really good supervisor, it would probably be good to have her supervisor being a White woman, it would have been good for herself to have like a mentor, that was also a Black woman and it didn’t have to be earth science, I think she- I mean, there is a lack of senior academics from different racial backgrounds. So, it doesn’t have to be earth science, sometimes you can get perspective from someone who’s in a different field, maybe another STEM subject or maybe entirely different. Just because I think if you have lots of different exposures, then you have more inspiration of what you could, like do to help yourself.
I have a mentor who’s a White woman and it’s, she’s great. It’s a very definite two-way process in which I’m learning a lot more from her about the impact gender has on your potential to progress within academic space. And he’s learning for me the impact of race has. So, as long as your mentors, I think you do need to have a mentor who’s like you. But like you say you can have a multitude of mentors that can help you in different ways. It provides like multi layered support.
Definitely. So basically, I saw that there was a paper that looked at science faculty, subtle gender biases, and says like how they favoured male students. This was back in 2012. And it was saying like, you know, this is a typical study where they had they had like a profile of different students, but they were randomly allocated like men- male and female names. And then obviously, there was a bias towards like male applicants being seen as more competent and they were offered more like higher starting salaries. But what was also really interesting is that they also showed that male students were offered more mentorship. So they’re- I think they were other articles I’ve seen that also, like showed that women were less likely to be offered mentorship and that contrast with so many studies saying actually, there needs to be more studies to keep women in sciences because mentorship is one of the most successful methods of retaining women. So, for- and I reflect back because I had a lot of hardship when I was doing my PhD and I had a supervisor who was not like helping me prosper and thrive. So I look back and I realised, like a lot of my friends had mentors and I didn’t think, I didn’t know this was something that I could have or I should have looked out for. So, for people looking for mentors, like how does one come across a mentor?
I think that kind of informal offering, like I say informal, it’s not like strictly informal, I think that situation where you have a group of people, and some get offered mentors, and some don’t, which means it isn’t composed- a compulsory thing is probably born of you going, that person is someone that I could mentor because they’re like me, therefore I find it easy, that kind of thing. And then you’re just, you’re really just trying to make another version of yourself. And it starts to move away from mentoring into advocacy, or sponsorship, which is that extra element that we are starting to say is probably better off for any minoritised group, over mentoring because it gives you the opportunity to take advantage of your mentor, your sponsor, or your advocate position. So they can put you forward for things, take you to meetings, suggest your name in meetings, for like, scaffolding, or extending projects that will help you build your career portfolio. I think, when it comes to just picking a mentor, if you haven’t been given one, and you see that other people are getting them, and it’s not something that isn’t like, I guess, isn’t, I guess, codify so that everyone gets one, is that you can just ask people, and it’s really that simple. I guess my institution, we have a couple of formal mentorship programs. So, I’ve been assigned a couple. But then there are also people who I know who have positions that I want to get to. So, I just say to them, will you be my mentor? And I can ask them questions about like navigating the institution, or as a whole or the or just academia. And the same has been-the same as the two of- people- students that I mentor, they’ve just said, I need some advice about getting to getting to get a PhD, or getting a PhD offer. And it’s usually been it becomes quite short term, the current like the concentration of the mentoring, and me support him through the process of applying. And then it becomes more hands off through the PhD or me supporting them through the last phase of their PhD towards write up telling them, like giving them goals to aim for that kind of thing. But you shouldn’t be afraid of asking basically, a lot of people even outside of academia, I spoke to a friend of mine about mentorship, and he works for Arsenal Football Club. And he said he found he just found out like the week before I spoke to him about it, he that they offer mentorship, because it isn’t told to everyone can like- not told to everyone that you can have a mentor if you say to ask, because he was a law field where there’s a lot of mentoring, and he came from a law firm to work in commercial law. He said he felt like he [would] benefit from a mentor. And they were like, oh yeah, we can do that. So, any you can ask anyone. Basically, I think if you’re going to most people, not very many people unless they’re super busy with saying no to mentoring. So, you can literally just ask anyone, and pick someone who you think will be beneficial and give you the advice and coaching, or the sponsorship that you require. So if you want to, for instance, if you wanted to get a move away from academia work in a different space, ask for a mentor in that space, who will then help you transition.
I think the first time I heard about someone having a mentor was Jazmin herself.
Yeah, so I actually have official and unofficial ones. So, the unofficial ones were me approaching them like I need some advice. But then like when I worked at Newcastle, I was assigned a mentor, and he was a man, he was a White man. But the relation was that he also was a Lecturer in Physical Geography. So, he was there if I had any questions about teaching and how to be a lecturer basically. He was very helpful. And of course in like, in a compact- well, I suppose in an official slash unofficial was obviously my supervisor, they were definitely a mentor, still are a mentor, and also when I worked in Denmark, the person that I was collaborating with on the project he was, he sort of like became the mentor of how to publish, because it was the first one was going to be publishing a paper. Because I was like, what the hell do I do? And he helped me go through that process, especially the rebuttal process. Again, like I have benefited from those mentors. And yeah, and actually I am now I suppose unofficially mentoring students as well. And so first one that she was- I can’t remember what I did, but then my friends was like, I showed this thing to my friend who’s got a daughter who’s interested in doing volcanology. And I think they just done that A levels or something. So, could you like, can you talk to the daughter, I was like sure. And then actually basically helped them pick what degree to do. And now actually, they actually- [it] was so sweet. They actually emailed me on Friday to be like, hey, how are you? I’m into my third year, how are you doing everything like that. And do you want to come and give a talk? Because I’m now the President of the Geological Society, and was like, yeah! So, it’s like, I was like aww. So, like, and also at Newcastle, instead of having a supervisor for your dissertations, in our department, you’ll be assigned a dissertation mentor. So, it’s not so much about the expertise of what project you’re doing, but it’s about guidance of how to write a dissertation. So for me, I basically helped a couple students formulate research ideas and the methodologies to that, um, and then, in the end, someone got a really good mark, and I’m just like, I’m super proud of you guys, oh my God! And like, I can see, like, I’ve had mentorship for different reasons, like publishing, teaching, just what to do with my life, I suppose. But then now I’ve applied that to the next generation of volcanologists, essentially with obviously what they want. So, most of time, they’ve asked me what advice they would like to have, then obviously I’ve approached it that way. Because I’m the kind of person who’s like, tell me we want and then I can help you, if you don’t tell me what you want, they’re not gonna be able to help you. Because I could just talk about anything. So, I think that’s where communication is key in terms of the mentee asking what they want of you. And then obviously- then you can obviously tailor the mentorship that way.
Yeah and that’s, that’s again, where other things come in, I guess, because sometimes they don’t know what they want. Or, they can’t verbalise what they want, which is where coaching can come in, you can ask them, like, a group of questions that will lead them towards what they already know, internally, but can’t put into words. And that can help you get to a point where you can support them. Effectively, you’re right, if you don’t know what they want, basically, you’re just chatting aren’t you? Which is nice. You can provide support without knowing what they want. I think at some point, you do need a lot of support. Like I had a student whose- that’s just gone through the A level process, who’s going onto university now, who at the end of the A level process, as like everyone knows, was very much like, I don’t know whether or not I got what I deserved. But she I mean, she’s, she’s super intelligent, and she did really well. But as she says she’s going to Cambridge. And then the only point, only piece of advice I gave her was that when she arrives, they’re going to be people who seem to be confident in their abilities, confident in their knowledge. But she shouldn’t confuse competence- confidence with competence. For a lot of people will try and get away with not knowing very much by acting like they know a lot. And she is as smart or smarter than all of them, and she should always believe that. Because competence can carry you so far. If you don’t have any- that it will it’ll be detrimental to your career.
That is true, especially like in Cambridge University is so easy that if you’ve come from a background that is not typical of Cambridge, like you, you know you will doubt yourself, or you’ll question how much you belong there. Because there are other people from a young age knew that their future was at Cambridge University and see that as a home like, it is very much important to remind the like, especially like you mentioned, your mentee that she belongs there every- you know, as much as any other person there maybe like maybe perhaps more so. What was I gonna say? I just want to mention quickly, so I remember like looking through the criteria for a successful applicant for a DTP, a PhD program. And a lot of it is like, you know, you have more marks if you’ve published a paper or you’ve gone to a conference and a lot of people don’t have that option, or opportunity before a PhD. So, the thing is, I think there was a discussion I remember having about how academics can start like kind of grooming people into becoming academics. And the thing is, academia is still very much White male dominated. And it is very easy for, you know, you’re more likely to mentor someone that you see yourself within. So, there is the danger of, again, people who are groomed into going into academia are going to reflect/mirror, the people who are already in academia. So there’s this kind of responsibility that people providing mentoring to look beyond- Like, if they if they truly believe in, that everybody should have the option into going into academia to look beyond people that look like them when they’re choosing who to mentor to purposely, like distribute their services in mentoring, especially to people who need it more as opposed to people who are like them.
Yeah, [be]cause there are- I also think that people who have suffered, are more used to suffering, and therefore will suffer in silence. I think there are people who are like entitled who are just going to ask for this- for mentorship. As well as it obviously being offered to people who are like you. It’s really difficult, is really difficult, isn’t it? I think like that two-way thing there, I think is really important. Whereby, if you’re in a position of power, where you get to choose who gets a doctoral position, learning about the disadvantage that people have pre- that position is really important. So, you can understand why there may be a differential between two candidates in who applying for the same post, for the same role. I think there’s two things that need like the DTP funding thing is a source of contention for everyone. The- no one will take responsibility for changing it. There’s this weird thing whereby it’s kind of- was like, the general I guess the general feeling that the best indicator of being able to do good research is having done good research before. But if you do if you’re coming out of a undergraduate, or even an MSc, having published papers is very unlikely, like- even if you spent your entire MSc research project doing work that would be published, it being published before you go to start your PhD, is very unlikely, or you must- you’re going to take a year out and then start a PhD doesn’t seem to make- doesn’t make any sense. So really, you’re really narrowing the field of people who are potential doctoral researchers. And no one will take responsibility to change that. I think one of the things that my friends, ‘Leading Routes‘ [is] considering is trying to really enhance the ability for Black undergraduates to be able to take research studentships that allow them to get I guess publications, doing work with hopefully, in the future because they got stopped doing work with Wellcome Trust, to enable that, and then maybe some other people too.
That would be good. I think for me, like, if I remember correctly, how I got my PhD was to I used- So my PhD was a unique situation where I could create a research project around the theme and a topic. Based in volcanology, basically. And I used what I did during my master’s dissertation, which was also social volcanology, and basically be like, I want to find out more. This Master’s dissertation doesn’t tell me enough. And of course, that is not published. It’s mostly in the depository of the university somewhere that’s not published. And it’s still on my publication to-do list, but mostly because it’s master’s level its down the pile. But I think, like I really benefited from the fact that I could actually explore what I wanted to do, instead of having that defined project already there. Of course, it can’t work for everybody. But I was definitely fortunate in that I could evidence my, you know, my academic ability to come up with research questions and whatnot. And I think there’s just maybe with obviously can’t change the DTP because no one will, but allowing that space for creativity, I think would help I think in terms of showing the diversity of minds and everything like that bringing your lived experiences and stuff like that as well. I think that would really help. [Mike] Yeah. [Jazmin] In terms of diversifying your field, of PhD candidates, and maybe then you could move away from someone who’s not like you, but you’re like, oh, actually, I really want to work with them and be chosen through that way. But I don’t know how- that’s beyond me. But yeah, maybe just allow that room of flexibility, I suppose.
[Mike] Yeah [Nuzhat] There’s definitely needs to be more context into these criterias. As opposed to having like these arbitrary criterias that very much depends on what opportunities you’re given, a lot of the opportunities are linked to like, class, and race and gender, very indirectly, but still, it is linked to these kinds of factors. So there needs to be more room.
Yeah, absolutely. And me, that’s not even, that’s not even considering the fact that we have the, the awarding gap, which means that if you’re from an ethnic minority, you’re less likely to get, you’re probably gonna get a lower degree classification, than your White counterparts, which then just like, effect- affects you negatively against it’s like compounding effects of discrimination.
Definitely. Yep. Yep. I remember I was doing the unconscious bias test. And obviously, a lot of people falsely believe like, they don’t see colour. And in fact, they do see colour. But I think what’s more important is like, first to realise, you know, that different kind of identities can bring different kind of barriers. But also, secondly, that everyone is an individual still.
Yeah and also- I also say that. I like to say to a lot of people that as an engineer, like we’re primarily problem solvers, and the majority of the engineering world is a White male. If they’re good at solving problems, we’d solve them already.
Oh my God I love that! [Nuzhat] That’s like a- that’s a burn! [Jazmin] I’m going to tell my dad that, he’s going to love that.
Oh, I wish that that could be the title of this podcast.
Can we like have it as our preview? Oh, my God. Actually, that kind of sort of leads into our next half of the podcast, you know, we’ve been going on for an hour. Um, so in terms of race equality, so we know that you are a co-chair of the UCL’s Race Equality Steering Group. Do you think you could run us through what that group is? What the group is? And then what’s it trying to achieve?
Yeah, it’s too much, we’re trying to do too much in a short timeframe. But it links to one of the people who I would consider to be one of my mentors, who was the old co-chair. So, the structure of the group is that there is an academic co-chair and a non-academic or professional services staff co-chair. And I’ve replaced Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu, who was the old academic co-chair. She is like a force of nature. She is she has like, along with the, I guess a few other people, made the biggest changes with respect to racial equality within the university over the last few years, so basically, I’m just trying to not mess up what she’s done, what she’s done. But there’s, like I said, is, is multifaceted, like if we think about with for undergraduate students, we’re trying to improve the sense of belonging and remove the awarding gap. We’re trying to improve the numbers of minorities, ethnic minorities, or racially minoritised students moving through a progression from undergraduate, to postgraduate or postgraduate research then into- and she has an amazing- I think it’s an innovative ideas about moving into academic career paths and to put him through the academic career path. For professional services staff, which are essentially, all our central services trying to improve the demographics of staff at the higher grades, as well I guess the same is true of academic staff, trying to improve the diversity of our new staff hires across all business functions. So, if you think about, we expanding out into UCL East, and creating a new campus. So we’re hiring a lot of new staff, we’re trying to use that as a kind of, I guess, not really a, like a testing board, but like maybe a testing ground for new ways of like, like employing people and trying to diversify the staff, rather than it being like a space where it will just be like more ‘diverse staff’. So, we’re looking at these in that increasing staff numbers to try and work out the best ways to get more diverse staff. And then we have our like, like a group of workers that traditionally outsourced that have mostly ethnic minorities. So, they are catering staff, our portering staff, our cleaning staff, also looking at the best ways to, to support them, and make sure that they are treated equitably within the university. And then alongside that, we are- we support, we kind of create a little equality group network. So, we support all the other equality network. So, we support our LGBTQ Plus network, we support ‘Enable’, which is a disabled and neurodiverse network. And also got ‘Agenda’ network, we’ve got a few- which is an umbrella, which works with a few other people. So, there’s a lot of supporting, there’s a lot of- we’re moving towards more kind of opening, and kind of transparent and listening position. So, we don’t we traditionally have done a lot more work, changing infrastructure or changing policy. And now we’re trying to because we’re all kind of, as UCL puts it, is it apart but not distant? or something, that there’s a term we use to show that we are like good working more remotely, we need still to stay connected to this maybe distant but not connected, disconnected. And so, we try to do more kind of, like I guess, safe space, work with staff where they everyone can come in, and have a chat just to the group. And we have representation on the steering group that’s on every kind of business function and fact- no department- no faculty within the university. So that we can see what’s going on, we have kind of a broad spectrum and see what’s going across and therefore can feedback, what’s happening in their specific areas.
That’s quite a lot. I would say then that kind of like a side from that. Because you’re doing so much. I- is there- has been instances, or do you think there might be some sort of burnout that might happens with some members of the steering group, because you’re doing a lot and you’re engaging basically, across the whole institution, of course, UCL is a big institution. There’s a way that I don’t know you can like support each other as well? As a support link to the mentorship I suppose, is there a way that you are like supporting each other while you’re supporting others.
Yep. So that is something that has definitely improved. So, the reasons that the past co-chairs, which was Marcia and Ijeoma, were so I guess, focused on changing policy, and infrastructure, but also very, very effective. Basically, they did everything. And I’ve literally no idea how they managed to do that on top of the real jobs, because apart from the fact, they’re both way more organised than I am and productive. So now, we I think there’s a very real realisation that we can’t- the co-chairs can’t do anything. So, we’re being way more, we’re giving the rest of the steering group more things to do. So, empowering them to do more stuff on their own. And it’s like, when I joined the steering group, it was very much like, the two co-chairs did everything, and they just we just discussed what the co-chairs had done. And now it’s like the two co-chairs are saying, okay, we need someone who will do X, Y, and Z. Can we have volunteers, and you can run with this, just report back what happens. Like we’re joining forces with LSE (London School of Economics), Imperial and Kings to create a little RESU kind of network within London which may expand further. And that is currently-the mean the other co-chair I go to those meetings currently, that will probably become someone will get a job like they’ll become like the liaison for the other universities. So, we don’t have to keep doing that. That kind of thing. We are we are becoming way more good at kind of giving out tasks. Delegation is key, otherwise you will burn out. But you can’t give like, there is usually the same people will have will volunteer to do stuff. So you have to be like no do too much stuff already. [Jazmin] Yeah.
We were about to ask you what can universities do to improve things but I think that’s like another, that’s like another podcast session, because that’s a lot that they can do.
I think this, the simplest answer to that is listen to what your staff want. And it’s regardless of what that staff group is. If you listen to them, and you get as close as you can to what they want, whilst being making sure you’re fair to everyone. It’s all you can do. That’s the easiest thing to the simplest and shortest answer.
That’s true. Listening can solve a lot of problems. All right. The last question we wanted to ask you, before we wrap up, is who is a role model to you?
That’s probably a really hard question, because I think there were so many from like, almost, I guess all of the TIGERinSTEMM people who I know, but then, like specifically, you’d have to say, Rachel, who’s one of the leaders. Izzy is one, Izzy Jayasinghe is one of the most like compassionate and empathic people I’ve ever met. Anson, the same. And then I guess, the UCL cohort from within that which- So include Vanessa Diaz, Lia, and Inés. Then the Leading Routes group, say, Paulette Williams, Chantelle Lewis, Jason Arday. And then within UCL, I guess, like Ijeoma Uchegbu. There’s also Marcia Jacks, Fiona McClement. We got Kelsey Paske but we also have Kamna Patel. There’s so many Prince Saprai and everyone that I mentioned, more or less often for different reasons. They all work within the EDI space, but most of them don’t have EDI as their main job. Sukhi Bath there is literally- I’m really fortunate there’s so many people who I could name that I really shouldn’t have started, because now I have to think about the fact of I must have missed someone. But yeah, there’s it’s one of those things, I think, our BME Students Officer Sandy Ogundele- I think that the reason that people I think, like me continue doing the work outside of their real job, because there are groups of people who empower you to do it. And they empower you by their enthusiasm for change. And that isn’t really even considering the fact that we have so many amazing student activists who are doing this whilst they’re trying to study. And also, like, what you will have, I guess you listen, if you look at the list, you will find that either I think I’ve only said White women or People of Colour. But there are- [Jazmin] You did say Anson. [Mike] Oh, yes, good. Good. I needed it, there must be one that-they’re also good White men. We know who they are, they don’t need to be said. I did say Chris a couple of times in the podcast, but Chris Jackson too. I think- yeah, there are so many and they’re all the best version of academia that you could ever want: who were kind, supportive and caring. And some of them probably aren’t doing as well as they should do within the academic space because of how kind and caring they are. [Jazmin] Yeah. [Mike] But they’re the people you want to work with.
Yeah, I think one of the grateful things about social media is exposing me to the- a lot of the people that you’ve just mentioned. It’s kind of given me more reassurance that there are good, helpful, supportive people there that will help you like thrive, but also like people that I could go reach out to if I need help. I think especially like I’ve been conscious of like supporting people from marginalised communities, especially like my friends but also within the extended community. Yeah, it’s reassuring me. Yes, there are White men out there that are very good allies and supporters and have been like a good positive presence in my life.
Yes. And they do exist and I know I won’t name any that I know a lot of them.
Okay. And yeah. So Mike if people wanted to find you like how can they contact you?
I am findable on social media at michaelsulu. Which is I guess the probably the easiest way to find me. Equally like if you wanted to email me, I’m not gonna say my email address. [Jazmin] Just best to find him on Twitter. [Mike] Yes it’s easier to find.
And we’ll provide the details in the description of the episode.
Given as long as I have time, if you have a battle that you’d like me to fight for you, I was happily to.
Yes, he’s good at picking fights.
Every time there’s a controversy on Twitter I always love your response. Mike’s GIF game is strong.
That’s something that I’ve picked up from I think Paul Coxon in the TIGERS group. As soon as people started sending GIFs, I was like I need to up my GIF game!
Thank you for being our guest.
You’re most welcome. Thanks for inviting me.
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