With nominations still open for the 2019 President’s Awards for Excellence, previous winner Dr Sunday Popo-Ola reflects on his win last year.
Sunday, a Research and Teaching Fellow in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, won the 2018 President’s Award for Excellence in Societal Engagement. The award recognises and rewards staff, students and community partners who have delivered excellence in schools engagement, community engagement, engagement with research and/or patient engagement.
Sunday won the award for successfully establishing the Creative Futures programme, which aims to inspire underrepresented pupils from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds to consider careers in STEM subjects.
Inspiring future generations
Creative Futures was established in 2007, during Sunday’s time as co-Chair of Imperial’s BAME staff network, Imperial as One.
Sunday says: “Initially, the workshops were aimed at supporting BAME students – we specifically wanted to target young BAME women to increase their confidence in studying or choosing careers in STEM. We now welcome young students from all backgrounds and have grown internationally as well. Creative Futures has become so much bigger than I could have thought at the start.”
"It costs me nothing to help aspiring young students fulfil their potential." Dr Sunday Popo-Ola Research and Teaching Fellow
Creative Futures consists of one-off workshops run at Imperial where pupils take part in activities to spark their imagination and challenge their ways of thinking, from constructing bridges using drinking straws to learning about stem cells.
Since the programme started 11 years ago, over 1,000 students from state schools across London have participated in workshops focussing on science, engineering and medicine, led by senior academics at Imperial.
“From personal experience, I know that if you work hard you can achieve anything,” he says. “I was very young when I arrived in England from Nigeria and had no family here. I remember arriving with a lot of ambition and a desire to succeed. I want school students to have a similar ambition. If BAME students are given the chance to explore their potential, they could make fantastic scientists.
“I wish I'd had a role model when I was younger – someone to believe in so that I could believe in myself. It costs me nothing to help aspiring young students fulfil their potential,” adds Sunday.
In addition to his work leading Creative Futures, from 2011 - 2015, Sunday was the President of the Engineering Forum of Nigerians (UK) and in 2018, he was elected the Chairman of Nigeria Society of Engineers (London branch). This collaboration saw him continue his community outreach work as he held a summer school for 120 pupils in a remote village in Africa last year.
Helping students to transform
“It’s a great joy for me to see these students transforming when the College hosts them – especially students who come in thinking it is impossible for them to study at a university like Imperial.” Dr Sunday Popo-Ola Research and Teaching Fellow
Sunday has also been an academic mentor for students accepted on the Amos Bursary – a group set up to address the under representation of young black men in education and the workplace.
The Bursary offers young black men the skills to progress in their chosen career or field of study – specifically, it identifies students who have applied to Imperial but who need encouragement to follow-through if offered an interview.
As a mentor, Sunday helps students with mock admissions interviews and hosts a ‘Boys to Men’ workshop that encourages students to open up about their lives – both professional and personal.
He says: “It’s a great joy for me to see these students transforming when the College hosts them – especially students who come in thinking it is impossible for them to study at a university like Imperial.”
Growing community engagement
A specialist on the over-cladding of buildings and affordable housing, Sunday is using his expert knowledge to benefit Imperial’s local community. Together with his colleague, Emeritus Professor Cedo Maksimovic of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, he has been helping the relief effort following the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 – close to Imperial’s White City Campus.
The pair are working with the Westway Trust to suggest temporary accommodation plans for affected individuals, and Sunday was recently invited by the Grenfell Recovery Scrutiny Committee to present on the over-cladding and re-cladding of tall buildings. He hopes to continue supporting those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire by giving specialist advice on this subject.
"Young people are the leaders of our future"
Sunday was nominated for the President’s Award by colleagues in his department. “I was shocked when I found out that I had been nominated – it was very special as I didn’t realise that my colleagues had noticed my efforts. It’s brilliant that Imperial rewards staff for their dedication and commitment in this way.
“It’s really important to capture the imagination of young people who may feel that Imperial is out of their reach. Young people are the leaders of our future and we have to invest in them. Winning the President’s Award has encouraged me to continue my societal engagement activities.”
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