Carving out your own lane: Exploring the career journeys of our Black staff and students 

We speak to four of our Imperial Black staff and students to learn about their experiences navigating education and their careers.

headshots of four people

Vanessa Madu

Undergraduate, Department of Mathematics 

This year I'll be doing a research project studying the clustering of floating tracers in the ocean, such as microplastics and plankton. I'm looking at it from a theoretical standpoint – how water might be moving on the ocean surface and given that, what kind of behaviour would we see if we add in floating materials. Then I'll compare it to actual datasets and see if my theoretical work holds up.  

I did an internship at a software engineering company and that helped me decide I didn’t want to be a software engineer! The internship did teach me a lot about code hygiene, which enables you to work collaboratively – mathematicians don’t tend to write very clean code, we normally go for cheap and cheerful but functional! I also learned about user experience, which has been useful when I've been designing visuals that I want to be clear and easy to understand. But I discovered I'm not really interested in writing code for code’s sake, I need to be doing something where I'm excited by the output of the code.  

Instead, I plan to do a PhD, hopefully focusing on a similar area to my project this year. I'm a big fan of the ocean. I haven’t been to the middle of the Atlantic, but I can still study it with a reasonable degree of accuracy. 

In terms of support, I'm forever going to rave about Imperial's Careers Service. I started out with a shockingly bad CV – I'd just put everything I’d ever done on there. Now I have a well put together CV that has gone down well when I've used it.  

I would like to see more emphasis on communication as part of science degrees. It's really important for scientists to be able to talk about their work. If scientists don’t communicate their work, then non-scientists will do it – and findings get misinterpreted or nuances are lost. 

Starting out 

I used to really hate maths at school. When I was in Year 9, I went to a funfair where they had a ‘guess the number of marbles in the jar’ competition. The people running it arguably let me slightly too close to the jar with a piece of paper, and I knew how long a piece of paper was, and after some calculations I became the owner of 432 marbles!  

The principle of that has stuck with me – that I could find out something about the world based on what I knew to be true. I do the same thing now, just with more complicated systems than a jar of marbles! 

My physics teacher at school did his degree at Imperial and he was so inspiring to me – the way he thought was really different. He found out about some programmes that Imperial was running, and when I was in Year 10 I went to an Imperial summer school. I came and thought, what a fantastic place.  

When I was deciding where to apply for university, the idea of studying somewhere that only did STEM subjects sounded great. There weren’t a lot of people interested in maths and science at my school. My teachers told me, “if you go to Imperial, you’ll find your people” – and I did. 

Even just over lunch, you have really interesting conversations about what you’ve learned in lectures and seminars. I'll be talking about chemical kinetics from a maths perspective, and my friend will chime in with what she’s learned from the chemistry side. It’s great! 


My field is very white and very male, and it’s something I've noticed a lot when I've been invited to conferences and symposia. I went to an event recently where I was the only person of colour, and there was only one other woman in the room. It's helpful for me to look back at people who were in similar situations in the past, like Katherine Johnson who was a Black mathematician at NASA when it was a very racist place. She was one of one, and she absolutely changed the game. Knowing that there are people who did it makes it easier to do myself.  

I'm working with the Department of Computing to run a hackathon workshop for primary school girls in Years 3-5 in November. I was inspired to organise this after my experience working at a primary school doing activities during the school holidays. I would ask the girls to draw a picture of a scientist and the younger girls would often draw themselves. But the older girls drew very stereotypical pictures of men in lab coats, apart from when I asked them to draw a mathematician and some of them drew me. It was really powerful – if they didn’t know me, they wouldn’t have drawn anyone looking like themselves.  

woman standing with hands on her hips outside a building
woman writing maths equations on a whiteboard
girl in lab coat, goggles and gloves holding up a vial

Vanessa at a summer school at Imperial in 2016

Vanessa at a summer school at Imperial in 2016

woman sitting at a table in a lab

Vanessa in the Wohl Reach Out Lab - she visited the lab when she first came to Imperial in Year 10

Vanessa in the Wohl Reach Out Lab - she visited the lab when she first came to Imperial in Year 10

Eric Aboagye

Professor, Department of Surgery & Cancer 

Back when I was at secondary school, I knew that I wanted to do something scientific in nature as a career, but I wasn’t sure exactly what. I thought I would do something related to medicines, perhaps working in pharmaceuticals.  

I studied pharmacy and I got really interested in research and the chemistry side of pharmacy. So I did a masters in analytical chemistry to help me be prepared for the journey ahead. By then it was clear in my mind what I wanted to do. I did my PhD at the CRUK Beatson Laboratories in Glasgow, followed by a fellowship at Johns Hopkins in the USA in cancer research.  

When I first came to the UK it was hard to be away from my family. I came from Ghana and moved straight to Scotland. I downplay it a little bit now, but it was quite a challenge at the time. The cultures are very different, and it took me a while to settle. I have grown to understand the cultures of the USA and the UK better since then. I had to adapt myself to the different ways of looking at excellence and innovation, and embrace my new environment. Changing myself to be able to meet those challenges is something I had to do consciously.


During my PhD and fellowship training I became interested in non-invasive imaging – a way to look at tissue biology and the effects of drugs in a living, breathing organism. Previously we were limited to looking at tissue samples in the lab. This led me to become interested in in vivo magnetic resonance spectroscopy and imaging.  

I joined Imperial to start research using positron emission tomography, also known as PET scans. My research is now focused on drugs and cancer, and how we can develop better drugs by understanding how they work. I have supervised a lot of PhD students and postdoctoral fellows and created a research group which is internationally respected for new discoveries, and all of them have contributed to our successes. 

I want to enhance our understanding of cancer biology and how drugs work within a complex organism. When cancer spreads, also known as metastasis, the receptors change and the proteins inside and outside of the cells change. The question is, how do we visualise these changes.  

We’re now able to use our understanding of what is happening to these proteins to determine which patients should get which drugs. We're also using machine learning to analyse the results of PET scans and scans from other imaging modalities including CT, MRI and ultrasound. 


Talking to young people, I advise them to find mentors. Mentors can help you set the bar for your ambition. My mentors weren’t thinking of small steps for me, but big ones. I learned from them and was encouraged by them.  

Looking at things in the long-term is critical for a young person interested in a career in science. Don’t think about solving a small problem – focus on solving a big one. It can be difficult to do this within the grant system we have, where you might only get two years of funding at a time. I've been lucky to have five-year funding and be able to progress ideas from basic science into the clinical arena. 

One of the best decisions I’ve taken was deciding to work in a multidisciplinary space. I work with chemists, mathematicians, biologists and clinicians. Everyone is good at what they do and brings something new to the table. Imperial is the perfect place to do this kind of multidisciplinary research. 

Man with glasses smiling
Man smiling
Man sitting on a sofa

Chibudom Onuorah

Research Postgraduate, Department of Computing

woman walking across courtyard
woman standing in courtyard
woman sitting in red chair

I’m currently finishing a MRes in AI and Machine Learning. For my undergraduate education, I studied Computer Science at the University of Warwick. My plans were always to be a software engineer.  

My career experience has involved interning at a number of investment banks, and also a hedge fund and a start-up. I worked in software engineering and quant roles at these organisations. I tried to make sure I did as many internships each year while studying. These roles taught me the importance of being a people’s person and working with others. It showed me how the working world operates and the nuances of what the corporate world can be like.  

I always had a preconception about what working in this sector could be like, from movies and what you hear from other people. It wasn’t until I started interning that I was able to experience things for myself and my own perspective of being a Black woman. My characteristics have a role in how people to relate to me and how I’m perceived. My experiences while interning made the working world more real to me.  

As I reach the end of my course at Imperial, I now have a job as a full-time software engineer at the investment banking company J.P. Morgan. The financial services sector is heavily male-dominated and has high levels of representation from certain social classes and ethnic backgrounds. Being a minority in the industry can come with challenges – the main ones I have experienced are mostly on a social level and learning how to interact with people.  

Career planning 

Throughout my education, I didn’t know many female software engineers who could act as mentors, which is strange when you think about it. Now I’m working in the sector, I’ve found more role models. In addition, having access to various networks and affinity groups has helped me to meet people from similar backgrounds who can provide support and mentorship.

I found LinkedIn to be really helpful in navigating my career plans. I use it a lot to look up different people and consider the various paths that people have taken, as well as finding out about different degree courses. It has been a huge resource to help me find out what my options are. 

For anyone who is interested in finding a career in software engineering, I’d encourage them to start doing internships from an early age. Even for first year students, there are internships available. It’s vital to get experience in the field that you think you want to go in to. I initially thought I wanted to work in cybersecurity. After doing one or two internships in that area, I realised that I wasn’t very interested in it. Internships might help you increase your love for certain sector or make you realise that you hate it! Either way it’s still an insightful experience. 

I chose software engineering as a career path because I felt that it complemented my skill set perfectly. I enjoy the problem-solving aspect of software engineering, and the fact that it gives me to option to work in any sector. You’ll find software engineers pretty much everywhere! I currently work in the financial services, specifically within electronic trading. This allows me to learn a lot about trading, whilst simultaneously improving my programming ability. In the future, I am looking to work in the algorithmic trading space. 

Hime Gashaw

Laboratory Manager, NHLI 

I came to the UK when I was 16 from Ethiopia. Before I came here, my mum was working in Israel but at the time, a political dispute in Ethiopia forced us to move to the UK. 

Before I did my undergraduate degree in Biomedical Sciences, I did a BTEC course. My initial plan was to continue in academia and be a researcher, but it didn’t really materialise. I realised, unless you strongly want to conduct research and are passionate about your topic, it won’t take you anywhere. So, I diverted my career and became a lab manager. I enjoy the job because the focus is on safety in a scientific environment yet you still must be knowledgeable about science in this role. 

As a lab manager at Imperial, I manage three sections: genomic medicine, airway diseases and respiratory medicine. I joined the College 12 years ago as a research technician in cardiothoracic pharmacology. Before this, I worked at Abbott Pharmaceuticals for seven years, which I joined the company straight after graduating from my undergraduate degree. I started off as a technician and later became a senior analyst. I worked in different areas of biotechnology, quality analysis and manufacturing. 

Some people are going to have easier access to career advice and information to progress than others – it really does depend on where you come from. I was very lucky to enter my first role at Abbotts Pharmaceuticals as I didn’t have anyone to advise me how to navigate the working world and what the best path was. I got that role through an agency – I had an interview and got the job straight away. During my time at Abbott, I met a colleague who had a PhD and she recommended I apply for roles in London universities. This was extremely helpful and led me to my current role. 

Someone who has been instrumental in my career at Imperial has been my manager, Professor Jane Mitchell. She has always been incredibly supportive and helped guide me throughout my time working with her. Jane suggested the most helpful courses for me to take to excel in my role as a lab manager. 

Adapting to change 

By the time I started at Imperial, I was in my mid 30s and started as a research technician. I did a lot of training at the College which helped me progress my career. More recently, my role faced a lot of change due to the COVID pandemic. We had to step up and do a lot more. As a lab manager, we had to go into the labs and ensure tasks were taken care of for others. We implemented new codes of practice and had to adapt. During the pandemic, I implemented the NHLI Science and Culture seminars which discuss important topics on research, education and culture at the department. This seminar series has been very successful and is now heading into its second year.  

One of the biggest challenges I have faced during my career has been the lack of people I have been able to turn to in this field. The people I have come across did not have the expertise to guide me and suggest what paths to take. Now this information is a lot more accessible and we are reaching different ages groups. We can bring our children to work and expose them to this sector. If I had people to turn to back in the early stage of my career, it would have made my career progression a little easier.  

Being Black in the university, I have always been keen to see what support the College can deliver for minority groups. I have shared the outreach programmes from the Departments of Chemistry and Physics with people in my community, and I think these initiatives could be implemented in other departments to attract more Black children and adults into science. It is important that we go out into communities to get Black children interested and let them know that science is for everyone regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity. 

woman standing in lab
two women in a lab looking at shelves of bottles

Photos by Kimberley Lawson.