A bright new era

with Dr Sunday Popo-Ola

Dr Sunday Popo-Ola sat in the Serpentine pavilion

"It's about the change in attitude," says Sunday with a smile.

Dr Sunday Popo-Ola is a structural engineer at Imperial. He's always been passionate about broadening the diversity of people who pursue STEM and was awarded the 2021 President's Medal for Excellence in Societal Engagement.  

"When I first started out in academia, public engagement was actually discouraged. But I still wanted to inspire young people from disadvantaged communities to go to university and study STEM subjects," he explains. “I felt I had to hide any activities I did around this. I feel my superiors would have called it a waste of time - there was this attitude that we should be spending all our time on research and publishing. But not anymore. This award shows me that academia has broadened its measure of success. So now my engagement work is being celebrated - it's a bright new era." 

We're in the Serpentine Pavilion - a location he's chosen. "It's amazing," he says. "Each block has been 3D printed and it’s all recycled concrete. And for this structure to hold up all of that..." He points to the vast slab that makes up the pavilion's roof. His passion for his subject is inspiring and I soon understand why his peers and students nominated him for this President's Award. 

Dr Sunday Popo-Ola sat in the Serpentine pavilion
Dr Sunday Popo-Ola sat in the Serpentine pavilion

"Is he someone famous?" I was asked when I went to grab us some coffee. He has that air about him: infectious enthusiasm, charismatic confidence, and a natural in front of the camera. It comes across in his engagement work too: during the pandemic’s lockdowns, Sunday delivered multiple online workshops to inspire the next generation of scientists. He’s aiming to demystify higher education amongst underserved communities.

Screenshot of Sunday in a YouTube live event talking with children

The Creative Futures weekly online workshops, created with Twin Science and the Royal Academy of Engineering, reached 5000 young people across the globe, from Nigeria to Turkey, all enthralled by Sunday’s passion, asking him a multitude of questions.  So important is his engagement work that he was enlisted by the Royal Academy of Engineering to help train other engineers in doing outreach with BAME audiences. 

I ask him about his research in structural engineering. “My research is industry-focused. And I work all over the world: from re-cladding and over-cladding in the UK to modular construction in South Korea to composite design and construction in New Zealand. It’s exciting and I’m well supported in my work - the technicians at Imperial’s Structures Laboratory are excellent.”  

I learn that he sometimes works with organisations who are competing with each other. “I am always careful to be a neutral, independent expert. Trustworthiness is key in research and development for industry in a small group of world specialists.” 

Sunday goes on to describe how he was involved in the Grenfell fire investigation, and while I listen, I’m humbled by the importance of his work. 

“But next I want to be an actor.”  

I thought I’d misheard. But no – Sunday's wish is to one day go into acting – possibly movies, possibly theatre. All of a sudden, I’m starkly reminded of the message we often try to convey as public engagement professionals – that scientists are real people with interests and passions outside of their research. Unique individuals that you can have conversations with and connect with.  

That's Sunday - getting out there, showing the world that there is no such thing as a typical scientist and there is no stereotype you need to fit to become a great one. 

Sunday striking a pose in Hyde Park
Sunday striking a pose in Hyde Park