Professor Amin Hajitou
Professor of Targeted Therapeutics, Department of Brain Sciences
I won’t forget my Berber heritage
"I was born in Morocco. My name is Arabic but I’m actually a Berber. Berbers are the indigenous people of north west Africa. My mother language is Berber but at school I learned Arabic and most of our teaching was delivered in French. When I speak Arabic, I have a Berber accent — people can tell.
I won’t forget I am Berber because I call my mum every day and we speak to each other in Berber. My father knew how to write it but I regret not learning. My kids are born in the UK and are more British but we try to keep them close to my mother and my family in Morocco so they can understand their Berber heritage.
My journey to Imperial
After completing my PhD in Belgium I did my postdoc training at the University of Texas. I had the opportunity to stay in the US or to go to Belgium or Holland, but I chose to take up my first academic position at Imperial. All my close family are in Morocco. A flight from the UK to the North of Morocco takes less than two and a half hours. From Texas, it takes more than a day.
At Imperial there’s always someone to speak to
I also had faced challenges in Belgium and in France. I wasn’t keen to go back. At Imperial the only challenges I have faced are those of every scientist: funding, publications and so on. I started as a lecturer focusing on cancer virotherapy and after a year at Imperial, I already felt like I was part of the institution. I've now been at Imperial for 13 years, and in September 2019 I was promoted to professor.
At Imperial there's always someone to speak to. This was particularly useful when I was more junior – I could speak to my Head of Section or Division, or have coffee with senior colleagues and get some guidance. It's really important not to be isolated. When you see faculty senior staff at an event, they always ask how you're doing. It's often a short conversation, but it makes me feel so valued.
Diversity is so important
What Imperial and my Head of Department in particular did was give me opportunities. They trusted me with different roles and responsibilities. For instance, before Imperial I'd never had a chance to teach. I have now developed important teaching skills, am a course lead and have been awarded numerous teaching awards. I’m the departmental lead for early career researchers, supporting their career development. Also I had a wonderful mentor – she was always very supportive.
I could focus on developing my career and research knowing that I would be treated equally to everyone else.
The other thing that made a big difference for me at Imperial is the example set by our leadership. Starting at departmental and faculty levels, the leaders really champion Imperial Expectations. You see it in meetings, events, promotions, assignment of roles based on people’s potential – when you apply for promotion you have to show you have championed diversity. Our department has set up an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion committee that is diverse, active and of which I am a member.
I feel I haven't had to worry about facing career obstacles as someone from an ethnic minority community. This has meant I could focus on developing my career and research knowing that I would be treated equally to everyone else.
Work and life
My identity is something I don’t really bring in to work at all – I keep it separate. Occasionally it comes up, for example if a student is travelling to Morocco I can give them advice on where to visit. Or if people approach me wanting to know more then I'm happy to share.
When I'm writing a grant or publication and looking for that one sentence, it comes to me when I run.
Outside work I like to do a lot of sports, especially swimming. I've been swimming since I was four or five years old. My father threw me in the swimming pool at home and taught me how to swim.
I run in my local park in the mornings and think about work and plan my day. When I'm writing a grant or publication and looking for that one sentence, it comes to me when I run."
Amin shares his story as part of Shifting the Lens: a celebration of diversity at Imperial.
This interview was edited by Elizabeth Nixon and photographed by Jason Alden.