Being a woman and being black should never be a barrier. If I aim high, I can make it.
Who is Abigail Otchere?
I am a 27-year-old, British-born Ghanaian in my final year of a 3-year Ph.D. in biomedical science. The middle child of 3 girls, I was born and raised in Brixton, South London. My research focuses on aging and its underlying cellular mechanisms. The overarching idea of my project is that by targeting the aging process we can collectively treat age related diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. I’m a fly expert! – I use Drosophila or fruit flies as a model organism to study this. After my master’s degree I went on to work in the clinical trials sector. I learned a lot from the industry in the 2 years I was there but it made me realized how much I missed being in a lab and academic research. That’s how I found myself applying for a Ph.D. and currently I have 7 months left of my program!
BSc Biomedical Science and MSc Neuroscience
Fully Funded PhD Scholarship
How did you choose to pursue this field?
When I first started secondary education in the UK (age 11) I wasn’t very good at any of the school subjects. The only subject I liked and was achieving well in was science- I later on became one of the most improved students in my year group, in the top set for all my core subjects. I think even at a young age, I liked that there were so many unanswered questions in science and that is what drew me to the field.
Who was your inspiration or role model that guided you to this field?
My school science teacher, Ms. Isaacs-Clarke made me to love science; her lessons were always engaging and interesting. She used to make up dances and songs for us to remember the revision material. She was a black woman, and this I found inspiring as she always pushed me to stand out and made me do extra work. I remember she gave me a stern warning very early on, when I tried to slack in class and joke around with friends, that I was better than that. She actually reminded me the other day, via social media, that I didn’t do pure science (chemistry, physics and biology) at school. I did Applied Science, which was more coursework assignments and often looked at as the less difficult option and my greatest worry was if I could use the applied science to get on to a university course like medicine. She reassured me that I can be anything I wanted to be!
Did you always have the desire to work in this field? If not, what was your intended field? Why did you change careers?
I originally wanted to be a doctor, because as an A grade science student I thought that was expected of me. I did all the work experiences and entry exams but unfortunately, I did not get the A level grades I needed to study medicine at university. I always say this was a blessing in disguise because I went on to study biomedical science and then realized I love to research. After my masters I took on an admin role in a clinical trials company and I thought I wanted to progress in that, but I realized I was more suited to a lab coat!
What do you love most about your job?
The thing I love most about being a researcher is that every day is not the same and I am contributing to the wider scientific knowledge. I like that although I am a student, I’m not seated in a classroom but I’m working and doing something practical. Also, with a research project, although you are under supervision, you drive your project and are in control of your time.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your job or career?
Going to conferences and seminars to present my work. It makes me see the magnitude of what I do daily in the lab, people show interests in what I’m doing and I can discuss with experts in my field. Also I have been a fortune to supervise an undergraduate student during their gap year as they did their placement project in our lab. To see others benefiting from your advice and learning from you is very satisfying. If I can inspire people to aim high, it will all be worth it.
What things would you change about your job?
There is a lack of diversity, especially with people of color. In my office, I’m the only black girl and in the school department there are only 3 black women including me, the other two are internal students. When I go to conferences, I am often the minority so I would like to see more women of color particularly British born women becoming professors, lecturers, and Ph.D. students.
What has been the most difficult or disappointing aspect of your job?
The most difficult aspect of my job is not losing hope when things go wrong, and this is something I am learning every day. With science, things can go wrong or not as you plan and that is not the fault of anyone. You can do the same experiment on different days and get different outcomes; this can be disappointing or disheartening. This happens often when working with living organisms such as fruit flies that I work with. The flies obviously have a mind of their own, and sometimes it feels like they know when the results are needed desperately!
How have you combated the stigma of being a “woman of color” in STEM?
I only realized I was a minority when I did my masters there were only 3 black girls on the course of 100 students and the other 2 girls were international students. This is the same during my doctorate. I don’t see it as a personal obstacle anymore, I realized I’m where I am because I’m good at what I do and I may be different from others, but I am capable of achieving like everyone else. I had to tell myself no one was expecting less from me because of my color as this really affected my confidence when I first started.
What tips would you offer for anyone thinking about entering into your profession?
My biggest tip I offer to anyone thinking of studying a PhD is, it’s a massive commitment. A PhD is not like a 9-5 job where you can shut off when you are not in the lab- it does become your life. So only do a project you are passionate about and you don’t mind studying for 3/4 years. Don’t just do a PhD to get the doctor title, that mindset will get you nowhere. Also, meet your supervisor, and see if you will get along. If you don’t think you will, don’t do it. During your doctorate take breaks, go on holiday, make friends with other students- it can be a very lonely and stressful 3/4 years so these are essential.
What advice would you give your younger self about your career journey as a “woman of color” working in a predominantly white, male-dominated field?
Being a woman and being black should never be a barrier. If I aim high, I can make it. Also, my older sister told me once when were kids that I would marry my books. At that time that hurt me, but I would tell my younger self that there is nothing wrong with a black girl in education- you don’t have to be unfashionable or nerdy and you don’t have to sacrifice social life or marital life- you can do both. Intelligence is far more attractive 🙂
Can you provide some words of wisdom to young ladies thinking about entering a STEM field as a career choice?
- Study hard! – There is no subject too difficult to pass, I used to hate maths but I used to be one of the lowest-achieving students in that subject. But after hard work and extra tuition, I became one of the best students.
- Don’t leave things to last minute- that goes for revision and also career options. Do you own research!
- Be confident and never feel bad about standing out
- Get help when needed – I always say be a ‘beg’ – that means going to lecturers and teachers for help, talking/studying with other students that may know more than you. In British culture, someone like that is called a ‘beg’ and it’s seen as a bad thing- but it really isn’t
- Aim for the top- More women are needed at the higher STEM positions. Not everyone is meant to be a medical doctor but there are so many other things you can do with a science degree.
What is your favorite Quote? How do you apply this to your life?
“Though thy beginning was small, yet thy latter end should greatly increase.” Job 8:7. All of my favorite quotes are from the Bible, as my faith is very important to me and that is what I live by. This scripture always reminds me I’m not defined by my past, background, or culture. Whatever I want to be, I can be!
What are your future goals related to your career?
I want to continue after my Ph.D. to research on diseases. Apart from research, I would love to open a foundation which will work with schools and universities to encourage young girls to go into science (especially girls of color and from disadvantaged backgrounds). I would also like this to include a mentoring scheme for not only young girls but also Ph.D. students early on their career.
How has your family influenced your journey and provide support?
I am the first generation in Britain. My parents migrated from Ghana over 30 years ago now. My mum was a big influence during my journey, she got a degree in computing at an older age and had to juggle raising 3 children, being a wife and also heading up a church at the same time. She is a prayerful woman and is always my voice of reasoning. She encourages me and my younger sister (who is studying mechanical engineering) to break boundaries and we never settle for less.
What are some interesting facts about yourself that you would like to share?
I am an unpublished author! When I was 11 I wrote my first novel and sent it to publishers (which 11 year old in 2003 thought like this??!). I have several manuscripts with me but over the years the science has taken over but I would love to publish a novel at some point in the future.
Contact Abigail for any further questions:
We hope you enjoyed learning about our latest “STEMsation”, please comment about how her experiences have inspired you, how your experiences can inspire others and nominate our next “STEMsation to spotlight their amazing accomplishments.