Dr Bernadine Idowu

is a former nurse and is currently a social worker.

She originally came to the UK from Nigeria in 1967.

In her interview, Esther speaks about her training in Kent, how the nursing profession has changed and the differences between the experiences of African and Caribbean women during the early days of the National Health Service. 

Dr. Bernadine Idowu: [00:00:32] My name is Dr. Bernadine Iduwo-Onibokun. And I was born in London. 

Interviewer: [00:00:39] Uh, what's your family's background?

Dr. Bernadine Idowu: [00:00:41] Our family's background: mother and father came over in the 1960s and the rest of us, um, were born in the UK.

Interviewer: [00:00:53] Uh, where did they come from?

Dr. Bernadine Idowu: [00:00:55] From Nigeria.

Interviewer: [00:00:57] Nigeria. Under what circumstances, did your parents come to arrive here? 

Dr. Bernadine Idowu: [00:01:03] They came to London to study. Came to study. 

Interviewer: [00:01:06] Were they studying anything in the medical profession? 

Dr. Bernadine Idowu: [00:01:09] No. Mother came over to study law and my father was an engineer, came to study engineering.

Interviewer: [00:02:58] Right. And you spoke a bit about your parents, sort of the way that they, um, sort of encouraged you to do well. 

What was the attitude towards work specifically as a black person? What was the advice that they gave you about how to navigate your career?

Dr. Bernadine Idowu: [00:03:19] So my mother was a deputy head teacher in Nigeria. And, um, coming over here and she decided to do law. Um, she would always remember what it was like when she was teaching her students. We were all growing up. Um, father worked here and abroad. Um, so my mother was the main person bringing us up and the two things she taught us was our faith and our education.

Um, I always remember from a very, very young age, my mom constantly telling us all that if we want to succeed, we're going to have to work 20 times harder than the white man. Now that to me meant just you just work hard. We worked very, very hard, and I think that work ethic to me and my siblings has made us what we are today, made it to professionals we are today. And we're all doing fantastically well and that's just because of the mentoring and support our parents gave us. It's clearly my mother. 

Interviewer: [00:04:21] Sort of going on to what inspired you then to pursue a career within science and the science fields. Where you own always interested in it, or what was it that inspired you?

Dr. Bernadine Idowu: [00:04:34] So my, again, this isn't coming from my mother, she never typical Nigerian thing is your child must be medical doctor or lawyer or an engineer, accountant. But my mother was different. She looked at our skills and what we were good at. So, I would always talk science. I'd always be thinking about research, diseases and then I saw myself gravitating towards that area and that's what I decided that that was for me. So, yeah, I've always been interested in science.

Interviewer: [00:05:05] And when did you begin your studies? Uh, where did you graduate? 

Dr. Bernadine Idowu: [00:05:09] So I went to Kings College, London, and I did biochemistry degree there. Then I went to Queen Mary University of London, it's called, to do my PhD and then came back to Kings for my first postdoc. So, I've always been in it being in the area, learning science, and then doing research into tissue engineering. 

Interviewer: [00:05:35] And when you first started, uh, your degree in King's college, London, what was, what was that atmosphere like?

Dr. Bernadine Idowu: [00:05:44] So how it was when I came to Kings College hospital and back in the day, it was very unusual to see a lot of black people at Kings, we're talking many years ago. And I remember being one of six black people in my year of over about a hundred, I think, doing our degree, but we felt privileged. We were proud that wed got into Kings and, you know, we aimed to do as best we could and get all the support we could.

And we did, we did, back in the day, you know, we all knew who our personal tutors were. We were always encouraged to visit them if we were going through things and we did. And I guess, going back to what my mum taught us, is that your teachers are there to help you. So, if you're struggling, go and seek help. So, when we were asked to, sorry, when we were, yeah, if the school said, if we weren't, if we were struggling or anything was going wrong, we'd go and speak to them.

We did that, and we got all the support needed, then. It wasn't an issue at all. 

Dr. Bernadine Idowu: [00:08:43] So I worked as a research assistant as soon as I graduated, and I remember vividly when we were going, so when we were going through our degree, over the years, we were constantly being encouraged to apply for jobs. Um, we were constantly being told to go to the Careers office, put together your CV and start applying. So, as I kept hearing that often times, I thought, well, that's the most natural thing to do. Just go ahead and do it. And I did it, I got all the support. And then, even before I graduated, I secured myself a position.

Now that was before I actually started my PhD because I didn't think people like me did PhDs at all. I thought it was just not people like me.

And then, when I was working in that research position, I could see people doing pH D and PhDs. And then I thought, oh my goodness, I could do that. And that's how I applied to do one. And then I did my PhD. 

Interviewer: [00:10:33] What was it like getting a PhD? I mean, what's, tell us about the journey to get there. 

Dr. Bernadine Idowu: [00:10:38] Again, look, I'm one of the people that have, that does have good stories. I'm one of the very fortunate ones. Um, I had two supervisors and they were so encouraging. I know people have had stories where they haven't had that level of support, but I always did. I was always pushed. I used, I always went to them with my own initiatives my ideas, and they always supported me. So for me, it was just a wonderful experience.

And then the reason why I also wanted to a PhD was because the only people that had it were men and one or two black men, and I'm thinking, are women not clever enough to do it? I need to do it. So again, when I was doing my PhD, there were no black females doing their PhD. It's all white females, no black females, black males.

Um, but again, that, that didn't bother me mine's is just to get it and just be that person that has it, that can encourage other people. So be that role model. Cause I'm sure loads of people do want to do one, but they just don't believe that it’s for them. So yeah, my experience was just good. It was very, very good.

Dr. Bernadine Idowu: [00:11:59] It was interesting because my first postdoc position, so my PhD was done at Queen Mary University of London. It was part of the interdisciplinary research center. So that means that research was done in different universities.

So, mines was based at University College, London all the way in Stanmore. Now, I was doing a lot of, um, immunofluorescence staining, tissues, specimens, but no molecular biology whatsoever. So, when I was applying for post docs, the only one that stood out for me was a gene therapy post doc. Um, you use loads of molecular biology techniques.

I don't know what possessed me to apply for it because I didn't have the experience, but then I just did, and apparently, um, I was so confident in the interview that I was offered this position.

And then, you can imagine, you've got a PhD, but then you’ve started from scratch learning a new technique. But apparently, I picked up so well that everything I touched, just worked.  So apparently, they called, they said I had green fingers, everything just worked. So that went really, really well for me.

And then I was looking for different jobs after that contract ran out. In fact, I got head hunted to University College London back again. So, sorry. The first postdoc was in Kings and was headhunted to University College London.

So again, I've just been fortunate. Wherever I've worked, I've had brilliant supervisors, people that have constantly pushed me and encouraged me and I am where I am today because of such support. 

Interviewer: [00:13:32] And do you think that, sort of, after gaining your PhD, that, that allowed people to view you with a bit more respect, or do you think that people's attitudes towards you and your career changed, or yours?

Dr. Bernadine Idowu: [00:20:41] Oh my goodness. Where do I start? This is an hour in itself. It's just been a crazy, exciting experience for me. So, um, I was actually in between jobs. Uh, that's the saddest thing about research is, um, you don't have permanent contracts as a researcher, so you're always looking for your next grant or, um, looking for jobs.

So, when my contract did run out, I was in between jobs, but I always knew that I wanted to lecture a lot, as well as doing research, I love lecturing. I was doing a lot of that whilst in my last position. Um, and, uh, as I knew, I wanted a teaching post. I would always attend the away day for, um, stuff. Teacher, teachers away day, every year at Kings.

And there was one time I did attend, July, July, June, June, 2015. And for the first time, I've explained I've been in and out of Kings, but the first time in the afternoon session, there was a student experience session, and the principal of Kings, Ed Byrne, was on a panel. And he was just listening to what students were saying, um, you know, asking them questions. And I'm thinking, "That's unusual". Principals are not normally like that, in my experience, so friendly.

So, when he was leaving, I'm a spiritual person, as I said, my faith, some figure said to me, "Go and see him". And I thought "Oh no, you can't just stop him, a principal like that. You've got to go through a secretary." But my, that thing just kept saying, "Go and speak to him. Go and speak to him."

So, I thought, "You know what? I'm going to go speak to him. The best he could say, or the worst he could say is to go and speak to his, um, his secretary."

So, everyone's leaving. I said, "Excuse me, principal, can I have a word please?"

And he said, "Yeah, sure."

I'm thinking, "That wasn't meant to happen." And then, I said to him, "Well, since graduating from Kings, I've noticed that there hasn't been an increase in BME scientists." And then I mentioned about my charity and then he said, "Hm, that does concern me."

And I'm thinking, "That's two that weren’t supposed to happen." And after our brief discussion, he then plucked a card from nowhere and said, I should go and see him. Now, I run around the corner and I made, um, a quick phone call to his secretary and she gave me a date, perhaps three weeks later or something.

Um, and it's the thing whereby, I knew I was going to see him, but I'm not going to go there and moan. I'm going to go there and sell myself, to see what opportunities I can do for Kings and they can do for me. 

So, I remember sitting there on the day, sitting down, and then I had made notes, got prepared. And I told him about my past and where I saw myself going, and I even told him I did want to lectureship in my Dental Institute. And he said, well, he doesn't control the budgets for each school, they have to do it.

But then he said, because I’ve explained to him about my charity and not seeing enough BME scientists, that means I'm interested in diversity. And I said, "Yes, I am." And then I thought that's where the conversation was going to end.

And then, when we finished, he said "Bernadine, follow me." And I'm thinking, "Follow you to where?" and then we went to his, uh, colleagues office and I think he's the vice president, vice principal.

And then he sat down, and I sat down and he said, "This young, intelligent woman approached me."

And I'm looking around thinking, "Who are you talking about?" And then he said, "Use that money over there." and then he then left.

Now I'm thinking, "Okay, right. This is not what I expected." Then he left and the person I was speaking to Chris Mottershead, he then said to me, "So, Bernadine, tell me about yourself." And I explained everything, and then he said, "Yeah, we can arrange for you to work in diversity and inclusion."

Now it started off as one day a week, and before the end it was four days. Um, and my first project, when I eventually started working there, was to work with senior lecturers and understand the barriers and challenges of them becoming readers and professors.

So, I was given a cohort of 51 names and I was asked think about how Id address this. And then I thought, "What do I like doing with my young people?" I like listening to them, and hearing what they have to say and seeing how we can work together to make a difference. So, I then suggested we conduct a focus group, but then I said before the focus group, I know what researchers and lecturers or academics are very, very busy, we don't always check emails.

Let me just send an email and then just request individuals to let me know their availability. And I'll organize a phone interview, a short one, because I know they're busy too. So, I did, I sent an email and like the title was, "Would you like to be part of this focus group?" And I signed it with my title, I signed it. They saw my name and within one, no, no, no, 30 seconds of me sending that email one woman just brought back as a "Yes! I want to be part of this focus group." And then by the end of that day, I had about, I don't know, about 20 people had come back to me saying they were very interested in being part of it.

To cut a long story short, we did the interviews, we did the focus group. I organized some of them to meet with the principal, those that were available. Um, I wrote a report and the principal, because what I was doing was, the way I saw it was, the principal has invested in me, so he needs to see what I've produced.

So I would organize meetings with him. Not every week, just, I don’t know, probably every couple of months or something. And then they met with him. He had what they had to say. He encouraged them. He heard their stories. He encouraged them to even contact him, on his own. To cut a long story short, uh, six of them became, were promoted to readers and two of them became professors over the span of, I dunno, three or four or five years span.

But one of them became a professor like, a few months later and it, because he was overlooked for that chair. But when, um, the situation was explained, um, the principal heard more of what to do. He encouraged him to go back and resubmit his application and that's how he got his chair. That was one. So that, that was the impact of one.

The second one was, I've worked with several, but I'll just tell you two or three. The second one was, um, this Open Doors program. So it was that the initiative was actually in place before I started. Um, but I was the one that actually implemented it. So in terms of encouraging people who have contributed or had certain achievements, BME communities, at Kings to showcase themselves. And that included having a picture of themselves on a website. And, um, then writing about their experiences. The pictures were then put on doors. All around the different campuses.

And for me, I think that validates individuals coming to Kings believing, seeing people that look like them that, yeah, they do belong. The feedback was, it was blown off the roof. We did it in all the buildings we had before we acquired the Bush House, Kings buy the Bush House, and now the project was extended into Bush House.

And a final one I'm going to talk about is, um, BME early career researcher conference. So again, um, we're looking at what's happening to post-doctoral researchers. Once they get there, a postdoc position. Are they making a transition to become a lecturer then going up the ladder? Most postdocs, including myself with postdoc, for so many years, where we see our white counterparts getting positions.

Now it could be because we don't have the skills and resources. We don't have the mentors to help us on our journey. So, then I thought, okay, "What would I like?" And then, "What would other people like?" A lot of groundwork went into it, which I won’t explain because of time, but just to say, um, I put everything together, um, and we did the first from, let me see, what was concept to  the actual conference. I designed, developed, found the people and the first one was done in April, 2017.

The feedback was crazy. And now that now remains a yearly program. So the first one was at Kings, the second one at Kings, the third one at University of East London, and the fourth one was supposed to be done in April at Imperial, but because of COVID-19 has now been postponed to September and it's probably likely to be a online course.

So, I don't know, I kind of underestimate the impact, um, these things have done, but it's been amazing. It's been amazing. That's an, that's a topic on its own. 

Dr. Bernadine Idowu: [00:35:36] Absolutely, yes. Um, the actual degree starts in September and I just can't, September 2020, and I just can’t wait. Biomedical Sciences and Pharmacology and Human Nutrition. And the preparation and everything that we're doing before students come is just so exciting. And I, you know, I've started already, but it's just like, I can't wait to meet my students.

Because I know, I know, I know they will enjoy their degree, most definitely [inaudible] university. I’m so, so excited and yes, you know, it's the thing whereby they've seen my, um, strengths or my skills and they're just tapping into it and I'm just like, this is what I want. So, when people say they're in their dream jobs, I can say that. I’m in my dream job now.

It's taken some time, but I haven't regretted the time it's taken. I've met amazing people on the way. I've seen people that have taught me so much, and I'm just, I'm ready for it now. Ready for it. And I could see my chair, my professorship, there. Cause you know, you can see light at the end of the tunnel now, but before I just thought, it was a dream before. It was just a dream, but now I'm seeing it becoming a reality. Yeah, that's what I'm saying. 

Interviewer: [00:36:58] And I guess, sort of, when you're thinking of preparing for September, what kind of things are you looking to, to, to incorporate into your, in the way that you lecture? Um, for people like, that, I mean, when you look back to you when you were studying, um, what, what kind of things are you looking to cooperate to make people like you see their worth? Um and, be interested in the, in the, in the topic that the, in the course of their studies. 

Dr. Bernadine Idowu: [00:37:31] Everything and anything. Firstly, every student must feel like they belong. So I will ensure that every student has a personal tutor who they have constant contact with and then I'll make sure that I'm the, I'm the course leader anyway, so I want to make sure that the students know I'm here.

Secondly, we're moving into eBooks, um, online learning, especially in this COVID time. There’s the thing whereby I want to make it, make sure that every student grasps and is given the opportunity to excel. Every student must feel as though that they, they will get help anytime they need it.

Thirdly, we're going to be lecturing on diseases that affect the BME community. We're going to do some sort of some sort, some research, especially also with diseases that affect the students, uh, sorry, the BME community.

Fifth, we are going to ensure that students help us in their learning. Tell us what they want to learn or how they want to learn. Are we doing things correctly? Is there anything we can change? It's all about student feedback and how they are feeling in their course. How satisfied if, they do feel?

I'm very happy already that, um, University of West London has come top for student satisfaction and that needs to remain. I know that was for previous courses, business, law, et cetera, but they haven't had a school of biomedical sciences before. So that needs to be maintained. And under me, it has to be maintained because I'm very passionate about student success.

And you're right, everything that I would have liked in my time, yeah, I’m trying to ensure it happens. And I’m also speaking to my mentees who are recent graduates of biomedical sciences. Tell me, what would you have liked differently? You know, how can we make things more exciting for students? Give me your feedback.

But you know, we've got, its, got to be student led and student supported. And I want students to support one another and teach one another, and I want to put, have an environment where that whereby they can talk to themselves and support themselves more than speaking to us, if need be. We could be just like, I don't know, go to if you’re really, really struggling. I want there to be a lot of student interactions and support, whenever, I just want to -- goodness. It's exciting. It's exciting. 

Dr. Bernadine Idowu: [00:48:29] Believe in yourself. Get a mentor. Get a mentor. Do not look at the situation and think there's no hope for you. Please don't do that. Do not look at crime thinking that's the only way you're going to go. Don't, don't believe that. But the moment you see somebody that knows, that can help you along the way, attach yourself to them.

And it's just mentoring. Believe in yourself and help somebody to make your dream become that reality, that’s all I would say.

Interviewer: [00:49:04] Amazing. I’m going to take that on board, for sure. Yeah, that's great. I mean, do you have anything else that you think, "I would love to have said this"? 

Dr. Bernadine Idowu: [00:49:14] So, I didn't go into my award-winning science. And that's another thing we don't do. Um, when I was working, was that after I was headhunted to UCL and I got another position in UCL? I was working in the histopathology department and it was really, really interesting because you do a lot of research with, this was more of a clinical scientist position, which I absolutely loved, because I want to do more with patients.

And then we, we put, we did some research on the disease, fibrous dysplasia, and we got data from it and we submitted it. And then when you, when you submit a paper, all you want is to hear is "Congratulations, it's going to be published, not rejected." So, we got that. "Congratulations. This is submitted." But then when they said, "Congratulations, its being selected as the best paper in that journal in that year", we're thinking, "Okay, what does that mean?" And then they said this was a Roger Cotton prize and it comes with 10,000 euros and we're thinking, "Okay, that's nice."

And then the award stipulated, it goes to the first author and I'm the first author! So, then I'm thinking, "Okay, I get the money and then it goes into, and then it goes back to the department." But then it said, no, it goes to my bank. So, I've got it and I just thought, Oh, I'm really lucky. I'm really lucky.

Until I met a black, female, scientist, professor at University College, London when I started to work in diversity and inclusion. And then I started looking around finding where are all of us? Cause I didn't know that there were any, anyway. And then I just, I was just talking to her, like I’m talking to you, in passing, and I told her about the award, and she said, "Stop right there. Do you not realize you're an award-winning scientist?" 

And I said, "Really?"

She said, "Yes, you're an award-winning scientist."

"Oh, I didn’t know that." Cause no one told me that. So, for, I had that one for about five years or so more. And then I just kept saying in passing, "Oh, I've got that money." You don’t think much of it. But now, I say I'm an award-winning scientist. Now I go into schools and colleges, um, universities and I talk about my experiences.

And going into schools and just putting up your title, "I'm a black female award winning scientist", before you start speaking, you see the girls going [clicking] excited. They’re really excited, and I’m thinking, "Is it, is that so powerful? My goodness, I need to keep doing that." So fortunately, at my new post now, I'm encouraged to do this outreach as a STEM ambassador.

Loads, there's not loads, but there's another school in Camden that constantly calls me and there's this art globe. Um, Suffolk college, they constantly call me in to speak to young people to inspire them, to do what I need to do. So, you know, I think that's really, really important, to be that visible role model.

Because we are out there, but we're not visible enough. And through the conference I've been, I've set up and I've, I've, I've, you know, really researched into these, these people. Where are they? And I've found them all, and my goodness, it's good. It's good knowing that they're there and, and interesting. They too want to go out and say, "Hey, I'm here too." You know we're writing books; they're doing all sorts.

And that, that needs to continue. We need to, and we need to believe in ourselves, and just accept and own what we've achieved, not just dumb it down. Because it's not about you anymore. It's about helping those coming behind you and making them believe that if you can do it, they can do it -- and even better than what you do. And this is exactly what I tell my mentees. "I've done it, but you can do even better than me and faster than me." And seeing them achieve and do so well, it just warms my heart, it really does.