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A HIDDEN HISTORY:
African Women and the
British Health Service

1930–2000

Dr Bernadine Idowu-Onibokun

Biomedical Science

Bernadine was born in the UK to Nigerian parents. She discusses the importance of education in her family. It was this resilience and mentoring from a young age that would develop into her own involvement with mentoring programs for Black people in STEM. She studied at Kings College London.

Interview highlights:

EARLY LIFE AND CHILDHOOD

"So my mother was a deputy head teacher in Nigeria. Coming over here and she decided to do law. She would always remember what it was like when she was teaching her students. We were all growing up. Father worked here and abroad. So my mother was the main person bringing us up and the two things she taught us was our faith and our education."


"I always remember from a very, very young age, my mum 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 the 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, particularly my mother."


CAREER

"When I came to Kings College Hospital back in the day, it was very unusual to see a lot of black people – we're talking many years ago. 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 we'd got into Kings and we aimed to do as best we could and get all the support we could."


"I just always wanted to work behind the scenes and just do research because I remember saying, 'Any research I'm doing, I want it to be something that will help a patient'"


"Whatever I learn will be translated into patients and to help cure them. I've been very, very fortunate in that everything I have done has been published and, in some cases it has been translated to patients. So, that's all I've ever wanted to do."


ACTIVISM

"The Open Doors program was the initiative in place before I started. But I was the one that actually implemented it. In terms of encouraging people who have contributed or had certain achievements  [who were from] BME communities at Kings to showcase themselves. That included having a picture of themselves on a website and writing about their experiences. The pictures were then put on doors. All around the different campuses. For me, I think that validates individuals coming to Kings believing, seeing people that look like them [and] that, yeah, they do belong. The feedback was, it was blown off the roof."


The only [non–medical] group I have is my charity, which is called Youth Against Crime, Not Crime Against You. Our strengths are mentoring, [but] our weakness is fundraising. We're going to actually be 10 years [old] this year.  I guess with that, we've been collaborating with other organizations, to bring awareness to events and situations within the community. We get community people  to come in and educate, empower, and inspire myself and my young people."


"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 getting 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."


ADVICE TO YOUNG PEOPLE

"Believe in yourself. 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 believe that. But the moment you see somebody that knows, that can help you along the way, attach yourself to them. Believe in yourself and help somebody to make your dream become that reality, that’s all I would say."

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