The Student Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) Panel was established by a group of Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Smart Medical Imaging students driven to bring about positive social change by reducing inequalities in academia. Since its inception in 2020, members have led a variety of initiatives with a focus on increasing diversity throughout the CDT’s admissions pipeline. We spoke to the Panel’s founder, Jonathan (Jonny) Jackson and panellists Natasha Patel and Felix Horger about the progress their achievements to date and plans for the future.

Mobilising the student body

In 2020, discussions about racial injustice between Jonny Jackson and a close friend of his prompted him to consider how he could play a role in tackling the issue at a grassroots level:

The problems my friend and I were discussing were global, yet facing them even at the scale of a large university seemed paralysingly complex. However, thanks to the strong sense of community at the CDT, I realised that it was here that I felt significant, consequential.

This realisation led to the circulation of a Centre-wide open letter, which was signed by twenty-four members of the CDT community and started the process of establishing the Panel; their kick-off meeting took place in October 2020.

Over a productive first year, members created a series of YouTube videos, providing personal insights to prospective PhD students about the application process; prepared a report on admissions data with a focus on diversity; held an information evening for Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) candidates and took part in a scheme creating research opportunities for applicants from minority backgrounds.

Long-term Panel members Felix and Natasha played key roles in leading on one of the latter two activities, respectively.

Sharing game-changing information with students from minority backgrounds

Felix was motivated to organise an online event providing crucial information about doctoral degrees in the Healthcare Sciences and Biomedical Engineering to students who need it the most: “Having someone explain and answer questions about PhDs can be a game-changer for those who do not get this support from their families or social environment.”

The event took place on 3 November 2021, with an audience comprised of students from ethnic minority backgrounds, who had been invited primarily through their universities’ African and Caribbean societies. The Panel also advertised it on social media and through diversity-focused initiatives, such as the Blackett Lab Family. The speakers were PhD students and academics from UK universities with experience in equality, diversity & inclusion initiatives and valuable insights to share about their career. On the industry side, Dr Radhouene Neji from Siemens Healthineers also took part in a panel discussion about post-PhD trajectories.

In his keynote speech, Dr Michael Sulu, Senior Teaching Fellow in Experimental Engineering in the Department of Biochemical Engineering, University College London, discussed the issue of elitism in higher education, which can be a huge barrier for those who lack support from their social environment. He stressed the importance of choosing the right supervisors and peer support in success in one’s PhD, drawing on his personal experience.

“We are planning to hold similar events in the future and will continuously improve how we deliver them, as well as motivate students from other universities to hold similar events; this should become a collective effort,” Felix said. 

Helping to strengthen PhD applications with research experience

In the summer of 2021, Natasha led on a scheme of research internship placements for BAME students who are considering a PhD in biomedical imaging, or engineering. Its aim was to prepare candidates for their application to doctoral studies with high-quality research experience.

“Due to it being the first year of the Panel being established, we partnered up with Prof Kawal Rhode, who leads an undergraduate summer research placement scheme at King’s College London, to pilot our initiative” Natasha explained.

The partnership provided an opportunity for Panel members to learn about project allocation and selection from a highly successful and established scheme. They are now looking to extend their involvement by asking  CDT students to put forth projects; they are also hoping to open up research placement opportunities at the CDT to BAME undergraduates at King’s, Imperial College London and beyond.

“Eventually, we aim to become slightly more independent with this initiative and align it more to the CDT as well as our equality, diversity and inclusion goals,” summarised Natasha.

A space for students to design campaigns they care about

“While the projects of the last year are clearly achievements for everyone to be proud of, the most promising aspect of the Panel is the passion and vision of each of its members,” Jonny said.

While recognising that profound change is a slow process, he is positive about the future: “If we are to truly realise its aims, the Panel’s future is one which ensures a space for individuals and groups within the CDT to design the campaigns they care about. After all, there is a positive social impact we can all generate through our research practices and the culture of the organisation we build around us.”

Key achievements from the Panel’s first year include:

  • reporting on aggregate admissions data to highlight opportunities to bring meaningful change
  • sharing tips and insights from current students about the CDT application process on YouTube
  • hosting an information evening to promote the benefits and realities of PhD-level study to students from ethnic minority backgrounds
  • laying the foundations for new research opportunities to pre-PhD students