UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering


Addressing the lack of Black scientists in healthcare engineering

21 November 2023

black AI generated scientist looking down a microscope

We’ve got a problem in healthcare: we don’t have many healthcare engineers from a minority background, especially from a Black ethnic background. We want to help change that.

When you look around, what do your colleagues look like? This isn’t a situation limited to UCL, it’s nationwide. In the Government’s inquiry to this, carried out by the Careers Research and Advisory Centre, they found that only 8% of undergraduates were Black with this number falling as students went up the academic ladder. Only 2.2% of Black students pursued a PhD whilst 1.4% chose to become Postdoc’s and so while Black students are well-represented at UG level, this declines higher up the ladder. What was shocking was only a handful of Black students pursued Physics. A handful! One or two![1] These are alarming numbers so is it any wonder we don’t see many Black people in academia?

And it’s not just a case of Black people not being interested in the sciences. If we start with 8% and then dwindle to 0.4% when it comes to professorship, clearly the problem lies in the pipeline. Black people don’t see a future in academia, or it as something that’s open to them. Most don’t even know that PhDs are an option, or even further study outside of an undergraduate degree.  

This is why we took part in HDRUK’s Black Internship Programme. The Programme is a way for Black students to become familiar with an academic setting and gain experience in a field that isn’t very open to Black students. Over an 8 week period, we helped host Aghogho Onojuvbevbo with Professor James Cole and his team at the Centre for Medical Imaging Computing (CMIC)Aghogho spent her time analysing existing/current neuroimaging data for biases and ethnic inequalities. James and his team were amazing in supporting Aghogho and trying to do their bit in tackling the systemic issues we’re seeing at UCL and in the wider academic community.

One thing that stuck out was that after the programme, when we spoke to Aghogho, she told us that she’d changed her mind about academia. She initially wanted to apply for more ‘corporate’ jobs but after speaking to James and his team, she’d started considering a career in academia and was asking about fellowships and Research Assistant roles. This was just with one person – imagine the impact with a whole cohort of Black interns... but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.

We know this issue seems larger than life, but we all need to do our bit in making small ripples in a big pond. We plan on taking part in HDRUK’s Black Internship Programme again and we hope you will join us in doing our bit in bringing more Black academics to UCL.

For now, here’s our interview with Aghogho, and what she got out of her internship this summer.

Why did you take part in the programme?

I took part in HDRUK’s Black Internship Programme because I wanted practical experience in the health data science sector. I saw this as an opportunity to expand my knowledge, gain practical skills and advance my career in health data. I also liked that the programme aims to include more Black people in this field, promoting fairness and diversity.

How did you find working with James and his team?

Working with James [Cole] and his team at the neuroimaging lab was a fantastic experience. James was incredibly helpful, dedicated and supportive throughout my time there. His commitment to guiding and mentoring me significantly contributed to my learning and growth. The team members were equally dedicated and collaborative, which made for a positive and productive work environment. I truly enjoyed working with them and their expertise and teamwork enhanced the overall quality of my internship.

How did you find the whole process? Including working with me and my team.

The entire experience, including working with the IHE team, was truly enriching. Your accessibility, support, and genuine interest in my professional growth were consistent throughout my internship, making me feel valued and motivated. The proactive efforts to organize beneficial activities and facilitate connections with other UCL staff members beyond my primary assignment were particularly valuable. Moreover, the continuous support in exploring opportunities beyond the internship and the regular check-ins to discuss my interests and goals showed a remarkable level of care and dedication, which I deeply appreciate. Working the team was a rewarding experience that significantly impacted both my internship and personal development.

What's something you've learned through this?

During this internship, I had the opportunity to apply theoretical knowledge to practical tasks which significantly enhanced my technical skills. I acquired valuable hands-on experience in programming. Moreover, managing the demands of both work and school taught me effective time management. Juggling these responsibilities required careful planning, prioritization, and multitasking, skills that I believe will be invaluable in my future career endeavours.

What did you find really challenging?

While gaining hands-on experience was really rewarding, adapting to complex concepts in certain technical areas initially posed a challenge. Additionally, balancing the demands of the internship alongside my academic commitments required a high level of time management and flexibility. Overcoming these challenges was a valuable part of my internship experience and contributed to my personal and professional development.

Has your career path changed? What was it before and what do you want to do now?

The exposure to real-world applications of programming and data science in the context of healthcare has sparked more interest in this field. This internship has inspired me to leverage my newfound skills and knowledge to pursue a career that integrates both my healthcare background with my programming expertise.

Do you recommend this programme to others?

Yes, I would highly recommend this program to others. My experience in this program has been incredibly valuable, providing me with hands-on experience, opportunities for personal and professional growth.

The supportive environment, dedicated staff and the focus on addressing underrepresentation makes this programme highly commendable for anyone aspiring to enter the health data science sector.