Interview with Professor Vanessa Diaz

Vanessa Diaz, Professor of Healthcare Engineering at UCL’s Wellcome/EPSRC Centre for Interventional and Surgical Sciences, shares her passion for increasing diversity and inclusion in STEM.

Writer: Eleanor Mackle
Editor: Maria Stoica
Artist: Zach Ng

Vanessa Diaz is a Professor of Healthcare Engineering at UCL’s WEISS Centre (Wellcome/EPSRC Centre for Interventional and Surgical Sciences), where until recently she was the only female primary investigator on the delivery team.

Despite emphasising that she doesn’t really ‘do’ titles, Prof Diaz is the Vice Dean for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) for the UCL Engineering Faculty and a newly appointed member of the Engineering Strategic Advisory Team for the EPSRC. Here, she intends to make her voice heard for those who have no voice in the room.

Prof Diaz has worked at UCL since 2007 and now leads a group who work on multiscale cardiovascular engineering. Her team uses simulation tools to try to better understand cardiovascular disease. The aim is to apply these tools to plan treatments and predict potential outcomes for individual patients, so that clinicians can make more informed decisions. In this way, they are using the power of simulation to get a glimpse into the future, doing things that are impossible with imaging alone.

These achievements are very impressive, but Prof Diaz is quick to assert that it has not been an easy journey. She explains that “as scientists, we operate in a space that is predominantly white, male-dominated and ableist, so for anyone in a minority group, it can feel like their voice matters less”. This can give rise to imposter syndrome – something she suffered from a lot when she was younger. Prof Diaz is determined to change this; both by being a role model to younger researchers and by addressing the subconscious biases that are ingrained in academic institutions.

In addition to imposter syndrome, Prof Diaz says it took her a long time to build her confidence, and being a disabled scientist contributed to this. It took many years to accept who she was but is proud that over time she has made her way up through UCL, by merit of her own hard work. Of course, she says, it is always a juggling act – trying to do your best with teaching and research – and academia can be exhausting. Even so, she seems to have reached a place where she is confident in herself and inspiring to others.

It was during her journey through UCL that Prof Diaz decided to speak up: “I was faced with a decision – am I going to be the meek little mouse in the room and keep perpetuating inequity? The answer of course was no”. Now, Prof Diaz says she always speaks her mind, both because it is the right thing to do when you have things to say, but also because it matters for the generations of younger scientists. Although imposter syndrome still lingers in the background, after her commitment to fight inequality, it became easier to ignore and “just tell it to shhh”. 

As it turns out, creating change is actually a very complicated process and as a result, Prof Diaz’s work as Vice Dean for EDI is multifaceted. She explains that her role is at a faculty level, but it is actually individual departments that have the most power to invoke change. “Departments are where people’s lives are made better or worse. It’s the departmental culture that makes the most difference to our working lives.”

The Engineering Faculty have been developing a strategy document for EDI, which has seen Prof Diaz spend more than 900 hours talking to people about their individual experiences. Although this crucial work involved a lot of emotional labour, she is sure it will have been worth it when the implementation phase begins. Prof Diaz highlights that her role as Vice Dean for EDI has put her in touch with amazing people who are great allies and forward thinkers, and this in itself has made it a worthwhile experience.

This strategy document is important because it creates expectations for the way people should behave. Each individual needs to take responsibility for their own actions, and setting clear expectations is a key part of that. If we set expectations, Prof Diaz explains, we can hold individuals accountable and be more transparent about our progress.

Overall, Prof Diaz thinks we should be realistic about what is possible and the influence work such as hers can have on issues of EDI in STEM. However, if we all wait for change to happen, we will be waiting forever. A key point she raises is that our strength comes from our human potential. “You can have all the kit, but we still need the passion, energy and intelligence of the people we get to work with; that’s why UCL is such a great place. We need to cultivate it, and help people to grow and use their own voice so that we don’t all become clones.”

Highlighting the importance of her work to increase equality, diversity and inclusion in STEM, Prof Diaz said, “When everyone thinks the same, nobody is thinking very much. We need to listen to all the different voices in the room, and their lived experiences in order to make a change.”

We would like to kindly thank Professor Vanessa Diaz for taking the time to participate in our special issue on diversity and share her unique ideas as part of this interview.

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