Dr Michael Sulu, lecturer at UCL’s Biochemical Engineering Department, describes the challenges he’s faced as an ethnic minority within the STEM industry.
Author: Similoluwa Ayeniyegbe
Editor: Altay Shaw
Dr Michael Sulu teaches within the Biochemical Engineering Department at UCL, but he also
dedicates a lot of time to diversity initiatives within STEM. Currently, much of his work
focuses on enhancing engineering education. Dr Sulu enjoys teaching students and helping them to reach their full potential, but he honestly says that his career journey took longer because of his race.
Growing up in East Sussex, Dr Sulu was one of the few black students at his school. Whilst at sixth form, a senior member of staff advised him that an engineering degree would be too difficult, and that he should study pure science instead. Set back by this comment, Dr Sulu embarked on a chemistry degree at university. However, he didn’t enjoy it, so decided to study a subject that allowed him to combine his passion for biology, chemistry and physics ‒ biochemical engineering. Although he admits that it wasn’t easy to overcome feelings of imposter syndrome, he reminded himself that “people in higher education are often mediocre”. Even today, this mindset helps him to stay determined despite the microaggression he experiences from others within his industry thinking he isn’t “good enough” because of his race.
Today, Dr Sulu speaks to students at schools and sixth forms, encouraging them to research the diversity and inclusion policies of universities before applying. He explains that “it’s better to go somewhere that acknowledges the issue rather than ignoring it”. For students that are
interested in the STEM industry, but are concerned about the lack of diversity, he encourages them to look for mentors. Whether they are students or staff, having someone who’s part of an ethnic minority to look up to is important.
Dr Sulu is currently working on a project to diversify teaching options in the
biopharmaceutical department, allowing students to specialise in areas that they enjoy. He
feels that this is an important initiative as “you always do better in things that you’re
interested in”. He is also a co-chair of the Race Equality Steering Group, which aims to
identify areas of concern about race equality at UCL and develop solutions to address them. One of the key objectives of the group is to promote equality for Black, Asian and
minority ethnic students and staff at UCL, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that every student can achieve their career goals irrespective of their race.
By Dr Sulu’s reasoning, the strive for diversity has a practical as well as a moral dimension. “A lot of my work focuses on race equality, but all diversity is important. People with different viewpoints do better at solving problems. If you have a group that have all been educated in the same way, they’ll all approach the problem in the same way. In engineering, problem-solving is key and you’ll solve a problem more efficiently if you have a group with varied opinions.”
Although more work needs to be done to improve race equality within STEM, Dr Sulu attests that “the door is open for change”. Today, more than ever before, race is a subject that is more openly discussed and this opportunity must be seized to catalyse real change.
We would like to kindly thank Dr Michael Sulu for taking the time to participate in our special issue on diversity and share his unique ideas as part of this interview.