Patricia learned early in her career that nothing creative can grow in a negative working environment. But she didn’t let that stand in her way. Now a leader in academia, she is determined to play her part in changing that culture.
Patricia's research career nearly stalled halfway through her PhD.
Civil unrest had forced her to leave Kenya, where she was doing her fieldwork, at short notice. That put her under pressure to work out how to continue her research.
"Everything started to feel like it was falling apart. Kenya was the main location for my PhD and it didn’t look like I was going to be able to go back safely."
She was also pregnant with her second child – and felt unsupported at work.
"My time away on maternity leave had really been seen as writing me off. ‘That’s it now, we might never see her again,’ that kind of attitude. I found that very difficult."
This wasn’t what Patricia had expected from her PhD. She’d hardly rushed into it – for eight years she’d worked as a research assistant and then as a research fellow at two London universities.
"I was fortunate enough to work on two long-term projects which gave me quite a lot of security. I did try for PhDs in that time, but either there wasn’t anything that I was overly interested in, or the things I was interested in I wasn’t successful in getting."
Her passion for sociology came from her upbringing: she was born in Kenya, grew up in Saint Kitts in the Caribbean and moved to London in her early teens. "You find yourself wondering what makes a society work and why this society is different to another one."
In the end, the many years she’d spent collecting data across the UK gave Patricia the idea for a PhD she was excited about: the ethical challenges faced by frontline researchers like her.
"I was going into people’s houses where there were really challenging social problems. Those kinds of challenges really made me question the data I was collecting and why."
Patricia was awarded a Wellcome Doctoral Studentship to fund her PhD just a month after she gave birth to her first child. After deferring the PhD by a year to go on maternity leave, she moved to Kenya, where her research was based. Her family came too.
Then, at the end of 2007, came the political unrest that gave her no choice but to leave – especially as she was pregnant again.
"I left friends and colleagues behind, not sure whether they were going to be OK. I didn’t want to leave, I didn’t believe what I was seeing. I didn’t ever think that I would see dead people in the streets, or face threats of physical violence. It was a very, very dark time."
Back in the UK, she faced the challenge of how to rescue her research. "The wheels came off completely. I felt like I had to start from scratch."
Patricia had difficult decisions to make about her PhD at the same time as preparing for the birth of her second child.
"I was trying to find other places in Africa to continue my work. Wellcome were supportive – 'If you need to go to another location, if you need to have interruption of studies'. At the same time I felt like I really should go back [to Kenya]. I owed it to the people I was working with who had spent hours of their time with me. Then Wellcome were really helpful in supporting me to find another supervisor as well."
Eventually, ten months after she left Kenya, Patricia was able to return and finish collecting her data under the guidance of two new supervisors, Catherine Dodds and Judith Green.
An atypical PhD, Patricia agrees, but a huge learning experience. "It has shaped everything actually, from the way I collected data to relationships I’ve had subsequently," she says. It also taught her about resilience and to trust her own ideas more.
This meant that when she applied for a Wellcome Research Fellowship she had more confidence in her proposal. The fellowship was to do a postdoc at the Ethox Centre in the University of Oxford to work with Professor Michael Parker. And she got it.
Not wanting to base her research in one location this time, she planned it around three countries: Gambia, Cambodia and Uganda. It meant splitting her time between the different countries and, again, taking her family with her.
"This kind of work is demanding: the travelling, the starting again, forging relationships and getting yourself embedded in a place. But in terms of doing something new and creative, and thinking in a different way, it does help to keep moving."
She couldn’t have done it without support from her family, she says, and also from Wellcome. "Having a funder that has been quite flexible in terms of 'I’m going to have to do fieldwork and I have to take my family with me' has made a big difference."
The slow pace of change in academia
After finishing her postdoc, Patricia stayed at the Ethox Centre where she discovered a group of academics who shared the same ethos about what working in academia should be like.
"It really matters that you work with people who have the same values as you, and who are genuinely interested in creating a good working environment. I think some academic institutions and departments can be quite dysfunctional, with egos and difficult personalities, and nothing creative can grow in that environment."
Within only two years, she quickly moved up the academic ladder – from research lecturer to senior fellow to associate professor.
"It sounds all really easy, but actually I didn’t have a plan for any of this. I don’t have academics in my family, so I had no example of how this is supposed to work," she says. "It’s very difficult for me, but I’ve been really fortunate to do something I genuinely like. I can put in the extra hours, and I don’t mind doing lots of reading or teaching because I genuinely like it."
If something unpredictable happens at home, Patricia knows she now has the flexibility she needs. "The reason I’m able to do what I do is because my line manager is really respectful of the fact that I work but I also have a family. Having that support has been the make-or-break thing for me.
"And that’s the key thing, you can have a great institution with great policies but a line manager who absolutely doesn’t recognise that you are human, and that you are capable of having a family and doing your research well.
"Attitudes are changing, but there are still pockets in academia that definitely see having children and a successful career as incompatible."
In 2015, Patricia was awarded a place on the Powerlist in recognition of being among the very few Black British female academics employed by an Oxbridge institution. "I think academia is just still very conservative in the way that people are hired and promoted," she says.
"As a black woman from a single-parent, working-class background I’m very conscious that diversity is sometimes skewed to a very narrow interpretation – it’s generally gender diversity, so racial, social class and other forms of diversity get put on the back foot. That is changing, but it’s changing very slowly."
Something else that’s changing in academia is tolerance for bullying, Patricia says. "The idea that there is bullying in academia isn’t new to anybody, but the discussion of it is new and the idea that you don’t have to put up with it is new. It’s important that students and junior members of staff know that because they are often the most vulnerable.
"I’ve had all sorts of horrible experiences where I’ve tried to speak to a head of department and they’ve just said, 'This is part of what you have to deal with.' I don’t think anybody would ever be so blasé about it now. I think it’s changing, but I don’t know to what extent or whether it’s changing quickly enough."
Patricia's career milestones
Wellcome Doctoral Studentship
PhD in Sociology, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine2007-2009
Wellcome Research Fellowship in Humanities and Social Science
Research Fellow, University of Oxford2012-2016
University of Oxford2015-2017
Wellcome Investigator Awards in Humanities and Social Science
University of Oxford2018-present
Associate Professor in Sociology and Global Health Ethics
University of Oxford2018-present
A different type of leadership
In 2017, Patricia applied for a Wellcome Investigator Award in Humanities and Social Sciences. "It was a huge leap up," she says, "but I didn’t think about it too much because I would find a way to talk myself out of doing it."
"I thought 'the worst that can happen is that they say I’m not ready', which is fine. For me everything was about the idea – if the idea is strong then you can find ways to provide the infrastructure for it."
And her idea was successful. Patricia’s research was to look into how a range of actors in global health make decisions when they are faced with uncertainty and lack confidence about whether something is real or fake. She will explore this idea in relation to drugs and medicines, as well as areas of knowledge production.
Patricia deferred starting her project so that she could work out the fine details and speak to other Investigator Award holders.
"I didn’t want to just launch into something and reinvent the wheel, I wanted to find out some of the issues they had, so that I could try and set my project up in the best possible way. That’s been really helpful and people were really generous with their time."
One of the most common challenges she heard was around managing people. This didn’t come as a surprise to Patricia. "I look back now on when I haven’t necessarily had the best management and support, and I don’t think it’s because people were being malicious or unkind, I just think that they weren’t competent.
"Most academics don’t have a lot of management experience or training. We can try and manage our own careers, but it’s very different to trying to manage other people’s."
She’s determined to change that culture and learn from the positive supervision and line management she has received. She wants to be a supportive leader for her future team – two postdocs and two PhDs.
She’s already been supervising students at Oxford and trying to give each the support they need. "I’ve been really careful with my students to not have them go through the same negative experiences I’ve had and for me to share some of the positives I’ve learnt," she says.
Patricia found out she was pregnant as she was preparing for her Investigator Award project, so she has deferred starting it until later in 2019. But four weeks after her baby was born, she organised and attended a workshop to kick-start her project.
This is an exciting time, she says, and that’s what gives her energy. "I’m really happy that I’ve stuck with sociology. I love what I do and I have done since I was 14 years old and I picked up my first sociology book. The idea that I can do this for a living is just so wild."