Although at school it didn’t look like a career in science was for her, Professor Amaka Offiah is now one of only 40 Black, female professors in the UK.
Now working at the University of Sheffield, Prof. Offiah is the chair of Paediatric Musculoskeletal Imaging. Her research looks at the bones and fractures of young children: “I’m interested in children’s bones essentially and Sheffield has one of the biggest, if not the biggest, cohort of children in Europe with a bone disease called osteogenesis imperfecta – which means they fracture easily.”
A big part of the research is to do with children who suffer abuse. She explains how her work on rare inherited conditions and children’s injuries overlap: “Children who are physically abused, the ones who get bruises and fractures and head injuries, are usually under one, perhaps under two years old. But if they have fractures, we need to exclude the presence of underlying disease.” There is the need to be able to see if a fracture is caused by disease or by abuse (although these are not necessarily mutually exclusive). Prof. Offiah’s research aims to improve imaging and certainty in these cases, gaining more understanding of the mechanisms of injury.
How did she get to where she is now?
“Hard work!” was Prof. Offiah’s first reaction to this question, explaining that determination and focus to get to where she wants to be has her putting in 70-80 hours of work per week. Success as an academic, for Prof. Offiah, meant becoming a professor.
But looking back, she explained how her parents hadn’t expected her to get into university. Her father was an orthopaedic surgeon, but Prof. Offiah hasn’t always been scientifically minded and “blossomed late” in this area. Once she did start to show her skills in STEM, medicine was the natural path for her to take. Studying at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, Prof. Offiah’s first experience of CT scans was when a visiting doctor brought them to the hospital. This sparked her interest in radiology and she then chose to do her electives at St. Thomas’ in London in a related area – orthopaedics. Prof. Offiah remembers seeing the CT and MRI scans there, reaffirming to her that it was radiology, rather than psychiatry she wanted to pursue.
Moving to England for postgraduate training, Prof. Offiah spent her fourth year at Great Ormond Street Hospital. Although only intending on being there for a year-long fellowship, she ended up spending nine years there, doing a PhD under Professor Christine Hall and discovering her passion for research. When it came to the choice between clinical radiologist or academic radiologist, Prof. Offiah chose to follow her passion for research and joined the University of Sheffield.
Now, only after achieving the role of professor, does Prof. Offiah realise the statistics: she is the second Black, female professor of medicine in the UK. The determination that got her to this position is clear; she highlighted her hard work and focus to get where she is and said “I made sure that there really was going to be no doubt that I had fulfilled any of the particular criteria.”
Knowing these statistics now, Prof. Offiah is determined to help change them. She wants to inspire students, especially those in secondary school to have confidence in what they can achieve. She puts emphasis on aiming high and having the drive to go for the best you can: “I think mediocrity is a dirty word! Everyone should aim to be the very best they can. I’d like to inspire the younger generation to aim high.”
As well as inspiring the next generation to aim high, Prof. Offiah hasn’t finished with her own ambitions. She is hoping to take her research forward to improve the diagnosis of child abuse through the use of technology and artificial intelligence.
Have you faced any challenges getting to this position?
Prof. Offiah reflected on a talk she gave at the beginning of lockdown in which she said that she hadn’t faced any difficulties in terms of her ethnicity. However, she says “Afterwards, since lockdown and since the Black Lives Matter, I’ve had time to think. And really what I realise is that I buried the negative experiences.”
Explaining that her approach had been not to ruminate over racist events but to ignore them, Prof. Offiah said: “I would choose my battles and choose my battlegrounds and tend to speak to the people who I feel have embarrassed me or offended me in some way in private. I’ve learned over the years not to be confrontational; it’s perceived as aggression and doesn’t actually help.”
She explains that she has tried to focus her energy on conversations that can be productive, and make a difference for others, rather than concentrating on every microaggression and painful experience faced. Although Prof. Offiah considers how thinking over these emotional experiences may be able to help others.
At the University of Sheffield, Prof. Offiah chairs the BAME staff network, and in that position she has also heard the worries of others and their experiences. But she hopes these conversations will start to move forward: “I think that having the conversations we’re having now is hopefully going to be productive and I think that institutional racism has got to be faced.”
What advice do you have for anyone wanting to pursue research?
Prof. Offiah’s advice is to know where you want to go, and make sure it’s what you want for yourself and not what someone else wants from you. If you are working to satisfy your own career goals, then it won’t feel like work because you are doing it to get where you want to go and because you enjoy it. Prof. Offiah is the perfect example of passion for her field driving hard work and determination.
She now tells her children the same advice that she has followed: “When I was growing up we were always told, “Aim for the stars and you’ll reach the sky”. So, aim as high as you possibly can, you may not get there, but you’ll certainly get a lot higher than if you aim low and try to enjoy the journey!”