Combining postgraduate study with raising six children

Bioinformatics graduate Rudo Supple returned to education after spending 15 years out of the workplace while she raised her children.

After 15 years spent raising her six children, Rudo Supple felt ready for a new challenge. Having studied Economics and Japanese as an undergraduate, Rudo couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe she’d made the wrong choice about what to study at A-level, and decided to look into going back to university to study science.

She initially applied to study medical statistics at Birkbeck, but while looking up information on the types of career that medical statistics graduates went onto she came across the term ‘bioinformatics’. She recalls: “I had never even heard of bioinformatics, but then I discovered that Birkbeck offered a Master’s in it and when I looked at the course content I realised that this was the right programme for me.”

Despite having no background in either biological sciences or computer science, Rudo enrolled on the MSc Bioinformatics with Systems Biology after talking to the course admissions tutor.

“When I started the course my aim was just to pass. I wanted to challenge myself academically after so many years without an academic challenge but I really didn’t know whether I would be able to keep up with the subject material without having prior knowledge.

“It was incredibly daunting to come back into education after so long. Even the one area that I was vaguely familiar with from my undergraduate studies – statistics – had changed enormously, and whereas I had been used to looking things up in tables, we were now running them through computational models.”

While many part-time students at Birkbeck are combining their study with work and therefore need to study in the evenings, for Rudo, who was commuting to Birkbeck from Oxford, it made sense to follow the daytime modules from the full-time programme and study from 2pm-5pm – which meant that she could be back in Oxford for the children’s bedtimes.

Rudo’s children were initially sceptical about the idea of her going to university – something they saw as ‘for young people’ and which was only a few years away for her eldest son himself. “I think that now my kids just see study as ‘what mum does’. I’m pleased to have modelled for them the idea that your education doesn’t stop when you leave school or university as a young person – that there’s no time limit on learning.”

After receiving a merit in her first module, the doubts about whether she’d be able to complete the programme slowly began to recede for Rudo. She says: “You pass one module, then another, and after a while you realise that it’s not going too badly. But at the end of the first year, when my tutor said that I could potentially get a distinction I just laughed. I had an excellent supervisor for my project and in the end I did go on to get a distinction overall.”

Not only did Rudo begin to believe that she was capable of passing the course at Birkbeck, she began thinking about a PhD as well. She says: “Commuting to Birkbeck two afternoons a week was manageable but I knew that it would be easier for me if I could do my PhD closer to where I live. The academic standard at Birkbeck was so high that I knew that if I was good enough to do a PhD there, then I would be good enough to do one at Oxford, and so that is where I applied.”

Now in the first year of her PhD at Oxford, Rudo has no regrets about taking a chance on a brand new subject at Birkbeck. She says: “I’m so grateful to all of the tutors and my supervisors at Birkbeck. They never minded when I asked a thousand questions about everything – and actually liked it when students asked questions as it showed how engaged we were with the subject matter.

“I couldn’t have done it without the help of my husband, mother and friends who looked after the kids at weekends and evenings when I was studying. They all knew how important this was to me and supported me throughout.

“In my dissertation I wrote inside the cover page that you should follow your dreams. If you have support – from a good university and from your family – then nothing is too outrageous and you should follow your most fantastic dreams – there is no limit. I’m so proud of what I’ve achieved.”

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Academia’s gender inequality problem

This post was contributed by Professor Helen Lawton-Smith of Birkbeck’s Department of Management. Professor Lawton-Smith is organising Improving gender equality in work – what can we learn from London’s business and policy organisations? on Wednesday 18 March, 2pm-5pm.

laboratoryWomen are under-represented in senior positions in science, engineering, maths and medicine disciplines at UK universities. Initiatives including Athena SWAN and the Aurora Women’s leadership programme have been set up to address this problem, yet such initiatives by themselves are not enough to tackle the problem of the current gender bias. What is needed is institutional embedding, so that gender and other diversity issues are integrated into an equality framework of decision-making processes and structures within organisations, which cannot be side-stepped by those in positions of power.

The four-year Transforming Institutions by Gendering contents and Gaining Equality in Research (TRIGGER) project at Birkbeck is championing the role of female academics in scientific subjects as part of a five-country European project. This initiative is testing a blueprint designed to raise the status of women in scientific and technological organisations such as universities. The nine action areas are designed to identify barriers to equality in the workplace, including the impact of research. The project builds on Birkbeck’s existing commitment to promoting female academics. Results and reactions have been very interesting.

Equality issues have been tackled in a variety of ways by companies and by policy making bodies such as local authorities and government agencies. According to the New York Times in October 2014, Silicon Valley also has a diversity problem – one which is being tackled head on by companies such as Google and Facebook.

Academia has a lot to learn from how other kinds of large organisation have identified the nature and causes of gender inequality. On Wednesday 18 March the TRIGGER project and the BEI School are hosting a networking event designed to explore which institutional changes work best in supporting gender equality in large organisations. The panel’s speakers will reflect on why changes were necessary, what changes have been introduced, the outcome of those changes, and what still needs to happen to improve gender equality. The diversity of speakers will ensure there are opportunities for learning for all.

Interested? Find out more

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