A staggeringly low 155 of the 23,000 professors at UK universities are Black. This equates to less than 1%. This British Black History Month, we highlight and celebrate the achievements of some of these Black academics.
Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock is a space scientist, educator and presenter of the BBC’s The Sky At Night programme. She was born in London to Nigerian parents and developed a passion for space as a young child. Despite battling dyslexia and an unsettled school career – she attended 13 different schools – her passion and aptitude for science saw her gain A levels in Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics and Biology. Maggie even undertook a telescope making class as a teenager which further enhanced her passion for space.
After completing her A levels, Maggie went to university to study a BSc in Physics, and later gained a PhD in mechanical engineering, at Imperial College London. After university Maggie found a job with the Ministry of Defence where she worked to develop and build missile warning systems and land mine detection technology. She then decided to return to academia and found a role at University College London where she managed a team of engineers to build a component of the Gemini Telescope in Chile before subsequently spending six months in South America piecing the telescope together. Maggie has since continued to work as a space engineer and has helped to design space instruments and satellites for the James Webb Space Telescope and the European Space Agency.
After noticing a lack of new young scientists, Maggie began visiting schools as a speaker in the hope that she could inspire a new generation of scientists. She is the founder of Science Innovation Ltd. and, through this organisation, has helped hundreds of thousands of children, mainly in inner-city schools, to engage with science. She has been praised for her ability to break down complex scientific concepts into easy-to-understand information. This led to a successful career in television and Maggie has been the face of a number of BBC documentaries about astronomy, space and satellites. Maggie was awarded an MBE in 2009 for services to science and science education and, in 2013 was listed as one of the top ten most influential Black Britons by UK Powerlist.
Professor Shirley J. Thompson has become an incredibly successful composer and conductor and has written music for a variety of purposes, from music for ballet and opera to film and television. In 2004 she became the first woman in Europe to have composed a symphony in over 40 years, and is the first Black woman ever to have done so. The symphony, a commission to celebrate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, tells the story of the history of London, from pastoral times in the years following the Norman Conquest, through to the Industrial Revolution, both World Wars, and contemporary London. Shirley was also the first female composer and musical director of a major BBC drama series, namely South of the Border.
Growing up in Newham, East London, Shirley learnt to play the violin, participating in various local youth orchestras and choirs. She gained a degree in music from the University of Liverpool before moving on to study composition at Goldsmith’s, University of London. Her Jamaican heritage informs much of the music that she creates which typically fuses classical orchestration with reggae, soul, gospel and hip hop, and her compositions often deal with political and social issues: some of her most notable work deals with issues surrounding Transatlantic slavery. Shirley claims that she is “a populist composer in that I… write the kind of music that I think people will be able to understand…”. Despite criticisms from members of her own community claiming that classical music was a white person’s game, and institutions such as the Arts Council attempting to label her a ‘black composer’, she has paved her way to the forefront of Art music.
Shirley continues to inspire and nurture young musicians through her post as Professor of Music at the University of Westminster, where she has taught since 2001. Shirley has won several awards for her work from organisations such as the Arts Council and the Southbank Centre and has been listed amongst Powerlist’s 100 most influential Black Britons on numerous occasions. In 2019, Shirley was awarded an OBE for services to music.
David Olusoga is an historian, presenter and award-winning author and filmmaker. He is a columnist for The Observer, The Voice and BBC History Magazine and has written a number of books, the most notable being Black and British: A Forgotten History, published in 2016. David has produced a number of films for television and in 2016 won a BAFTA for his documentary Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners. His most recent work includes a BBC interview with former US president Barack Obama, titled Barack Obama Talks to David Olusoga. The programme, in which the pair discussed Obama’s presidential memoirs, aired in January 2021. In 2019, David was awarded an OBE for services to history and community integration and is currently listed amongst Powerlist’s top 10 most influential Black Britons, ranking at number 8.
Born in Nigeria to a Nigerian father and British mother, David moved to the UK as a young child. Growing up on a council estate in Tyne and Wear, his family were subjected to intense and violent racism – their home was attacked by the National Front on a number of occasions and the family were eventually forced to move home. David’s interest in history began with an obsession with World War II and he later became interested in the history of Black people in Britain. He studied the history of slavery at the University of Liverpool but his love of history documentaries led him to complete a postgraduate course in broadcast journalism at Leeds Trinity University. He subsequently became a TV producer with the BBC, and later a presenter, working on numerous documentaries about the history of Black people in Britain. Both his television and written work strives to make history inclusive, diverse and accessible. In 2019 David was appointed Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester where he teaches on courses related to military history, empire, slavery and race.
Of Caribbean heritage, Christopher was born in Derby and was the first person in his family to attend university. He completed a BSc in Geology and a PhD at the University of Manchester before undertaking a post-doctoral research position and was subsequently employed as a research geologist at the Norsk Hydro research facility in Bergen, Norway. A couple of years later Christopher moved back to the UK to take up a post as a lecturer at Imperial College London where he rose through the ranks to become the first Black professor of geoscience at the institution. Earlier this year, Christopher returned to the University of Manchester as Chair of Sustainable Geoscience. His work today primarily involves researching and understanding issues related to basin structure and evolution and uses this information to help develop ways to absorb and trap greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Throughout his career, Christopher’s fieldwork has taken him to some of the most remote and challenging locations on the planet including the Andes mountains in Argentina, the Borneo rainforest and the Sinai desert in Egypt.
Christopher is heavily involved in outreach projects and frequently delivers geoscience lectures to schools and the general public. He has appeared on a number of television shows, radio programmes and podcasts for the BBC, ITV and National Geographic. Much of his media work sees Christopher discussing sustainability and the impact of climate change on the planet. In December 2020, Christopher became the first Black researcher to deliver a Christmas lecture at the Royal Institution of Great Britain – marking a significant moment for the Institution which, throughout its 195-year history, had seen no Black academics deliver a lecture. Christopher is actively involved in work to improve equality and diversity within higher education, with a particular focus on earth sciences, and has produced a number of articles and delivered talks on issues surrounding socio-economic, race, gender and sexual diversity within higher education.