“A bright new era” – President’s Awards for Societal Engagement

From engaging global audiences with Imperial’s research to de-mystifying higher education among underserved groups, meet the award winners.

Last week an online ceremony was held to recognise the achievements of the Imperial community over the last year. Sitting alongside the President’s Awards for Research, Teaching, Culture and Community, the President’s Awards for Excellence in Societal Engagement recognise staff and students who have gone above and beyond to better engage society with Imperial’s work. The awards also celebrate staff who have supported the development of a culture of societal engagement at Imperial.

“A bright new era”

President’s Medal – Dr Sunday Popo-Ola

“International staff like me can have an international ambition for outreach for the greater good.” Sunday Popo-Ola Medal winner

The President’s Medal for Excellence in Societal Engagement recognises individuals whose engagement activities have been truly outstanding. Dr Sunday Popo-Ola was awarded the 2021 Medal for his work delivering a programme of 12 weekly online outreach workshops – Creative Futures – engaging 5000 students across the globe. Sunday was also awarded funding from the Royal Academy of Engineering to train others in delivering effective outreach to BAME audiences. His dedication to supporting staff and students in their outreach work is evidenced by his nomination – it was proposed by a group of PhD students he worked with.

Sunday is a Research and Teaching Fellow in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and is an active member of Imperial As One. He is passionate about outreach and its role in de-mystifying higher education amongst Black and underserved communities.

When he started doing engagement activities two decades ago, he was discouraged to share what he was doing fearing these activities would be detrimental to his academic career. “This award makes me feel like we are in a bright new era,” says Sunday. “It tells me that [the] College broadened its wider measure of success and of valid effort. International staff like me can have an international ambition for outreach for the greater good.”

“I believe that our membership of our world-leading scientific university is a great privilege. And privilege brings great duties towards others. Imperial’s work and reputation means that what we say and do, as staff from Imperial, matters to others. In short, we can say that, Imperial Matters. That is a great privilege. But this award is satisfying because it is Imperial College saying that our duty to others matters too. My thanks go to the many people who have shared the duty on all of my projects. I feel that we are in a bright era because we are free to say with some pride that Imperial Matters to the world and that Outreach Matters and Diversity Matters to Imperial.”

Public engagement with climate research

Leadership Award – Alyssa Gilbert

The Leadership Award recognises those who have supported other staff and students in their engagement endeavours. Alyssa Gilbert is the Director of Policy and Translation at the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment and has led an impressive range of activities to engage the public with climate and environmental research. On winning the award, she says she feels “delighted and honoured – there is honestly no greater reward than having your work valued by the people you work with regularly.”

Alyssa has encouraged staff across the Institute to engage wider audiences, recognising the important role of wider public support and knowledge in influencing policy and business for a greener, more sustainable future. Her strategic and supportive approach established partnerships and built a culture of engagement within the Grantham Institute. Under her direction, her team have been involved in programmes including the Imperial Lates and the Great Exhibition Road Festival. “At the Grantham Institute, we really work as a team, and this award reflects what we have achieved together over the past years.”

“Societal engagement is something that I have learned about since coming to Imperial six years ago. The core of our work at the Grantham Institute is to ensure evidence is at the heart of action on climate change and the environment, and we primarily focus on policymakers and businesses. However, in recent years, public interest in action on these issues has grown and, at the same time, it became clear that we needed to engage with the public too – as the public voice is part of what pushes business and government to act. The great societal engagement teams at Imperial have been a source of inspiration, ideas and advice to help us develop our societal engagement programme.”

Alyssa said winning the award has given her “a sense of value to the College – our impact on the world outside the university depends on excellent academic output, but this also needs to be translated and shared effectively, and I appreciate our team getting recognition for what we do as part of the wider Imperial community.”

Science gets theatrical

Achievement Award (Individual) winner – Fola Afolabi

Highly commended – Paul McKay and Philippa Pristerà

Fola Afolabi has been described as “a force of nature in coming up with ideas and making things happen”. She is a Management Trainee at Imperial and has been awarded the Achievement Award for her work on a creative, high-quality, collaborative project – EPIDEMIC. “I feel delighted to have won the President’s Award for Excellence in Societal Engagement!” Fola says.

EPIDEMIC saw young creatives come together with a local theatre company to produce videos inspired by Imperial’s COVID-19 research and their own experiences of the pandemic. “[This award] is testament to the brilliance and crucial role of the community partners I have worked with to co-produce impactful and interesting societal engagement programmes,” she says.

The project also featured ‘Meet the Researchers’ sessions providing participants with a valuable insight into life as a researcher and an opportunity for scientists to talk in-depth about their work with young people. It was described by one researcher as “an absolutely enjoyable experience”.

Delivering excellent public engagement is one thing but Fola went a step further, sharing her work with the wider public engagement community at the national Engage Conference and at Imperial’s Engagement Week, inspiring others with her creative approach and sharing her learnings and insights.

Sharing Imperial’s vital research and de-mystifying higher education

Achievement Award (Team) winners – COVID-19 Communications teams + the Widening Participation Summer Schools team

Highly commended – Peter Openshaw and team (Imperial researchers working on COVID and the Communications team)

The Achievement Award recognises those who have delivered excellent engagement activities. For the first time, there are two winners for the Team Achievement Award: teams from Communications and Public Affairs and the Faculty of Medicine for their “exceptionally important” work sharing Imperial’s COVID-19 research, and the Widening Participation Summer School Team for their work to transform the summer schools for online delivery.

During this unprecedented global health crisis, the communications teams have worked tirelessly to create informative, clear and accessible content and messaging, supporting and working with Imperial’s researchers to ensure evidence-based and accurate information was shared about the very latest research. Their nomination, submitted on behalf of the Department of Infectious Diseases, read, “Without them, the work would not have had the public impact that it has.”

Imperial’s Head of News and Media (Research), Laura Gallagher said, “Since the start of the pandemic, Imperial researchers have been carrying out vital work to get to grips with COVID-19… We’re grateful that so many of them spent time working with us and the media to ensure people understand the science behind things like vaccines and lockdowns. It’s been a privilege to help them engage the public with their work. Everyone’s been working phenomenally hard since COVID-19 hit and it was a lovely surprise to hear that our efforts had been recognised with a President’s Award.”

Imperial’s summer schools provide unique experiences to de-mystify higher education amongst disadvantaged young people. As the pandemic hit, the Widening Participation Summer Schools team rose to the challenges presented by lockdown and worked creatively to engage underrepresented young people remotely and deliver fantastic summer schools online.

“I am thrilled that the efforts of the team have been acknowledged with this award.” says Melanie Bottrill, Deputy Head of Outreach at Imperial. The team had to immediately pivot when the first lockdown was announced, scrapping plans for on-campus activities. Melanie said that “beginning from almost nothing was the biggest challenge we have faced.” The outreach summer schools are usually focused on hands-on, experiential learning within some of Imperial’s world-class facilities. “Recreating that experience virtually felt like an enormous task but we did it, and we are so proud of what we created. Having these efforts recognised by the College is really rewarding.

“We would like to say a huge thank you to all the staff and student ambassadors in the departments who helped us bring these virtual programmes to life… We work with fantastic young people who deserve the best support and opportunities we can provide. Helping them on their educational journey is a real privilege.” says Melanie who comes from a Widening Participation background herself.

Helping for the greater good

Student Award (Individual) – Ugur Tanriverdi

Highly commended – Jasneet Taak

PhD candidate in the Department of Bioengineering, Ugur Tanriverdi has been recognised with the Student Award for his efforts to engage and involve the public with his work on prosthetics. He has invented a new robotic limb technology to improve the quality of life for millions of amputees and founded a start-up, Unhindr [add link], to help amputees beyond his research. Ugur has represented the College in national and international competitions and received three translational research grants and recognition awards for his disability research. Throughout, he has shown great dedication and commitment to engaging and involving the public with his work and his outstanding contributions to engagement have had an impressive impact.

When asked what motivates him, Ugur said, “I believe everyone has a role in life, but also has a purpose of their existence, whether they are aware or not. I believe my purpose is “to help.” I am doing this research project because I would like to help amputees. I chose to become a scientist because I want, even if it is a tiny bit, to help for the greater good.”

He described winning a President’s Award as “one of the greatest honours that I have been lucky to experience”. Before entering higher education, Imperial had been Ugur’s dream university, and he says that winning this award is “proof that dreams do come true. That’s why this award has a special place in my heart and life.”

Increasing representation of Black students in STEM

Student Award (Team) – African Caribbean Society

Highly commended – Civil Engagement team: Georgia Bateman, He-in Cheong, and Alastair Shipman

Imperial’s African Caribbean Society are the winners of the Team Student Award. They are a fantastically active and innovative team committed to working with under-represented groups and encouraging and supporting Black students in STEM.

“We appreciate the recognition of the work that we’ve been doing in terms of outreach this year,” says the society’s president Beverly Okuneye. The society have organised and delivered an extensive outreach programme – going out to schools to encourage Black students to consider STEM degrees and consider applying to Imperial. “It has been a very difficult time and we wanted to make sure that we could still provide some support in however way we could.”

“One of our main motivations was to create an inclusive environment and increase representation. We wanted Black students to picture themselves at Imperial and ensure they had the information that they may need in order to make informed decisions about applying for universities.”

Art and science

Inspirational Partner (Individual) – Bella Spencer at King’s College London

Bella Spencer is the Public Engagement Officer at the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) for Smart Medical Imaging which is held jointly with King’s College London and Imperial. She’s been awarded the Inspiration Partner Award for her dedication to supporting students in the delivery of creative engagement projects. These include ARTxSCIENCE – an innovative, online exhibition that engages young people with medical imaging research.

“I’m delighted to have won the President’s award to celebrate my work with amazing researchers, artists and community partners. A huge thanks everyone involved in ARTxSCIENCE,” says Bella.

ARTxScience is a collaboration between the CDT and the Royal College of Art with interactive installations inspired by technological developments that have the potential to revolutionise healthcare. “My work explores creative approaches to open up the conversations around this work with public and patient communities. It is fundamental that the research community understand the public’s perspective so that they can continue to ensure that their work is informed, trusted, inclusive and meets the needs of society.”

On winning the award Bella said “it’s great to have a platform to showcase socially engaged practice and this recognition contributes to an increasingly inclusive research culture.”

Inspiring families

Inspirational Partner (Team) – Family Assist team at London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham

“The feeling of winning the President’s Award is immense!” Saskieja Belmont Family Assist Team

The Family Assist team have been a key partner for Imperial’s community engagement work in White City, including collaborating on the design and delivery of science activity packs for families at risk of digital exclusion. “This collaboration was instrumental in enabling the College to work with sections of the community most in need during the pandemic,” said Maggie Dalman at the awards ceremony.

“The feeling of winning the President’s Award is immense!” says Saskieja Belmont who works in the Family Assist Team. She works with highly vulnerable children and their families to promote education and skill development, and she’s part of Imperial’s Agents of Change – a collaboration of local women, living and working in Hammersmith & Fulham, to work towards positive social change in the area.

“We do our work… for the benefit of the families in the community. This work has only been possible through the commitment to the local community from Imperial College. When I saw the award, I personally accepted it in my heart on behalf of all the families we have acknowledged, a feeling that overwhelmed me in the moment and still does.”

As a young person, Saskieja faced numerous challenges both at home and in education, leaving school without GCSE’s and becoming a young mum as a teenager. “I loved science at school, but never had the basic school equipment, pen, pencil, book, I didn’t have a school bag either, just a handbag that was given to me.

“Seeing what Imperial College do, especially working closely with Priya and the Community Team, and having the opportunity to show the local community that Imperial College are thinking of them and want to enhance their lives, is just wonderful for me to be a part of. We were one of those families living in the same situation, and if I had had the opportunity to engage with science, I would have grabbed it for my children and me.”

Saskieja’s passion for wanting to help people feel worthy and achieve in all they do is inspiring. “I am humbled by the award and accept it on behalf of all the families we have touched together, and continue to do so.”

/Public Release. This material comes from the originating organization/author(s)and may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s).View in full here.