Turning chance into success: get to know Oxford’s 2019 Rare Rising Stars
By Lanisha Butterfield
It is often said that the moments that change your life can come when you least expect them.
For the evidence, look no further than the life affirming chance experiences of two Oxford University students who were recently honoured as 2019 Rare Rising Stars, an award which celebrates the academic achievements of the UK’s 10 ‘best’ African and Caribbean students.
Presented this year by Oxford University graduate Naomi Kellman, the honours, announced at a House of Commons event sponsored by David Lammy MP, are run by the graduate recruitment firm Rare. By shining a light on the positive impact made by black students in the UK, the team hopes that sharing their achievements will inspire younger generations of all backgrounds to pursue their own dreams and make their mark on a world that hasn’t always made space for them. The judging panel included Kem Ihenacho, Sophie Chandauka, Tia Counts, Tom Chigbo and Trevor Philips OBE.
Dr Chuor de Garang Alier (MD, MMed-OBGY), MSc student in Clinical Embryology at the Nuffield Department of Women’s and Reproductive Health, and a graduate student of St Hugh’s College, was crowned the overall winner of the 2019 Rare Rising Star Awards, for his work around female infertility and challenging the stigma attached to it.
Warren A Stanislaus, a research fellow in the Faculty of History at Pembroke College, placed number three in this year’s honours, and was celebrated for his research in Japanese studies.
While their backstories and research specialisms could not be more different, both were spurred to pursue their professional calling by a combination of talent, sheer determination, and perhaps most important of all, a life changing, chance encounter.
A Sudanese refugee, who has overcome financial and education hurdles on his career journey, including trying to finish school while living between internally displaced people’s camps in Sudan and Uganda, Chuor’s breakthrough moment was triggered by the painful experience of working as a doctor in South Sudan and not being able to help heartbroken couples beat infertility.
Fast forward a few years, and thanks to his talent and hard work, Chuor was awarded a scholarship from the Ministry of Health, Republic of South Sudan, in partnership with the United Nations Population Fund, and is now an obstetrician and gynaecologist, focused on reducing maternal mortality in South Sudan.
Through his work in the field, including research on sperm cryopreservation, he now has the specialist knowledge needed to help people conceive and potentially reverse their infertility. By using his voice to raise awareness of infertility as a gender equity issue, Chuor is also working to eradicate the social stigma around the condition, highlighting its links to the emotional and physical abuse of women.
Congratulations on being the number one 2019 Rare Rising Star — How did you feel when you heard the news?
I am humbled to be ‘first among equals’ and would like to congratulate all those very highly inspiring friends who received the award as well.
I feel grateful that Rare Recruitment and the sponsors of the award are involved in sharing our stories in ways that can inspire young people who are less privileged and do not have the role models they need to have the courage to dream big.
I wish to acknowledge the key role of my father Mr Garang Alier Chuor for all the sacrifices he has made to see me through to this end. Certainly, along the way I have received many gestures of kindness in more ways than I can ever mention.
I wish to thank the University of Oxford, and British Foreign Office through the Chevening Secretariat, for funding my studies.
Did you always want to be doctor?
I always dreamed of being a doctor and particularly helping the people of Sudan.
My interest in assisted conception and embryology in particular was a result of my interactions with couples struggling to have a child because of infertility. They often had to go away broken-hearted that I could not help them more, and I grew frustrated by my lack of specialist skills in this area.
I have, with deep sense of sadness, seen infertility bringing strain in marriages. This often becomes a gender equity issue, escalating into emotional and physical abuse of women.
I strongly object to stigmatisation, and the notion that, somehow, a man or a woman’s social standing is dependent on their ability to bear children.
Tell us a little more about your research journey?
My research focuses on sperm cryopreservation and the role of particular nanoparticles in reducing oxidative stress and probably increase viability of frozen-thawed sperm. I am being supervised by Dr Helen Townley and Mrs Celine Jones from Dr Kevin Coward group in the Nuffield Department of Women’s and Reproductive Health.
My stay here in Oxford has exposed me to exceptional scientists including those involved in research such as fertility preservation among pre-pubertal boys and girls who survive cancer following treatment.
Do you have any advice to young people building their futures in challenging circumstances?
I hope South Sudanese school children currently in internally displaced people’s camps in my country, and refugee camps in the neighbouring countries, find my story an inspiration to them and a sign that these difficult days too shall come to pass — like all the days before them during my time in similar situations.
And what would you say to anyone considering a career as a doctor?
My advice to anyone, especially clinically specialised medical doctors, with interest in translational biomedical research, is to have clarity of intent and an appreciation of the great value it brings to bedside clinical practice. That will make the whole experience a meaningful adventure.
On a separate note, my appeal to my sponsors and all well-wishers is to create more opportunities for medical students or doctors from South Sudan and the East African region hosting many displaced South Sudanese to come here for basic and advanced biomedical or clinical training. Integrating clinical-scientist training programs would also be a great addition to the medical schools’ curricula on the African continent.
‘Attending a sixth-form gap year talk changed my life’
By comparison, growing up in South East London, Warren A Stanislaus was a relatively disengaged teenager with an unusual passion, Japanese rock music.
But, popping in to a talk on gap years and finding opportunities to study abroad, encouraged him to combine his passion with ambition. The experience kick-started his journey from uninspired student, to a cultured scholar, expert in Japanese studies and general man of the world. After completing a gap year volunteer placement in Aichi Prefecture, Japan, his immersion in the culture gathered pace, and after just six months in the country he was so passionate about his surroundings and comfortable with the Japanese language that he began an undergraduate degree at ICU, a liberal arts university in Tokyo, which was quickly followed by an MPhil in in Japanese studies (2013), at St Anthony’s College, and currently a DPhil in History at Pembroke College, Oxford University.
How does it feel to be a 2019 Rare Rising Star?
I am so proud to have been placed 3rd in the top 10 black students in the UK and at the same time feel the weight of responsibility. My successes are the ripening fruits and the blossoming flowers of the years of deep roots that previous generations have laid in the face of greater challenges and with little recognition. Furthermore, these awards are so important and as winners we have a key role in inspiring the next generation. Especially, within the UK where representations of black youth are often negative or black excellence is narrowly defined within the realms of sport and entertainment.
What inspired your journey into research?
I didn’t always have a penchant for research. I dropped history as a subject at the first opportunity during my school years. The key turning point was my experience as a full four-year undergraduate at university in Japan.
My professors gave life to history and demonstrated a diversity of approaches that often led to uncovering alternative narratives. I learned that research into a historical topic didn’t always have to start with a long slog in the library. It could begin with examining the layout of a museum or finding the first beef bowl restaurant in Tokyo — the world became my classroom. It was then that I developed a hunger for the knowledge and skills that would enable me to become an independent researcher and inspiring educator.
What was it that made you fall in love with Japan?
My first love was Japanese pop culture. In particular, when I was around 17 years old I became obsessed with visual kei, a style of rock music of Japanese origin that had its heydey during the 90s. I transformed my hairstyle and acquired several piercings in an attempt to match the artists I idolised as closely as possible. Most significantly, I was desperate to understand what I was singing along to. This was the beginning of my journey to fluency in Japanese. After I came home from school, scribbling down the lyrics using Japanese characters and cross checking with English translations became my priority — frequently above the more urgent task of studying for A-levels! My firsthand experience in Japan as a gap year volunteer in a kindergarten and home for the elderly sealed my love for the country. Not only did I gain a deep admiration and respect for the culture, but on a personal level, spending an extended period in Japan as a young adult was also liberating. Japan became a place where I could freely explore my own identity away from the expectations of society and often limiting representations of young black men. The hypnotic gaze had lost its potency.
What advice do you have for other black people pursuing academia?
I hesitate to give the typical or obvious answer of work hard, have confidence and just go for it. The issue of under-representation is far more complex and deserves a more thorough inspection before effective solutions are offered up. What I would say from my experience so far is that having a caring, encouraging and positive support network around you is vital. The world of academia can be a lonely place, and perhaps, this is keenly felt by people of colour who often don’t see themselves in the classroom or the curriculum. At one time, this reality certainly hampered my imagination of what I could achieve. To be sure, I am still on my own journey with a long way to go, but I am continuously trying to cultivate a broader imagination and strong network of creative thinkers.
Rare Rising Stars: https://www.rarerecruitment.co.uk/rrs2019/.
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