Student Blog: Talking with Aisha & Tapoka

Malick interviewed Aisha Yusuf and Tapoka Mkandawire, two scientists that had featured in our Speaker Series.


With no experience of interviewing or constructing a conversation for anyone, this could have been an awkward, strange encounter. Even after preparing and planning the structure of the conversation.

But to my surprise, it was a free-flowing, enlightening conversation which gave me insight into the lives of two black, PhD scientists. A thoroughly enjoyable experience where EVERY SECOND was worth it. Although a cliché, I did gain invaluable information on what life is like going to top universities, and the effort and determination that goes into undertaking a PhD.

But you are probably wondering, why these scientists in particular? 

Preparing the conversation

After I envisioned the ideal conversation, I thought to myself, what do I want to get out of this? Although this was initially to fulfil one of the criteria for my silver award, I wanted to maximise the use of the time by using the conversation as a learning opportunity. 

My main target was to get a 3- way conversation where the topics included could be relatable to both panellists. Therefore, I thought it would be best to get two previous speakers that I have listened to from their webinars, and have similar professions. I didn’t want the professions to be polar opposites because the lack of relation could make the conversation rather confusing and my questions would have to adapt to each of their fields. On the other hand, I didn’t want two people from the same profession, otherwise it could create a boring, repetitive conversation. 

So, after looking back I struck a balance which fit my criteria. Of course, this balance was Aisha & Tapoka: both wet lab researchers, but different fields. For example, Aisha’s research consists of cancer research which includes DNA sequencing and extraction, whereas Tapoka specialises in parasitology, specifically around worms.

After contacting them, arranging a date and time, I tailor-made the questions to make them as clear and concise as possible to get a clear understanding of their views and experiences throughout their educational life.

The Conversation

As I said in the introduction, I thoroughly enjoyed this experience. But what did it include and why was it so useful? Well in the end, it turned out to be an hour conversation which included 11 questions with multiple parts, turning out to be double the time I expected it to last. But I did say I didn’t have any experience.

Anyways, to not make it an interrogation about their work life, the questions were diversified to break the ice and create a warm, welcoming environment.  After greetings, we began on the topic of their work life nonetheless, consisting of their current work and what day-to-day life is like for them. Even though it was the easiest topic to start with, I feel like this was very important in my understanding of the life of a scientist, away from the stereotypes of what a scientist does. Also, the aspect of their work possibly helping someone in the future seemed to be a prospect that is enticing for them, and is what motivates them to do the job they do. They don’t only deal with microscopes and cells, but they also deal with big data, something which I found quite interesting.

After this, I followed up on the future prospects of their field and what they think might be the next step in their career. But before that, I went back in time to observe what they think about their progress. For example, as children or teenagers if they would be happy with the job they are currently in. Both Aisha & Tapoka seemed satisfied with the jobs they are in with hindsight, which emphasises and reinforces how they always had strong interests in science.

With regards to their career, it was enlightening to hear how they have overcome challenges and hurdles throughout their lives. As Tapoka is from Malawi and Aisha from Nigeria, chances would have been few and far between without their work ethic and drive. Now as strong, young black women, they are actively part of research which will eventually change lives for the better.  In addition, the strenuous demands of PhD students in their field has not stopped them achieving bigger and better results. This lead on to their future prospects which seemed to be partially inhibited by the lack of funding. Nonetheless, the future of their fields seemed to optimistic from their point of view due to their restless research. This outlook both resulted in them being confident that they will remain in the same field.

Closing Words

After finally ending on a few words of advice for me, I felt like I conducted the conversation successfully, getting as much information as I can understand. I also felt grateful to have the opportunity to talk to two motivated, hard-working scientists who accepted that I will take away their time, purposefully, something which I can’t thank them enough for.

Not only this, but I found it inspiring the challenges they faced and defeated, alongside the difficulties of completing a PhD that they have to face every day; which could range from boredom, loneliness or just a lack of motivation. Nonetheless, they exude positivity and optimism for the job they love. 

Thank you for reading!

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