Michael Sulu, PhD


Where you can find him: @michaelsulu on both Twitter and Instagram, twitter is more work and equality, diversity and inclusion focussed whereas Instagram is just snapshots of my life.

Where did you go to college and when did you graduate? I have been to so many! But the first was, University College London for an undergraduate masters in biochemical engineering, class of 2004. Over here (in the UK) we didn’t really have the major/minor system (we kind of do now) so I was straight Biochemical Engineering

Graduate school: University of York, for a research masters in clean chemical technology, class of 2005, University of Birmingham for a PhD in Chemical Engineering, class of 2010. I am currently studying part time alongside work here at University College London on a MSc in Engineering and Education with a projected finish of 2022

Current job title: I am currently a Post Doctoral Research Fellow in Upstream Research, teaching and training

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?

I think I have always been scientific, in the way I approach things, apparently as a 6y/o I set up an experiment that worked out how to boil eggs to the exact level of hard boiled I like. But as an undergraduate student I thought was definitely going to leave and work in the city, focusing on finance or consultancy until I did my final year research project in the area of microbial fermentation, and growing cells has been a mainstay of my research and work ever since.

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

There have been so many! Dr Christine Ingram gave me invaluable support during my undergraduate research project, then through my PhD my supervisor, the late, Prof. Chris Hewitt was also amazingly supportive. But a combination of factors, such as an inability to see anyone like myself in an academic position and the ever present imposter syndrome meant that post PhD I was still considering consultancy and risk analysis as a career but in the life sciences. 

My ability to thrive in my current post has been supported by most of my current department, but externally to this my involvement in Equality, diversity and Inclusion means that I have support from people all over the UK research landscape now, emotionally and as a sounding board, all the ‘TIGERS’, and scientifically and as career mentors, Prof. Sally Day, Prof. Ijeoma Uchegbu, Prof. Anson Mackay, Prof. Ines Pineda-Torra, Prof. Vanessa Diaz, Dr. Lia Li, Marcia Jacks, Paulette Williams, Chantelle Lewis, Dr. Jason Arday and there are so many more, which kind of leads to the fact that most people mean well and if they have the time/capacity they will help you, so I try to do the same to others! 

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?

There. Will. Always. Be. Moments. Of. Doubt! I remind myself constantly that it is a good thing, then the doubt becomes motivating and not debilitating, in addition I now meet loads of people and know that there are people far less able than myself who have got further, so even if I am not as able as I would like, that should not stop me!

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

I came in joint bottom of my undergraduate class, and while we had a pretty strong class, if a student had to endure my final year, now, only 15 years later, complaints would be made and someone would be held accountable, I also tried to drop out of my PhD halfway through, because of lost time due to a simple miscommunication during tech transfer between labs meaning none of my first year experiments worked! 

What is positive though is the recognition I have gained for things that aren’t directly related and how the recognition has fed back into science just by virtue of people knowing my name or face meaning that I have an enhanced network of potential collaborators.

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.

I have a love of comedy (most people do?) so occasionally do science based stand up as science communication, outside of that I have an interest in food and drink and sport, so I am currently designing a course in food process engineering for our students and hope in the future to be able to do some research into biopolymers for sporting apparel applications

Is there some advice you could share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

  • Always apply for the post/position, never think you aren’t good enough.
  • Try things, there is no shame in failure in any part of your life
  • If you have to take on new tasks, be strategic, you only have finite resources and reserve those for things you are passionate about or will help your career (or both!)
  • Ask for help, as often as you can, people want to help you!

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