Interview with Bertha Ochieng

The De Montfort University professor discusses growing up as one of nine children, her work to improve the diets of children in the UK, and how academia turned out not to be a nine-to-five job

March 15, 2018

Bertha Ochieng was appointed De Montfort University’s first professor of integrated health and social care in November 2017. A former children’s nurse and a Mary Seacole leadership awardee, Professor Ochieng’s research focuses on the health of socially disadvantaged communities and how income, education, ethnicity and housing can affect health and life chances. 

Where were you born?
In the coastal city of Mombasa, Kenya, but my family origin is from the port city of Kisumu, near Lake Victoria.

How has this shaped you?
Mombasa is a very beautiful place with an amazing shoreline. It is also a very cosmopolitan city, so I grew up in a very multilingual environment with different ethnic communities living side by side. There was a real sense of vibrancy in Mombasa and it taught me about the importance of tolerance and understanding different communities, and my academic research has always had a strong multicultural element to it.

How did you come to study in Leeds?
My husband had a scholarship to study in the UK, so I came with him when I was in my twenties and joined Leeds Metropolitan University [now Leeds Beckett University] to do a bachelor of science degree in nursing. I was the only African student in my class and being referred to by the colour of my skin was quite a shock.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
My parents did not have a degree, so going to university was a big deal for me. I was very focused as an undergraduate, but my master’s in development studies at the University of Leeds was also very memorable. The debates that we had about the politics of poverty, particularly with international students, were really important to my academic development.

How did you move from nursing into academia?
I was working in a children's intensive care unit in Leeds. But my hospital introduced a rotation system where I had to do night duties every other three to four weeks and I couldn’t do that because I had a young daughter. I’d done my master’s degrees by then and I stopped working to take a postgraduate certificate in education to become a lecturer. I was attracted by the idea of a nine-to-five academic job that meant I could pick up my children from school; it didn’t, however, always work out that way.

Why should Joe Bloggs care about your work?
I’m very focused on finding practical ways to help children, young people, migrants and working-class families, particularly by empowering parents to improve their families’ nutrition. Parents are aware of what they should give their children, but we need to understand the daily challenges that are stopping this from happening.

What’s the best thing about your job?
Supervising students but also having a practical impact on the lives of disadvantaged communities. I think that I’m fortunate to be based at a university that has championed so many community impact projects through its Square Mile programme – its ambition on this front is very different to any institution that I’ve been at before.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
My own parents were an extraordinarily positive influence on my life. I am the middle child of nine and we always had extended family living with us, so I marvelled at how they did it. They always found time to talk to us about politics, education, social justice and football, and they were ambitious for all of us.

As recently as 2015, a Runnymede Trust report stated that there were only 17 black female professors in the UK. What can academia do to help black women reach more senior positions?
We need to understand more about the different entry points into academia for women of African descent and what type of specific disadvantage they face. There must be a conscious effort to make change as the sector loses out if it doesn’t have this diversity.

What keeps you awake?
I don't necessarily lose sleep but a number of things play on my mind: the effect of social inequality and justice on people's lives, threats to young people's ability to access higher education, and uncertainty about Brexit.

If you were universities minister for a day, what would you do?
I would convene a thinktank involving academics, students and business leaders and instruct them to review tuition fees to ensure that they do not disadvantage students. I would also look at how you might rank institutions based on how their research transforms lives.

As a former nurse, what do you think about the BBC drama Call the Midwife?
I’ve never watched it. Perhaps I’m worried that it might convey some of the misconceptions about nursing. People often imagine that nurses work only in hospitals or that they perform a very narrow range of tasks, but there are hundreds of thousands of nurses with degrees – some of whom are now in very senior positions, including in the fields of research and politics. We now have consultant nurses.

How would you like to be remembered?
I have three daughters, so I’d like them to remember me as an awesome mama.


Ian Walmsley has been appointed the next provost of Imperial College London. Professor Walmsley is currently pro vice-chancellor (research and innovation) and Hooke professor of experimental physics at the University of Oxford. He will take up his role in September. Alice Gast, Imperial’s president, described Professor Walmsley – an expert in ultrafast and quantum optics – as an “exceptional academic leader and an eminent scholar”. “His strong support for collaboration across disciplines, sectors and between nations will make him an outstanding champion for the college and our community,” she said.

Lucy Meredith has joined the Royal Agricultural University as deputy vice-chancellor. She was previously dean of computer engineering and science at the University of South Wales. Dr Meredith is an expert in environmental health with interests in environmental microbiology, food safety and public health engineering. Dr Meredith said that she was “passionate about working with staff and students to co-create an excellent working and learning environment at the RAU”. The RAU has also appointed Julie Walkling as director of operations.

Elena Rodriguez-Falcon has been named provost and chief academic officer at the New Model in Technology and Engineering, the new engineering university in Hereford. Professor Rodriguez-Falcon was previously professor of enterprise and engineering education at the University of Sheffield.

Edward Harcourt has been appointed director of research, strategy and innovation for the Arts and Humanities Research Council, on secondment from his current position as chair of the philosophy faculty at the University of Oxford.

Simon Skene has been appointed professor of medical statistics and director of the Surrey Clinical Trials Unit at the University of Surrey. Professor Skene joins Surrey from UCL, where he was head of statistics in the Comprehensive Clinical Trials Unit. 

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