“It’s all about representation”: How I gained the courage to chart my path in research

Layla Bolton Saghdaoui is a vascular clinical research nurse at the Trust and pre-doctoral clinical academic fellow at Imperial College London. To mark Black History Month and NIHR’s Your Path in Research initiative, Layla shares her career journey.

Can you tell us about your career journey to date?

Following in the footsteps of both my mother and grandmother, at 19, I enrolled in an adult nursing undergraduate degree programme at London Southbank University. Never feeling particularly academic, I had dreams of training the way my grandmother did in the 60s, working on the wards and in the community. In reality, the nursing degree had changed a lot since then, and in addition to learning clinical skills, I spent three years getting to grips with academic literature and critical thinking. Although I doubted my academic abilities, in 2012, I passed and was admitted to the register as an adult nurse; I was on my own and ready to fly! This prepared me for my first staff nurse role at University College London Hospital (UCLH), looking after people with head and neck cancers. patients.

After three years as a student and a year as a newly qualified nurse at UCLH, I was ready for change and set my sights on Imperial College Healthcare. I took a chance and applied for a job as a research nurse in vascular surgery. This was a role in which I had little experience and a field that I had never worked in before. However, my grandmother always said, 'if you don't go for it, how can you win?' Professor Alun Davies must have seen some potential in me, because I got the job and haven't left Imperial since!

A year into my first role, I found my feet in research and began to dip my toes into writing for publication. This led to my first national academic presentation, and I was hooked! The time soon came to transition from an academic department to a Trust research delivery team. This is where I learnt all the invaluable clinical and research skills that prepared me to submit two pre-doctoral fellowship applications. Unfortunately, my first application was unsuccessful, but I was also taught to keep trying, and two years later, I was awarded not one but two prestigious research fellowships. These fellowships have allowed me to complete master's level training in research methodology, complete a yearlong clinical secondment in a specialist team, and run my own research study.

When written nicely, it sounds like a relatively linear career pathway that had no bumps in the road. In reality, several roadblocks resulted in unconventional career moves and setbacks. Being dyslexic, at first, I found moving into an academic role extremely daunting and difficult, but it's all about representation and seeing people like you. I plucked up the confidence and spoke to my supervisors, and was informed that there are many academics within my own department like me and lots of support out there. I knew that research was for me, and five years later, I am still finding new ways to work around my dyslexia.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

As a child and teenager, Black History Month was a dedicated time where there was open conversation about the amazing achievements of Black people. Although there should be a sustained focus on the work that is still needed, as an adult, I now see it as the perfect opportunity to recognise the challenges we face and have honest conversations.

There is deep-rooted mistrust among the Black community when it comes to health systems and research. It’s important that people who work in research understand the reservations Black people have that may prevent them taking part in life-changing trials or studies. I have been working with a Black patient advocate through the Imperial College Patient Experience Research Centre. The patient concerned, a Black man, is a survivor of advanced stage four prostate cancer who had taken part in a clinical research study with us. We’re working together on a workshop so that the staff involved in delivering clinical studies have an insight into the experience of a Black person going through this process. It’s another good example of why we need people who look like me to be involved in delivering research. Together with this patient, we’re planning to visit Black community groups to have open discussions about how we can make research work for them.

This year’s Black History Month theme is 'Proud to be'. Who are you proud to be?

As a young woman, when entering the workplace for the first time, I felt very uncomfortable talking about my heritage. I wanted to fit in, not rock the boat, and I wanted to be accepted. The mentorship I have received from strong, successful Black women has empowered me to be a proud mixed-raced female clinical academic of Dominican heritage.

Use the hashtag #ProudToBe to share this blog on social, share your story, and join the conversation this Black History Month.