In hijab and lab coat on YouTube: Meet Cambridge PhD vlogger Aisha Yusuf

‘I’m always the only black Muslim woman’


Aisha Yusuf, a PhD student in Cancer Research, recently started a YouTube channel. Why is this news, you ask? Because she is a woman in STEM. A Muslim woman in STEM. A black Muslim woman in STEM. And she wants to see others like her – both in the online space and at Cambridge.

Aisha spoke to The Cambridge Tab about her channel, studying at Cambridge and the #speakout campaign.

On her YouTube channel, Practice Makes Pipette

Talking to The Tab about her YouTube channel, Practice makes Pipette, Aisha said: “My YouTube is a platform that I want to use to document my journey through Cambridge. It’s going to be centred around my PhD, which is about cancer research, and I’ll talk about science in general as well.

“Before Cambridge, I was trying to find people on YouTube that I could draw inspiration from. You’re trying to look for people that are doing those things that you want to do, and then by looking at those people you can sort of have an idea of how the experience would be like for you when you get to that goal.

“When I was scrolling through YouTube or Instagram close to my undergrad, I was searching for people that I could relate to, people that look like me, and also people that were doing the things that I wanted to do. It makes you realise that you can achieve this dream. What I realised is that I couldn’t really find anyone who looked like me. Who was a black Muslim wearing hijab in this online space.”

Aisha continued: “So now, when I’m in Cambridge I’ve gotten a lot of questions from people back home about how it’s like to do a PhD in the age of 21 as a black Muslim lady in Cambridge. Then I just realised that I’m getting these questions because when they google it they don’t find it. It’s probably a sign for me as well.

“If you see a problem in the world, you do your best to find a way to fix it in your own capability. And I know that this is a very light-hearted way but this is a tiny bit of contribution I’m making into solving this problem. I’d like to start that conversation. I think it’s very important to have someone that you can physically relate to.”

‘Seeing you is enough motivation for so many people’

Aisha spoke about the importance of representation and seeing people in positions and academic environments to aspire to. “There’s a lot of struggles that you go through with just being different”, she said. “Back home, you find people like yourself. Right. But then when you move away from that space, you become a minority. I never thought of myself as a minority until I moved out. When people are calling you black, black Muslim, a minority, then you start to think about those labels.  I feel like the visual aspect helps in this sense – seeing is believing.

“You don’t need to say much.  Seeing you is enough motivation for so many people.  You can catch this dream, it’s not an abstract thought anymore. After I uploaded my first video, I’ve gotten a lot of people reaching out to me like ‘because I have seen that you’re doing this, I can do this as well'”.

Aisha

Aisha. (credit: Andrea Kocsis)

“When I came to my interview, and I looked around, I couldn’t find anyone that looked like me like. I remember, I made a video call and said to my mom that I couldn’t believe that I was here because of not fitting. I’m emphasising the importance of not finding anyone like you because it might not be obvious to some people why it matters. That time I was a bit emotional because I could see all the interview applicants out there being very confident and I started to feel like an impostor.”

When asked about how she still made it to Cambridge despite the difficulties she faced, she said: “I define myself as a goal-getter.  I have crazy goals, I’m very ambitious and I put my heart and soul into anything I want to do. It’s also good to have someone that believes in you.  My mum was a big support system for me. My family and a few friends were telling me that ‘yeah, you can do this!’. I would like to help those who are less confident to gain enough faith in themselves. I will struggle but I always find a way around it.”

‘When I got the scholarship for biomedicine, it was a bit of a struggle for me to decide if I want to start from scratch in a country that I don’t know’

Aisha also talked about her background and her life before Cambridge: “I’m from Nigeria, that’s where I did my A-levels. Then in a university back home, I felt like I was being restricted, it wouldn’t bring me to the place where I want to be. I felt like I was missing a lot, so I started to apply for scholarships abroad. Thankfully, I got one. I was studying medicine and I didn’t know anything about research. The funding for research in Nigeria is very limited, so I wasn’t exposed to research. So when I got the scholarship for biomedicine, it was a bit of a struggle for me to decide if I want to start from scratch in a country that I don’t know.  So at that point, I struggled a lot even though I really wanted to leave the system.  But I’m still thankful because this is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life.

Aisha

(credit: Andrea Kocsis)

“So when I was 18-19, I moved to Sweden, to a country where I knew nobody, everything was new from the language to the weather. It was a huge learning process to acclimatise into a new environment, and it was hard for me, to be very honest. My parents tried to support me the best they could. But one thing I realised is that your life is almost always your own journey and despite the supporting people around you,  you have to be the one going through all of this on your own.”

Aisha explaining cell biology

Aisha teaching me cell biology in the Botanical Gardens (credit: Andrea Koscis)

‘I wanted to do more – towards the end of my undergrad, during oncology course, I felt really moved’

Aisha specialises in cancer research, and explains how she came to choose this field for her PhD: “During a summer project, I was exposed to research in its full glory and then I started to realise that it was not enough for me to just be going for classes and getting good grades. I wanted to do more. Towards the end of my undergrad, during oncology course, I felt really moved. Understanding how medical research has helped some cancer types made me develop this passion for cancer research.

“In 2018, I got funding from Erasmus to do research in Cambridge. When I finished my project, I went back and I didn’t even think that I was good enough to apply to Cambridge. It was like those ‘once in a lifetime’ experiences. But then my mom just suggested, ‘why don’t you apply to Cambridge?’ I knew that even if I got the admission, there’s no way I could be here from my own pocket. So I applied to scholarships and I got the Gates. I felt so much gratitude that I hand-wrote a letter to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I went so personal about my journey and how grateful I am for them to think that my dream is worth sponsoring.”

‘I was filled with so much gratitude, even though I had lots of struggles’

When asked about how Cambridge compared to her expectations, she went on to say: “When I got here, I was filled with so much gratitude, even though I had lots of struggles.  Every single day here is such a privilege. When you lived in the kind of system that I was brought up in, you are just content with anything.  Thousands of people back at home would love to be in this kind of setting. When I think back where I’m coming from, I remember that sometimes I had to sit on the floor to listen to lectures or there was a small room with over 600 people trying to listen to the lecturer. It was inconvenient and claustrophobic.

“Here I’m doing what I love, cancer research, funding is not the issue, I can do my own experiments and all of that. So I love that kind of autonomy and my lab is amazing with really supportive people as well. It’s not just rainbows, and I’ve been faced struggles since getting here but, generally, I think in terms of my career prospects, I’m happy with the kind of exposure that I have right now.”

When talking about the differences between her experience of studying in Sweden and studying here in the UK, she said: “I’m literally always the only black Muslim lady with a hijab, but the only difference now is that now it’s in English, so I can’t zone out, I can’t just be in my own bubble. So it’s the same, just maybe I’m more aware here.”

The #speakout campaign

I first met Aisha when covering the #speakout campaign, and I asked her if she had taken anything away from her involvement in it. She replied: “Yes, absolutely. When I arrived, I went through a bit of a racist experience because I was always the only black Muslim woman.  I couldn’t talk to anyone about it at that point because I felt like I was going to be judged or being too much.

“Before the #speakout campaign, I thought that maybe I was just overreacting it. Collin’s story was a trigger for me to be more confident and if something is wrong with me, say it right there. I was gradually getting out of my shell. Collin’s #speakout campaign helped me to feel more comfortable, and unapologetic about sharing what touches my heart and what problems I think people should know about.”

The many faces of #speakout. (Photography: Rodrigo Córdova Rosado Illustrations: Oliver Anthrops)

Aisha continued: “When I go for conferences, when I meet people, I’m always the only black Muslim woman. I feel it’s weird. And I don’t know what causes the problem. But I think it has to do with accessibility, with not seeing information about how things work. So I feel there’s no outreach for us to explain how you apply to Cambridge, how you get your personal statement and so on.  All of this is missing in this subpopulation. It is something that makes me sad and something that I wish I could contribute to making it a bit better.”

Aisha’s #speakout portrait.

Aisha’s #speakout portrait.(Photography: Rodrigo Córdova Rosado Illustrations: Oliver Anthrops)

‘It shows for women in my country that it’s okay to be ambitious’

Talking about the importance of her YouTube channel, Aisha said: “In the culture that I come from in Africa, the woman is seen as someone who stays at home and watches the kids. So if you’re going for things like a PhD, they ask you ‘what are you doing?’ I had a few people that told me that I can never be happy, no matter the number of degrees I have unless I get married. I love learning, it keeps me alive.  I want to get married and have kids, it’s something I hold dear to my heart, but they’re not mutually exclusive. What I’m trying to explain to people is that you can have that balance.

“So being in this kind of space as a woman is important to me because it shows for women in my country that it’s okay to be ambitious. I also think it’s important to question the stereotypical views of a Muslim woman as someone that just should be silenced. My religion teaches me to dream, to learn, to have goals for myself, to impact the world, to give back, to be generous. I feel religion has given us the freedom to do whatever we want. There are lots of Muslim women doing amazing stuff. Being a black Muslim woman feels like a minority in the minority. But my channel is not to represent every Muslim woman because each story is different.”

‘I want to start a conversation where we can talk about our struggles’

When asked whether her channel was aimed at only black Muslim women or had a wider-reaching impact, Aisha said: “Even though I’m voicing the black Muslim woman, the idea of the channel is just to be comfortable with sharing your process of learning. On social media, people are not comfortable with showing the lows. All you see is highs.  I want to start a conversation where we can talk about our struggles. I want people to understand that because they are struggling, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be in Cambridge, but it’s part of the process, and you should embrace it. You know what they say when a problem keeps you awake at night? Yeah, this is me, and I am trying to solve that problem.”

“But I’m not just a black Muslim woman, there’s so much more to me as a person”, Aisha continued. “On my channel, my identity is only in the background. The visual aspect is enough to tell the story. What I’m focusing more on YouTube is the humble beginnings and striving. Growing every day, learning from your mistakes, being comfortable with sharing those mistakes, reflecting about what you learn today, all these kind of things. Striving towards a huge goal or dream that you’ve set for yourself. I’m someone that believes in working hard and putting all your heart out. And by doing that, I hope that I can inspire people that are also striving for being a cancer researcher or have other big dreams.

“If you see me finding a way around my struggles, you can do it yourself too. You can be inspired and believe that with all of the work and efforts we are putting in, hopefully, one day everything will sort itself out and you also achieve your goals.”

Follow Aisha’s channel, Practice Makes Pipette here!

Related stories on the #speakout campaign

• ‘This coronavirus gave xenophobic people justification’: Speaking out against racism during the pandemic

• ‘Did he stop me because I was black?’: Speaking out against everyday racism in Cambridge

Feature image credit: Practice makes Pipette via Youtube