‘Trailblazing’ new professor helping break down barriers

“I’m hopeful there will come a time when this sort of announcement isn’t exceptional. We’re heading in the right direction but there’s still a long way to go.”

Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso, from the School of Biology, is celebrating becoming the second person from Leeds to earn a senior promotion after joining the ground-breaking 100 Black Women Professors NOW! programme.  

The pioneering systemic change programme aims to break down barriers by increasing the number of Black women in the academic pipeline. When it was launched in 2021, only 35 of more than 23,000 UK professors were Black women. Yoselin is number 62.

The new Professor of Interdisciplinary Plant Science said: “This is amazing – it means so much to me.

“I’m hopeful there will come a time when this sort of announcement isn’t exceptional. We’re heading in the right direction but there’s still a long way to go. The fact Leeds employs two of only 62 Black female professors in the entire UK, however, shows we’re making progress.

“When I joined the University, I was the only Black person in my department. Now we have staff and students from across the globe. It’s really rewarding when our students say how they can engage more with me and how I’ve become something of a role model. It’s incredible I’ve been able to inspire them in their future careers.”

Systematic change

Professor Nick Plant, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, was Yoselin’s sponsor for the programme.

He said: “The University is fully committed to equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), which is central to everything we do as an institution and community.  

“As part of this institutional commitment to improve diversity and create a sustainable inclusive environment, we dedicate leadership and support to Black female academics through 100 Black Women Professors NOW!

“I was delighted to sponsor Yoselin in this programme. She always showed such great potential and a strong desire and commitment to reach professorship. Yoselin’s promotion is clear evidence this change initiative programme really does work to support Black women in academia to thrive and progress in their careers.”

Run by the Women’s Higher Education Network (WHEN), the programme aims to support participants to navigate and manage their careers, as well as challenging institutional assumptions and bias.

There are 13 women from Leeds on the programme this academic year – seven staff members and six postgraduate students.

Yoselin said: “The programme brought us together as a community. This was crucial to me as there are so few Black academics in my field and you can feel so isolated. All the people I met during the programme are excellent academics, so I’m optimistic many more of them will achieve their goals as well.”

Astounding achievement

Yoselin follows in the footsteps of Lisa-Dionne Morris, from the School of Mechanical Engineering, who was promoted to Professor of Public and Industry Understanding of Capability Driven Design exactly a year ago after joining the same programme.

Professor Morris said: “A huge congratulations to Yoselin for this astounding achievement and for trailblazing within plant science. 

“We at the University of Leeds and the Black Female Academics’ Network couldn’t be prouder! The significance of this achievement goes beyond Yoselin; it’s a win for all of us Black female academics and professional service staff working in UK academia.”

Images of Yoselin and Lisa-Dionne adorned some of the banners celebrating the talent and achievements of Black women leaders and role models at Leeds, which were unveiled in Parkinson Court South last month. Marking Black History Month, the flags will also be used for future projects to help foster inclusivity, as well as ensuring visibility and a sense of belonging for under-represented members of our community beyond such awareness-raising events.  

Yoselin is part of the Black Female Academics’ Network (BFAN) – a global network aimed at supporting and upskilling other Black female academics, which was launched by Lisa-Dionne last month. She’s also a member of the Network for Minoritised Ethnic Staff (N4MES) at Leeds.

Institutionally, Yoselin is helping support the University’s participation in the Race Equality Charter (REC) – a national recognition scheme designed to help dismantle barriers to racial justice in higher education, and improve the representation, experiences, progression and success of staff and students from racially minoritised ethnic groups. 

‘Amazing’ support

Yoselin, originally from Cuba, joined Leeds as an Academic Fellow in 2013. The UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Future Leadership Fellow works at the Centre for Plant Sciences and the Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology. Her research aims to reveal the molecular factors regulating plant development and response to the environment, which can be applied in the development of strategies that underpin crop improvement, biomaterial development and enhanced agricultural sustainability.

The interdisciplinary nature of her research has seen her collaborate with the Schools of Physics and Astronomy, the Bragg Centre for Materials Research and the Global Food and Environment Institute (GFEI) at Leeds.

And Yoselin is keen to acknowledge the support she’s received during her academic journey.

She said: “It’s been amazing. Colleagues have been encouraging me for a while to apply for a professorship, which was really inspiring.

“It was then a case of ramping up my visibility and confidence. The 100 Black Women Professors NOW! programme and Research Culture funding from Leeds helped me a lot in this respect, but my colleagues at Leeds had a big role to play as well. The list of people I need to thank is enormous!

“I’ve had more than 700 people contact me to offer their congratulations via Twitter and LinkedIn, which is incredible.”

Creating opportunities

While celebrating her own success, Yoselin is keen to give something back to help others in a similar situation achieve their own goals.

Among her many career achievements, Yoselin co-founded the Black in Plant Science network earlier this year after discovering the lack of Black project leaders working in this branch of academia.

The network aims to connect, celebrate and cultivate Black and Afro-Caribbean researchers through face-to-face networking, mentoring opportunities and career workshops. It also supports a dynamic and inclusive online community, with the aim of promoting the voices and achievements of past and current Black scientists.

Evidence suggests UK-based Black plant scientists are often the sole Black employee in their department or organisation, and the lack of community can be isolating, discouraging and lead to a loss of talent. The network hopes to create opportunities where scientists can come together and share their lived experiences, aim to overcome this challenge, and foster an inclusive and supportive environment, so that Black researchers can reach their full potential and feel a sense of belonging.

Yoselin said: “Creating a dynamic, diverse and inclusive research system is not only ethically right but it also maximises research impact.
“Setting up the network has made me more aware of the issues and where I can make a change. It’s really opened my eyes, and I hope we continue to see progress in breaking down barriers to success.”

‘Breaking barriers’ also happens to be the theme of this year’s Forward Ladies Leadership Summit and Awards, for which Yoselin has been shortlisted in the Education/Academic Leader of the Year category. Taking place in London on 24 November, the awards honour the impact of female leadership, innovation and entrepreneurism.

Yoselin said: “It was a lovely surprise to be shortlisted and it goes to show the impact of such achievements is felt beyond Leeds.”

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