How the University of Sussex is using innovation to foster genuine equality in STEMM

University of Sussex


In the twelfth of our interviews with key speakers who are presenting at SEC 11th -12th October 2018, Claire Annesley and Daniel Hajas explain how the University of Sussex is using Innovation to foster genuine equality in STEMM.

Claire Annesley is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex, UK. Her research focuses on gender equalities in politics and policy and she has just completed a project on gender and ministerial recruitment. In November 2017, she was appointed the University’s Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor for Equalities and Diversity, a new role to drive the process of improving equality for staff and students.

Daniel Hajas is a Doctoral Student at the University of Sussex in the Sussex Computer Human Interaction (SCHI) Lab. In 2014, when still studying theoretical physics at Sussex, he initiated a student project to make STEMM education more accessible and usable for vision-impaired people. This led to Grapheel, a not-for-profit social enterprise, which was formally established in July 2017. His hope is that this innovation will transform access to STEMM education for other blind and visually impaired scholars – Daniel having lost his sight aged 17.


What should industry and academia be doing to foster genuine equality?

CA:Three things need to happen: we need thorough institutional and cultural change to make universities and industry more inclusive; we need to address all inequalities and how they intersect; and we need to make better use of our own brainpower to devise innovative ways to promote equality and inclusion in STEMM – just as Daniel has done.


Could you expand on your belief that trying to fit excluded groups into existing structures and cultures is not enough?

CA:We often see solutions to addressing inequality in STEMM that are about trying to boost the presence of under-represented groups – but into existing structures and cultures. There is a major flaw with this. What we often hear from the scientists with caring responsibilities or from the scholars with disabilities is that these structures don’t work for them. They need more flexibility.

Or we hear about cultures in STEMM that are, at best, alienating and exhausting – or at worst abusive. Here, I am talking about power structures or networks that are dominated by one particular group. Or the cultures of bullying and harassment that often come with some established power dynamics. We need culture change to challenge abuses of power where they exist.

At the University of Sussex we have started work to challenge these structures and cultures and develop a more inclusive campus.


Could you expand on the Westmarland report and changes that have been implemented at the University as a result of the findings?

CA:In 2016, our Vice Chancellor, Adam Tickell, commissioned an independent investigation into the University’s handling of a staff-student relationship that turned violent. Professor Nicole Westmarland from the University of Durham conducted the investigation and we have since implemented her recommendations. Our new policies and procedures make clear that violence and inappropriate behaviour are not tolerated in any part of our University community, and ensure that students and staff feel fully supported when such situations arise.

One example is our new Relationships Policy that sets out the University’s expectations and requirements regarding intimate relationships between members of staff, and staff and students. It does not introduce a blanket ban on relationships, but does require that relationships are reported – a sensible mitigation against conflicts of interest and inappropriate behaviour.


Could you explain more about Grapheel and the Grapheel IRIS app?

DH:Grapheel’s mission is to make STEMM education more accessible and usable for vision impaired people. My fellow students and I wanted to engineer a novel tactile graphics display, combining the concept of refreshable braille displays and tactile diagrams. The aim was to enhance the experience of creating and interpreting static, as well as dynamic diagrams, in a tactile form for blind STEMM students and professionals.

Then, with mentoring from the Sussex Innovation Centre, the Grapheel team shifted focus from hardware R&D to start work on the IRIS project.

Grapheel IRIS is a web service inspired by citizen science projects such as the Galaxy Zoo and crowd sourced volunteer communities such as the Be My Eyes initiative to help visually impaired people in their daily lives. IRIS connects a volunteer community of people with skills in transcribing STEMM figures into text, using accurate language and adapting best practice diagram description guidelines.

A first proof of concept was built in 2016 to model the interaction between the volunteers, users and the interface. Within two months, 10 blind test users and around 50 volunteers signed up from 13 institutions, across seven countries (including Germany, Brazil and Australia). The feedback inspired the team to start designing IRIS in a scalable and more robust form. The first public beta was built and released for testing in July 2018. The team is now focusing on building the community behind IRIS.


You can find out more about the STEMM Equality Congress here

You can find out more about Claire Annesley and Daniel Hajas here