Profile with Doreen Tembo

Dr Doreen Tembo (Zambia & Wolfson 2003) is a Senior Research Officer and Regional Lead for Patient and Public Involvement in Research for the National Institute for Health Research Design Service in the East of England. Doreen also coordinates the Ageing and Assisted Living Network for the Faculty of Science and Engineering at the University of Essex. She has lived and worked across the globe at NGOs and development agencies. She holds a DPhil in Social Policy and an MSc in Comparative Social Policy from the University of Oxford, and a Bachelors Degree from the University of Zambia.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Doreen Tembo: That’s a difficult question for me because I travelled a lot when I was younger as my dad’s work moved to different countries. I think I’m more of a global citizen. If I had to choose one place, I think I’ve lived the longest in England, so funnily enough I’d call this home now.  

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you read that you couldn’t put down?

Doreen Tembo: I haven’t been reading a lot of fiction recently. I guess the one book I really remember is The Unwanted by Ken Nguyen. I read a lot of Southeast Asian and Asian-American literature and literature based on those groups. The book is about a boy and his experiences of growing up in Vietnam. It was quite interesting.

Rhodes Project: What draws you to Southeast Asian literature?

Doreen Tembo: I grew up in Japan when I was younger.

Rhodes Project: You came to Oxford in 2003. What did you find strangest about Oxford?

Doreen Tembo: It was an absolutely strange place. I went to Oxford purely because I was interested in the subject I was going to study and not so much because I had an interest in Oxford per se. The whole collegiate system was very strange. The formality that comes with events both at Rhodes House and at the colleges was strange as well. But the kind of welcoming both from Rhodes House and the colleges was just incredible when I was there. I had such an easy transition moving into this very strange world.

Rhodes Project: Can you tell me a little about the research you are doing with the NIHR?

Doreen Tembo: It’s very diverse. I work for the Research Design Service for the National Institute for Heath Research. We provide research design or methodology-based consultancy for any academics or clinicians working within the NHS (National Health Service) who would like to carry out different studies – from simple qualitative studies to very complex trials. So the research I engage in can range from whether salsa classes can influence depression to researching robotic wheelchairs. It is very diverse but always in the field of health and social care.

Rhodes Project: What is the most rewarding part about your job?

Doreen Tembo: One of the things we do is to make sure all the research that we actually engage in involves the voluntary sector, community, patients and carers. Especially given that all the research we do is mostly funded by public money. So one of the things I really enjoy is stepping away from the academic world and the NHS and actually working with community groups and members of the public who have an interest in health as well as the direction of health research. It’s very grounding to be in that different kind of world.

Rhodes Project: Conversely, what is the most challenging part about your job? Does working in the public and academic spheres come with challenges?

Doreen Tembo: Definitely. One of the things that we do is build research teams. So if somebody comes to us and doesn’t have the necessary partners to carry out their particular research, we help them to build those teams. And those teams could be between different academic institutions, the NHS, but also with charities and members of the public. So sometimes coordinating those groups can be quite challenging. I think in the “Third Sector”—the voluntary sector—we would like to believe that everybody works towards the same purpose. But actually there are a lot of challenges in getting the voluntary sector to work together on a project. Sometimes it is also challenging to get academics to work with members of the public and the voluntary sector because they don’t necessarily think that it’s important for lay people to be involved in research.

Rhodes Project: What role do you think mentorship can play in a young woman’s life? Do you think mentorship is important for young women in particular?

Doreen Tembo: I’m not entirely sure mentorship is particularly important to women per se. I would say that some element of mentorship—especially for someone in their early career—might be of use to some. I think some people are quite OK just getting on with it. It is probably something that varies from person to person. But I think especially when some kind of a change in field is involved after you have read your DPhil, mentorship can be key for someone to successfully progress in their career.

Rhodes Project: If you could go anywhere in the world right now, where would you go, and why?

Doreen Tembo: I would quite like to visit Cambodia. A very good friend of mine had a wedding there which I wasn’t able to attend. I saw the pictures and was just blown away. Like I said, I have an interest in Southeast Asia and Asia in general. So that would be an ideal place for me.

Rhodes Project:  What would you do when you were there?

Doreen Tembo: I like to immerse myself in the local culture. Often, I try to go places where I either know people—through the Rhodes network or just friends—or get to know people that are living in the area, so that they can show you the culturally ‘normal’ parts of the country rather than just the big tourist spots.

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to address any one issue, global or local, what would it be and why? 

Doreen Tembo:  In practical terms, my interest is within HIV/AIDS, so I think I would probably concentrate on that. I think it’s important to spend money on changes that are sustainable as well as things that are culturally acceptable. So you would have to spend money in different ways depending on where you are spending it. The initiatives you would use, for example, in places that are more religious would probably be quite different than in places that are more liberal. It would depend on where the money was actually used. HIV is much more prevalent and has a large impact in sub-Saharan Africa so I would center my efforts there.

Rhodes Project: What brings you the most joy in life?

Doreen Tembo: I would say a few things: family, community and friends, and helping other people in different ways, whether that’s in a physical sense, a material sense, or a spiritual sense.

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