The ’15 minutes with…’ blog series aims to provide a glimpse into the career paths and personal lives of the researchers and employees at NDPH and showcase the wide range of roles and science conducted. In this blog series, we ask researchers, non-research staff and students, nominated by the students themselves, to reflect on their career to date – their proudest accomplishments and their lowest points – and how they came to be where they are today.

We will publish on a regular basis in the coming months – we hope you will enjoy. Today, we continue this series with an interview with Charles Opondo, Researcher in Statistics and Epidemiology.

Could you describe your current role in one sentence?

I am one of a group of researchers at the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit (NPEU) generating evidence to inform maternal and child health policy in the Department of Health and Social Care; I am also one of the leads of the statistics module in the MSc in Global Health Science and Epidemiology.

 What is your favourite thing about it?  

Several things actually. Apart from working with an awesome group of researchers and students conducting world-leading research, I like seeing how our work influences policy decisions, priorities and practice; I like contributing my expertise to a variety of studies and roles, so my job never gets boring; and I enjoy teaching statistics, as it spurs me to keep up with developments in areas I would not otherwise encounter regularly.

… And what is your least favourite thing about it?

The parts of the academic year that get very hectic, such as late in the summer when planning for Michaelmas term! The thought of forgetting to plan something important fills me with dread. Thankfully it has not happened yet.

Moving on to the science, could you tell us talk about what science you’re most excited about or interested in your own work?

My work mostly involves identifying, from a toolkit of well-established methods, optimal approaches to answering the statistical questions in studies. But occasionally the opportunity arises to innovate, for example to design a new method or to modify an existing one for a new application; to test it and demonstrate that it answers the question you’re asking of it – for me that is one of the most exciting parts of my work as a statistician.

And what about the science that you’re most interested in beyond your own work?

Software engineering; there’s something about putting together a series of simple instructions to accomplish a complex task – and seeing how that interacts with the real world – that I find rather satisfying. This was an early interest of mine, and I learnt to create database applications sometime after leaving secondary school. But the technology was developing too fast for me to keep up with without focusing more of my time and attention on this than I could – especially after I joined university to study something else! 

What’s the thing that you are most proud of in your professional life ?

A number of things, some of which I’m embarrassed to admit my pride for! But a recent source of excitement in my professional life was when a study I had led on picked up a lot of media interest. For one week my co-authors and I were nearly constantly receiving calls and emails to attend live or recorded interviews with various media organisations. I remember one morning that week when quite coincidentally I ran into one of my co-authors on my journey to London, and just as we were settling in for the ride we received a call inviting us to a live interview on BBC Radio – which we proceeded to field right there on the front seats of the upper deck of the coach to London.

And what about your biggest failure or disappointment?

Moving away from home for my career has had its costs, especially the breaking or weakening connections with friends and family.

Could you outline your route to where you are today?

In my teenage years, I was interested in electronics and computers and hoped to study engineering. I joined the University of Nairobi to study mathematics and very quickly got bored of that. Three weeks into my first term, I quit studying mathematics and applied to join the College of Health Sciences to study Pharmacy. There I was content for long enough to see my studies through, complete my internship, pass the board exam and practice pharmacy for one year. And then I got bored again and applied for a six month research internship at the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Reseach Programme in Nairobi – and discovered that I rather enjoyed this new world! I found my work there very rewarding and also benefited from the guidance of a very good mentor. So when a longer-term position became available at the end of my internship I applied for it. I won a Wellcome-Trust Masters Fellowship to study Medical Statistics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which I applied for on the advice of my mentor. At the end of my MSc I applied for a PhD in the same department. I came to Oxford after completing my PhD and have been here since!

Could you tell us one thing about you outside work?

When not at work, I’m most likely to be found enjoying a hike, a podcast or documentary, or reading up on global politics and banging my head on a wall!

Charles on a hike with colleagues at the Three Peaks in Yorkshire. From left to right: Dagmar Hutt, Charles, Louise Linsell, Anna Placzek (since moved to TOPIC Research Group), Jane Henderson, Gordon Beacham (external), Dave Murray, Nelly Owino (Oxford Vaccine Group), Andy King and Miaoqing Yang
Charles on a hike with friends in a river valley on the edge of the Nairobi National Park

If you could give one piece of advice to your 18 year old self what would that be?

I’m not so sure, actually: my 18 year-old self was a lot more confident, adventurous and sensible than the adult version; perhaps my advice would be to cling hard to those qualities.

Thank you so much!

You can connect with Charles on twitter @charlesopondo and LinkedIn!


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