“Women in Academia”- Dr. Aida Abzhaparova

Dr. Aida Abzhaparova, Programme Leader of Politics and International Relation, Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the Department of Health and Social Sciences, University of West of England, Bristol:

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Please tell our readers about yourself – where are you from, your specialization, how long have you been involved in science/academia and how?

I am Dr Aida Abzhaparova. I am an educator, an academic, a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, an aunt, and a granddaughter. I was born in a small village called Kounrad, in the Karaganda region, Kazakhstan. My early childhood was spent in Kazakhstan. At the age of 16 years old I embarked on my educational journey in the United Kingdom. I have completed BA (Hons) in International Studies at the University of the West of England, Bristol, MSc in Research Methods (International Relations) and PhD in Political Science at the University of Bristol. After successfully defending my PhD thesis, I joined the Department of Health and Social Sciences, University of West of England. I am a Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Joint Programme Head of Politics and International Relations.

I have broad research interests in International Relations Theory and Critical Security Studies. I primarily focus on excluded or marginalized voices in the international arena. Through my research I aim to grant agency to marginal actors and open up a space of study that is necessary to fully understand conflict, instability and insecurity in the international system. These interests inform my teaching, as I support a philosophy of research-informed and practice-led teaching. I also have a strong interest in pedagogy. I pursue pedagogical research by focusing on innovative methods of teaching/learning and maximization of students’ engagement/experience.

How did you become interested in your current field? What was the inspiration and motivation behind it?

I developed my interests in politics due to the turbulent years of the early 1990’s. From early childhood I have grown acutely interested in various aspects of political and social life in Kazakhstan. My interest in politics has deepened while studying in the UK, as I constantly compared my political experiences in both the UK and Kazakhstan. During my learning journey I have developed an interest in foreign and security policy in general, and security policy of Kazakhstan in particular. My PhD thesis centered on security relations between Kazakhstan and Russia. I specifically focused on Kazakhstan as I wanted to grant agency and voice to a country that has been constructing itself as an independent sovereign state.

Please tell us more about your professional journey: Do you remember the ups and downs of the process or during your graduate studies? Have you encountered any obstacles or prejudices on your way? Were there any other expectations of you?

Of course, during my education and professional journey I have faced many difficulties. Yet, I have always seen opportunities for development every time I have come across tricky or difficult situations. The most difficult part of my professional journey so far has been learning how to celebrate my own achievements. This has been accomplished through accepting myself for who I am and becoming comfortable to be within my own ‘skin’. Being a perfectionist and having high standards have been both a curse and a blessing. I have learnt how to amalgamate these aspects of my own character and channel them into constructing my professional career.  

Was there a time when you had to balance/maneuver between family and work?

I have a young family. I would like to think that I am a dedicated and loving mother and wife. However, there are always questions on how we, women, balance family and work. Women are always encouraged to find and strike a balance between family and work. However, my view is perhaps somewhat different. That is because see I my work as an inherent part of my identity, of what makes me – ‘me’. Both my profession and my family are inherently interlinked and constitute who I am, my passions, my curiosities, my family and my research.

As of now, what are you working on? Why is this project important to you? What is the most appealing aspect of your daily job?

I am currently developing a research profile with a strong inter-disciplinary focus on Health and Security. I am conducting a study where I examine national campaigns aiming to eradicate Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) from the perspectives of affected communities in Bristol. One of the reasons for conducting such research is to evidence effects of national campaign interventions to prevent and stop FGM. Another and related reason is to offer a voice to communities that are being targeted by campaigners. Considering the complexity surrounding FGM, I firmly believe that as it is utterly important to eradicate this practice, and it is equally important to do so without alienating and causing insecurity in affected communities. Therefore, I hope that my study will make an important contribution in furthering to bridge and empower national campaigners, affected communities and academics not only in Britain but also worldwide.

Research is an essential part of my profession. Yet, I am also an educator. My students and their academic and professional development are at the center of what I do on a daily basis. The most appealing aspect of my work is making a difference and inspiring my students as next the generation of leaders. The best and the most rewarding part of my job is seeing my students engaging in their learning by questioning, exploring, growing and developing. 

How would you describe the state of the field that you are working in – what are its major challenges and prospects, how do you hope it will develop in the next 10-20+ years?

The academic fields of Security Studies and International Relations are vast and dynamic. Though my research focuses on health and security, I hope to contribute valuable knowledge about the close inter-relationship between the health and security of individuals and communities.

What is your dream contribution to the field (your country or the world) that you hope to make in your lifetime?

I hope to inspire a generation of young professionals and I hope to see more women in leadership positions in Kazakhstan.

Could you please share the names of the books and thinkers that impacted you the most?

There are many books and thinkers which made an impact on me. But the most inspirational thinkers would be my colleagues. I have built friendships and trusted relationships with academics I look up to, my role models. I was lucky to learn from a number of such academics, my former lecturers and now my colleagues Dr William Hill and Dr Lisa Harrison. I also draw my inspiration from a good friend, a colleague, a mentor, an exceptional academic Dr Laura Shepherd. I am inspired on a daily basis by Dr Billie Oliver, by her inner strength, her kindness and her professionalism.      

What would you advise or say to the women who are just embarking on their journey in academia/research? How can they succeed and what should they avoid?

Discipline, dedication and determination are three very important character traits necessary for a successful and rewarding academic career. To all young women I would advise to get out of your comfort zone, explore, travel, build networks across cultures and languages and most importantly never stop learning. Learning is life, just as life is learning. To achieve excellence is to engage in continuous learning, to adapt to the changing nature of our times, and to continuously reinvent oneself. Be brave to embrace change, be brave to explore the unknown, be brave to reinvent and be brave to question the status quo.

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