An Academic Life: Professor Rusi Jaspal – exploring identity through his own experiences


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He’s a game-changer in the field of HIV research and gets asked to share his work all over the world, but Rusi Jaspal says it’s his multicultural family roots that really helped shape his successful career.

A “Derby lad at heart”, the 35-year-old Professor of Psychology and Sexual Health, who is currently Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU), grew up on the edge of the Peak District with his parents and two sisters.

Rusi
Professor Rusi Jaspal is the Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research at DMU

“I think the environment you grow up in has a massive impact on shaping your identity,” he said. “I grew up in a very multicultural home, with family friends and relatives all over the world, living in different cultural systems. From a young age I spoke Hebrew and Punjabi, as well as English. I always felt very international. I had an immense curiosity about how people think and behave in different cultures.”

As a boy, Rusi developed a genuine passion for exploring language. Some of his fondest childhood memories are of the many hours he spent buried in books in his local Waterstone’s, learning new languages.

“That was the main attraction for me when I’d go into town – instead of wanting to buy new clothes or video games, I’d spend my pocket money on Teach Yourself language books. I basically became a self-taught linguist. I started to study Swedish when I was about 12. I was quite good at it actually.

“Back then Derby wasn’t almost as diverse as it is today, so studying languages helped me broaden my cultural horizons and opened many doors for me. I learned a lot and it made me appreciate the diversity of the world we live in.”

Today Rusi speaks no less than seven languages – a proficiency he takes great pride in.

“I can speak English, Punjabi, Hebrew, Persian, French, Spanish and German. Learning new languages is one of my hobbies. I like travelling and trying to speak with the locals. It makes me feel empowered when I travel.”

In reality, Rusi’s love for language is much more than a hobby. His part-Jewish, part-Indian heritage and ability to speak Hebrew and Punjabi is what influenced his career path.

In 2002, aged 18, Rusi was accepted into the University of Cambridge to study Modern and Medieval Languages.

“Cambridge was a very exciting place. There was real uncertainty about whether you would even be given a place – so it was a privilege to be accepted onto a course that I knew I would love at an institution with such a rich history of scholarship.

“It was during my time at Cambridge that my identity really began to crystallise. I got to know world-leading scholars, on the one hand, but also really enthusiastic students, and that helped me develop into the person I am today, both in terms of my professional identity and also my personality. It really got me thinking about variation among human beings, which would go on to characterise the work that I still do in my own research and as Pro Vice-Chancellor Research.

Rusi family (1)
Rusi and his family on graduation day at the University of Cambridge

“My fondest experience – and there are many - was meeting someone called Professor Mari Jones who, at the time, was just about the only person in the country researching Jèrriais, a variety of French spoken in Jersey which is in serious decline. I was in absolute awe when I met her and I learnt an enormous amount by being taught by her.

“In particular, I learned about the importance of society and politics in maintaining the vitality of languages. Put simply, we have the power to stop a language from dying by speaking it and by promoting it in our communities. There are a few success stories – sadly, Jèrriais is not one of them.

“That’s the beauty of being a student at university – you can meet with researchers and learn from their fantastic work. That’s one reason why I also champion research-informed teaching at DMU. I want our students to benefit from the brilliant, ground-breaking research that colleagues do in all four of our faculties at DMU.”

Rusi spent four years embracing student life at the University of Cambridge. He joined the Cambridge University Conservative Association, as well as several language societies.

“We would just spend our evenings speaking languages with one another. It was wonderful. Language is about more than just words, it’s about culture and by learning a language one learns a lot about different people and their backgrounds.”

Over the course of his studies, Rusi’s own interest in research began to take shape. He started looking at why more people don’t retain their heritage language despite being immersed in it from an early age. Why do some people – particularly ethnic minorities – just stop speaking their heritage language?

“Sometimes we do this because we feel that the language is ‘useless’ or even stigmatised. I still speak Punjabi and Hebrew, and seize every opportunity to do so, because I feel it is part of my identity. By doing so, I feel that I also promote equality and diversity.

“I became really fascinated with why people do or do not decide to continue speaking their heritage language and it was then that I realised, in order to answer that question, I needed to look beyond linguistics and train as a psychologist.”

Rusi went on to complete an MSc in Psychology at the University of Surrey, followed by a PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London.

He looked at how people’s identities evolve in the context of societal change and contributed to a theory that has come to be known as ‘Identity Process Theory’, focusing on how people cope with change and how they make sense of their identity in a turbulent environment – something Rusi had experienced himself during his adolescent and teenage years.

Identity Process Theory
A published author, Rusi has written several books about his research

“Change comes in many forms and can vary in its impact on individuals and societies. Like everyone else, I was trying to construct my identity while at university. I was from Derby, a gay man, an ethnic minority, and British – I had, and still have, many identities.

“Even before university, when I was at secondary school, there was a real silence around sexuality which, when you are LGBT, is truly deafening. All of these experiences are what sparked a curiosity in my mind about how I can help people with my research and how I can better understand the impact that non-visibility can have on minority groups. This is probably why I have focused on minorities and diversity in the vast majority of my work.”

For the last decade Rusi has been working in the field of HIV research, ensuring that ethnic minority groups are visible and that they are not left behind in the fight against HIV.

He has conducted a series of ground-breaking research projects, including laboratory experiments and in-depth interviews with HIV patients and with doctors, to understand why people take risks and how we can intervene to prevent HIV – particularly in minority groups.

Today, alongside his impressive credentials at DMU, Rusi is a highly-regarded Chartered Psychologist, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

He is also an elected Fellow of the British Psychological Society – an impressive achievement considering that most members have to acquire at least 10 years’ practice before they are elected, whereas Rusi had just four.

Outside of academia, Rusi keeps equally busy with an advisory role at Wandsworth Council – the borough in which he spends half of his home life with his partner Babak, whom he met 14 years ago while studying at Cambridge. The couple split their time between Wandsworth and Derby.

Rusi and Babak
Rusi and his partner Babak met during their university days

“I’m very proud to be a Midlander – I love the Midlands, I love the people and it’s such an important part of my own identity. We’re right on the doorstep of the Peak District and we love to explore the beautiful scenery and countryside when we’re not working.

“I guess you could say I’ll always be a Derby lad at heart.”

Posted on Friday 27th September 2019

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