Philip Maini has been Professor of Mathematical Biology since 2005 and is a Professorial Fellow of St John’s. He came to Balliol College as an undergraduate in 1979. In 2017 he was the College’s first Fellow for Ethnic Minorities.
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I come from a working-class, immigrant background, with my parents and brother moving to Northern Ireland from India in the mid-1950s. I was born in a small town called Magherafelt and grew up in an even smaller town, Maghera, in which, for many years, we were the only ethnic minority family. My father would drive his van into the countryside every day to sell clothes to the farmers (these were pre-Amazon days). Growing up during the ‘Troubles’ was quite an experience but, being an outsider, I was able to enjoy friendships from across the sectarian divide. I was very lucky to go to an excellent school with inspiring teachers who helped me get to Oxford as an undergraduate. Little did I know then that, forty-plus years on, I would still be at Oxford. 

I work in Mathematical Biology which, until quite recently, was a niche subject area that struggled to gain acceptance amongst an academic world that was discipline orientated. As a result, I experienced quite a bit of negativity and prejudice, and had to fight to keep the subject going in my early days here. On the bright side, I have travelled to many different countries to attend conferences, been able to spend sabbaticals abroad, and have made many friends worldwide. Academia offers a breadth of experiences that few other professions can match. Also, because of the college system, I have always felt part of a warm, friendly and supportive community. Indeed my office overlooks the bench I am sitting on in this photo, a bench dedicated to John Wain who introduced me to St John’s long before I became a Fellow. 

As I have grown older, the anger, frustration and sadness arising from being both an ethnic and an academic minority, and so not really belonging to any core, established category, have been replaced by comfort arising from the realisation that this diverse background actually offers me access to a great richness of very positive experiences and opportunities.