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Profile: Dr Tara Shirvani

Dr Tara Shirvani (2009, DPhil Chemistry)

Dr Tara Shirvani is currently working at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. She received the 2018 Aviva Women of the Future Award in the Real Estate, Infrastructure & Construction category and the Forbes 30 under 30 Award in 2012.  She was WCR Vice President, won a Blue in Water Polo, and was Captain of the Oxford University Amateur Boxing Club.

How did you decide to do a DPhil in Chemistry?
I had just finished my Masters’ degree at Cambridge University in Engineering for Sustainable Development. But I felt that I had just picked at the top of the academic iceberg when it came to learning about renewable fuels and sustainability. There was just so much more to discover and understand and so continuing my studies with a DPhil was just the natural choice.

Did you always know that you wanted to do further study? Did you consider going into academia?
I may have had a few half-hearted interviews at a few commodities trading firms, but it became pretty clear quite early on that my heart was actually set on extending my postgraduate studies. I loved it! My 3.5 years at Oxford were probably some of my best and most formative years. However, I didn’t have the so-called ‘research gene’ inside me to consider going into full-time academia. I was much more inclined and intrigued to apply my academic research in a real-world development context.

How do you think you changed from the first moment you stepped through Univ’s doors to your graduation?
I believe that as a postgraduate student, once you embark on the journey towards a DPhil your academic rigour and your curiosity progressive grows and flourishes. For me to be able to undergo that transformation at Univ was incredibly special and unique.

How did your time at Univ lead to your current job at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development?
With Sir David King and Ngaire Woods being Fellows of the College, there was a strong direct academic link to my future career plans and ambitions. Being able to engage with them and many other Fellows at College on topics of common interest gave me the opportunity to bounce off ideas, partake in critical discussion and ‘sharpen the political toolkit’ for the future.

How did involvement in extra-curricular activities at Oxford impact your studies and career post-Univ?
I was very sporty during my time at Oxford, spending most of my time either training with the Women’s Blues Water Polo team or leading the Women’s Amateur Boxing team. If anything I believe it spurred more my sense of tenacity whilst also allowing me to make some of my strongest friendship bonds with like-minded women who to this day I am fortunate to call my closest friends.

What has been your most challenging professional moment? How did you overcome it?
I got fired the week after I got featured on the cover of Forbes magazine as one of the most noteworthy 30 under 30 Awardees. It was the most bizarre and shocking life situation as I was caught in two very different circumstances and different worlds all at the same time. Couple this with the fact that my US visa was tied to my job, I found myself in a tense environment where I had to overcome the shock of the situation, organise my next job opportunity and avoid deportation from the US within a very short amount of time.

All of this plus I was trying not to compromise too much on what my next career move would result in. In the end I was only able to overcome the situation by drawing on my sense of tenacity and what I like to call ‘positive delusion’ which for me was putting in place the ability of disregarding all rejections and negative responses immediately only to relentlessly focus on the road ahead. After all, it just takes one positive response to cancel out all the roadblocks on your way there. Now I am leading the Sustainability and Digitalisation Agenda across the Infrastructure group of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development.

Dr Tara Shirvani Profile How did it feel to be chosen as one of the “Women of the Future”?
It was a huge honour and I was truly filled with immense pride and excitement when I found out that Aviva had chosen me as one of the 2018 Women of the Future. It also was a great opportunity to become part of such a vibrant community of like-minded women within the infrastructure sector as a result, which usually is a rather old and white male dominated sector.

Do you have any advice for those considering applying to Univ?
Highlight your diversity!

Do you have anything to say to students in their final year at Univ?
The best advice I’ve probably ever gotten was not to take ‘no’ for an answer. We are in an incredibly fast moving and ever evolving world and just because one person or one group doesn’t agree with your vision, approach or solution it doesn’t mean that you have reached the ceiling of the possible. In fact it may just mean that your current audience has.

Describe Univ in three words.
Vibrant. Supportive. Visionary.

Dr Tara Shirvani Profile What does 40 years of women at Univ mean to you? How far have we come and how far do we have to go?
In my view women have to tackle both the tangible and intangible stumbling blocks on the road towards gender equality. Topics around the gender pay gap, #metoo campaigns and discrimination are tangible concerns still on the table while intangibles such as mansplaining and man-interrupting attitudes are as widespread as ever. We have certainly come a very long way in fighting for our rights and opportunities. Yet, we may need another decade before we arrive at a “new-normal” where equality is not fought for but rather fully instilled in our day-to-day lives.

You can find Tara online on Linkedin and Twitter @Tara_Shi.

woman at Univ logoWomen at Univ 2019. Celebrating 40 years of achievement by women students, academics and staff, and recovering the history of women in the College from 1249 to the present day.

Published: 1 April 2019

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