Dr Sara Gordon, Development Executive - Medical Sciences Division, based in the Department of Psychiatry and focused on increasing philanthropy linked to the theme of brain health.
Tell us a little about yourself, and what attracted you to studying/working at the University of Oxford?
I’m a fundraiser based in the Medical Sciences Division under the theme of brain health, supporting priority projects for the Department of Psychiatry. I first arrived in Oxford back in 2004 to read history at Corpus Christi College. I enjoyed it so much that I stayed on for graduate study, writing a thesis that explored the influence of images (mainly those located within illuminated manuscripts) on social behaviours in the medieval period. I’ve always felt at home in the environment here and have used the experience I gained as an undergraduate history admissions interviewer and examiner for three colleges: Corpus Christi, St Peter’s and Regent’s Park, to inform my volunteer work encouraging school pupils to apply to Oxford. Girls, in particular, can be quite hesitant about whether or not studying at Oxford is for them. When the pandemic hit and I left London, Oxford and the University seemed like the natural place to return to.
What is your vision for the team/project/research you study/work with?
My aim is to understand both the needs and priorities of the department, and the motivations and interests of our donors. Many donors have very personal reasons for wanting to support an aspect of the department’s work, and my aim is to help bring those conversations together to sustainably support posts, studentships and research. Philanthropic support allows us to increase accessibility by expanding the number of fully-funded studentships, creates security of employment for academics through endowed posts, and frees up time and resources for teaching and research.
What is currently at the top of your To-Do List?
There are two imminent donor visits to the Department of Psychiatry in the pipeline, so I’m working closely with my colleagues here in the department to put all the arrangements in place. Our researchers are best placed to communicate the significance of their own research, so these visits are a vital step towards securing philanthropic support.
How did you get to where you are today?
Through a series of quite unpredictable steps! After finishing my DPhil in history, I needed a change, and moved to London to refresh and learn new skills. While working in executive search, where I specialised in supporting university biotech spinouts make the transition into the commercial world, I was approached by a member of the House of Lords to work as his speechwriter and oversee his philanthropic portfolio. As part of this work, I liaised closely with various development offices, and in particular with the team at The Courtauld, which at the time was going through a huge fundraising campaign to refurbish their home in Somerset House. It was through this work that I discovered a group of people like myself, who had undertaken graduate study, who believed in the mission of university education and research, and were most comfortable in that world, but had found themselves outside of the traditional career path. Inspired by their example, I joined The Courtauld, before moving back to Oxford to fundraise for St Antony’s College and now for the Medical Sciences Division, and the Department of Psychiatry.
Who or what inspires you?
A tutor at the college where I was based had a DPhil student come to him in tears. He had just handed in his thesis on the day of the deadline, but felt that it wasn’t going to pass because parts of it were unfinished. Despite not being his supervisor, the tutor marched down to the Exam Schools, requested the thesis be returned, arranged for a two-week extension, and then spent the next fortnight working with the student to get the thesis up to standard. I’ve always found the tutor’s boldness and compassion in that moment, which may have changed the course of that student’s life, very inspiring, and as a result I try to go that step further in my own work.
If you were not in your study programme/job currently, what would you like to be doing?
I’ve always had a passion for architecture; if I had the chance to do my DPhil again I’d love to write about English Baroque architecture.