Ernestina Coast is a Professor of Health and International Development. She served as a member of the WHO Guideline Development Group for Maternal and Newborn Health (2014-16) and is a Board Member of the Guttmacher Institute. She has advised a number of organisations including DFID, Marie Stopes International and UNAIDS.
Can you tell us about your background and how you came to work at LSE?
I grew up in the North West and was raised by my mother and grandmother – after my father died when I was very young - very much a matriarchy.
I studied for my Undergraduate degree in Geography at Oxford University - which back then was - at times - a very bizarre experience coming from a state school in Merseyside - but I’m really glad I did it.
After my degree, I secured a job for the Ministry of Education in Zimbabwe and found myself working as the Head of Geography in a rural state boarding school for girls. I taught an incredible bunch of young women but about a third of them were pregnant by the end of the first year of their A-levels.
It really struck me that these phenomenal young women, aged 16 and 17, had overcome so many barriers and obstacles to be at school and now their education was over because they were pregnant.
This was in the early to mid-1990s, when the HIV/AIDS pandemic was starting to take hold in Zimbabwe, and I realised if they were pregnant then they were also at risk of HIV. I don’t know what proportion of them were affected but I do know many of the teachers I taught with at the time have now died because of AIDS-related causes. This had a big impact on me and sparked my interest in the work I do now.
After teaching in Zimbabwe, I returned to the UK and after a brief stint working in market consultancy, won a scholarship to do a Master’s in Demography at LSE, followed by a PhD in Anthropology at UCL. Towards the end of my PhD, I took on a job as a full time lecturer at LSE - so for about two years, I worked seven days a week combining lecturing with frantically trying to finish my PhD! I’ve been at LSE ever since.
I love that LSE is a social science university. I find it quite hard to pigeon hole myself and see myself as a social scientist who is informed by multiple disciplines. At times, that can be more difficult as being a social scientist sounds very broad but, for me, it sums up what I do and who I am.
How did your interest in sexual and reproductive health develop after your time in Zimbabwe?
My interest in this area really crystallised during my Master’s degree when I focused on issues around contraception.
Then, during my PhD research in Kenya and Tanzania, I would often get asked by women why I didn’t have babies. They were very curious about how it was possible not to be pregnant or breastfeeding in my 20s. This highlighted to me the issues of knowledge, access to services and ability to act around contraception and pregnancy.
These experiences really feed into the course I teach at LSE on sexual and reproductive health which is a graduate half unit. I’m always been delighted by the interest and growing demand for the course from students. Sexual and reproductive health has so many implications for people’s lives, from education and life course to job opportunities and being healthy.
What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?
Working with students. Everything from seeing someone grow in confidence and having the self-belief to act on something they are passionate about to watching people discover new avenues or ways of thinking.
For me, teaching isn’t just a one way street. I love the fact LSE students will ask a question or make a comment and you find yourself thinking, “Hmm, I hadn’t thought of it that way before, let’s stop and think about what that means”.
We’re very privileged with the students we get at LSE; in terms of diversity, in terms of how engaged they are and in terms of their back stories before they arrive here either personally or professionally.
I also do a lot of PhD supervision work and supervise students working on all kinds of topics from maternal health in Zambia to mental health in Sri Lanka. It’s always rewarding to see people taking the next step in their career.
What would you say is the most challenging aspect?
Keeping up with the students! They keep you on your toes.
What has been your proudest achievement in your career so far?
Being awarded teaching prizes has always made me proud as it’s nice to have that recognition. There are lots of people who put a great deal of effort into teaching at LSE, not just the academics and Fellows but all the people who support us such as the Teaching and Learning Centre, LSE LIFE, Learning Technology and Innovation and the Careers team.
On the research side, I’m proud of focusing my recent research around abortion and getting highly competitive research funding for that. I’m pleased I have generated new research agendas on the topic. It’s not an easy issue but, for me, it’s a topic that really shines a light on issues of power, wealth, politics, gender, culture, religion and health.
Who inspires you?
Working in sexual and reproductive health, it’s the activists and providers of sexual and reproductive health services who inspire me. Often, they’re working in difficult situations and putting themselves at personal risk to provide services that, in a country like the UK, we can take for granted.
Ernestina was nominated by students who said:
"Ernestina champions the advancement of women in all aspects of her work. Beyond this however she gives generously of her time and support to further the opportunities and success of her female students. She is an exemplar of the belief that by supporting other women to succeed in academia, everyone benefits."
"Dr Coast's work on sexual and reproductive rights and justice is impressive for its theoretical and empirical contributions, but also for its considered and inter-disciplinary nature. The impact of her work on abortion rights and activism is immense. I also deeply admire Dr Coast's commitment to her students and the many ways in which she mentors us- whether it is encouraging young women and nonbinary scholars to push themselves to achieve their ambitions (and indeed, pushing us to be more ambitious) or by taking a proactive role in our skills-development. As an aspiring academic, it is heartening to see Dr Coast encourage and support young scholars, and 'hold the space' for us to grow and learn from her and her vast experience- especially when it can so often feel like the academy doesn't always make space for us or give us all that many role models to look up to and aspire to. I've admired how she works closely with and 'signal boosts' other women scholars- not just in the politics of citation (see: Sara Ahmad) but in creating networks of solidarity and collegial working relationships with other women in the academy. I also want to acknowledge and appreciate how much care work and emotional labour she does on our behalf- whether it is checking in with us to make sure we're coping, advising us on how best to handle some of the issues that come with research, speaking to the School or the department on our behalf, or supporting our more madcap ideas! She is definitely someone who inspires me to be a better researcher, a better teacher, a better scholar."
"Ernestina is not only a brilliant academic, teacher, and supervisor, but also someone who encourages her students to support each other. She is also very aware of sexism in academia and strives to provide her students with the awareness and tools to fight back."
"Ernestina is an amazing woman and academic! She is exemplary in her ability to build the new generation of young female academics and create a space where women can flourish in academia. I have been working with her and she is now my PhD supervisor. On the one side she has been able to flourish in an academic environment that is sometimes extremely difficult for women. She is an incredible knowledgeable and skilled academic, a great teacher always available for technical advice. On the other side, she has been mentoring and supporting the personal and professional development of her PhD students and young female researchers/academics. She is always available for career advice and she goes beyond her duty supporting the personal difficulties her students/mentees come across while trying to establish themselves as female academics/researchers."
Department of International Development