International Women’s Day 2023: interview with Bristol Vice-Chancellor, Professor Evelyn Welch

Prof Evelyn Welch, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bristol
Prof Evelyn Welch

To mark International Women’s Day 2023, the University’s first female Vice-Chancellor Professor Evelyn Welch discusses her own career journey, women who have inspired her, and how we can embrace equity and inclusion as a University.  She’s interviewed by Deepshikha Sharma, Co-Chair of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion group in the Division of Research, Enterprise and Innovation (DREI).


Evelyn, your appointment to the University of Bristol is a testament that as much as STEM opens a world of opportunities for careers, so does Arts. Simultaneously, it also inspires and guides everyone including the parents and their children, particularly female gender about career choices outside of STEM. Please could you shed a little light on your journey? 

Thank you, and thank you for doing this. It is very important that we celebrate International Women’s Day, recognising that every day, not just one day, belongs to women.  

How do the choices we make – inside or outside STEM – impact on our career choices? Well, I am American in origin and my family were great believers that education was the route to long-term success, whatever you studied. My grandfather was a postman in Galveston Texas and my parents met at Harvard, and I went to Harvard as well. High-quality institutions open doors to many possibilities and opportunities. American universities ask you to take a range of courses in your first year. I went to university expecting to study pre-Med. I expected to study the sciences and expected to have a professional career which was a secure route to employment. Once there, however, I got hooked by the humanities.

This wouldn’t have been possible in the UK which I regret.  You don’t really know necessarily what your passion is when you are 17 or 18. If you close things down too early you miss out on the opportunity to be investigative, curious and explorative. I ended up studying Renaissance History and Literature (not Chemistry) and eventually completed my PhD in the same area at the University of London.  That wouldn’t have been possible if I had been forced to choose between disciplines when I was much younger.  

Is there a woman who has influenced your career path and how? 

A whole range of women have influenced me, from my grandmother to my mother. In my professional career, Professor Lisa Jardine, an extraordinary Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London, was one of my most important mentors. She was very supportive of female early career academics. She helped me in so many ways. For example, if she couldn’t make a media appearance, conferences or other opportunities, she would pass them onto me and to other women. She used her high profile to help share the ladder rather than pulling the ladder up behind her. Sadly, she passed away of cancer, but not a week goes by without my missing her or thinking of how much she would have enjoyed seeing so many women now in positions where we too can make a difference in academia. 

What career advice have you received that has been particularly valuable to you? 

Lisa gave me two pieces of very practical advice. One was never to arrive at an interview with a bag because you end up looking for a place to put it down as you arrive and settle in your chair. Leave everything behind and walk in with a few notes so you can look everyone in the eye and make that crucial first impression. Secondly, she was often the only woman in the room, before any meeting started, so she would say something to ensure people heard her voice, whether this was asking for a glass of water or to open a window. It ensures people become accustomed to a different tone of voice and your presence. It’s rare now to be the only woman in a room but sometimes it is the simplest things that make a difference! 

What advice would you give to other women seeking to climb the leadership ladder? 

I would offer two or three pieces of basic advice. One is to be a leader wherever you are. Despite the hierarchy of university structure, you can make a positive impact wherever you are. There are some important change-makers who do not have formal leadership positions but are immensely influential. But if you do want to get into formal leadership, learn how to do it properly. Leadership comes in many forms and it is not innate. Learn project management, time management, communication, and presentation skills. The University of Bristol offers fantastic programmes in leadership and I would commend them to anyone who wants to lead or manage at any level. 

Finally,  and a bit more controversial – people talk a lot about work life balance and how to say no. This is very important, but you also have to be open to say yes and, just sometimes, to push yourself to take on that little bit more in order to stretch your skills, abilities and confidence. But if you volunteer for a new task, it is only worth doing once or perhaps twice. If you are asked to do it for a third time, pass the opportunity to learn a new skill onto somebody else. 

This International Women’s Day theme is ‘Embrace equity’. We have come far from the traditional outlook towards women but perceptions of women at work and some business practices make it difficult for women to participate and achieve true inclusion and success.  For example, late evening wine and dine networking events automatically preclude women in the workplace because of parental care, childcare etc. How do you think we can embrace equity and inclusion within the University? 

The key to embracing equity and inclusion is both an appreciation of the benefits of diversity and being thoughtful about the multiplicity of needs everyone has at work and at home. Childcare is predominantly done by women, but not always. Our arrangements for parental and adoption leave need to be as generous as those for maternity leave. It is important to have a range of ways and times of the day and week for social occasions so that we don’t inadvertently exclude anyone from a sense of belonging. It is certainly harder for managers to organise multiple events but it is important to ensure everyone has a voice and feels a part of the community and their contributions are recognised.

I hold a monthly VC surgery; people come and tell me about the most interesting things about their lives at Bristol. One individual described their role, noting that while they made an important contribution to the academic community, they were never invited to Faculty parties or events. This was quickly fixed but it was important to recognise that we may accidentally, rather than deliberately, exclude some colleagues.  

Women in senior and leadership positions is a recent phenomenon, largely viewed as for the few, not the many. Whilst we certainly have made progress, what actions can we take to make senior roles more inclusive? 

Things have really changed since I started in Higher Education. Today just over 25% of the top 200 global institutions listed in the Times Higher are led by women. From next Autumn, Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Durham, Nottingham, Manchester and Cardiff will all be led by women. But it is important to note that in the United Kingdom we are all white women. Harvard is now led by a Black woman and that gives me great hope that we will not just see greater strides in gender diversity in my lifetime but also in terms of race and ethnicity. We need to use the determination that we are putting into achieving gender equity to ensure that we are similarly supportive of colleagues from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds going forward.    

Deepshikha Sharma
Deepshikha Sharma

A massive thanks to our new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Evelyn Welch, for this interview. Above all, my takeaway from this interview is that Evelyn embodies the ethos of university and I hope it leaves everyone as it has left me: inspired, refreshed and on a lookout for our own Lisa! She is the epitome of an empowered woman who is dedicated to empowering others, and she does so with grace, elegance and intelligence. We cannot wait to see the new developments we achieve together and under her new leadership. 

By Deepshikha Sharma, Co-Chair of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion group in the Division of Research, Enterprise and Innovation (DREI).

International Women’s Day – #BreakTheBias – Zawadi’s Story

As part of International Women’s Day 2022, we are sharing stories of how our colleagues and students have been able to help break gender bias. In this blog, Charity Zawadi Mwambeyu, an undergraduate Civil Engineering student, explains how she is helping to break the gender bias in economics. 

By Charity Zawadi Mwambeyu



1. How do you believe you have helped to break bias either during your education or extra-curricular employment? Please provide as much detail as you feel comfortable sharing.

Last academic year, I was able to contribute to a restructuring of one of my units to include a segment about racism. After questioning the background and perspective of the teaching material in synchronous lectures, I was invited to help devise questions for an interview with the Mayor of Bristol around architecture and racism following the inaugural Race and Housing conference. The impact of this formative experience was twofold. Firstly, I realised the outcomes of challenging myself and others beyond our comfort zone far surpassed my previous horizons. I was later invited to participate in the interview which inspired in me the confidence to be more assertive. Second, this interview was recorded and will form part of the unit for upcoming years. I believe by challenging the western perspective of our approach to teaching design and architecture, I was able to break the bias- creating space at the table for a diversity of viewpoints. I hope that students taking this unit in future are more comfortable leaning into their differences to generate divergent design solutions.


2. What do you hope for the future?

In a mentoring session with Sandi Rhys-Jones OBE FCIOB FWES, I learnt to “never say ‘only’ or ‘just’.” This small lesson, applied reasonably, has changed my approach to communication. Thus, I hope for a future where women feel empowered to speak their mind in collaborate environments, assured that their opinion will be accorded equal merit among their peers, rather than hedging themselves in anticipation of having to assert themselves and defend their contribution. I hope that institutions recognise the existence of this gap in recognition and make efforts to support women on their journeys to counter these limiting beliefs so they can rise to their full potential.


3. What do you pledge for the future – how will you help us to forge women’s equality?

While most of the people I look up to ahead of me are women, a remarkably small proportion of my peers who inspire and mentor me are actually women. It does not escape me that before the women in STEM, there must first be girls in STEM. Representation matters. I pledge to do my best to pay it forward by openly representing the possibilities for women in all the spaces I occupy- whether it be a girl in academia, a girl in STEM or a girl in engineering.


Find out more about our International Women’s Day 2022 celebrations on our website.

In celebration of our ongoing commitment to breaking gender bias, we invite you to watch our Spotlight: IWD series. Hear from champions across our University community, past and present, who are committed to breaking gender bias.

Tackling COVID-19: Prof Lucy Yardley

Prof Lucy Yardley

As part of our #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re meeting women from across the University of Bristol community who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic, from carrying out world-class research to helping on the frontline of the NHS.

Lucy Yardley is a Professor of Health Psychology and SAGE member. She received an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours last October for her contribution to the COVID-19 response.



Your research has focussed on COVID-19 recently. Could you tell us a little more?  

I sit on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – the group tasked with providing scientific advice to aid government decision makers during the pandemic. As co-chair of SPI-B, the sub-group that provide behavioural input to SAGE, I’ve been giving evidence-based advice and expertise, particularly in supporting people to implement measures designed to reduce the impact of the virus. My main research focus is on empowering people to take control and self-manage their health by developing and evaluating digital interventions. I’ve led the development of the ‘Germ Defence’ web app which helps users adopt better infection control in the home and has been adapted to create specific guidance to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic?  

Because I have been providing behavioural advice to the government through SAGE and SPI-B the biggest challenge has been trying to work out every morning what is happening with the fast-moving pandemic situation and what we need to do about it! However, it has been very rewarding being part of such a committed and collegiate multidisciplinary team of scientists. 

What is it like being a woman in academia? Have there been times when you have either faced inequality or had to challenge it?  

Things have changed enormously for women over the time I have been an academic. In the early days it was assume that you must be a secretary (sic) when you walked into an academic meeting such as the exam board. Then there was a period when I always had to be at the front of the stage at graduation to prove there was a female member of the professoriat. Happily, now I can lurk at the back of the stage as there are plenty of women professors and indeed senior managers represented. 

Which women have inspired you in your career?   

I am actually most inspired by the many women (and of course men) that have been part of my digital health research team for the past dozen years – their amazing supportive team spirit and dedication to creating the best digital health interventions we possibly can are what make me enthusiastic to carry on with this work. 

What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self?  

I think many young people worry terribly about whether they are making the right decisions – but what I have found is that whatever choice you make it can always lead to something good as long as you choose something you that excites you and give it your best effort. 

What are you most proud of?  

My very first piece of research was to develop and trial a ‘Balance Retraining’ booklet that helps people with chronic dizziness to get rid of their symptoms. Many successful clinical trials and a website later, it is still my favourite intervention as it is so simple and works so well! 

Tackling COVID-19: Prof Rachael Gooberman-Hill

Prof Rachael Gooberman-Hill

As part of our #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re meeting women from across the University of Bristol community who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic, from carrying out world-class research to helping on the frontline of the NHS.

Professor Rachael Gooberman-Hill is Professor of Health and Anthropology and Director of the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute, which has funded 86 COVID-19 related projects across the University.

You head up the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute which has funded numerous Covid-19 projects, could you tell us a little more about how your own research and that of the EBI research – in how it has contributed towards fighting the pandemic?

The Elizabeth Blackwell Institute is proud to bear the name of Dr Elizabeth Backwell, she was born in Bristol and was the first female doctor in the UK. At the Institute we support research in all aspects of health at the University of Bristol. We often take a back-room role by underpinning research and providing structures and support.

We’ve been able to channel funding to 86 COVID-19 projects so far with rapid response funding schemes that brilliantly included support from donors to the University. Alongside this we’ve held events and presentations for internal and external participants over the past year.

I’m particularly impressed by the way in which colleagues across the University refocused their expertise to the pandemic. There are too many brilliant examples to mention; Bristol’s research includes work to develop treatments for COVID-19, to understand aerosols, research ethics, law and domestic abuse. These are just a few areas.

As part of the Institute’s COVID-19 response we ran a survey of over 2,000 people in England to understand what people think of science and scientists. We’ve found that trust is pretty high overall, and that it only dropped slightly between first and second lockdown but that people from certain backgrounds trust science and scientists more than others. We’re working now to interpret this because we think that there is a clear case that understanding who trusts science more or less can help us to consider how to improve trust in the science that’s obviously so important in the effort to deal with the pandemic.

What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic? 

The pandemic has brought challenges for everyone, and I’m mindful of how varied these have been for people in different circumstances. I count myself very lucky indeed in the circumstances that I have. Personally, I’m a mother, a daughter and a sister. I miss seeing my mum and my brothers and I have to prioritise my children’s wellbeing in light of everything that’s been going on in the pandemic.

In my work, I’ve been astounded by the research effort at Bristol throughout the pandemic. To see how much colleagues have achieved is quite something, and whole teams have been part and parcel of this, everyone has had a part to play.

International Women’s Day this year has led me to think even more than usual about my daughters’ future and what that might hold for them both. I hope that the pandemic will teach us things in society about very real inequalities and that we act on these. I’m generally an optimist and there have been times in the pandemic when I’ve been both bolstered by the response and bravery but also frankly distraught at the inequities that persist and have worsened.

As part of my own development and interest, I’ve recently been reading a book by American medical anthropologist and doctor Paul Farmer (the book is called Fevers, Feuds and Diamonds), it’s largely about his experience in West Africa in 2014 onwards, though he also tackles COVID-19 too. One of his key messages is that the reasons why epidemics take place in the way that they do and why they impact disproportionately is because of inequalities that are borne of history. When we move towards a future of living around COVID-19 (I prefer to say around rather than with) then I really am hoping that the inequalities laid bare through the pandemic are something that we can work to address as a society.

What is it like being a woman in academia? Have there been times when you have either faced inequality or had to challenge it? 

I love my job, I do interesting work with fascinating people and every day is different. I’m enormously privileged. I do think that every woman in academia has had to address inequality in some way, whether for themselves or others. I see it as my role to raise or challenge inequality when I see it and I try my best to do so, although I’m the first to admit that I still kick myself about the times when I haven’t done so.

My biggest annoyance is the degree to which there are so often attempts to ‘fix’ people who are at a disadvantage, or to ask them to ‘fix’ themselves when in fact the issues are systemic and structural and it’s in the system that we need to act. Things like gender pay gap reporting are really important as they provide the data about the system that we need to make progress. This year, I’ve been disappointed that across the UK as a whole gender pay gap reporting has been delayed, I think that understanding data is absolutely crucial!

Which women have inspired you in your career?  

I’m a mountain lover. Women who inspire me often come from a mountaineering or mountain running background, because of their strength, resilience and focus. I think these are all ‘secret powers’ that translate into any career or work.

Two people that spring to mind immediately are Lizzy Hawker, and also the late Alison Hargreaves. Knowing Lizzy I hope she isn’t embarrassed that I mention her, she’s widely acknowledged to be Britain’s best ever female ultra-distance runner. When I watched her finish (and win) the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc in 2011 something about her presence inspired me to take up mountain running at distance as a way to be in the mountains that would reasonably fit around my then very young family. That running has kept me contented and balanced at work and home.

Alison Hargreaves was a brilliant mountaineer who climbed the Eiger’s north face while six months pregnant and who tragically died on K2 in 1995 when she was only 33-years-old. After her untimely death the media focused on her role as a mother and queried whether it had been appropriate that she undertook mountaineering. It was clear to many that the same would not have been said about a father doing the same things. I remember that time and the media coverage vividly, I was 25-years-old and the whole thing left an impression on me in many ways. Women in the mountains are strong people who pursue their dreams, I think that’s inspirational.

What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self? 

Get more sleep, you’ll be needing it!

What are you most proud of? 

I’m most proud of the University’s response to this challenging time.

Tackling COVID-19: Sophie Chester-Glyn

Sophie Chester-Glyn

As part of our #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re meeting women from across the University of Bristol community who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic, from carrying out world-class research to helping on the frontline of the NHS. 

Sophie Chester-Glyn is a PhD student in the University of Bristol LaSchool and runs part-time the non-profit organisation Co-Produce Care, which supports social care providers in Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire. 

Your work helping to run Co-Produce Care has focussed on trying to increase vaccine understanding amongst at risk groups and dispel vaccine myths. Could you tell us a little more about why you decided to do this?

I have always been interested in law and social care. I previously worked in social care part time and studied undergraduate law but realised how little I knew about the rights available to people with disabilities and the laws surrounding it. After coming to Bristol to study a PhD focusing on mental health law, I became involved in running the non-profit organisation, Co-Produce Care. My aim was to help inform people in social care, who are often unaware of their rights but who might be affected by changes to policy and law.

In February 2020, when SARS-CoV-2 was gaining momentum in the media, I realised that many of the region’s (Bristol, North Somerset, South Glos) care providers were feeling overwhelmed by the pandemic. To help support them, I decided to set up a weekly call with all the area’s sector leaders so that we could share information from testing to sourcing PPE alongside live updates from Public Health England and local authorities.

By autumn, we had increased our engagement through blogs and social media and noticed hesitancy amongst the social care community around vaccines. It was at this point we decided to conduct our own research. We sent a survey to around 300 of our members to find out specifically what their concerns were.

Our rapid research report, published in December last year, found there was a higher level of vaccine hesitancy amongst people working in social care compared with the general population. The report was shared with local MPs, the Secretary of State and Health Minister but we knew we needed to do more.

At the end of 2020 we reached out to MPs, the University, GP and BAME networks to create a diverse panel of experts for a livestream briefing who could talk and help inform people about the vaccine in live Q&A’s that would be attended by front line social care workers. The Q&As have been a real success with around 2,000 views on YouTube, and the feedback we have received suggests people feel better informed. It is great to know you are making a difference!

What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic? 

When the lockdown was announced last year, I was concerned how the region’s social care sector was going to respond. I wanted the sector to be better co-ordinated and really work together in tackling COVID by sharing knowledge, information, and updates on the virus from their perspective. Improving the way that the social care community came together during the pandemic has been a real triumph.

Have there been any times whether you have either faced inequality or had to challenge it being a woman?

Personally, at times I find it hard to get your voice heard. It has been a struggle, you see the other people who do not look like you, who don’t have the experience that you have, get a platform to talk about things that they know, you know more about. I think it is a long road and we have just got to keep the equality, diversity, and inclusion momentum up.

Who has inspired you in your study or in your career so far?

By far, the woman who has inspired me the most in my studies is Dr Foluke Adebisi, a senior lecturer in the Law School and my supervisor. She has been conducting lots of work around decolonising the curriculum and post-colonial research. Each year, she organises a Forever Africa conference inviting academics from all over the world to talk about decolonising the curriculum, law and race, she has really opened my eyes to this.

What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self?

When I was growing up, I just accepted the way things were and never questioned anything so I would tell my 13-year-old self to question everything — ask more questions!

What are you most proud of?

I was asked to be part of an advisory group, to the Department of Health and Social Care’s Social Care Sector COVID-19 Taskforce, chaired by David Pearson, on how COVID-19 is affecting people of colour working in social care, so I’m proud of being able to raise awareness at a national level of the disparities affecting this community.

Perhaps a cliché but I also proud of the balance I am striking with my two sons. They take part in a Sunday school every Sunday where they learn about different African leaders, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X — something I never had when I was at school. I am really proud of being able to diversify their learning around Black History and hope this will inspire them to have inquiring minds!

Tackling COVID-19: Chanelle Smith

Chanelle Smith

As part of our #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re meeting women from across the University of Bristol community who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic, from carrying out world-class research to helping on the frontline of the NHS.

Chanelle Smith, a 22-year-old fifth year medical student, has been working in critical care wards during the pandemic.




Where have you been working during the pandemic?  

I have been working in Royal United Hospital in Bath and I am currently working in Gloucestershire Royal Hospital. I have been in the critical-care wards including the acute medical unit and the emergency department. I have also been in ward care observing bowel surgeries and taking histories from patients admitted to the Surgical Admissions Suite. 

What has it been like working in the NHS? 

It has been a surreal and humbling experience. The hospitals have been under a lot of pressure with the added strain of dealing with COVID patients as it has changed many aspects of hospital care. Donning and doffing of PPE equipment has to be done with every patient which has resulted in a less streamlined system so jobs can take twice as long. There has been a shortage of staff, with many having to self-isolate if they become sick, which compounds the issue – so it has definitely been a challenging time.  

However, by all accounts, healthcare workers have responded exceedingly well. I’ve witnessed the whole multi-disciplinary team stepping up, doing what needs to be done without complaining, with a smile on their faces. However, I have also witnessed the tearssadness and the shear exhaustion from their dedication to long hour shiftsThey have the hardest jobs in the world at the best of times and through all of this, they have been providing the best possible care to incredibly sick patients. I’ve been humbled by both their professionalism and compassion and it has reminded me how lucky we are to have our public health care system. I’m reminded everyday of why I wanted to go into this profession and even in the midst of the pandemic I feel now more than ever inspired and humbled by this profession and really excited to join the NHS workforce. 

What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic? (at work or personally)  

My greatest triumph during the pandemic has been my ability to reflect, have gratitude and appreciate what is important in life. At the start of the first lock-down we were thrown into unprecedented territory. There was so much uncertainty and anxiety as well as an abrupt sense of isolation as we were confined to our homes. As a medic with a hectic schedule, I often find it difficult to turn off and fall into the trap of the culturally ingrained mindset that we must always be busy. To have a period of stillness was somewhat of culture shock! With life moving at a slower-pace, I found myself with a significant opportunity to reflect and growI realised how detrimental this mindset had been on my wellbeing.  

Lockdown highlighted to me, my lack of interaction with friends and family. Being constantly distracted and always planning and thinking ahead meant I was never really present in the moment. Paradoxically, in a world where we must practice social distancing, I have found my relationships have been stronger than ever. Spending time with family made me feel grounded and so grateful that we were all safe and healthy. In general, I believe that I now express more gratitude for the little things and therefore have a more positive perspective on life.  

What is it like being a woman in medicine? 

I feel powerful and energised being a woman in this profession. I am grateful that there have been so many women before me that have paved the way so that I may have these kinds of opportunities. I believe that there is a lot more equality for women and I am so proud to see so many truly making their mark in the medical arena. But we must strive to do more. I believe that gender should not be a factor by which my clinical skills should come under question and as long as I stay confident in my abilities, I hope to continue to empower women and support each other to reach their full potential. Admittedly, there remains aunder-representation of women in leadership positions due to an invisible ‘glass-ceiling’. I would love to see more women represented as leaders and hope that one day I will be one of them.  

Have there been times when you have either faced inequality or had to challenge it?  

There can be times where you feel undermined, especially when accompanied by male colleagues. Patients can sometimes prefer to speak to them or value their ideas over yours. I often have daily misconceptions of my role. Patients will often ask “Are you training to be a nurse?” or “How old are you?”. I wonder if my male counterparts are often asked the same questions. I will always dispel these initial impressions of me and correct peopleassumptions positively, but it disheartens me that these are still common events that I still have to endure on a daily basis. 

This becomes a further challenge, not only because I am a woman, but also because I am a woman of colour. When your opinion is dismissed or you are not recognised as a doctor it makes me question myself and creates self-doubt. ‘Imposter syndrome’ is unsurprisingly more common among women in the medical profession and can lead to burnout. However, hopefully things will continue to change and I am optimistic that I will enter into the profession confident in my abilities and ready to stand my ground.  

Which women have inspired you in your career?   

My mum has been my biggest inspiration. She has been completely selfless in making sacrifices in her own life in order to allow both me and my brother to go out into the world and pursue our own dreams. I feel so grateful to have my biggest cheerleader supporting me every step of the way. Her strength, elegance, kindness, love, ambition, beauty and above all her incredible generosity is beyonanything I have witnessed. She taught me to dream big analways believe in myself. Anything is possible and achievable 

I also feel hugely inspired by Baroness Doreen Lawrence who has tirelessly campaigned for justice after the death of her son Stephen Lawrencewho was brutally murdered in an attack in 1993. This story hits particularly close to home as my mum was a friend of Stephenwho also had to come to terms with such a devastating loss. I can only imagine the emotional turmoil that a mother faces when struck by such a tragedy in such a senseless and violent way.  

However, despite all the difficulties she facedher act of great bravery and courage she showed by refusing to give up and keep fighting for justice and equality despite the odds is remarkable. She is the epitome of grace and tenacity, a wonderful role model to me and countless other women. Her successes have included carrying the Olympic Torch, founding the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trustreforming the police service and an OBE award for services to the community, just to name a few. However, I imagine she would give them all up to have her son back. The mark she made on the world is something that I can only hope to emulate in my life and she is a pillar of strength that I will continue to look up to. 

What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self?  

My main advice would be: work your behind off, believe in what you are doing, and go out there and change the damn world. I would tell myself to be bold and more importantly be yourself. Never let anyone discourage you or tell you can’t do something because you are more capable than you realise. Do not underestimate the impact of your voice, your perspective or your knowledge. You have the power to change the world! 

What are you most proud of?  

I am most proud of being unapologetically, authentically meIt has been a long journey to find inner peace, but I have finally realised that empowerment starts from within. I have often struggled with a sense of identityMy mum is Indian, my dad is Jamaican and I myself was born in South Africa. Having grown up in a very multicultural familyI have personally experienced the challenges of not always conforming to any established racial category. In addition to feeling like the odd one in a heavily populated Caucasian community, I often asked myself: Where do I belong? 

For many years, I felt lost. All I wanted to do was feel accepted and would constantly seek validation from other people. I wanted to have straight hairlike the other girls at school who people perceived to be beautiful. I also had a curvy body shape which led to periods suffering with eating disorders as I did everything I could to distance myself from my own unique features. 

I look back on those times with sadness but feel proud that I have come out the other side proud to be a woman of colour, proud of my mixed heritage and the vibrancy and culture that it brings. I believe I represent the 21st century and feel passionate about uniting people of all different colours, races and religions. All these things have made me a much more positive and fulfilled person and therefore I am proud to see the person I am becoming. I wish every woman would follow her dreams and not put society’s ideals before her own. Everyone deserves a shot at living the life they want, and I hope that we can all celebrate and embrace each other differences as I have learned to embrace my own! 

Tackling COVID-19: Dr Nilu Ahmed

Dr Nilu Ahmed

As part of our #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re meeting women from across the University of Bristol community who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic, from carrying out world-class research to helping on the frontline of the NHS. 

Dr Nilu Ahmed is a Psychologist and Lecturer in Social Sciences. Her research includes mental health and understanding behaviour – topics which have really been in demand during the pandemic as anxiety and stress has soared and people have struggled with lockdown regulations. 



Could you tell us a little more about how your research and expertise have been deployed during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

I’m a psychologist and my research includes mental health and understanding behaviour. This has really been in demand during the pandemic as anxiety and stress has soared and people have struggled with lockdown regulations. I also work on race and inequalities, and Covid is highlighting racial inequalities, so I’ve been working with minority language press and community organisations to raise awareness, highlight the importance of staying well, and challenging misinformation about COVID-19. My media work has increased significantly since Covid, I have spoken about staying well, mental health, and understanding how Covid affects individual and social behaviour across television, radio, online, and print media.

What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic? 

The biggest challenge has been not seeing family, friends, and colleagues. Since last March a few friends and family have had babies and it’s strange to not have met them yet. I was only six months into my job when we went in to lockdown so I didn’t know everyone at work yet, and have only met some colleagues online. The greatest triumph for me has been being invited by community organisations to talk to their members about health matters. I am so proud to be able to do this and I look forward to meeting them in person when it is safe to do so.

What is it like being a woman in academia? Have there been times when you have either faced inequality or had to challenge it? 

Being a woman in academia is tough, but being a minority woman is even tougher. I have had some very unpleasant experiences of direct and indirect racism which I haven’t always challenged because it felt unsafe to do so. In recent years I have committed to always challenging it – whether it is my own experience or to support others experiencing discrimination. This is not easy, but it is right for me. Wonderfully, the upshot of not tolerating racism was I moved to Bristol and am now in a university where I feel respected and valued. In Bristol, my office colleague, line manager, acting co-heads of school, and Faculty Dean are all female and it’s a very positive experience of being a woman in academia.

Which women have inspired you in your career?  

My early career was very male dominated, and lacked female role models which is why I really want to be a role model for students and early career academics. Personally I have always admired strong smart females like Noor Inayat Khan, whose bravery in world war two is reminder of upholding truth, and an example of a holding multiple identities of Muslim, Asian, and British. Then there is Hedy Lamarr who challenged stereotypes by being a glamorous film star and an inventor who pioneered technology like WiFi that we cannot imagine life without today. And Jayaben Desai and other Asian women in the Grunwick factory protests who would picket in their saris. I took inspiration from their courage to stand up against injustice, and began to wear saris at work as an act of resistance against racism. Now my sari wearing is less about resistance and more about representation. More recently I am inspired by global leaders like Jacinda Arden, the Prime Minister of New Zealand who demonstrates how effective female leaders can be.

What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self? 

Don’t worry so much – everything always works out. If you are given opportunities that you think you are not good enough to do, take them anyway even if you’re scared of failure – you won’t know till you try, and you might even surprise yourself. Always try to eat healthy, and practice more self care – that’s advice I could do with taking now!

What are you most proud of? 

I took almost a decade out of my working life to be a full-time carer. There are times I feel behind my peers in my career, but I wouldn’t do anything differently. Of all the things I will ever do in my life, spending that time with my father will always be what I am proudest of.

Tackling COVID-19: Dr Laura Rivino

Dr Laura Rivino

As part of our #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re meeting women from across the University of Bristol community who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic, from carrying out world-class research to helping on the frontline of the NHS.

Dr Laura Rivino is an immunologist and Senior Lecturer in the School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine

Your research has focused on COVID-19 recently. Could you tell us a little more?   

My team is studying the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 which causes COVID-19. We are interested in understanding the immune changes that occur during COVID-19 and the long-term immunological effects of the infection after recovery. We are also interested in studying the generation of immunological memory of T cells towards SARS-CoV-2 following natural disease (COVID-19) and COVID-19 vaccination. 

What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic? 

It has been extremely exciting to be involved in the collaborative work within Bristol UNCOVER and impressive to see at the start of the pandemic how quickly Bristol scientists joined forces to tackle research questions.  Recently we have also joined the UK-Coronavirus Immunology Consortium (UK-CIC) and it is really inspiring to work with UK immunologists as well as in the multidisciplinary Bristol UNCOVER group.  The pandemic has also brought challenges  I’d only been at the University for six months, having moved from Singapore in July 2019. We had just finished setting up our dengue virus research in a containment level 3 (CL-3) lab when we had to shut it down because of COVID-19.  It has been a struggle to get it up and running again particularly with CL-3 lab space constraints due to the increased COVID-19 research. 

Personally, it has been really challenging to juggle kids and increased pressures at work, but I have had a lot of support from my husband and also from the kid’s school and our new community here. It is in these times that I’ve appreciated that Bristol is a great place to live.  

What is it like being a woman in academia? Have there been times when you have either faced inequality or had to challenge it?  

I find it really exciting to be a woman in academia, particularly in this time of change and having the opportunity to contribute to this change. The second is a difficult question and the honest answer is I don’t know. I can think of only two occasions when I have felt discriminated as a woman, but I will never know for sure if that was the case. This is the invisible nature of gender inequality; it is hard to see it as you can never verify that someone is not given an opportunity because they are a womanAlso, I feel many women in my generation and before me struggle to promote themselves compared to men so this doesn’t help 

Which women have inspired you in your career?   

There are two women that inspired me during my earlier career, both were my supervisors or co-supervisors during my Masterdegree and PhD.  Since then, I’ve mostly worked with men some equally inspiring!  Today amazing women colleagues at Bristol and overseas continue to inspire me and the environment in our School is really supportive towards women.  Our Head of School, Professor Anne Ridley, is also successful female scientist and leader. 

What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self?  

There are several pieces of advice I would give to my hot-headed teenage self! Professionally I am proud of the roads I have travelled, my career path has not been entirely linear, and I have made mistakes and bad choices too, but these have formed me as a supervisor and scientist. 

What are you most proud of?  

Professionally, I am proud of the work we – myself and my team – have done so far and of the collaborations I have established with other teams internationally and in the UK. Collaborations do not always work, and you need chemistry and trust to bring teams together. But when collaborations do work it’s an incredible fun experience and long-term collaborations can become really fruitful.   

Tackling COVID-19: Prof Christiane Berger-Schaffitzel

Professor Christiane Berger-Schaffitzel

As part of our #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re meeting women from across the University of Bristol community who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic, from carrying out world-class research to helping on the frontline of the NHS.

Christiane Berger-Schaffitzel is a Professor of Biochemistry. Her team has discovered a ‘druggable pocket’ inside the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.



Your research has focussed on Covid-19 recently. Could you tell us a little more?

The University closed in March 2020 during the first lockdown. Only scientists contributing to COVID-19 research could continue in the laboratories. Together with my colleague and husband (Professor Imre Berger), and volunteers from our groups, we were tasked to support clinicians, virologists and other scientists in the Bristol UNCOVER group, led by Professor Adam Finn in Bristol Medical School.

They needed SARS-CoV-2 antigens for their work, which we prepared for them. The major antigen is the Spike protein which sits on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It is needed for serology testing and vaccine development. The Spike protein is responsible for binding and infecting human cells.

My team analysed the Spike by electron cryo-microscopy, a powerful technique to depict the ultrastructure of biological samples. Surprisingly, we discovered a previously unknown pocket within the Spike. This pocket was occupied by a small molecule, linoleic acid (LA). LA is an essential fatty acid, it is part of Vitamin F. We found that the LA interactions resulted in a form of the Spike which can no longer bind and infect cells. This is very exciting because it suggests that LA basically is an antiviral drug that could be used to help overcome the pandemic, and we are working very hard to make this happen.

What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic?

For me, as for many others, a main challenge is that I now work a lot from home. The time and space separation between work and personal life becomes blurred. We have two children. During the day, home-schooling and supporting them now competes with zoom meetings with students and colleagues, and the usual academic work. It is tiring, and I feel like I am putting in a lot more hours than under normal circumstances. On the other hand, it is also very pleasant and gratifying to spend more time with the children.

What is it like being a woman in academia? Have there been times when you have either faced inequality or had to challenge it? 

There were and are many successful and celebrated female scientists in the UK. The Nobel Laureate Dorothy Hopkins, a stellar female structural biologist, was Chancellor at Bristol. Being a woman in academia feels more normal and natural in the UK than at many other places. Nonetheless, bias in the recruitment process and inequality in pay are an issue everywhere. My husband and I, for exactly the same work, have never received the same salary throughout our careers.

Which women have inspired you in your career?

Looking back at my studies and PhD thesis in Germany and Switzerland, there was a remarkable, complete absence of female professors. I was inspired by female colleagues that were a few years ahead professionally. I could feel however that things were changing, and more female scientists were promoted and could advance in their academic careers more recently. The most important woman who truly inspired me is my mother. She encouraged and supported my career choices. She strongly believes in equality and independence; she is profoundly convinced that a decent education and a good job are the key to personal security, freedom and financial independence. She instilled these beliefs in me, and she is right.

What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self? 

I would advise to have more self-confidence and to not be anxious about the future. Perhaps, to see life more as the exciting adventure it is and be open and welcoming to opportunities that arise. As a teenager, I was probably too dependent on recognition by others. I only learned later to be resilient and accept that success and failure are just two sides of the same coin.

What are you most proud of?

Our two children of course! They are by far the best and most exciting projects I have ever been involved in.

Tackling COVID-19: Dr Rebecca Pearson

Dr Rebecca Pearson

As part of our #BristolUniWomen campaign to mark International Women’s Day 2021, we’re meeting women from across the University of Bristol community who have been using their expertise to tackle the pandemic, from carrying out world-class research to helping on the frontline of the NHS.

Dr Rebecca Pearson, Senior Lecturer in Psychiatric Epidemiology at Bristol Medical School has been tracking the impact of COVID-19 on young people’s mental health. 




Your research has focussed on Covid-19 recently. Could you tell us a little more?

Pre-pandemic my research focused on tracking population level depression and anxiety at different ages and understanding how that relates across generations. When the pandemic hit, I began to think about the mental health consequences of the ‘lockdown’ on young children and young people and how I could use my expertise to help us gain an insight into this.

At Bristol, we were in a unique position to be able to track before and after changes thanks to the work of the Children of the 90s (CO90s) study. I was part of a group that acted very quickly to investigate mental health in multiple generations of this study, in particular designing a survey for the cohort’s youngest generation. Shortly after the first lockdown was announced we sent a survey to around 12,000 participants and 800 parents of children in the youngest generation to help us gauge increases in emotional behavioural problems ranging from babies to young children (up to aged eight).

Being able to chart these changes in real-time has been incredibly impactful as we have been able to highlight who might be at risk of mental health problems over the course of the pandemic. While we found that the youngest children (aged zero to three years) were not adversely affected, we found that older children (aged five to eight) had higher levels of emotional problems. Through the course of the study we were also able to show very early on that young adults especially those in their 20s were having a spike in anxiety, and this was much higher than we expected. As a result, our findings very early on were widely cited and fed into the Government’s SAGE committee and UK HDI — an index that measures key dimensions of human development. Our work also highlighted specific risk groups, such as those living alone, and such work contributed to supporting the Government’s changes in policies around support bubbles for people living alone.

What have been the biggest challenges or triumphs for you during the pandemic?

As a working single parent with two teenage daughters (Adele, 16, and Amelie, 12) it has been a journey for us all. Being cut off from normal family structures, routine and friends while dealing with home schooling, the added demands of work such as having to move things online, zoom meetings at the same time as live lessons combined with the pressures of us all trying to work remotely and share Wi-Fi has been a challenge. As a parent you worry about being neglectful of meeting your family’s needs and the effects of the lockdown on your children as well as feeling overwhelmed and uncertain. But in other ways it has been really nice to spend so much time as the three of us and adapt together!

But there have been triumphs, myself and many of my colleagues have come together to use their expertise to help fight the pandemic. For me, having our research widely cited and fed into SAGE which then supported policy changes has been a huge triumph. There have been other positives too, moving our team meetings online has led to them having much more international reach as we’ve been able to include people from South Africa, Brazil, Chile as well as wider groups closer to home but outside of the usual research group such as clinicians. It has really helped to bring people together in many ways and hear other voices.

What is it like being a woman in academia? Have there been times when you have either faced inequality or had to challenge it? 

I started my PhD when my eldest daughter was two so while I am used to working in academia and juggling parenting it is still the biggest challenge that faces many women, and men too. There is always some degree of inequality as you always have other things to commit to. Academia is hard to contain within structured hours and so that means it is hard to switch off at times at home, but also academic activity doesn’t stop just for you so you can feel you miss that breakthrough discussion or have to cut a conversation short when you are committed to and wanting to getting back to your children and things do move on without you or your input. There is always an implicit element of inequality and that feeling of always trying to be in two places.

Which women have inspired you in your career?  

My daughters Adele and Amelie have always inspired my career journey. Motherhood had such a profound effect on me, my eldest (Adele) was the inspiration for my PhD which is about motherhood! They both have strong characters and their own ideas but they, especially in the last year, have shown they are resilient, positive, and even in the hard times show real spirit, and they are always proud of me and get involved in my work. Coincidentally, my youngest’s (Amelie) birthday is on International Women’s Day (8 March).

I’m also so inspired by my amazing students, in particular the way they challenge your ideas and turn it into something better. One of my PhD students — Ilaria Costantini, has been extremely inspirational. Ilaria came to Bristol on an Erasmus scheme as an intern and was so good she ended up staying to study a PhD! She has slotted in where I have had to dip in and out of things over the last year and has been a true inspiration.

What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self? 

I have a lot of advice for my 13-year-old self who was shy and unconfident and never imagined would go on to actually put my ideas into action for a living, let alone that anyone would want to hear what I had to say about anything (whether that is in a lecture theatre around the world, a published paper, or an article like this!)….so here are some thoughts.

There is often no correct answer or correct path to take, but there is opportunity and positivity in whatever you do and whatever challenges you come across, so live the path you are on and own it. You cannot control the cards you are dealt, only how you play them. There will always be those who disagree with you or criticise your ideas, you can never please everyone, so do what you believe in. Learn from others, but be yourself, you are unique and your time is unique, what worked for those you look up to may not work for you.  Nurture and invest in those around you, especially in diversity. Be kind, trusting and generous, it may not always feel like it but kindness is your greatest strength.

The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know! Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know the answer (or when you got it wrong), you may well find no one else did either. In my experience you learn more from the rejections and mistakes than from the successes. Dare to be wrong and dare to fail!

What are you most proud of? 

In these challenging times you realise that if you build a nurtured team around you, it helps you see things through, so I am extremely proud of my daughters and my students and post docs in team MHINT! Working at the University has allowed me to meet so many interesting different types of people and allowed me to be creative, and I feel extremely proud when I see my ideas come to life or make even a tiny difference to the world!