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.

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