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.
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.