Tackling COVID-19: Dr Saffron Karlsen

Dr Saffron Karlsen

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 Saffron Karlsen is an Associate Professor in Sociology. She’s been look at the social and economic reasons behind the big ethnic differences in COVID-19 infections and deaths.

Your research has focussed on health inequities. Could you tell us a little more about how this relates to Covid-19? 

My work looks specifically at the reasons why there are differences in the health experiences of different ethnic and religious groupsThis has been very relevant given the big ethnic differences in Covid-19 infections and deaths we’ve seen in the UK. 

My research focuses on the ways in which these problems are caused by things we do as a society, not as individuals. Negative stereotypes about people, in particular ethnic and religious groups, mean that they can be excluded from opportunities to get a good education, a good job, a good house, good healthcare. This disadvantage increases the risk of infection and also of developing conditions like diabetes and respiratory illness – all important for covid-19 outcomes. It also means people don’t have the resources to fight infection when they do get ill, or don’t get the care they need, meaning they’re more likely to die.  

Racism can also make people feel excluded or stressed – leading to mental ill-health and heart disease. Our research also shows how racism has directly affected people’s experience of lockdown and ability to manage itThe additional stress and isolation for people who felt the government wasn’t interested in protecting people ‘like them’, has encouraged distrust in government policies. We’re seeing that legacy now around the vaccine 

Media and government discussion often suggests that the solution to these inequalities lies in changing the biologies or attitudes of people in particular ethnic minority groups. My research shows that actually the responsibility for solving these problems lies with our whole society. 

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

The public reaction to these ethnic inequalities and George Floyd’s death was quite spectacular. After 20 years, it has been brilliant to finally be having these conversations so openly. There has been a real hope for positive, lasting change. I’ve been very pleased to be able to encourage this momentum – across the world’s media, through the government and also with initiatives closer to home. My work as part of the Bristol Race Equality Network (with Black South West Network) to ensure people get the information they need to effectively address ethnic inequalities has taken on new significance. The focus on Bristol and Colston led to important initiatives in the University to look at our own particular history, which started the grassroots decoloniseUoB group which now has over 400 staff and student members. And one of our papers on ethnic socioeconomic inequalities, which supported conversations around #BlackLivesMatter this summer, has just been nominated for an award for excellence, which is great.  

But, this was also a very intense period. Responding to these opportunities, while trying to do our research, manage the rapidly changing demands of academic teaching, as well as home schooling etc, was relentless. It took its toll on me personally and on many others in the University and I fear there will be more very difficult times ahead.  

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 think I’ve been very lucky and things have worked out pretty well. I’ve always been surrounded by supportive and enthusiastic colleagues and have had many valuable opportunities in my work. Academia is extremely demanding – it’s a vocation not a job. There are incredible pressures on people to work literally all the time. That can be particularly hard to manage in a society where so much of the other work still supposedly falls to women. Academia, and society more generally, are still not doing enough to recognise the implications of this, or the opportunities offered by working in different ways. But I have a very supportive partner and we are a team. Without that, things would’ve been very different.  

Which women have inspired you in your career?   

I have been inspired by many strong women, in many different ways. In terms of my career, I had a brilliant English teacher at school who was the first person I met who had a real-life PhD and opened my eyes to the fact that you could be a doctor without touching any blood! My mum – sociologist, socialist, teacher, advocate, creative, all-round superhero.  

I’ve spent my lockdowns catching up with some of the people who helped set the path so many of us now walk together – bell hooks, Angela Davies, Audre Lorde, Judith Butler (although they’re non-binary but until they have their own day…..).  

Many of the women I find inspiring, I’ve only met quite recently. Sado Jirde from Black South West Network, Cllr Asher Craig, Bristol’s Deputy Mayor, Alex Raikes from SARI, Hibo Mahamoud from Talo, Kalpna Woolf from 91 Ways and Aisha Thomas from Representation Matters, together with their friends and colleagues across Bristol and beyond. An absolute and somewhat-terrifying force for positive change. And Khadija MeghrawiUoB BME Students’ Officer (amongst other things). Watch out world. She’s just getting started! 

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

To dream big, be brave and have confidence in your capacity. Remember that life works in mysterious ways, and sometimes a convoluted route is best. 

What are you most proud of?  

I have many things I’m proud of. I’m proud of my contribution to raising our own strong, confident girls – already blazing their own trails. I’m proud to support my students realise their commitment to changing the world. I’m proud to feel that I’ve made a personal contribution to drawing attention to and actually undoing some of the ways in which race and other ‘isms’ impact on the lives of marginalised groups in the UK and elsewhere. I’ve been able to amplify the voices of people who felt unheard and that has been amazing. 

Tackling COVID-19: Dr Lucy Selman

Dr Lucy Selman

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 Lucy Selman is Founding Director of Good Griefand Senior Research Fellow co-leading the Palliative and End of Life Research Group at the University of Bristol.


Your research has focussed on Covid-19 recently. Could you tell us a little more and the different Covid research projects you are working on?  

I’m a social scientist and for the last 16 years I’ve researched endoflife care and bereavement.  When the pandemic started although I couldn’t help clinically, I wanted to contribute in some way.  Ihas been such a challenging time for people to lose someone, especially when usually they’d be surrounded by support from their family and friends. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, I reviewed existing evidence and risk factors for complex or poor bereavement outcomes in hospital settings, and what this could tell us about how to improve experiences for people bereaved due to COVID-19.  I also worked with a GP colleague on an evidence synthesis on funeral practices, considering the potential impact of restrictions during the pandemic. We found that the benefit of after-death rituals depends on the ability of the bereaved to shape those rituals and say goodbye in a way which is meaningful for them.   

Subsequently, linked up with Dr Emily Harrop and colleagues at Cardiff University to look at the evidence from previous mass bereavement events like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and terrorist attacks Widentified some key features of positive responses, for example, making sure bereavement services are proactively advertised.  

The collaboration worked so well, we successfully applied to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) via the Economic and Social Research Council, to carry out the first UK-wide study exploring bereavement experiences and support needs during the pandemic, and the impact on bereavement services.  We are currently analysing the baseline survey resultsbut our interim findings have highlighted the difficulties and distress experienced by those whose friends or relatives have died during the pandemic, both prior to the death and in their grief. 

In 2019 I was awarded funding from the Wellcome Trust to run a public engagement festival  about grief, bereavement and loss.  Good Grief was due to run last May, but when the pandemic hit, we transformed the festival into an online event.  It ran for three days in October and was really successful with 9,000 people attending and 4,000 people signing up to access the content afterwards. 

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

As an end-of-life care and bereavement researcher this year has been really busy. One of my biggest challenges has been working from home, trying to retain some kind of worklife balance, and protect time to spend with my kids and partner. That’s been really difficult at times.  

One of my biggest triumphs has been collaborating with so many different people and groups.  The research with colleagues in Cardiff only came about because of the pandemic.   Likewise, Good Grief Festival wouldn’t have been possible without such a collaborative approach 

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’m happy to say that Bristol is very family friendly, flexible place to work, and as someone with children alongside a career I’ve really appreciated that.  It’s great to see women who have children in senior positions But do think that there are sexist biases and assumptions in academiasome of which I have faced It can be more difficult for women to be taken seriously, and that’s true in academia, just as in other walks of life.  As a senior researcher, for example, I’ve been asked to take minutes at meetings, which I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been asked to do if I was a man.  It’s difficult because sexism is often insidious and hidden, and sometimes it’s hard to know whether it’s just somebody being obtuse, or whether there is actually a gender bias.  In many ways I’ve been very lucky as I haven’t faced really serious challenges in my career to date, and there are many strong women leading palliative care research. But there is more to be done to break down barriers to women and people from minority ethnic groups accessing the most senior positions.    

Which women have inspired you in your career?   

The women who have inspired me the most have been collaborative, rather than competitive. They’ve really shown that it’s possible to be supportive, kind and lift people up, but at the same time be academically successful.  I’ve got some great mentors, like Professor Fliss Murtagh at Hull York Medical School, who I used to work with at King’s College London, and Dr Becky Barnes, who was at Bristol but is now at Oxford University.  They have both been really supportive and inspiring. 

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

Believe in yourself and try not to worry too much about what other people think, because I think a lot of 13yearolds worry about other people’s opinions. 

What are you most proud of? 

Good Grief ipart of really important public conversation, and I’m honoured and delighted we’ve been able to contribute.  I’m very proud to work alongside my colleagues, Dr Lucy Pocock and Dr Charlotte Chamberlain leading the Palliative and End of Life Care Research Group at Bristol.  It’s lovely collaborating with them, supporting each other and running the group together, trying to be as inclusive and supportive as we can and nurture more junior colleagues 

For more information on the study of bereavement during COVID-19, see covidbereavement.com.  

Good Grief Festival – a virtual free festival exploring the many faces of grief – will take place on Saturday 27 and Sunday 28 March.  To register visit goodgrieffest.com. Good Grief is also working with end-of-life charity Marie Curie to host a series of events for the National Day of Reflection on Tuesday 23 March. 

Tackling COVID-19: Prof Sarah Purdy

Prof Sarah Purdy

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 Sarah Purdy, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience, former Head of the Bristol Medical School and part-time GP. 




What’s it been like managing a University during a global pandemic?  

It’s been incredibly challenging. The uncertainties we’ve all had to face have made decision-making very difficult. I’ve been very aware of the impact this has had on everyone in our community. For staff they have had worries about workload and moving teaching online and, for students they’ve faced financial hardship alongside concerns about their education all combined with the very real health concerns that come with living through a global pandemic.  

There’s been a real sense for me of responsibility for everyone and trying to do the very best for them at the same time as realising that we can’t get it right a lot of time because we just don’t know what’s coming round the corner. We sometimes can’t give people the answers they want and that is particularly frustrating at times.  

I’ve been so proud of our student leaders. Our sabbatical officers this year have been amazing and inspirational. The SU has done a great job in getting things online in terms of support for students. Across the wider university, we have delivered a really good, blended learning experience. Our support services pivoted overnight to provide services online and we’ve had lots of great feedback. We’re all in this together. There’s been a real sense that students want to contribute and do what they can to work with us in making things better 

You also work a GP. Are there any thoughts or insights from that side of your work?  

I’m so proud of what the NHS has done during the pandemic. My contribution is really tiny now. I’m just going in to do one or two sessions a week in general practice, but it’s been great to see how everyone has turned around and delivered services in a different way. Colleagues in hospitals have been doing a great job looking after sick patients. Likewise, in general practice, people have gone the extra mile to make sure patients have really good care despite the fact that it is more difficult to see people face-to-face. I’m amazed at how people have kept going, especially when vaccinations came along. People come in on days off and over weekend. Staff from my practice and others locally gave up their Saturday to help support vaccination clinics for staff at Southmead. That sense of volunteering and community support is inspiring. Everyone is trying to do their bit.  

What’s it like being a woman in academia and have there been times when you’ve faced inequality and had to challenge it?  

I actually can’t think of many times when being a woman in academia felt different to how a male colleague would feel. Maybe its because I work in health and there’s quite a lot of female academics who work in this field. There have been a couple of examples over the years where I’ve had to step up for recognition be that around salary or pushing to get recognition in other ways. I remember when I was Head of the Medical School, I attended a conference, and someone assumed I wasn’t a research active academic, perhaps because I was a woman. I had to say, well actually, I actively contribute to research, teaching and leadership but I wished I had added, ‘because I am a woman’. 

It was great when Judith Squires became part of the senior team. It was a strong signal to me as I’d just started as Head of School at the Medical School. Judith is a real role modeland she is a female academic. We now have Tansy Jessop and Lucinda Parr in the senior team which makes for a really positive gender balance. We also have some fantastic female leaders at this university, and I don’t feel that being a woman in a senior role puts me at a disadvantage at all, maybe it even puts me at an advantage.  

During your life, are there any women who have particularly inspired you?  

I’m covering this at a TheirStories talk I’m giving on Thursday 11 March, so I don’t want to use the same examples. But one woman, who often comes to mind was a psychiatrist I studied under at medical school at Barts Hospital in London. She was incredibly good at her job. She was funny and outspoken. I remember spending time in her clinics and being blown away. She was fearless, often caring for some of the most challenging patients including those in the prison system. Watching her at work was so inspiring. I came from a relatively ordinary background and had never met people like her before. She was so self-assured but in a really good way.  

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

Be more confident in your abilities. It took me a long to time to feel that I could put myself forward for opportunities, including applying to medical school. Also, say yes to things assuming they are safe and legal! By doing so, you widen your experiences. If someone asks you to speak at a conference or event, go for it! It’s so important to always try something new.  

What are you most proud of?  

I’m really proud of the fantastic medical curriculum colleagues produced and delivered under my leadership as Head of School. I also have three lovely kids and I’m very proud of them.  

Professor Purdy is giving a TheirStories talk for University of Bristol staff and students on Thursday 11 March, from 1pm to 2pm. 

Tackling COVID-19: Dr Emma Williamson

Dr Emma Williamson

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 Emma Williamson, a Reader in Gender Based Violence and former head of the Centre for Gender and Violence Research, has been working with Women’s Aid to highlight how the pandemic has affected those experiencing domestic violence.


Your research has focussed on the impact the Covid-19 pandemic has had on domestic abuse. Could you tell us a little more?

We were aware quite early on that any lockdown was likely to have an impact on those experiencing domestic abuse. So we worked quickly and closely with Women’s Aid to look at how they could collect data in order to influence policy. A report called ‘A Perfect Storm’ came out in the summer based on a number of surveys with support services, victims and survivors. We found there was an increase in coercive control, with perpetrators using the restrictions as a tool to stop victims from leaving or seeking help. Many people didn’t realise that domestic abuse was an exemption, so they were worried they would be arrested if they left. This, coupled with a stark increase in homicides during the first six weeks of lockdown, showed there was a major issue. Some of our data was used in a Panorama documentary and we were able to feedback these crucial insights to policy makers.

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

The biggest triumph for me was when Boris Johnson announced the second national lockdown and explicitly said that domestic abuse was an exemption. That was amazing and so important. It felt like we’d come a long way from it not being mentioned or discussed, to it being said to the nation by the Prime Minister. That’s testament to the hard work of people in the sector, collecting data and ultimately presenting evidence to the government to show what’s happening on the ground.

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 have definitely been times when I’ve been sat in a room as one of the most senior people and there’s been an automatic assumption that I am more junior. I tend not to get it in my day-to-day work thankfully. Because of my area of research, I work with a lot of really great senior women and professors.

I think a lot of female academics experience discrimination, especially those with children. Take lockdown: there’s a lot of evidence that suggests women have picked-up more of the caring responsibilities so I expect we’ll see fewer publications from women because their research activities have been put on the backburner. The gender pay gap is one example, but there are other inequalities in academia that the sector needs to deal with, particularly around ethnicity. Although I think we have come quite a long way, there’s still a long way to go.

Which women have inspired you in your career?  

When I was doing my PhD in the mid-1990s, I travelled to London two or three times a year to attend meetings of the British Sociological Association’s Violence Against Women Research Group. It allowed me to meet the women whose work I’d been reading – the big names in our field of research such as Marianne Hester, Liz Kelly, Betsy Stanko amongst others. I feel lucky that over the years I got to know them and ultimately work with them.

Our PhD students here at Bristol always inspire me. Many are from overseas and have chosen to come to Bristol because of the expertise in the Centre for Gender and Violence Research; they want to take what they’ve learnt here to bring about positive change in their home country. The risk to them as individuals can be quite high but they’re absolutely determined to make a difference. I enjoy learning from them and vice-versa!

And, ultimately, I’m inspired by the bravery and courage shown by every single one of the victims and survivors who I’ve ever spoken to as part of my research.

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

Not to worry about things you can’t change. When we’re younger, we spend a lot of time when we could spend that energy on other things. It’s easy to get frustrated by everyday things but sometimes you have to accept them and focus on the things that really matter, the things that you can change.

What are you most proud of? 

I’m proud of what myself and colleagues have achieved in the Centre for Gender and Violence Research. Domestic abuse can be a tough area to work in but we know our research makes a difference. The Centre was due to celebrate its 30th birthday in the first lockdown, which obviously didn’t happen, and I guess ultimately it would be nice if our work was no longer needed. But for every step forward, a new challenge presents itself and we need to keep listening to the voices of people who experience domestic abuse and try to make a difference to their lives.