Behind the research: Professor Sarah Salway

To celebrate the 2018 NIHR I am Research campaign, the NIHR School for Public Health (SPHR) has asked members of the School’s community to share their experiences of working in public health research.

Today we meet Professor Sarah Salway, Professor of Public Health at the University of Sheffield.

What are your main research interests? 

I am interested in understanding and tackling the social and political determinants of health inequalities with a particular focus on women’s health and the health of migrants and minority ethnic people. I am keen to address the structures of wider society that create opportunities for some people, and obstacles for others, to lead healthy and fulfilled lives.

Can you tell me about your work with the NIHR School for Public Health Research?

I have been involved in a wide range of very interesting projects since the start of the School. During the first five years of the School, I worked with colleagues on a project that explored the impact of a community empowerment project on the wellbeing of local people. We looked in detail at how the project worked out in different neighbourhoods and the opportunities it gave people to contribute positively to their local areas. I also worked with colleagues on a project that looked at older people’s access to public health programmes and healthcare treatments. We were interested to know whether people were getting appropriate access to care regardless of their age. Currently, I am leading a project that is exploring the extent to which Local Authorities have information about the health of their local migrant and minority ethnic groups and are able to plan services appropriately for the diversity of their populations. We are looking at strategy documents and interviewing local public health practitioners to get a picture of the gaps and how they might be addressed.

What impact will this research have? 

The population of England is diversifying rapidly and there is a need to ensure that public health action addresses this diversity. By providing a picture of the current state of play, and by sharing examples of good practice, our project will help local public health practitioners to recognise and address current gaps. This, in turn, should ensure that action on the ground is more appropriate to all groups within the local population and does not inadvertently exclude people.

What made you decide to have a career in public health research?

As a student, I always found it difficult to focus narrowly on just one subject or area of enquiry. Everything was interesting and everything seemed to be connected! Within public health research I found that there was scope to explore lots of different areas and to bring health sciences together with social and political sciences. This means that there is always something new to explore and the work never becomes boring.

What has been the highlight of your research career?

Early on in my career I spent several years living and researching in Bangladesh. This was a very special period of my life and I have very fond memories of my time there. I learned a great deal from my Bangladeshi colleagues about conducting research in real-world settings and I gained insight into the reality of life for women residing in both rural villages and urban slums. The work there was very rewarding both because of the opportunity to interact with many fascinating people and because we were able to share our research findings with government policy makers and see some changes as a result.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in public health research?

Go for it! Public health is a very broad discipline and welcomes people from lots of different backgrounds. Be prepared to work hard, to multi-task and to interact with lots of different people. You will be rewarded with a career that can take you anywhere and you will never feel bored.