Dr Caroline Lee, Senior Research Associate at the University of Cambridge talks to us about her involvement in the School and her career in public health research.
What are your main research interests?
I am interested in the influence of place and community conditions on health and wellbeing, and inequalities. So, a lot of my research focuses on community-based approaches, for example, to supporting mental health. I enjoy multidisciplinary research and evaluation, and favour qualitative approaches.
Can you tell me about your work with the School?
I have worked on numerous projects and programmes within SPHR, predominantly focusing on public mental health, inequalities, and places and communities. The school enables us to work across institutions and disciplines on real-world challenges. I find it an extremely enjoyable and rich environment to work in, and always learn loads from SPHR colleagues.
I have recently been conducting a review of community-based initiatives in support of mental health of older adults at times of psychosocial stress; and contributed to a participatory review of community involvement in place-based decision-making. I am currently co-leading two realist case studies in Cambridgeshire: the first, for a national study of local authority approaches to improving public health and reducing inequalities in the context of austerity; and the second investigating co-location (conceptualised as a single point of access) of community support to older adults’ mental health.
Other SPHR research I have worked on includes: developing age-friendly rural communities and the contribution of local participatory planning processes; reviewing the potential of time credit systems for improving public health; and increasing attention to ethnicity and migration within public health research and practice.
What impact has this research had?
I have worked on quite a few studies, but one example is where research is contributing to a better understanding of what works, for whom, and in what circumstances or contexts. For example, we see the increased demand on health and social care that comes with an ageing society at times of enduring constraints on public spending. It is important to capture evidence of how best to make use of available resources and support joint-working in community–based interventions in a way that improves outcomes for older adults.
Another more policy-focused example is the risk we recently highlighted of Neighbourhood Planning becoming a ‘missed opportunity’ to increase attention to and provision for health, wellbeing (and ageing) in place. Dissemination from our study will raise awareness amongst policy and practice of the remaining potential for this local and participatory planning process to improve place infrastructure for health.
My involvement in SPHR has also paved the way to my applying for a research fellowship last year to apply methodologies and insights to investigating Corporate Social Responsibility actions by food retailers in terms of impact on community wellbeing. This enables me to apply a public health lens and messaging outside the discipline and into a more cross-sectoral audience.
What made you decide to have a career in public health research?
Although I did not consciously decide to have a career in public health research, the wider determinants of health and inequalities were always central to my employment interests and drive. I began my career as a more ‘generic’ social policy researcher – actually in a not for profit consultancy rather than academia. My background was in project and programme evaluation and research across a variety of policy areas, including mental health, employment, education and childcare. Public health research actually happened more opportunistically as I looked for work following a career break, yet was a relatively smooth transition to make.
What has been the highlight of your research career?
In the early years, carrying out transnational projects and travelling widely across Europe. I loved investigating the influence of different policies and context on outcomes, and trying to draw out learning for practice. The social side was great too. More recently, I was chuffed to get two papers accepted in the space of a week!
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in public health research?
If you are interested and care about better understanding the drivers of population health and finding solutions, go for it. Read widely, but don’t stress about all the papers you haven’t read. Engage the public in research and developing interventions, and help improve mechanisms for doing this. Enjoy working with other researchers – listen, learn and don’t be put off by criticism.