Children, young people & families programme, Health inequalities theme
Imperial College London
Public Health Nutrition; inequalities in diet and public health policy which aims to reduce that socioeconomic gradient in dietary intake.
Jennie's PhD reflections
Let’s be honest, PhDs have a bit of a reputation. They’re known for being overwhelmingly challenging and quite isolating. Horror stories of terrible supervisors, stressful workloads and weekend working get shared around and become a kind of academic folklore. It was this impression that made me seriously doubt whether I “had what it takes” to do a PhD.
Now having been through been through the process, I’m glad to say this wasn’t the case. The truth is that every studentship experience is unique. But reflecting on my experience and those around me, I think one common aspect among those who had a positive studentship was the quality of their supervision. They say that no person is an island, I think the same could be said for studentships. That is why I really valued being a part of the SPHR team. I benefited from some great advice and guidance from my supervisors at Imperial. However, I also had this amazing wider SPHR network to call on. This helped to not only improve the quality of my work; an outside opinion can really help to bring new knowledge and perspectives. But it also gave me a greater access to a wider peer support network around the country, more training opportunities, and ways to disseminate my research.
Another benefit of doing a PhD with SPHR is understanding the real-world application of our research. There is a strong emphasis on collaboration, public involvement and working with public health practitioners. I found that this helped to ground my research and give it more purpose. It was important to me that the research I was doing would contribute to public health policy in a meaningful way. In this way, our research has a greater chance of being impactful in the way that matters – improving people’s lives.
What has been your career journey so far?
Out of a fascination with food and health, I studied Nutrition at the University of Leeds for my undergraduate degree. I loved the topic. Nutrition is such broad subject that my studies included aspects of physics, chemistry, biology and epidemiology. Although the biochemical aspects of the diet-gut axis were interesting, I was gripped by public health and inequalities in dietary intake. This interest in the social side of health led me to study a Master’s in Social Epidemiology at UCL and pursue a career in research.
Why did you choose to do a PhD in public health research?
It struck me that there were two reoccurring themes in the research I came across in my studies. Firstly, the shocking yet consistent evidence of the social determinants of health leading to poor health outcomes in the most disadvantaged. Secondly, many public health interventions aiming to improve health or minimise health inequalities are rarely sufficiently evaluated to know if they had a meaningful impact. Following from this, I was inspired to work in public health research and help to give actionable evidence to public health practitioners to address theses issues.
What is your research focused on?
I am evaluating public health policies which are focused on the nutrition of low-income young children in the UK. These policies include the Healthy Start voucher programme and the Universal Infant Free School Meal programme.
Why is it important?
My research is important because getting a healthy diet in the early stages of development is important, yet many low-income children do not have access to healthy food. Poor diet in early childhood is part of a chain of determinants which contribute to the health inequalities we see in society today. The government has some policies which aim to address this issue, yet they were hastily implemented with no thought of how to evaluate their effect. It is vital that we know our public resources are being spent in the most efficient and effective way to address this issue.
What do you like about being a part of the NIHR School for Public Health Research?
It has been great to be part of an encouraging and supportive cohort of PhD students around England. A PhD at many times can be overwhelming and isolating, especially in current pandemic, so it’s been great to have people to share this experience with. Also, its really exciting to be part of an organisation with great aims and close ties to public health practitioners, I feel I am part of a positive new wave of public health research.
What skills have you learnt and/or are hoping to learn as part of your PhD?
In terms of core research skills, I have developed my understanding of quantitative policy evaluation methods, including teaching myself R (it really is a steep learning curve!). I feel I have developed many other skills such as disseminating my research (presentation skills, producing manuscripts), collaborating on projects and having a greater understanding of the realities of conducting public health research.
What do you hope to do after completing your PhD?
I would love to get a post-doctoral position and continue to have the privilege of researching topics which inspire me. Would anyone reading this like to give me a job?
Parnham, J.C.; Chang, K.; Millett, C.; Laverty, A.A.; von Hinke, S.; Pearson-Stuttard, J.; de Vocht, F.; White, M.; Vamos, E.P. The Impact of the Universal Infant Free School Meal Policy on Dietary Quality in English and Scottish Primary School Children: Evaluation of a Natural Experiment. Nutrients 2022, 14, 1602. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu14081602
Parnham, J., Millett, C., Chang, K. et al. Is the healthy start scheme associated with increased food expenditure in low-income families with young children in the United Kingdom?. BMC Public Health 21, 2220 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-12222-5
Parnham, JC. Laverty, AA. Majeed, A. Vamos, EP. (2020) Half of children entitled to free school meals do not have access to the scheme during COVID-19 lockdown in the UK. Public Health [Internet].
Parnham J, Millett C, Chang K, von Hinke S, Pearson-Stuttard J, Vamos EP. The Healthy Start scheme and its association with food expenditure in low-income families in the UK. Eur J Public Health [Internet]. 2020 Sep 1;30(Supplement_5).