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Inspirational women: Prof Carrie Llewellyn

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Inspirational women: Prof Carrie Llewellyn

Carrie Llewellyn, Professor of Applied Behavioural Medicine, discusses her new role as NIHR Research for Patient Benefit (RfPB) South East and Central Regional Chair and why her upcoming book might be her career highlight to date as part of our 'Inspirational women of BSMS' series. 

I graduated from the University of Plymouth in 1997 where I studied for a BSc in microbiology and psychology so I’m not a medic. After this I got a job at The Royal Free Hospital (UCL) then as a Research Associate at King’s College London Dental Institute on a three-year project assessing risk factors for head and neck cancer (HNC) in under 45s, which I was quite fortunate to get as I only had an undergraduate degree at that time.

One of my earliest papers from this work has now over 500 citations which I am incredibly proud of (and also shows my age). Whilst I worked I also did my masters part time from 1997-99 in Health Psychology at UCL/KCL. Then I was awarded competitive funding for my PhD also at Kings which was for a project I developed assessing the role of psychological factors in predicting outcomes in HNC, so I started that at the Institute of Psychiatry at Guy's Campus. I applied for a research post at BSMS in 2005, before I handed in my PhD, and was lucky enough to get a post-doctoral position here. So, I have been here since 2005 and loving every minute.  

Once I had started University I always knew I wanted to be an academic so it’s not been an accidental career. I had a very clear view of what I wanted to do and how I could achieve that. However, when I was at secondary school, I originally wanted to be a pathologist. I arranged some work experience at the local hospital and I fainted very quickly after joining the pathology unit. I can't recall what it was I had to do but I was mortified! I quickly learnt that pathology wasn't for me but knew I still wanted to work in health.  

I guess my role has changed but my research interests, teaching and day-to-day roles have been consistent throughout my time at BSMS. I have always been fairly autonomous in terms of selecting what projects I take on and investigate, which I am very grateful for.

My role as an NIHR Regional Chair is a really exciting opportunity. It was a competitive process, but the panel liked my ideas and aims for the role. The role entails making funding recommendations for the local region (Kent, Surrey and Sussex) as well as the south-central region (which includes the Southampton, Portsmouth and Oxford regions). In my role, I chair the panel that looks at the NIHR RfPB funding applications for all of these areas. I am also on a number of other panels for the University, and previously served on the British Psychological Society’s Research Board all of which have been rewarding and challenging.   

My research portfolio is in sexual health, which is quite broad, but I am mainly interested in behavioural interventions in a broad sense, why people are motivated to act in certain ways and how that impacts on the decisions they make about their own health or services they use. So, I have some ideas about new grants I’m putting in for but I won't be revealing any more than that at this stage! I am fairly superstitious about discussing funding until I know it’s been awarded. 

It's great to work with students, whether they are undergraduates working on their individual research projects, masters or PhD students as they come up with some great ideas and topics to work on, so it’s a really enjoyable part of my role. As a current sideline, I am also working on incorporating more LGB&T sexual health into the undergraduate curriculum. I currently have three IRP students’ researching current medical students' perceptions about the amount of LGB&T related content there at all stages of the curriculum and how this informs the attitudes and beliefs they have towards health inequities and how this can translate to their future care of LGB&T patients. The findings so far suggest that there isn’t much in the curriculum on LGB&T patients apart from what is embedded within sexual health, which is a problem as it becomes marginalised into a particular siloed area. The relevance of why it's important to think about the existence of social and health inequities across society and the repercussions these can have to health and access to healthcare can sometimes get lost. Along with other colleagues in the department and wider within both the University of Sussex and the University of Brighton and the Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust, this is something that we are currently thinking about how best to implement. 

Public health funding is being squeezed, as are NHS resources and staff. As someone who works primarily in prevention, I can see that this will lead to a number of problems. Sexually transmitted infections are on the rise again, and other issues will occur as a result of systemic underfunding. As diseases become more prominent, the prevention of them will then come back into focus. 

In terms of being limited in my field as a woman, I have been incredibly fortunate really. I think there may have been times where it has been limiting, but I either haven’t realised it or I have chosen to ignore it. Unfortunately, it is something you have to make an effort to overcome, but from my own personal experience I have been very fortunate in my work life. 

The most challenging thing about being a researcher is having to develop a thick skin, which isn’t an easy thing to do for many academics and I still haven’t achieved this. The workload can be a problem, but this is often self-driven. The expectations are high, both in terms of self-expectations and from others who expect you to manage multiple roles and areas simultaneously, so learning to cope with this is challenging. The bureaucracy in academia is at times stifling especially the bits one has no interest in. At times, it does seem as if we are meant to be experts in areas that we’re not trained in like finance and HR on top of our expertise in research and teaching. 

I don't really believe in regrets as you make decisions based on that moment. I was diagnosed with cancer at the end of 2017, and I think that has taught me more about myself and put things into more perspective than anything else I have experienced. It was a life altering moment and last year was psychologically very tough. So, I've learnt to try to not sweat about the small stuff and be more accepting that what will be will be. 

I have had really good mentorship from eminent psychologists at key points in my career, which has been really important to me. Even when it has been light touch, it has taught me a lot in terms of being self-sufficient. The people that I find most inspiring are those I know, so my friends and colleagues. These are the people I take day to day inspiration from. 

Achieving my PhD was a big one and a major milestone for me and being awarded my Chair last year was fantastic. I have also just finished a book, which was pretty momentous. It was commissioned in 2014 just before I had my last child, so it’s something I’ve worked on for a while now. It has around 200 chapters, a huge international book which almost killed me, but we got it done on time and within budget and it should be published this year. It was a steep learning curve and incredibly frustrating at times, but ultimately I will be very proud when it is finally published. It is called the Cambridge Handbook of Psychology, Health and Medicine (3rd edition). Following the commissioning, hard graft of dealing with approximately 500+ international authors from start to finish and then finally seeing it in print will be a major achievement for me.