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Inspirational women: Shanu Sadhwani

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Inspirational women: Shanu Sadhwani

Shanu Sadhwani discusses her career change from secondary school teacher to Research Fellow, and considers where her research might take her in the next decade as part of our 'Inspirational women of BSMS' series.

I graduated with a degree in Drama and Theatre Arts. After that I worked as a secondary school teacher for just shy of 10 years, and I started to realise that this wasn't the career for me in the longer term. While I really enjoyed it, my reason for going into that career path was two-fold. One, because I'm really interested in stories and, with art, you tell stories in the most beautiful way possible. And two, I was working in schools because I somewhat altruistically wanted to make a difference. And although I was able to do both those things, fairly successfully, I didn't think I had capacity to continue as a secondary school teacher until I retired. To teach is easy, but to teach well is very difficult. It takes a lot of patience, energy and time. So, I thought if I'm going to jump ship; best do it at that point.

Alongside this, I had been doing a lot of volunteer work, so I decided to retrain in psychology. I had no idea what I was going to do when I finished. I thought, do the course and then hopefully something will emerge. I enrolled onto a Masters in Psychology, which was a conversion course for people with an undergraduate degree in an unrelated field. That was incredibly difficult. It was like I was learning a new language. I would spend all day reading a single paper and still didn't understand it. It was a very long year and a half getting my brain to think in a new way, so I couldn't sustain anything more than a simple part time job. And that's where things started to fall into place.  

I started working for a small GP practice as a receptionist and later administrator. My job was to make everyone else's job easier and quicker. Working with staff and patients was incredibly rewarding, and I was able to understand the NHS system from the inside. So, when it came to specialising, it made sense to specialise in health psychology as a discipline. Essentially merging my studying and my job, I began examining the psychology and behaviour of people within the context of health and illness. And that took me on quite a long road, leading to my current role in health services research in the Division of Primary Care and Public Health at BSMS. 

I started my PhD in October of 2015 and I'm almost finished. I recognise I've been saying that for a little while now, but I really am almost finished. My research is in the area of dementia and elderly care. Around 40% of people living with dementia don't have a formal diagnosis. My research has examined why that is, and the extent to which the absence of a diagnosis affects care, using a mixed methods approach. 

I joined BSMS in October 2015 as a Doctoral Researcher under the supervision of Dr Liz Ford. From October 2018, I started working as a Research Fellow with Prof Harm van Marwijk. I'm currently working on a project, called PRODEMOS, which stands for PRevention Of DEmentia using MObile phone applicationS. We're in the process of developing a smartphone app that aims to help middle-aged and elderly people sustain lifestyle behaviour change and reduce their risk of dementia. I've also started to take on some public engagement work, which I find really rewarding. Having an opportunity to speak to members of the public and reduce stigma about mental illness, just a little bit, is very important to me. And I'm also in the process of developing a few projects on elderly care and wellbeing.   

I think part of being an academic is that you have one or two big projects and a lot of little projects, and probably a couple of big projects that you're sowing the seeds for so that when one comes to an end you've got something in the pipeline. I think analogies like spinning plates, simmering pots and juggling are used a lot in academia for a reason. Essentially, you're working to capacity with a lot of forward planning in the mix.  

I see my area of research continuing in elderly care in the next 10 years. All my projects use the lens of health psychology to better care for elderly populations, so I'll probably still do that, but I've found lengthy forward planning doesn't always come into fruition. I guess that's the excitement of research. Who knows, I could find myself walking down a whole path that I haven't considered. That's certainly one way of defining my style.  

The part I find most rewarding about teaching is when you present something to students and they have that 'aha' moment. You've helped them see something from an angle they weren't expecting. It's really exciting because you start to see an enlightenment in students and sometimes a fire burning when you get a student really enthused. And over time, you see them grow into confident articulate individuals with some level of expertise. It's incredibly rewarding to see someone excel and think 'I was a part of that'. 

It's difficult to pick a scientist or academic that I admire. In part because my knowledge of the history of science is limited. This is not my first discipline. To be honest, I really didn’t enjoy science when I was in school. And working in scientific disciplines now, I read about recent evidence. Even when I'm looking at medical histories, I've been focused on policy changes, rather than on specific personalities. I could say Carl Sagan. I love how accessible he made science. And he was so inspiring and humble. There's something very humbling when you spend your time thinking about our vast universe.  

In terms of academics, because I've had such an unconventional career history, academic successes are less inspiring to me. For me, what's important is the extent to which you can handle stress and still be a decent human being. And you don't get accolades for that, but it's so important. It is so easy to be a kind and generous person when things are going well, but when things aren't, can you still be kind? Do you have enough awareness to put your baggage to one side and be a thoughtful person? That's when it counts.

For that reason, my role models aren't people in the history books. My role models are people in my life; colleagues, friends and family. People who are still able to be thoughtful during times of adversity, who take the punches with grace, who have a good moral compass. And to me, that's much more important than the accolades, achievements or discoveries someone holds. I believe that if you have a good moral compass, you'll always get to where you need to be. 

The advice I would give my younger self would be to worry less. And worry about the future less. I worry a lot and it's so unnecessary. When I was working in schools, my career had progressed to the point where I had reached my goal. I was head of faculty in a grade one school. And was I enjoying it? No. Having really long-term plans are not always necessary. It's much more important to be open to what's going on at the moment. Take opportunities as they come. Re-evaluate your plans if they aren't quite working out. Be brave and bold enough to make changes. Things might not work out, and yet they have a way of working out. So yes, I'd tell myself to worry less. Frown lines and grey hairs are never useful. 

Maybe not my biggest, but certainly my proudest academic achievement to date was getting my Masters in Psychology. Enrolling onto the MSc was the first step in my career change, and it was the biggest step too. I had quit my teaching job and taken a huge pay cut. It was my first scientific course, because psychology is a science, since I was 15. I'd taken this huge risk and at the beginning I couldn't understand anything. I had to learn statistics, which was hell. I had to learn about the biological mechanisms within the brain, and I had to do exams for the first time in more than 10 years. I can still remember my first exam; I was trembling so much. And I wasn't sure if I was nervous, cold, or had had too much coffee.

Getting a distinction was a validating moment for me. I felt like there was still a long way to go to completely retrain, but from that moment I stopped having doubts and knew I'd picked the right career path for me. Since then I've had lots of little successes and hopefully I'll have a big one when I pass my viva. But I think nothing will be quite as validating as that. 

As a child, I wanted to work in the performing arts, telling beautiful stories. I wanted to have a career that I loved, and at the time, I loved being on stage. And I suppose, as I've changed, so have my passions. Actually, what I wanted to do was have a job that I really enjoyed. And although I've taken the scenic route, that's definitely happened.