Our Wonderful Welsh Woman this week is Dr Kate Brain, a pioneering health psychologist based in Cardiff University School of Medicine. Dr Kate leads a programme of behavioural science research to help in the fight against cancer and recently received a Dean of Research Excellence award recently in the School of Medicine STAR awards.
We spoke to Dr Kate about her career journey, about the barriers she has faced and the women who have inspired her. We loved these three tips for success:
- use your voice, even if sometimes it wobbles with emotion;
- don’t worry about what other people think;
- be kind to yourself.
Here’s our interview with Dr Kate Brain in full
Tell us about your job, what does it entail day to day?
As a health psychologist based in Cardiff University School of Medicine, I lead a programme of behavioural science research in cancer. Screening, prevention and early diagnosis are major strategies in the fight against cancer – but this is challenging because we are asking people to do things that might be difficult such as quitting smoking, or in the case of screening, things that might be uncomfortable or embarrassing. Barriers such as lack of awareness, negative beliefs about cancer and problems with accessing health care can also lead people to delay going to the doctor with symptoms. So a major focus of our research is about understanding people’s motivations and behaviour, and developing and testing strategies to increase cancer awareness and help seeking. I am passionate about reducing inequalities, and am involved with the School of Medicine’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity Committee which aims to advance women in STEMM and increase the number of women in senior academic, professional and support roles.
What do you enjoy most about your work? What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Apart from a cup of tea to wake me up and a family to get ready for work and school, I really enjoy working with staff and students in the Division of Population Medicine who are enthusiastic, committed and passionate about what they do. Screening, prevention and early diagnosis is a complex area of research and it needs people who are driven by curiosity and a desire to improve cancer outcomes in the population, especially among disadvantaged groups. I also get a huge amount of satisfaction from seeing students and early career researchers developing their talents and growing into themselves as independent researchers.
What has your career progression looked like? Where did you start?
I started my PhD in 1992 at Cardiff University School of Psychology supervised by Professor Neil Frude, and then got a job as a researcher in the Institute of Medical Genetics working on an MRC trial of genetic assessment for women with a family history of breast cancer. I went on to a Wellcome Trust Fellowship and lectureship within the Cancer Genetics Service for Wales until 2008, and from there became senior lecturer and Reader in Population Medicine. I worked part-time for many years while I was raising my family, so I am very familiar with the challenges of juggling career and family commitments.
What first inspired you to work in this field?
I have always enjoyed writing and actually came to Cardiff University in 1988 to do my undergraduate degree in English literature. I soon realised that I might never again read a book for pleasure, and switched to psychology. It’s fair to say that I was interested in pop psychology as a teenager, and didn’t really appreciate the amount of science and statistics in the undergraduate psychology curriculum. My interests developed in clinical and health aspects of psychology, and so that was where my PhD and post-doctoral research took me.
What has been your greatest achievement in your work to date?
This is very much a work in progress! We are beginning to see better integration of the cancer research community including biomedical, clinical and behavioural scientists like myself – whereas in the past, behavioural research was a bit of an after-thought. Behavioural science is so important because it takes a whole-person approach: people are much more likely to take up new screening tests and technologies if they are acceptable and easy to access. It is great to see behavioural science taking a more central role in the cancer research community, and alongside that, more opportunities becoming available for students and early career researchers to develop their potential in this area. On a more personal level, it was lovely to receive a Dean of Research Excellence award recently in the School of Medicine STAR awards. I think this is evidence that population and public health research is being increasingly valued.
What would you like to achieve in your work before you retire?
From a research perspective, I look forward to seeing evidence of behavioural research making a difference to the health of the population through prevention and early diagnosis – with cancer less likely to occur, and if it does happen, being picked up at an earlier stage when treatment is more effective. There are still a lot of barriers to overcome, especially among poorer communities.
Who were your role models when you were starting out in your career?
When I started my post-doctoral research working in cancer genetics, there were lots of senior male medics working in a fairly hierarchical way, and not many female role models. Someone who stood out to me was Professor Jane Wardle, who led the Health Behaviour Research Unit at University College London. Jane was a pioneer in understanding the role of human behaviour in cancer prevention, and she paved the way for researchers such as myself working in this field. She was a brilliant researcher and an inspiring woman. Jane died in October 2015 and she left an amazing legacy for women in science.
Were there any women that inspired you as a girl or young woman?
I read a lot of books as a child and teenager, and my favourites usually involved female characters braving difficult circumstances, such as Jane Eyre and Jo from Little Women. My absolute favourite was a magical book called “The Farthest Away Mountain” written in 1976 by Lynne Reid Banks, about a young girl called Dakin who had to overcome the odds to achieve her goals, with a great plot twist.
Which female role models inspire you today?
My close friend and mentor Professor Jacky Boivin is a huge inspiration to me. We’ve seen each other through many life events over the years, and I am always inspired by her amazing resilience and zest for life.
Do you think that women role models are visible enough, do you think that more should be done to promote the achievements of women?
I think we can definitely do more to promote women, and encourage women to be confident in putting themselves forward. I’m a naturally shy person, and it took a long time for me to feel comfortable with being in a position of leadership and visibility. In the past, I would much rather have kept my head below the parapet, but I’ve learned over the years that there are many different styles of leadership.
What do you think are the barriers facing women?
There are a lot of cultural expectations around women’s roles at work and at home which can mean that work is not a level playing field and it can be harder for women to progress. I think many of us experience imposter syndrome – doubting ourselves and feeling that we’ll be ‘found out’ – but I can tell you this does get better!
Are there any barriers specific to your field of work facing women?
Career progression is a sticking point in academic research, with many researchers – often female – working on short-term contracts without aclear career pathway. This is a problem that really needs to be addressed across all Universities. On the other hand, academic research offers brilliant opportunities for flexible working. I would love to see men and women taking equal advantage of shared parental leave, and for it to become normal and indeed desirable for men to take on childcare responsibilities.
What advice would you give your ten year old self?
Things are going to get tough in your teens and twenties, so here are three tips: use your voice, even if sometimes it wobbles with emotion; don’t worry about what other people think; be kind to yourself.
What advice would you give to young women today?
Take some calculated risks – say yes to work opportunities that will help you grow and develop your potential, and say no to those that won’t. This can mean going out of your comfort zone, but it is a brilliant way to develop skills and confidence. Build a supportive network for yourself and find a good mentor, and never be afraid to ask for help – there are always good people around who will help you.