A day in the life – Anne Whitehouse, Director of Communications and Public Engagement, Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford

One of the things I love about working in communications is the variety, and whilst it might be a cliché to say that no two days are the same, it’s certainly true when you work in a large university department.

I’m relatively new to my role in the Nuffield Department of Population Health (NDPH) at the University of Oxford, having started in early August, but I have spent 15 years in higher education, so starting a new role was not as daunting as it might otherwise have been.

NDPH comprises 10 research groups that provide answers to questions about the causes, prevention and treatment of chronic diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, with the ultimate aim of reducing disability and premature death globally.

I’m privileged to be working with world-leading researchers who have made substantial strides in increasing knowledge and improving health; our researchers were the first to identify the link between smoking and lung cancer in the 1950s and continue to undertake pioneering work today.

So, how does this relate to my typical day? One of the challenges of working in a large department of around 500 staff and 150 students is keeping track of what’s going on – and it’s not just the volume of activity that makes life complicated. Science is characterised by complex relationships; most researchers have a variety of affiliations and work with collaborators both within and outside the University. This can make it difficult to remember who needs to know about what and when!

To help address this issue, I’ve been visiting staff in the research units to find out more about their work and raise the profile of the communications team. Today, I am presenting to new staff and students at a departmental meeting in an effort to encourage them to involve us in conversations early on – a presentation that I’ll be tweaking and delivering to existing staff next week.

Whilst communications professionals are well aware that planned activities are much more likely to deliver better results, researchers occasionally forget to tell us about research outputs in a timely manner or are concerned about confidentiality.

So, one of my key messages is that telling the communications team doesn’t mean that we’ll tell the whole world straight away! Rather, we’ll seek to maximise the impact of the research by working collaboratively with researchers and partners such as journals, funders and collaborators.

NDPH has a strong commitment to providing staff and students with the flexibility, resources and support that enables them to balance work and other commitments. My afternoon is spent with our Athena SWAN* working group reviewing the results of feedback from staff and considering how we can improve policies and practice to allow everyone to fulfil their potential.

Between meetings, I’m working on papers that will be published today and tomorrow that discuss the dietary strategies that are required to feed 10 billion people sustainably. The thread that runs through all of the Department’s work is the focus on important questions that affect large numbers of people globally.

The communications team is based in the Big Data Institute (BDI) at the University’s Old Road Campus and we also manage communications relating to this interdisciplinary research centre. Like NDPH, the BDI focuses on the analysis of large datasets for research into the causes, consequences, prevention and treatment of disease. We’re contributing to the University’s artificial intelligence (AI) campaign, which is showcasing the range of AI-related research taking place at Oxford, and encouraging people to use an app to inform Alzheimer’s research.

Our work is designed to provide accurate and timely information, and to encourage mutual understanding between researchers and other stakeholders, including members of the public. We know that coverage of research affects the decisions that people make about their healthcare, for better or worse, and so I believe we have a responsibility to improve understanding of how evidence is generated, to enable people to make informed decisions in a world of information overload. Working out how we can do this is likely to be top of my agenda going forwards.




*Athena SWAN was established in 2005 to increase the numbers of women working in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine at UK universities and has since been extended to include other subjects and to recognise work undertaken to address gender equality.

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