Studied it? I’ve lived it! Meet Sarah Bennett

Pic3Sarah Bennett (@SarahBPhD) is a part-time PhD student at the University of the West of England (UWE) in Bristol. Her research focuses on Joint Hypermobility and Ehlers-Danlos Syndromes, heritable disorders of connective tissue, with a special interest in the psychological impact of these conditions and how people cope. Alongside this she works for the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) as a Higher Education Student Reviewer, support first-year UWE students as a Resident Accommodation Mentor and is a member of UWE’s Athena SWAN team. Come hear her talk “If You’re Hypermobile and You Know it, Clap Your Feet!” at the Bristol Broadmead podium on 16th July 2016.


SS: Sarah, how did you get to your current position?

SB: After graduating from the University of Exeter in 2011 with a 2:1 honours degree in Psychology, I spent a year supporting young people with a variety of special educational needs and disabilities, with a particular interest in young women with Asperger Syndrome. I went on to study for a Masters in Health Psychology at the University of Bath, with a placement in Adult and Adolescent Chronic Pain Management at the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases (RNHRD). Here I worked on a research project looking at staff attitudes towards patients presenting to A&E with chronic pain. This was a fascinating opportunity; interviewing NHS doctors and nurses who felt powerless in the face of an ever-growing group of patients they could not cure.

My chronic pain research led me to discover a condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, also called Joint Hypermobility Syndrome. Spotting a potential gap in the research I wrote a PhD proposal and was put in touch with Professor Shea Palmer at the University of the West of England in Bristol, who has a great wealth of experience in joint hypermobility research and impact. I am now studying for a PhD with UWE, collaborating with two local NHS Trusts and two patient support groups: the Hypermobility Syndromes Association (HMSA) and Ehlers-Danlos Support UK (EDS-UK). We are due to begin recruitment shortly and I am excited to get started on research of my own!


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

SB: My family have always been incredibly supportive of all my ventures! I have always had a fascination for Biology, Chemistry and human health and disease, but it wasn’t until I reached College that I discovered Psychology and all the curious questions relating to experiences and behaviour that go along with it. As a result of being born very prematurely at 25 weeks I have faced many health-related challenges and -although I didn’t plan it- statistics examining contributing factors in Extremely Low Birth Weight (ELBW) premature babies and essays exploring gender differences in severe chronic pain have suited me very well! As one of my consultants put it: “Studied it? You’ve lived it!”. Just after completing my MSc I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Hypermobility Type and Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) by teams in Bath and at the Bristol Heart Institute. These experiences have allowed me a great positive appreciation and insight into under-represented groups within society, such as those with chronic pain and invisible disability.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

SB: The incredibly privileged position that we hold as researchers, hearing about people’s experiences and being lucky enough to be allowed into their lives, if only briefly. I am always enormously grateful to all participants for taking time to help with this under-studied area.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

SB: The ability to connect with the general public. Although gender equality has come a long way, there is still underrepresentation of women within science and technology based subjects. I think it’s brilliant especially for younger children to gain an awareness of the variety of science-based roles out there to explore. Plus it forces researchers and academics to get years of work down to a few key messages that are clear, accessible and easy to understand.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

SB: Enthusiasm! It’s a real privilege to be speaking at this event.


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?     

SB: Student membership of the Athena SWAN charter has given me valuable involvement recognising and supporting the advancement of gender equality within Allied Health Professions, Midwifery and Nursing. While originally devised by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) to support the careers of women in STEMM professions (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine), our statement has since broadened to include representation for transgender members of staff and students. As a team we examine and evaluate qualitative and quantitative data regarding diversity, protected characteristics, professional career support and student outcomes. While nationally some areas are still lacking in gender equality, we are certainly taking progressive steps towards greater appreciation and celebration of diversity within the scientific community.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

SB: As an early-career female PhD student I will pass on a recommendation that has been given to me: it IS achievable and you CAN do it!


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