#GHWRGjourneys 8: Prof Robin Kearns

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Name: Robin Kearns

Current institution: University of Auckland

Research topics of interest: Place attachment; Health care spaces; Housing and home; Aging in place; Islands, coasts and bluespaces; Music, place & wellbeing.

Tell us about your journey working in the field of geographies of health and wellbeing

Looking back, I would describe my journey to becoming a health/wellbeing geographer as somewhat serendipitous. To begin way back, I was quite bored with high school geography and failed the subject spectacularly in my final year. An early indicator of a lifetime pattern: if I’m not enthusiastic about something, I rapidly lose interest! After high school, I went from New Zealand to the United States for a year in 1977 as a Rotary Exchange Student. I lived in a small town in Mississippi, the poorest state in the Union and travelled to or through 36 other states. That year was an immersion into wellbeing geography without the label.

I returned and enrolled in a BA at the University of Auckland, intending to major in psychology but added two geography courses as an afterthought. Another serendipitous moment. When I achieved A grades in geography and Cs in psychology, operant conditioning prevailed. I continued in geography, completing an MA degree with a thesis on the politics of land use change from dairying to horticulture in a small rural community.  It taught me the power of case studies, the value of interviewing and the joy of fieldwork. My thesis supervisor, Warren Moran, encouraged me to consider a PhD and pointed to Canada.

The next serendipitous moment was when I was completing forms to apply for a Commonwealth Scholarship. They asked me to rank in order of preference six Canadian universities. A newish appointee in the Geography Department at the time was Brent Hall, a kiwi who had studied in Canada so I asked him what places I should list. He said McMaster. What about the other five, I asked? He said don’t bother listing any, McMaster was the place to go. I duly sent in the application a little half-heartedly with only one university listed. I can only think they assessed me as being very sure of my intentions so made the award. That wasn’t the case; I needed to quickly research McMaster and Hamilton Ontario and arrived a little dazed; the strengths of Geography at McMaster the at the time were spatial analysis and Marxist political economy. I found it a struggle to find my feet, but a niche appeared with Martin Taylor and Michael Dear. They had conducted projects on mental health issues, but largely from service location and community perspectives. In that era of major psychiatric hospital closures, Martin suggested turning things round and considering the ex-patient’s perspective. At the time, the ‘qualitative turn’ was barely on the horizon and precedents were few. With a passion to get ‘up close and personal’ I hung out as a volunteer at a mental health drop-in centre but didn’t have the tools or sense of legitimacy to incorporate the sensory and emotional fullness of that experience into my thesis, instead analysing interview and rating scale responses. Applying statistics like Mann-Whitney U to how people felt about their life on the streets of Hamilton seems a little odd looking back!

In 1986, the second iteration of the International Medical Geography Symposium (IMGS) was at Rutgers University and attending exposed me to a sense of community that I only diffusely felt going to medical geography sessions at AAG meetings. ‘Extra-curricular’ activities like a walk over Brooklyn Bridge and a Europe vs North America soccer game indicated a camaraderie I could feel part of despite only relating to some of what was discussed in sessions. To me, most was all a bit technical, quantitative and medical, and far from the essence of place and health/wellbeing that appealed to my more arts and humanities disposition.

Hence, on return to a postdoc position in Auckland, I prepared a paper for my first New Zealand geography conference proposing a reformed medical geography, drawing on examples of qualitative work I’d been involved in on my return to home soil. In yet another serendipitous moment, I withdrew the paper from consideration for the conference proceedings having heard they sometimes took well over a year to be published.  Instead, somewhat impulsively, I sent the paper to The Professional Geographer. Responses after it the paper was published were rather vehement. However, I was ultimately grateful for them, as the resulting ‘debate’ seemed to offer a permission to others to embrace a wider diversity of topics, views of health and methodological perspectives.

In the three-plus decades since returning to NZ, I have enjoyed collaboration with many great health geographers: Wil Gesler, Alun Joseph, Graham Moon, Karen Witten, Isabel Dyck, Christine Milligan, Gavin Andrews, Ronan Foley as well as former grad students including Damian Collins and Christina Ergler. The key to these collaborations has been the enjoyment of working together. As Brendan Gleeson once wisely quipped, unless you can enjoy sitting down and sharing a beer at the end of the day with a collaborator, it’s not worth bothering with the collaboration. My partner Pat has also been a strong influence and her medical work was the excuse to get to places like Labrador and then spend time in the Hokianga region of New Zealand after completing my PhD. Her commitment to equity and Maori health has been inspiring as has been her journey through family medicine, palliative care and public health.

What has been most fascinating, surprising or rewarding in the course of this journey?

First, the rewarding: the wonderful and ever-widening circle of colleagues within the field who have appeared and largely stayed part of my world over the years; both close to home as well as widely dispersed connections kept fresh through reconnection at two-yearly IMGS meetings.

Second, the fascinating: the glorious malleability of what constitutes health and wellbeing. It feels at times like an ever-expanding universe of understandings, enriched in recent times by embrace of indigenous worldviews. It’s been personally rewarding that my meandering interests have found a home within the field. I have found a continual sense surprise at what papers are presented at IMGS meetings or come to my editor’s platform for Health & PlaceOnce, as a Masters student, I recall a peer being traumatised at a thesis proposal presentation by a senior geographer posing the challenge ‘Tell me how this is geography?’ To me, we are the better as health and wellbeing geographers for not having a firm grip on orthodoxy and disciplinary boundaries.

Third, the surprise: with the qualitative turn, the range of evidence for interpreting the experience of place and health/wellbeing has blossomed into a spectacularly creative and sensory diversity. When completing my PhD in the late 80s, I wouldn’t have imagined a time when asking participants to draw what they feel about a health care place would be legitimate, nor would I have anticipated being able to include poetry drafted while I was in hospital in a commentary I published in a high-impact journal. We live in times in which we need to be surprised by new and creative ways to convey and interpret the meanings of health and wellbeing.

Have you experienced any ethical, practical or research related challenges along the way?

Many! Ethical challenges are now, at least in our institutional context, well considered by a review committee prior to fieldwork. However, especially in the case of graduate student projects, over-attention to detail over principles can lead to frustrating delays. Looking back, there are cases where, had there been an ethics committee in place, I would not have been able to proceed. A case in point is my fieldwork in the Hokianga district observing the dynamics of waiting rooms in the late 1980s. I’ve been told many times since that such ‘passive surveillance’ would not be approved today, yet the published analysis let to the community having some needed leverage to contest restructuring decisions threatening their health service!

A second and practical challenge that has come with seniority is simply having less time for fieldwork and necessarily relying on graduate students and research assistants to undertake interviews etc. Being at arms-length from the aspects of the human experience of health and wellbeing under consideration is not optimal, so I find a good a compromise is to ensure at least some field involvement near the outset of a project so that subsequently I can clearly envisage the site and ‘hear’ the transcribed narratives. 

What advice would you give to an aspiring health or wellbeing geographer?

One of my friends and mentors when discerning the best path to take once said: ‘bite off more than you can chew, then chew like hell’. Perhaps not the best advice to guide one’s entire career, but in earlier years that advice was sound.  A willingness to give things a go and say yes rather than maybe to opportunities served me well. Networks developed, collaborations emerged, coauthorships unfolded. So, my first advice would be don’t hesitate to step outside your comfort zone – in terms of the people you engage with or the opportunities you agree to. Enthusiasm opens doors, but it needs to be genuine.

My second bit of advice is don’t overlook the local, the familiar and the personal as your foundational ‘laboratory’ for understanding health and wellbeing. To me, my most satisfying publications have invariably started with an idea sourced in my own everyday experience. Hence, for instance, investigations of the Starship children’s hospital in Auckland began when my son was a pre-schooler and hospitalised with asthma. I became curious: what makes a children’s hospital distinctive? Then when our children were of school-age, I was bothered by why so many parents drove their children to school, so I began work developing and assessing the merits of walking school buses. More recently, I heard a song by PJ Harvey called ‘Community of Hope’ after reading Gavin Andrews’ exhortation in Progress in Human Geography that health geographers think more about hope. That idea became a book chapter with Gavin and Jim Dunn, whose knowledge of US housing redevelopments added interpretation of the song. So, being part of big projects is great, but as E.F. Schumacher famously said ‘small is beautiful’ too.

My third bit of advice is co-author. This practice is anathema to my colleagues in the humanities for whom sole-authorship is the norm. But we in health geography have enough influence of the science tradition to have a strong endorsement of co-authorship. Make the most of it and take every opportunity! As my friend and co-author Alun Joseph often joked, I’d often been shamelessly ‘writing-around’. But, for me at least, if I grind to a halt on a paper sending the draft on to a co-author is a great way to keep it moving towards completion. It is certainly good to achieve a few sole authored publications to clearly place your name on some key ideas. But co-authoring with a diversity of colleagues is a win/win: it shares the effort of completing publications as well as fosters new conversations and creative outputs.

Further background and contact:







#GHWRGjourneys 7: Dr Tim Brown

Name: Dr Tim BrownTim Brown photo

Current institution: School of Geography, Queen Mary University of London

Research topics of interest: I am currently reading political ecology scholarship and engaging with ideas around slow violence; my current work has taken me to Zimbabwe where I am working on several global health projects focused on malnutrition. I remain interested in concepts such as governmentality and risk and am also still engaged in archival as well as contemporary research. So the short answer is I am doing too much!

Tell us about your journey working in the field of geographies of health and wellbeing

My journey feels like a bit of a ‘long and winding road’, if you’ll excuse the weak metaphor. I went to university a little while after leaving school and began studying for a BA Geography degree at the then Portsmouth Polytechnic in 1989. Although Kelvyn Jones and Graham Moon were both there at the time and Health, Disease and Society published only a couple of years previously, there weren’t any health-oriented courses to take but I did research HIV/AIDS for my undergraduate dissertation. The journey from there to a PhD happened by a chance encounter with a fellow graduate; in a pub no-less! Kevin Hannam was working with one of my former lecturers – the cultural geographer, Pam Shurmer-Smith – and he suggested we meet up and talk about a PhD. The discussion went well and I enrolled with Pam as my supervisor and Kevin and another graduate from 1992, Katie Bennett (University of Leicester), as fellow PhD students. Even S.V. Subramanian, Professor of Population Health and Geography at Harvard University, joined our group for a short while before linking up with Kelvyn.

So I started out my academic life as part of a group of cultural geographers under the supervision of Pam. We spent a lot of our time reading social theory – Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, Kristeva and out of everything we engaged with Foucault’s ideas were the ones that resonated most with me. My empirical focus was to be the ways in which western religious discourses were framing the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa. However, the first twist in my journey happened; the birth of my first child, Ellie in 1994. The idea of spending a long period of time in the field, which was the plan, vanished and more than that I had to find a new job and a new home! I was a part-time student living in Brighton and working at the local job centre. In order to carry on with the PhD research, my partner and I moved to Portsmouth and I found a job working as the lead researcher on an HIV/AIDS needs assessment project for the local health authority and in the process got to know how ideas about risk and responsibility were shaping policy in the UK. My new empirical hook came into view. Following another twist of fate, I eventually ended working as a research assistant for Graham Moon and my connection to health geography was established!

What has been most fascinating, surprising or rewarding in the course of this journey?

My journey has been full of many surprises, some more rewarding than others. Attending the early-career conferences – Young Researchers in the Geography of Health (YRGH) now called ENRGHI, – organised by the Geography of Health Research Group (now GHWRG) were pivotal. I met lots of interesting young scholars, many of whom have produced amazing work; the likes of Christine Milligan, Hester Parr, Ronan Foley. They were supportive meetings where we could share ideas with those who were working on similar areas and oftentimes those who were not. However, it was the sense of shared endeavour if divergent interests that struck me most and I took this feeling along with me to the International Medical Geography Symposiums (IMGS), which I have always found very rewarding. My first IMGS was hosted at Portsmouth in 1996 – I will never forget the sheer nervous energy exuded by Myles Gould who undertook much of the preparatory work for the conference – and it was at that meeting that I realised I had found my academic home. I met with many of the field’s key figures and made lots of new friends, especially from the Canadian contingent, and as anyone who has attended an IMGS knows, those encounters continue throughout your career. I have had many very rewarding IMGS meetings subsequent to this – who could forget Montreal?! – but undoubtedly being invited to deliver a plenary lecture by the organisers of the 2009 conference at McMaster University stands out. Still pinching myself about that!

As I have mentioned, health geographers are an inordinately friendly bunch. Though my most surprising moment came from someone who, as far as I am aware, has never attended an IMGS conference. The moment came at a time of personal difficulty. I had been hospitalised following an assault by a gang of youths while attending a conference in London, the assault meant that I couldn’t attend an interview at the Kings Fund and, as a result, I had little choice but to accept redundancy at Portsmouth. I had no other interviews lined up and decided to leave academia altogether, so I registered to study journalism at the London College of Printing and was determined to take my career down an alternative path. However, before leaving Portsmouth at the beginning of 2003 I received an email out of the blue. I’d recently had an article published in Area, which, co-written with my former colleague Craig Duncan, consolidated a lot of my thinking at the time. The email I received was from someone not personally known to me but whose work had inspired me: it was from Professor Michael Brown, University of Washington. The email congratulated us on the publication of the paper and encouraged us to continue with the work that we were doing. Michael was not to know but I received that note of encouragement at, what was to be, the end of the first phase of my academic career. I left Portsmouth and began a six-month hiatus that provided me with the opportunity to spend more time with my now two children and begin to plan for something completely different!

Have you experienced any ethical, practical or research related challenges along the way?

It is obvious that I did not pursue my planned career in journalism. Towards the end of my six-month period of unemployment, I spotted a job at Loughborough University working with Professor Morag Bell and Phil Hubbard. The email received from Michael played a part in pushing me to apply and I got the job. It seems easy enough to segue from this story to my experiences of practical difficulties; a period of unemployment can certainly be described as that. In truth, my career up until very recently has been one marked by such difficulties. Looking at my curriculum vitae, which I am of course doing to help me write this entry, isn’t that revealing. It suggests an easy passage from research assistant, to research fellow, lecturer, senior lecturer, reader. No professorship yet! What it does not reveal are the temporary contracts often associated with these roles and the associated need to continually search for the next job. Loughborough was followed by a temporary lecturing position at Queen Mary; and this has been a feature of my career. Up until 2012, I was subject to a series of rolling contracts. The shortest of these was a one-year extension and my abiding memory receiving a call while on holiday with my family, now three children, in France. I was lying on the beach and my colleague and long-time friend, Steve Cummins, had phoned to let me know that he had got his latest fellowship and my teaching contract should be assured for at least a few more years. Thanks Steve!

I mention this because it is all too easy to forget the often very challenging journey’s that early, and not so early, career colleagues face. Mine is now secure and I am very grateful for that. But the experience has certainly meant that I try to do all that I can to support colleagues through the short-term, contractual nightmare that for many is higher education in the UK and undoubtedly elsewhere in the world.

What advice would you give to an aspiring health/wellbeing geographer?

Enjoy the ride! No, that is too glib a statement. However, there have been times when the stress of finding a job has clouded my perspective and undermined my capacity to do the things that I do well. I have made poor judgements about which research ideas to pursue and have abandoned writing projects that felt too difficult to continue with when faced with another impending end of contract scenario. So my advice is find a mentor that you trust. I didn’t really have one during the early years of my career but it has become apparent to me that many of my colleagues do. I have met and made friends with many people during my career and that certainly helps to sustain you when meeting up with them at conferences or during periods of research leave; and I’m looking forward to Edinburgh! But I absolutely do believe that the best thing you can do throughout your career is identify someone, perhaps outside your immediate circle or department, to act as a mentor. I think I would have benefitted immensely if I had. My suggestion to those of us who are much further on in our careers is to follow Michael’s example and email early-career colleagues when we read a paper that we find especially inspiring. It had a positive influence on me, and I would like to think that an unexpected email might do the same for someone else. In a sense, this also speaks to Andy Power’s comment about acting as a custodian of the discipline.

Links to website, Twitter and/or selected papers

https://www.qmul.ac.uk/geog/staff/brownt.html (woefully out of date)

Call for papers for sponsored GHWRG sessions at the RGS-IBG Conference 2020

The GHWRG is sponsoring the following 7 sessions for the RGS-IBG Annual International Conference which will take place in London between Tuesday 1st to Friday 4th September 2020. More information about the conference can be accessed here

Please contact the session convenors for any queries and to submit a paper.

1. Blurred boundaries: caring institutions in uncertain times

Session convenors: Rosalie Warnock (Queen Mary University London), Ed Kiely (University of Cambridge), Sam Strong (University of Cambridge)

Call for papers – Caring institutions in uncertain times

Deadline to submit a paper: 7th February 2020

2. Atmospheres of health and ill-health

Session convenors: Chloe Asker (University of Exeter), Dr Jennifer Lea (University of Exeter)

Call for papers – Atmospheres of health session

Deadline to submit a paper: 7th February 2020

3. Biotic Geographies: Unpicking Microbial Worlds in Health, Hygiene and Environmental Spaces

Session convenors: Alistair Anderson (University of Bristol) & Alice Beck (University of Bristol)

Call for papers – Biotic Geographies- Unpicking Microbial Worlds in Health, Hygiene and Environmental Spaces

Deadline to submit a paper: 7th February 2020

4. Pharmaceutical Border-Crossings

Session convenors: Sydney Calkin (Queen Mary University London) and Gavin Brown (University of Leicester)

Call for papers – Pharmaceutical Border-Crossings

Deadline to submit a paper: 31st January 2020

5. Disarticulated subjects

David Bissell (University of Melbourne) and Paul Simpson (University of Plymouth)

Call for papers – Disarticulated Subjects

Deadline to submit a paper: 3rd February 2020

6. Relational Geographies of the Voluntary Sector

Session convenors: Andrew Power (University of Southampton), Geoff DeVerteuil (Cardiff University)

Call for papers – Relational Geographies of the Voluntary Sector

Deadline to submit a paper: 7th February 2020

7. Remote controlled care in homes: critical reflections on healthcare technologies

Session organisersRachel Creaney (James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen and University of St Andrews) , Margaret Currie (James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen), Louise Reid (University of St Andrews)

Call for papers – Remote controlled care in homes- critical reflections on healthcare technologies

Deadline to submit a paper: 7th February 2020

8. Mentoring in the social, cultural and feminist geographies of health, wellbeing and disability

Call for papers – Mentoring scheme

Deadline to submit a paper: 7th February 2020


#GHWRGjourneys 6: Dr Andrew Power

Name: Dr Andrew Power

Current institution: School of Geography and Environmental Science, University of Southampton

Research topics of interest: geographies of care and welfare; disability; rights and social justice; participatory inclusive methodologies; critical geographies of health

Tell us about your journey working in the field of geographies of health and wellbeing

It’s a great privilege to share the first GHWRG Journeys of the year 2020 (like my vision).

After my undergraduate degree (BA Geography and Anthropology, Maynooth University), I took a gap year in the US, working in a variety of roles including a park ranger in Newport, Rhode Island and a general dogsbody in a creole restaurant in New Orleans. While great experiences, it was a short role I took up when I got back to Ireland that proved to be the most decisive moment in shaping my academic career. A friend from Uni got in touch to ask if I’d help working as a personal assistant at a national disability conference in Ireland, hosted by a charity that she worked at. I thought ‘why not?’ This proved to be a worthwhile decision, as I spent a week enjoying the company of very funny, warm and politically motivated disabled people who taught me about the social model of disability and a lot more besides.

With an eye on what to do afterwards, I applied to do a one-year MSc in Geography at Maynooth. At the time, Maynooth was leading the way with health geography, with Prof. Dennis Pringle, Prof. Rob Kitchin and Dr Ronan Foley (see Journeys #1), so it felt like the right choice to go back there again. For my dissertation, I followed my new-found interest in disability and explored the experiences of family caregivers of young disabled people.  During the year studying for the MSc, a new centre was founded – the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis. The Institute offered fully-funded PhD scholarships, so once again I said, ‘why not?’. I applied and the next 3.5 years of my life were spent undertaking my PhD, supervised by Rob Kitchen. The focus was an international study of family care policy across a variety of countries, including Ireland, the UK, the US and Canada. It was a great opportunity to immerse myself in research and to travel. Indeed, I ended up returning to some of my haunts from my gap year. I also got to travel to Canada and hang out with Prof. Gavin Andrews who was at UofToronto at the time.

It was during these early years that I embraced the opportunities of doing a PhD and sought to ‘put myself out there’. I attended the Emerging and New Geographies of Health and Impairment conference (ENRGHI) in University of Cambridge (2003) and after partying with Gerry Kearns at the post-conference night out, I enthusiastically led a bid to host the subsequent event at Maynooth (2004). This was a great opportunity to meet fellow health geographers, who would subsequently become active contributors to the field, including Anne Cecile Hoyez and Alison Copeland as well as others who have gone into non-academic health related research (e.g., at WHO and Bupa).  This was also my first encounter with the then Geographies of Health Research Group who agreed to co-sponsor the event. I also had the opportunity to give a paper at the International Medical Geography Symposium (IMGS) at Manchester in 2005 and at the American Association of Geographers (2004) in Philadelphia. I was to encounter some of the key thinkers that still shape my work today, in particular the work of Robin Kearns, Tim Brown, and Rob Wilton. Another key opportunity that emerged during the PhD was Rob Kitchin asked me to teach his entire third year module – Social Geographies. Although a nerve-wracking prospect, I was very grateful of the opportunity, as this would later help towards my lectureship at Southampton. This opened my eyes to the possibilities of an academic career.

Because I undertook my PhD at an interdisciplinary institute, it made sense that my next move was a post-doc at Lancaster University, with Christine Milligan as my mentor. I sneakily had asked Christine to give the plenary at ENRGHI at Maynooth, as a way to gauge if she would be a good choice as my external examiner. Getting the chance to do a post-doc with her after the PhD was a very enjoyable experience.

What has been most fascinating, surprising or rewarding in the course of this journey?

The most fascinating and rewarding parts of my journey so far have been the opportunities to meet and engage with people, from different walks of life, and learn of their aspirations and beliefs.

One of my lasting memories of my PhD was Rob telling me about the importance of being a steward of the discipline. This would later inform my decision to become involved in the Geographies of Health Research Group. I undertook this role with a view to widening its scope, to be more inclusive of people working on issues of care, wellbeing, welfare and equality. In my first year as Chair, I sought to widen the scope of the group, and with the help of the committee, we applied to change the name to the Geographies of Health and Wellbeing Research Group. I’ve been delighted to see that this has inspired a demonstrably positive effect, enlivening the breadth and scope of debates within the group, as seen in the conference sessions that we have been able to sponsor over the last few years.

In terms of my own research, for a couple of years after my time at Lancaster, I worked as a researcher at the Centre for Disability Law and Policy, and this was a great opportunity to work in a policy related research centre, under the stewardship of Prof. Gerard Quinn. Ger has been a leading government legal advisor to both Ireland and the Council of Europe over his career, on equality and disability policy. This opened lots of opportunities for me to meet government ministers in a range of countries and hear from national advocates passionate about making positive change. This helped cement my aspiration to engage in research that is both rewarding as well as pragmatic and meaningful – something I’ve tried to hold on to in subsequent work.

Have you experienced any ethical, practical or research related challenges along the way?

I’ve had to accept early in my research career, that I’ve chosen an area of research that inherently requires often delicate and sensitive research ethics considerations. Disabled people are not necessarily vulnerable, however, they are disempowered. As such, doing research with this group, in particular people with learning disabilities, should seek to ensure that they do not become further disempowered as a consequence of taking part in research. Over time, I have sought to design more inclusive research methodologies, to ensure research is meaningful to them. This can be more time-intensive and involve more practical challenges and delicate interactions with people, but ultimately it leads to better research.    

Juggling workload around family life is another key practical challenge in my life. I am dad to three girls aged 6, 4 and 2. My first reaction when hearing the news of having our third child was ‘But I’ve just taken down the stair gate!’. After the initial shock and period of adjustment, I now truly embrace the madness of the experience. My household is very busy and noisy a lot of the time but very enjoyable. Because my wife is from Ireland, it means that we don’t have any grandparents living close by so we live each week in the hope that our kids get through another week without a tummy bug or else face the dreaded ‘48 hour rule’ – every parent’s nightmare. As a result, I often think of work and my office space as my respite during the week. It has meant that I have had to more carefully manage and ring-fence my time in work. Indeed, I think it has been the ultimate efficiency hack. I start early and go to bed early, and everything operates on a ‘Just in Time’ basis (or thereabouts).

What advice would you give to an aspiring health or wellbeing geographer?

Like many people in academia, I’ve earned my stripes from doing fixed term posts before securing my position at Southampton. This included a one-year ESRC post-doc position at Lancaster and a two-year research fellow post at Galway. As I saw on the picket lines last December, this experience of having to work in multiple fixed-term positions, sometimes with uncertain or part-time hours, has become even more pervasive and potentially drawn out. 

So, the best advice I can offer? I believe part of the reason I’ve gotten to my current position has been from saying yes to opportunities (and trying to create my own) that have involved expanding my work with other people that I like or would like to know. It’s worth staying true to your interests of course (bearing in mind Beth Greenhough’s advice in our earlier GHWRG Journeys!) but for an early career researcher, you have to dive in with two feet.  Rather than thinking that you have to be a social butterfly at conferences (and building up anxiety over it), I’ve lived with the philosophy of trying to build deeper, more meaningful connections with people I like and admire. This may sometimes mean being open to accepting some opportunities that may not be the most prized outputs such as writing a chapter for an edited collection. But in each case, these opportunities have given me an excuse to work with someone in health geography that I respect. In many cases, these efforts lead onto other more prized collaborations like working together on a research project or co-authoring an academic journal article.

One of my fondest memories of this was presenting at the AAG as a young PhD student and meeting a young Mark Skinner who was also in my session. We went for a beer and got on very well afterwards, and this was followed by a visit to his house in Canada during subsequent research. From there we went on to co-write several papers together.

 Links to website, Twitter and/or selected papers

 Twitter @Power_Geog



#GHWRGpostgradexperiences: An overseas visit to McMaster University, Canada

by Chloe Asker

From September to December 2019 I visited McMaster University in Canada. The visit was funded by the Overseas Institutional Visit scheme, a funding opportunity offered by the ESRC. During trip I was based in the city of Hamilton, a post-industrial steel city in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) on the shore of Lake Ontario that lies in the traditional territories of the Mississauga and Haudenosaunee nations.

(University Hall, McMaster, photo: author’s own)

Over the 12 weeks I developed a real fondness for Hamilton (or HamOnt, or the Hammer). It has a vibrant arts, film and creative community and houses a number of independent cafes and restaurants; and as a consequence, it sometimes referred to as the Brooklyn of Canada.

Furthermore, due to the city’s architectural mix and low permit costs, the film and television industry uses the area as filming locations. Shows such as HBO’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and Netflix’s ‘Umbrella Academy’ have been filmed in the city.

(Hamilton City Hall, photo: author’s own)

During my time at McMaster I was hosted by Professor Gavin Andrews, an academic based in the faculty of Health, Aging & Society. His work ranges from gerontology, to complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), to theoretical work on non-representational and posthuman health.

OIV scheme

The Overseas Institutional Visit (OIV) scheme is a funding opportunity available to ESRC funded students (if you’re funded by ESRC, more information on the scheme can be found here). The scheme aims to provide the opportunity for postgraduate researchers to study at an overseas research institution for up to 13 weeks, in order to network with academics and researchers by participating in departmental seminars, events, and training activities.

I was inspired to apply for the scheme back in my first year of study. I was introduced to the funding at the SWDTP’s induction, and then again when I spoke to a second year PhD researcher who was about to spend 13 weeks at a university in New York. Subsequently, I hastily wrote the trip into my ongoing research plan for the PhD upgrade review process, whilst searching for an academic I could work with overseas.

I felt that the opportunity to meet and work with academics and graduate students from an overseas university would be highly beneficial to my development as a researcher (which it certainly was!). Moreover, the prospect of working with Gavin Andrews was exciting – I had read and used his research since my undergraduate course, and felt that being supervised by him would provide new and different lines of thought and ways of doing in health geography. I also hoped the trip would give me some time to reflect on my research post-fieldwork – as a much needed opportunity to think, network, write, and read in a new and exciting research environment.

And to be honest, the trip was partially strategic in terms of funding. The time you spend overseas is added back onto your funding award – extending your stipend by 3 months, and meaning that the precarious and normally unfunded fourth year of study becomes partially funded (albeit by only three months, but other schemes with the ESRC such as the placements and internships fund also have the same policy).

Planning the visit

Organising the trip required planning and communication with multiple people and institutions. Early on I contacted Gavin to ensure he was available during my planned visit time, and I also spoke to my supervisors early on to make sure they were aware of my intentions. Communicating early was important as the application processes requires that your supervisor and host each write a supporting statement. Moreover, the process can be lengthy if elements of the application (such as costings) are contested by your Doctoral Training Partnership.

Once I had received confirmation of the funding, I liaised with administrators at McMaster about my status and registration as visiting student, and the fees I required to pay for this (and to note that the OIV fund does not fund your institutional cost, although this is normally a nominal amount, it’s worth trying to get this waived).

One thing that I found particularly challenging was finding suitable accommodation for my length of stay. Student sub-lets for the dates I required did not seem to exist, and was naive to the process of renting in Canada. On my application I had applied for a sufficient budget to allow me to stay in a long-term Airbnb (something I recommend doing as it gives you the flexibility that rentals may not). In the end I went with that option, and was hugely glad that I did. My Airbnb hosts (including their dog Cali) were incredible, and were local to the area meaning that they could recommend places to visit and, most importantly, cafes where I could find good coffee!

(Mulberry Street Café, Hamilton, photo: author’s own)

Reflections on the scheme

My time in Canada has been the highlight of my PhD so far. It came at an ideal time in my research trajectory. I flew out a month after I had finished my fieldwork and transcription, and the contract for my student house had ended. The timing meant that the visit gave me time to reflect on my progress and the work I had completed to date. Moreover, I felt worn down by the academic culture in the UK. The sticky sensations of anxiety and imposter syndrome were overwhelming, crippling my ability to write or talk about my research. Throwing myself in the deep-end with new challenges in a different country was both scary but also intensely energising; scrambling up my habits and mindset I had towards my research and extending my thinking whilst reading widely for the research project I did with Gavin.

My time in Canada was hugely productive both personally: I travelled around Ontario and Quebec, visiting Niagara Falls, Toronto, and Montreal; I found a new sense of self-worth and motivation; I also met some incredible people. And academically: I planned the structure of my thesis; I drafted a thesis chapter; I researched and wrote a review paper with Gavin which was submitted to the Canadian Geographer; and I networked and chatted with graduate students and academics – creating ongoing research and social connections.

I would encourage any postgraduate researcher who is eligible to apply to the scheme, and to get in touch with me if you want any advice or guidance on the application process and the visit itself. Finally, I’d like to acknowledge and thank the South West Doctoral Partnership of the Economic and Social Research Council for funding the overseas visit to McMaster in order to work with Gavin. As well as the faculty, administrative staff, academics, and graduate students for their hospitality, support, and kindness during her time at the University.

(Photos from Horseshoe Lake, Toronto, Niagara Falls, and Montreal, photo: author’s own)

Chloe Asker is a PhD student based at the University of Exeter @Chloeasker

#GHWRGJourneys 5: Dr Beth Greenhough

Name: Dr Beth Greenhough Picture 1

Current institution: School of Geography and the Environment and Keble College, University of Oxford

Research topics of interest: critical geographies of health and biomedicine; animal research; bioinformation; science and technology studies; environmental humanities

Tell us about your journey working in the field of geographies of health and wellbeing

I have always known I wanted to teach, but it was my undergraduate degree (BSc Human Geography) at the University of Reading that really opened my eyes to the possibilities of an academic career, supported by a wonderful mentor – Dr Sophie Bowlby – who encouraged me to stay on. After Reading I was lucky enough to receive funding for a Masters and DPhil at Bristol. It was during these early years that I was also to encounter some of the key thinkers that still shape my work today, in particular the work of Donna Haraway. Her insistence that there is no way of living that is ‘not always, also a way of someone (not just something) else dying differently’ remains a key refrain for my work (Haraway 2008 When Species Meet p.80). Everything we do has implications for the lives and well-being of others, both human and nonhuman. Haraway also allowed me to combine my interest in social and cultural geography with feminist science fiction (the subject of my undergraduate and Master’s dissertations), and it wasn’t until a chance conversation with one of my professors that I translated my interests in posthumanism into a DPhil project looking at biomedical research in Iceland.

As a DPhil student at Bristol, and later as a DPhil and postdoc at the Open University, I spent five years studying the social and cultural issues raised by Iceland’s proposed Health Sector Database. The idea that the State could pass legislation allowing a private company access to the country’s medical records for use in their research seemed exceptional at that time, if all too common place in today’s world of big data and bioinformation. I spent 6 months living in Iceland and found generous and supportive hosts in University of Iceland’s Geography department who I remain in touch with to this day. Sadly, despite 6 months of classes I failed to make much headway into speaking Icelandic, although my Aikido came on quite well.

Throughout my early career I did not really identify as a health geographer. Working at the interface of Geography and Science and Technology Studies, my first job – at Keele University – saw me heading more towards questions of human-environment relations and environmental citizenship. It was only when I moved to QMUL in 2007 that I really began to find my feet in critical Health Geography. Working alongside Isabel Dyck, Bronwyn Parry and Tim Brown, amongst others, we created a distinctive ‘Geographies of Health and Biomedicine’ research cluster, and collaborated on projects around Medical Tourism, Breast Cancer Awareness and Bioinformation. It was at QMUL too where I learnt to build relationships with colleagues working in medicine and the life sciences, and began to explore the possibilities and challenges of interdisciplinary working. Today, now at Oxford, my approach to research remains very much interdisciplinary, particularly in my current role as Co-PI on the Animal Research Nexus project (animalresearchnexus.org). Yet, I’ve also held on to that early concern with the ways in which people (and now animals) become the objects of medical research, and the risks, benefits and opportunities of being an experimental subject.

What has been most fascinating, surprising or rewarding in the course of this journey?

The best part of my job are the colleagues, research participants and students I have the privilege of working with. Much of my work has been collaborative and being part of a team where everyone brings their strengths, efforts and ideas to the table is a really positive experience. It’s amazing what we can do when we work together, and I’ve really benefitted from working with colleagues who are committed to supporting each other when things get difficult either professionally or personally. I’ve also really appreciated the chance to mentor junior colleagues, knowing what a difference both official and unofficial mentors have made to my own career. My students too are a great source of inspiration, and I’ve enjoyed sharing their journeys and seeing them develop into independent researchers through their dissertation work. Finally, I have gained a great deal from working with stakeholders in laboratory animal welfare. Presenting our work at professional conferences and forums, using our data used to spark new kinds of conversations about issues of staff and animal wellbeing and hearing the difference this can make to people’s lives has been incredibly rewarding.

Have you experienced any ethical, practical or research related challenges along the way?

I love all the parts of my job, albeit some (fieldwork, writing, small group seminars) more than others (marking, form filling). I do sometimes wish they weren’t all always happening at once. As we saw on the picket lines recently, workload remains a key challenge. Having a family (I have two children aged 6 and 3) doesn’t make this any easier, but it does serve as an important reminder there is so much more to life than work. Having children certainly helped with my work-work balance. Still, I often feel pulled in many directions – between commitments to colleagues, students and family – and that I’m failing all three. I’ve explored various options with part-time working (on returning from my most recent maternity leave) and compressed hours before that, but despite supportive Heads of School I can’t seem to make that translate into working any less hours. For now, I’ve settled for quality over quantity of time. I try not to work weekends and holidays, and to make sure the flexibility of my contract works in favour of family life (working from home to see the school play) as well as against it. Being surrounded by amazing empathetic colleagues with similar struggles helps. It’s good to be able to support each other.

What advice would you give to an aspiring health or wellbeing geographer?

Stay true to your interests. Often you can find yourself, through necessity, applying for any and every post, position or grant in order to have a job. In the short term this can seem like the only plan, but in the long term no-one wants to spend three years working on a project or teaching in a field that doesn’t speak to their interests or career. That said, when you do see something you want to pursue, go for it. Don’t be afraid to put yourself and your ideas out there, send that email, approach that collaborator or funder, pitch that research project. You never know, it might just happen. Finally, I think it’s important to know that most of us feel like imposters, like we are not good enough for our posts, our role, our achievements. If it’s any consolation, I’ve been doing this for over twenty years and no-one’s cottoned on to me yet.

 Links to website, Twitter and/or selected papers





#GHWRGjourneys 4: Prof Niamh K Shortt

Name: Professor Niamh K ShorttIMG_2368

Current institution: Centre for Research on Environment Society and Health, School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh

Research topics of interest: health inequalities, social justice, alcohol, tobacco

Tell us about your journey working in the field of geographies of health and wellbeing

I studied for a BSc Geography at Ulster University, the closest University to home at the time. Due to a family bereavement I didn’t want to move too far away, a connection to place was important then. In the second year of my degree I had the opportunity to take a course called ‘Medical Geography’ and I vividly remember being introduced to The Black Report and health inequalities. I had an interest in politics, so applying a political economy approach to health and health inequalities sparked my interest. At the same time I was learning how to use SPSS, back when we had to code it all and wait on the dot matrix printer to print out the results! During a study year abroad in the USA I realised that I could bring together my developing interests in health inequality, and my growing knowledge of statistics, to develop my final year dissertation on the health inequalities between those living on the Winnebago Native American Reservation in Nebraska and the rest of the state. This dissertation furthered my interests in social justice and inequality and I began to search for postgraduate opportunities.

After my undergrad I applied for an MSc place in Dublin, but neither money or funding were available. I was then offered a scholarship to stay at Ulster to complete a PhD. I grabbed that opportunity and graduated in 2002. My PhD focussed on using GIS to define health care boundaries, boundaries that reflected what we would now call ‘activity spaces’ as opposed to arbitrarily defined units. It was carried out with a health board in Northern Ireland and this gave me a flavour for life outside the academy. So following graduation I left academia, moved to Dublin and began work at the Institute of Public Health in Ireland. Shortly after I got married and began to forget about a career in academia.

IMG_4525Then I missed it.  I missed the freedom to define my own research agenda, I missed the seminars and atmosphere of a University and I missed writing most of all. An opportunity for a 2-year lectureship at the University of Edinburgh was advertised. I applied, and 15 years, 2 kids and a dog later I am still here. My research interests have changed through time, but throughout my focus has remained on social justice and inequality. I have been fortunate enough to work with some wonderful collaborators, win some funding, work on some great projects and develop my interests in alcohol and tobacco. This field of research is fascinating, particularly when I read about marketing, corporate actions, lobbying and money. At times it doesn’t feel like work, l suppose I am lucky enough to have found a niche area that I enjoy.

What has been most fascinating, surprising or rewarding in the course of this journey?

 Academia can be very rewarding, but it can also be draining and difficult. For me, there are three main areas of my job from which I gain the most satisfaction: public engagement, supporting women in academia and collegial support.

My research in inequalities, alcohol and tobacco has important findings for policy makers, NGOs and the general public. I firmly believe that we must take our research out of the academy, for example by making our data publically accessible (when possible), by delivering our research findings to multiple audiences and by engaging with the policy process when we can.  At the same time, we must be mindful not to let our policy engagement drive our research questions. It can be a difficult balancing act.  Over recent years I have enjoyed engaging with various audiences, from presentations in the Scottish Parliament through to speaking to local councils. Such engagement is not always easy and I have been faced with fierce criticism from those who do not agree with the research findings. Nevertheless, I will continue to do this for as long as we believe that our research can add a little to the process of reducing the vast inequalities that currently exist.

For a number of years I have been working on supporting women in academia, in particular supporting more women to reach senior levels. I led our School’s Athena Swan Silver award and have been Dean of Diversity and Inclusion in the College for just over two years. This is, in part, a response to several female only leadership training events that I participated in. Such events were very focussed on what could be called a ‘fix the women’ approach, as opposed to a ‘fix the system’ approach. I didn’t need to be fixed, I don’t think any of us do. Instead I needed the system to recognise the structural inequalities that exist in Universities and to change them. Working in this area is challenging, some people may say that some initiatives go to far, and others that they don’t go far enough. I think we still have a long way to go and that it should not be left to women, or other groups with protected characteristics, to ensure that we have a more equitable and diverse working environment. It is everyone’s responsibility.

The third rewarding element of my job is getting to work with amazing colleagues. At CRESH I am very lucky to work with two wonderful co-directors, Jamie Pearce and Rich Mitchell. We work well together, I hope they would agree! Our meetings are never short of ideas, debates and challenges and this makes our group a great place to be. I have also been lucky to work with wonderful postdocs and researchers including Liz Richardson, Helena Tunstall, Mark Cherrie, Catherine Tisch and Tom Clemens (now a lecturer in the department) and we will welcome two further postdocs in the New Year.

Throughout my career I have been supported by many wonderful health geographers, too many to name. The strength of the community is amazing. I still remember my first IMGS in Montreal in 2000 when I plucked up the courage to introduce myself to more established academics. They were more than welcoming and I have felt part of this community ever since. 21 years after my first IMGS conference I will be part of the organising committee hosting the next one in Edinburgh in July 2021. We plan to make this an inclusive, welcoming and supportive conference and can’t wait to see everyone there!

Have you experienced any ethical, practical or research related challenges along the way?

Practical and research related challenges arise all the time, data collection or data access being the most common. But for me, those challenges are just part and parcel of the job. I suppose the job would be a little easier if we had all the data we needed, but that is not how the world operates.

For me the biggest challenge has been balancing a home life with my academic life. I have two children and a partner who works full time. Now that the children are a little older (Oscar (11) and Neasa (9)) things are easier, or different, but when they were young it was difficult to hold down a job and manage all of the expectations that are made of us. It should not be so difficult, people have children and we need to support people to continue in their careers if they wish to do so. I was lucky that my head of school at the time supported my request to work part time, to lower my percentage FTE when required and to change it back when the children were both at school. I have now been working part time for 11 years and am not sure I will ever return to full time hours! I know that not everyone has similar opportunities. Things have changed, even since I had my children, we now have parental leave, Athena Swan has raised the awareness of a need to tackle these issues, more people are part time and people are having conversations about work-life balance. But we still need to plug the leaky pipeline of female academics and make sure that we support people to return to work. A very wise colleague once asked me, when I was particularly stressed, if getting that paper finished was a life or death situation. Off course it wasn’t, so I simply turned off the computer and went home to watch CBBC with the kids. Having just returned to work from the UCU picket line, I believe that we need to prioritise our well being and the well being of more early career researchers in precarious positions.

 What advice would you give to an aspiring health or wellbeing geographer?

 Get to know people in the field. In my experience almost everyone is supportive and happy to help when they can. Reach out to collaborate with people, it is amazing how much better our research can be when we work with others. Make space for others and respect difference. Support early career colleagues. Finally, come to the next IMGS conference, I hear it is going to be somewhere nice!

 Links to website, Twitter and/or selected papers

Niamh tweets @niamhshortt

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