Dr Nasima Akhter is Associate Professor of Public Health at Teesside University.
Tell us more about your role at Teesside University.
I started at Teesside a few months ago now and my role primarily involves leading public health research, supporting innovation culture within the health and wellbeing thematic pillar of the university’s strategic research focus. In my role here, I am developing research collaborations within and outside the UK, contributing to high quality publications, as well as developing research capacity for students. I work with colleagues across the School of Health and Life Science on research, grants, publication, and dissemination. As an Associate Professor of Public Health, I want to focus more on health inequalities within the UK and extend my research portfolio in global health.
I’m interested in doing more in terms of ethnic minorities and particularly for South Asian communities because I feel I understand the context for them better. I feel I have more insight and knowledge on how to reach them, how to make things work for them, and what modifications we need to do. Often, we just put people from different ethnic groups under one broad umbrella, within one bracket. But each of these groups are different – and even there are differences within a group. How we behave, what we do, why we do it, what we eat, how women are treated, etc. are often dictated by cultural and religious norms and expectations. If we have thorough understanding of all such things, then we can adjust services better.
What do you enjoy most about working in your sector?
I enjoy working across disciplines and helping people at different level of their career to achieve more. For example, in my previous job at Durham University I had the opportunity to work with anthropologists, psychologists, statisticians, economists etc. This helped us share ideas and look at things from different perspectives. When we engage with a problem through a multidisciplinary lens, there is scope to innovate. And if we bring in the best of different disciplines, then we are in a better position to gather evidence and come up with a workable solution. At Durham University, I led an interdisciplinary team and we learnt from each other. If you are coming from a particular discipline, sometimes you may not know how to translate it for better understanding of others. It may be excellent science, but if we could not communicate it to the wider population and various groups, then it’s not so useful.
Looking to the future what would you like the world to look like in terms of health inequalities?
I want to think positively – I would want to see more engagement of diverse groups in the different decision-making processes. A lot of the time we may falsely believe that we know what’s best and how to solve problems, whereas maybe we don’t and it takes understanding on the ground realities and utilising the best resource to reach the right solutions. Prevention is better than cure after all – as children, we grew up learning this phrase so much. Now is the time to implement it because otherwise we’re wasting time and resources. Our NHS is already stretched enough. I would like to think we would have a better, more equitable community in time – maybe we won’t solve everything, but we’ll have a better place.
What professional achievement are you most proud of?
I take pride that over time I have earned a growing reputation in my sector. Although academia is generally considered a highly competitive place, I have consistently managed to grow in my role, and contributed to strengthen research capacity for others. I have contributed to enhancing skills and research capacity of students and staff with limited exposure in statistics or quantitative methods. It is a joy watching them eventually able to apply advanced methods with a clear conceptual understanding and ability to interpret the results. I get emails from prospective PhD students from different parts of the world telling me they know my research and would like me to supervise them. I am most happy supporting those from disadvantaged background and help build their confidence.
What are the challenges of being a woman in your sector?
I would say we need to believe in ourselves as sometimes we may have bias against ourselves. There is, of course, bias from other people, and it could be that we get influenced by those and develop our own bias to think of ourselves in limitations. If we can believe in ourselves then we’ll start recognising that we actually have strength, and that we can utilise different aspects of our strengths.
What advice would you give to other women in your sector or your workplace?
Sometimes I think we need to be clear about our goals, and it’s not always easy, it takes time to understand what we really want to achieve, the specific focus or research area that we want to expand on. The more we have clarity about what we want to do, how we want to see ourselves, the better we can achieve it.
What would you say were the key challenges in your sector that currently prevent innovation moving forward?
Understanding the kind of interaction between ethnicity, gender, and culture, that’s one challenge. For example, say for Bangladeshi women, if they’re first-generation adults, they may be behaving differently than second-generation adults who are born here. They’re more autonomous, engaged in education, but sometimes they face a challenge of integration. And because we have different expectations at home than the expectations outside their home, sometimes these challenges can cause them stress and mental health problems, particularly for young adults. I think that’s one big challenge that we need to tackle.
Do you find any particular challenges as a woman working in the North of England?
I have not experienced any specific challenges here in relation to my gender as such. It is possible that I would have more networking or training opportunities if I was living in London and could have engaged more with the different communities and potential collaborators. But otherwise, no. As a place, I like it here – it’s more peaceful, commuting is much easier, and I find people are generally more friendly and interested in other people.
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