In conversation... with Professor Niamh Fitzgerald, hosted by Dr Nason Maani

SPECTRUM Deputy Director and Impact Lead, Professor Niamh Fitzgerald, sits down with Dr Nason Maani to discuss her journey into public health and how to generate impact.

Professor Niamh Fitzgerald and Dr Nason Maani headshots
(L-R) Professor Niamh Fitzgerald and Dr Nason Maani

[Nason] I’m especially glad to be hosting this chat with Niamh, who was such a welcoming presence when I first started out in the field. Like you, Niamh, I followed a bit of an indirect route into public health, so I’m interested to hear more about your career journey. Starting from the beginning – can you tell about your early life and education?

[Niamh] I grew up in a small town near Dublin in Ireland, and had what I’d call a pretty normal education. My favourite subjects in school were English and applied maths, and I also studied physics and chemistry – I think I decided they were an easier ride than having to memorise lots of stuff if I picked biology!

I went on to study pharmacy at Trinity College Dublin – probably not a good choice for someone without a background in biology – and didn’t really enjoy it. It was very focused on lab-based work and not the bit I was most interested in, which was around improving patient care.

I was really involved in pharmacy student politics at university and became President of the European Pharmaceutical Students Association. I think that was really formative. It was a great introduction to conferences, international networking and leadership. It also definitely sowed a seed in terms of collaborations, something I still really enjoy.

I think the other turning point for me was realising that I wanted to do a PhD, which I did at Robert Gordon University. It wasn’t particularly public health focused, but involved a qualitative study of policy, planning and practice in school-based drug education.

So how did that lead you to an academic career in public health?

After my PhD, I worked as a consultant in health promotion for a long time – 10 years.

A lot of the time I felt like I was on the outside as a consultant, and you tend to work on smaller projects. I began to feel that my work wasn’t making as much of a difference as it could be and that was really what made me want to get back into academia.

The first role that I took on at the University of Stirling was to support the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies (UKCTAS), and I was really blessed there with a lot of time and space to develop my own smaller projects. It was very different from running a consultancy and managing a team of people, and without lots of clients to answer to!

Since starting out with UKCTAS, you’ve produced a lot of research and work that has informed policy – do you have any highlights to share from this part of your career?

It was 2014 when I moved back to academia and I do feel like it’s only recently that lots of separate projects are starting to come together in a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In particular around alcohol availability and licensing.

I suppose other highlights for me are around just bringing people together and putting teams together – something I love to do. Especially when those projects are successfully funded!

You’ve clearly got a real interest and aptitude for putting teams together and applying for grants. Do you have any insights, particularly for early career researchers, in terms of how to go about it?  

I think the number one thing is to work with people that you like. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with them if you’re successful with the grant application, so it really helps to like them!

I think my career is probably built more around finding the people that I like and then working out our shared interests, rather than having something that I absolutely want to work on and then finding the people. I think people have probably come first for me.

Given your role within SPECTRUM as Impact Lead, I wondered if you had any thoughts on generating impact from research?

I think one thing to note is that publicity doesn’t always equal impact. A lot of your impact might come from things that are quite time-consuming, but nobody sees, like meeting with government colleagues, or sending out reports. The unseen stuff is often much more impactful than what’s seen on the surface.

It’s definitely a long game, drip-feeding information over time, building those relationships. With politicians you are always trying to find something that appeals to their priorities. Can you find proposals or policy changes that meet the needs of public health, but also meet the needs of politicians in terms of what their priorities are?

Linked to that – something I’ve found quite tricky, especially early on in my career, was managing the disappointment of doing research you think is really important, but it doesn't quite land due to various timescales or pressures, or changing priorities. Do you have any advice for early career researchers on how to handle the realities of working in an ever-changing policy environment?

I don't see it as being a kind of a moment in time where something fails. It's a process. If you're not successful now, it doesn't mean you won't be successful next week, next month, next year. It is about that “drip, drip” approach.

Professor Jim McCambridge at the University of York – who really helped me when I was looking to move back into academia – once said to me that rejection is just an occupational hazard, it’s normal. That's the way it is and you sort of have to get used to it! It’s learning to view it as a process.

There's also something about finding the people who are open to being influenced, and being realistic about those who aren’t. Some people will never agree with your way of thinking. Other people already agree with your way of thinking. But then you've got the people in the middle, and it's trying to work out who that is so you can start to drive change.


About the 'In Conversation' series

SPECTRUM ‘In Conversation’ interviews aim to facilitate candid discussions around the lives and careers of various members of our research team. Focusing on one guest in each interview, the conversations will provide insights into the routes that individuals have chosen, and any associated challenges and successes that they've experienced during their academic journeys to date. Each interview is hosted by a SPECTRUM early career researcher.