Meet Professor Jill Shawe - the new Director of the University's Institute of Health and Community

Jill Shawe, Professor Women’s Health in the School of Nursing and Midwifery, has recently joined Plymouth from the University of Surrey, taking up the post of Director of the Institute of Health and Community. Here, Professor Shawe provides a little insight into her academic journey to this point.

What are you research interests?

My field of expertise stems from a background as a nurse, midwife and health visitor, in sexual and reproductive health in particular, and that has led to a research focus on periconception care, ensuring women and men are fit and healthy before pregnancy. Through my masters and PhD, I looked at different aspects of pre-conception care, including the issue of women with diabetes, and the way that the condition can adversely affect pregnancy. If women do not control their blood glucose level and take a higher dose supplement of folic acid before conception there can be very poor outcomes, they are four times more likely to have stillbirths and have twice the risk of having a baby with a congenital anomaly such as neural tube defects. 

My research interests also extend to women with other chronic conditions such as epilepsy who need similar review and care especially in relation to their medications which may not be suitable for use in pregnancy. We are also researching the best care for the increasing number of women who have had bariatric (weight loss) surgery as there are many issues they need to consider before pregnancy. In addition I have an interest in sexual reproductive health care for vulnerable groups such as the homeless or those that have had their baby removed at birth. At Surrey, I established a research group called PREPARE: a Programme of Research and Education in Pre-conception care, and that has a variety of projects in development around these areas. Although it’s aligned to Surrey, I’ve been meeting with people here who are interested in the work that it is doing, so it is ripe for further development here in the South West.

Institute of Health and Community (IHC)

The Institute of Health and Community is a multi-disciplinary institute with a vibrant research culture and a focus on innovation and enterprise.

IHC's research

How did you become involved with academia?

I’ve always been one of those people that couldn’t help but ask questions, and that was essentially how I became interested in research. I was a senior nurse at a women’s hospital in London and we were running educational courses at what was then the English National Board, and when I became involved in that, it was a pathway into education. From running courses as a clinician, I became a tutor in a School of Nursing, and went on from there to become a lecturer, and enrol on a PhD with the Postgraduate Medical School at the University of Surrey. I was seconded to them for a couple of days each week to do research, and it took off from there. 

I’ve always been a clinical academic though, and it’s important to me to keep my clinical skills up-to-date. Before starting here I ran an evening clinic in the sexual and reproductive health service and worked with R & D in a NHS Trust, and I hope to do something like that here. It’s always been very important to me, and I do feel you gain so much from ‘being on the shop floor’ and working with patients. It’s very rewarding, and also a great way to network.

What are your first impressions of the University?

It has all been very positive! It has been abundantly clear that there are so many enthusiastic people here that are motivated to do research. Some have heavy teaching loads, so it will be a case of looking at ways in which we can work together to take the research forward. It appears to be the same at the major hospitals – the clinical commitment means that time is an issue and we need to look at ways we can maximise everybody’s involvement. As Director of the IHC, one of my roles will be to build on the work that’s been done to establish the institute, and take it forward in partnership with our NHS, Local Authority and Third Sector colleagues. The IHC should be an umbrella and focus for that collaborative work.

What are your hopes for the IHC? What are its biggest challenges and opportunities?

At the moment, I am meeting so many people, and I am gathering together lots of ideas and gaining perspective on areas of potential, especially opportunities to work across faculties and groups. I look at the big EU programme, like EPIC (led by Professor Ray Jones), and it would be great to do more of this kind of cross cutting work, and to involve even more service users and students. 

Of course, one of the biggest challenges is time. Research takes time, and researchers need time to be able to create headspace – and that is an opportunity for me, to look into each of our research themes and see where groups can work together. And one of the first things I want to do is arrange some form of ‘sandpit event’ to look at that cross faculty and wider sector working and collaboration.