How can you grow your career as a woman in science? In line with CABI’s strategic goals to empower women, we’ve interviewed a series of professionals who’ve worked or collaborated with CABI to share how they got to their current position, giving tangible advice to others looking to grow their careers.

In today’s blog, we talk to Jennifer Cole – a highly active Lecturer in Global and Planetary Health at the Royal Holloway University of London. Her publications include An Introduction to Planetary Health, a key textbook to those new to the field, and we’re also delighted to announce that she’s recently joined the CABI OneHealth Journal Editorial Board – more news on that in another blog!

What’s your definition of a Lecturer in Global and Planetary Health?

I am an academic researcher and teacher – I develop university courses (including the new MA in Global Health: Culture, Society and Behaviour and MSc in Global Health: Human Health and the Environment) and undertake research projects.

Currently I’m working on a project looking at the rise of food banks in the UK, two focused on the use of antibiotics within the Indian livestock sector and how this is challenged by climate change, and one looking at backyard livestock rearing and childhood nutrition in Kenya. 

What does an average day look like in your role? 

Completely varied. I could be conducting fieldwork in the UK or overseas or taking part in Zoom calls with colleagues around the world; analysing secondary data or data colleagues have collected; writing papers and presenting research findings; lecturing to large groups of students or running seminars with smaller groups; supervising students’ projects and dissertations; planning research projects and new bids or brainstorming with colleagues. It varies from day to day.

What do you most enjoy and find most challenging about your job? 

Most enjoy – is the diversity of the job and the opportunity to keep exploring new ideas and concepts with new communities and colleagues. In the past five years, I’ve worked in Burnley, Malawi, Detroit, India (Bangalore, Guwahati, New Delhi and Hyderabad), Slough, Greece and Toronto and with colleagues from Yemen, Armenia, Kenya, Uganda, the USA, all over the UK…. and on topics from antibiotic resistance to vaccine hesitancy among healthcare workers, how to frame language around climate change so that people don’t feel helpless to act, to psychological stress on medical staff working in the middle of the Yemeni civil war. This is also one of the challenges though – trying to keep on top of everything and make sure I have time to give appropriate attention to each project.   

Are there any parts of your job that you didn’t expect to be part of the role when you first started?

Not really. I had a good idea of what the role would entail before coming into it as I moved back into academia full-time mid-career, after working with academics and the UK higher education sector for around 15 years in publishing and the policy research sector. The admin is always a pain but I suspect that’s the same with every job – it’s hard to avoid it. 

How did you get where you are now? Looking back, is there anything you’d do differently? 

My career path is quite convoluted and unconventional. I did an undergraduate degree in Archaeology and Anthropology (specialising in Biological Anthropology), then worked in publishing for around 15 years, including a period with Hotcourses who publish Higher Education guides and highlight UK research expertise to overseas students, and with Summertime Publishing who published a number of popular health topics. This gave me a good understanding of how the general public understands, or often doesn’t understand, their health and health needs, and how you sometimes need to change the way you would normally explain things to account for people’s existing knowledge, understanding and contexts. While working in publishing I moved to RUSI, a policy think tank, originally as an editor but got drawn increasingly into the research projects, particularly around chemical, biological and radiological security and safety policy. This led to the opportunity of doing a PhD in Computer Science with Professor Chris Watkins at Royal Holloway in health communication during emergencies/pandemics – we ended up using the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak in West Africa as a case study. Following the PhD I went to the Oxford Martin School, part of Oxford University, for a year as public health policy advisor to the Rockefeller Foundation Economic Council on Planetary Health, and then came back to Royal Holloway, where I’m now a Lecturer in Global and Planetary Health.

The things I would change are really things I didn’t have any control over. I would have liked to go into academia earlier but I wasn’t in a financial position to do a PhD before I did, which was essential for moving into my current role. I wish academia was more accessible to those who don’t have family wealth and support behind them but the sector still has a long way to go to get to that position, particularly as there’s still not enough recognition and awareness of that within academia itself. There needs to be more financial support – and in particular job security – for young researchers who don’t have any other means of income. 

What advice would you give to someone looking to do this role in the future? 

Try to carve out the path you want to follow as far ahead as possible, particularly if you can only do a PhD if you’re funded through it. If you need to work alongside a master’s or PhD course, there are more options to do this within academia than many students are aware of, particularly if you’re willing to be flexible with exactly what research you do. Don’t wait too long for the perfect project to come along – get a foot in the door and once you do, it’s easier to take the next step. You can work as a research assistant after your undergraduate degree for a year or two, then go back to a master’s, and do the same between your master’s and PhD. Think tanks (I worked for the Royal United Services Institute for 10 years) are a good bridge between academia and the outside world, particularly if you’re interested in policy and how research can be applied to real world problems. Academia can sometimes be too focused on ideals – it can help to see first-hand the pressures that policymakers or private sector decision makers are under, particularly in terms of time, so that you don’t get too bogged down. It can help to keep a foot in more than one camp.

Where do you want to go next? 

Most of my energy at the moment is focused on finishing the development of the new Global Health Master’s courses at Royal Holloway, which take their first students in September 2022. It will be an exciting time, taking a new cohort of students and bringing them into the field of planetary health, where they will currently go on to forge a career, inside or outside of academia. Anyone interested can find more information (and apply) here and here.

Secondly, I am one of the editors on the WHO Infodemic Management book that will be published by CABI in the next few months – keep an eye out for it!

In terms of career, I’m most looking forward to helping build up the new Department of Health Studies at Royal Holloway and expand this into a really strong transdisciplinary planetary health research group. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that health is dependent on much more than just biological or microbiological factors – we have to understand the context, climates, cultures and communities in which diseases emerge and spread if we are to learn to live with them. This is true for the emerging antibiotic resistant pathogens as well as novel disease agents and so it’s important to train a new generation of researchers who understand the bigger picture. 

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