Dr Dee Knipe

Sri Lankan-born Dr Dee Knipe describes how, after getting a BSc in Pathology and Microbiology at Bristol, ‘I had no clear idea about what I wanted to do; I knew that bench work wasn’t for me.’ While she was working as a research administrator at Cardiff University on a population health project, she had an epiphany: ‘I realised that you didn’t have to be working with cells and equipment to be a scientist. Population health research is all about people.’

One of the project’s leads, Bristol epidemiologist Professor Yoav Ben-Shlomo, encouraged her to pursue a Masters in Public Health. ‘I did that at Cardiff, full-time, self-funded, and I worked part-time as a research assistant. It was hard – but I realised this was something I really wanted to do.’ She got her first publication as a result, ‘and I was first author, which was a real bonus for my CV’.

She then wanted to get experience of working abroad. Professor Ben-Shlomo introduced her to fellow Bristol epidemiologist Professor David Gunnell, who put her in touch with an Edinburgh researcher working on a project in Sri Lanka. ‘That project is now my life blood,’ she says; ‘it’s basically set my career.’

The project looks at attempts to reduce the incidences of pesticide-related self-poisoning (one of the most common methods of suicide and self-harm in the area) by introducing locked boxes into rural communities. ‘I was managing a local census, involving around 223,000 people,’ she says. ‘I’d planned to go to Sri Lanka for three months but ended up staying for a year-and-a-half. The whole project took seven years, and now I’m looking for ways we can expand the data we collected.’

Dee is particularly conscious of the help she has had from mentors, both official and unofficial. Besides Professors Gunnell and Ben-Shlomo, she also credits Chris Metcalfe (Professor of Medical Statistics), Helen Lambert (Professor of Medical Anthropology) and Dr Laura Howe (Reader in Epidemiology and Medical Statistics) with providing support and advice as she progressed to a Wellcome-funded PhD in lifecourse epidemiology, then applied for funding from bodies including the ESRC. The latter resulted in a Global Challenges Research Funding fellowship from the South West Doctoral Training College via the ESRC.

Having Dr Howe as a mentor was, she says, ‘incredibly helpful. She’s recently had a baby, and she’s had two competitive fellowships and now has an offer of a permanent post at Bristol. Seeing that these things can be done is a big inspiration’.

Dee’s work schedule is not necessarily a standard one, so the University’s flexible working policy is particularly welcome. She often has to speak to colleagues at unconventional times in time zones as far apart as Canada, the Philippines and Australia, and being able to work flexibly ‘helps hugely with the work-life balance’, she says.

Her unsociable hours and frequent overseas travel are starting to yield results: ‘This work is starting to inform policy in various countries,’ she says. ‘It’s great to see that happening.’ She has also earned recognition for her efforts, including an award from the International Association for Suicide Prevention in 2017.

The culture of support at Bristol has helped her to chart a course through some challenging times, and to balance her work commitments with the rest of her life. ‘I’ve always felt able to talk about my plans for the future,’ she says. ‘This sort of career path can be scarily unpredictable for women; you have to plan so that, for example, you have enough funding to come back to after a break.’

Dee is in no doubt about the value of initiatives like Athena SWAN, which help ‘to demonstrate that people like me – a young woman from an ethnic minority background – will be openly supported at places like Bristol’. 

[Initiatives like Athena SWAN] help to demonstrate that people like me – a young woman from an ethnic minority background – will be openly supported at places like Bristol.

Dr Dee Knipe, Senior Research Associate in Epidemiology
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