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Spotlight: Dr Helen Stagg, Associate Professor in Epidemiology at The University of Edinburgh

Tell us a fun fact

My favourite fact in the world is that penguins have internal knees that are found inside their torso (try searching for an X-ray of a penguin), which is why they waddle.

Tell us about your career journey so far

I started my career with an undergraduate degree in the biological sciences and went straight into a PhD in the laboratory after that, as I thought that was the only option available to someone wanting to do scientific research as a job! During my PhD I realised that I wanted to do work that had a more immediate impact in the real world and thus (after a bit of a gap) I took a job at is what is now Public Health England (PHE), partly in a research role and partly supporting national service delivery. That post whetted my appetite for epidemiology (the study and analysis of the distribution, patterns and determinants of health and disease conditions in defined populations), which I hadn’t even realised was a field of study up until this point. After a stint of a few months working in the USA, I switched jobs in the UK to a fully research role at a university and simultaneously started studying part-time for a master’s in epidemiology, for which I was kindly supported by my employer. Since then, I’ve largely been working on my own research ideas, and now have a group of staff and students who work with me on different viral and bacterial infections (tuberculosis, Epstein Barr Virus, Hepatitis C), as well as optimising their treatment. My role involves advisory work for national and international agencies, including the World Health Organization, and- inevitably as I write this in the middle of 2020- has included research to help control the COVID-19 pandemic.

What was your favourite subject in school and why?

History- I particularly loved Russian and social history. During my A-Levels I used to enjoy reading novels from the country and era we were studying. Despite this, I went on to do a science degree!

What subjects/qualifications are useful in your role?

My A(S)-Levels were split down the middle with History, Economics and Critical Thinking on one side versus Biology and Chemistry on the other. These days, I barely use the knowledge from any of these to do my job, but Biology and Chemistry were essential to get into my degree of choice. I don’t like to think of anything as wasted, though- I enjoyed my other subjects and am sure that they shaped my outlook on life. In hindsight, I wish I’d taken Maths at A-Level (never let anyone tell you Biology and Maths isn’t a good pairing to study), but get along okay without it.

What is your favourite thing about your job?

Many things- the variety of the work that I get to do on a day-to-day basis, the privilege of working with colleagues from all around the world, and the feeling of doing something useful that really contributes to society.

What is a normal day in your role like?

There is no standard day in my job and our hours are pretty flexible. Part of my day is spent engaging with my colleagues, staff and students about ongoing projects or planning new ones; our current collaborations include work in Cambodia, Latvia and South Korea. We have in-depth discussions about how to collect good data, how best to do our analyses, and I spend a lot of time supporting people so they can do their role well. Critically, we talk about how to get the most out of our science- what are the needs of policymakers, what’s holding the field back- and try to tailor our work to that purpose.

Depending on the time of year, I might also be doing some teaching. My favourite piece of teaching university students is our yearly simulated disease outbreak exercise, where on day one we pretend that I’ve held a party that some people got food poisoning from and the students have to figure out the source of the outbreak and what to do about it by the end of the third day.

Suggest an activity that could be done at home that illustrates an aspect of your work?

Play the board game Pandemic!

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The UK-wide STEM Ambassador programme is managed by STEM Learning Limited, which operates the National STEM Learning Network, alongside other projects supporting STEM education. To find out more please go to the STEM Learning website