Getting to know Dr Anjali Shah – your NDORMS & Botnar Research Staff Representative
6 October 2023
Please would you introduce yourself - including your career path?
I am an English-born epidemiologist and clinical trial manager with cultural ties to Kenya and India. I did my PhD and postdoc at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on Childhood Leukaemia in Great Britain: Trends in incidence, survival, and ‘cure’ and then aspects of cancer survival. I later moved to Oxford in 2009 and worked in the Childhood Cancer Research Group and National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit.
I joined NDORMS in 2015 and I am currently managing the NEON and PIC Bone clinical trials, and studying the epidemiology of open fractures. I have previously worked on hip fractures, shoulder dislocations and fracture prevention. During 2018-21 I also worked part-time as a Researcher Developer in the People and Organisational Development unit and trained to be a coach, which I still enjoy.
Which issues do you think are most important for research staff to advocate for now?
While there has been a lot of improvement for researchers in the past 5 years, there are still a lot of issues that need advocating for, such as:
- Giving researchers more time and support to think through their next career step and highlight the huge number of options they have beyond academia: if they want to pursue an academic career, then encouraging them to do so, but also advising them to have a back-up plan.
- Improving research culture to become more people-focused, so that fewer researchers suffer mental health issues.
- Making it easier for international researchers and their families to come and settle in the UK, and enable them to thrive in their research environment.
Please would you tell us about your volunteer background in representing Research Staff at Oxford at the University level?
I am passionate about improving research culture, and in particular researcher wellbeing. This drive has led me to represent Research Staff both at the University of Oxford and nationally.
This journey started in 2013, when I joined the Oxford Research Staff Society (OxRSS), chairing the social and networking aspect (2015), and representational aspect (2016-18). As part of this I organised events such as college dinners, pub socials, and trips to Blenheim Palace, as well as becoming the NDORMS and Medical Sciences Division representative providing a voice for 5,000 researchers (half of whom are international) and sitting on University committees such as the Research and Innovation Committee and the Equality and Diversity Forum.
Representing researchers is extremely important for enabling their voices to be heard and for addressing the issues that we come across. As part of this work when I was at OxRSS, we asked former Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Louise Richardson for a University Advocate for Research staff. This in turn lead to the creation of the Researcher Hub and greater representation of researchers on committees, which Prof. Richardson actively supported. Through representation on committees, we were able to highlight the issues facing Research Staff such as researchers struggling to settle into Oxford life, short-term contracts, and challenges with career progression. We are starting to have an impact with improving these issues and giving researchers more support.
All these activities have allowed me to have an impact on the research culture at the University of Oxford, improving conditions, support, and opportunities for researchers.
I also benefitted personally because my confidence in speaking and working with people on senior committees such as Pro-Vice Chancellors and funders grew immensely. I made connections with researchers across the University, which was a source of inspiration and support. I was also encouraged to apply for the part-time role of Researcher Developer and was successful, which was a fantastic 3-year experience. My understanding of how to develop leadership skills grew, and I was trained to become a volunteer Coach and a Coaching Supervisor. Coaching others gives me immense satisfaction because I know that I am making a difference to people simply by listening to them and asking structured questions. They are then empowered to shape and implement their own solutions. The Oxford Coaching Network was ‘Highly Commended’ for supporting ‘People Development’ in the 2023 Vice-Chancellor’s Professional Services Awards.
Please would you tell us about representing Research Staff at the national level within the UK Research Staff Association (UKRSA)?
Continuing this work at Oxford in 2018 I joined UKRSA and became a Co-Chair (2019) representing 75,000 UK researchers. Through this I was able to support the researchers’ voice and have a direct impact on many important initiatives such as:
- During negotiations for (and later launching) the revised Researcher Development Concordat, I ensured that researchers would be allowed 10 days per year to use towards their own professional development and additional time to plan their career. This is extremely important in allowing the space for researchers to focus on their career and working towards the aim of the RDC to create a more supportive and inclusive culture necessary for conducting excellent research.
- While working with the Wellcome Trust on Reimagining Research Culture, I ran culture cafes and presented the findings at national meetings to ensure that steps are being taken to improve Research Culture.
- Through the Wellcome Research Culture report it was highlighted that 53% of researchers have sought, or have wanted to seek, professional help for anxiety or depression. UKRSA prioritised this issue and I organised a panel discussion on the topic and encouraged funders and institutions to train more mental health first aiders within academia.
- In collaboration with the Microbiology Society, I have helped in highlighting the impact of the pandemic on researchers.
- I have supported the organisation of the National Postdoc Conferences in London, Liverpool and Loughborough.
- I have worked with Universities UK to help facilitate attracting and retaining international researchers and their families to the UK, e.g., reviewing visa and NHS charges.
All this activity has had step change in how institutes, funders and policy view Research Culture, and many positive actions are now in place or emerging which will help researchers in the future.
What I have learnt is that the collective researcher voice is powerful and can make real change happen. While I find it difficult to advocate for myself, I am at my best when advocating for others. I have learned to present information and issues in a way that causes people to listen, and I suggest pragmatic solutions. Both skills encourage other people to work with me. Being a researcher representative has been a privilege in so many ways.
An unexpected appreciation of my efforts, that greatly moved me, was winning an ‘Unsung Hero award for Impact For Postdoc Careers,’ and I was delighted that UKRSA won the ‘Organisation Award’ at the recent National Postdoc Conference in September 2023.
If these issues are something you are passionate about and would like to be involved with making a change, please get in contact with me on Anjali.email@example.com