University of Sheffields Dr. Isobel Williams founds network

University of Sheffield's Dr. Isobel Williams founds network

 May 07, 2019

Dr Isobel Williams is a Clinical Neuroscientist at the University of Sheffield and a founder of the university's Disabled and Ill Researchers’ Network. Her important research focuses on ways in which psychological approaches can help to improve our understanding and treatment of neurological conditions. 

Isobel was featured in Nature, the international journal of science, talking about how the support network is helping to improve life in academia for people with long-term health conditions.

Bringing a new perspective to research

Isobel shared with Nature the impact of her condition both on her daily life and on her career and how, although it can often be a barrier, it also allows her to bring a perspective to her research that others might not have.

"I’ve had juvenile idiopathic arthritis, an autoimmune disease with no known cause, since I was four years old. After I received my undergraduate degree from the University of Sheffield, it got so bad that I had to take a year out to get both of my hips replaced," says Isobel. "I am in pain every day and expect to need further surgeries because of the arthritis. Sometimes, I experience a flare-up — transient worsening of my symptoms — that can last for a day or even weeks."

"After I earned a Master’s degree in cognitive neuroscience at Birkbeck, University of London, I gained clinical experience as a carer. I then returned to Sheffield to study medically unexplained neurological disorders, including psychogenic non-epileptic seizures, and how they relate to emotional and psychological factors. I’m keenly aware of the links between emotional and physical health, and bring a perspective to this research that others might not have," she adds.

"I’m working on a clinical trial that is looking at whether a nutritional intervention can prolong life in people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as motor neuron disease). I’d like to pursue work as a clinical psychologist alongside my research. I’m particularly interested in helping people who have functional and movement disorders."

Providing peer support through a network

Luckily for Isobel, the University of Sheffield is a supportive environment but, as with any workplace, Isobel has faced discrimination.

"Sheffield is a great place with a lovely work environment and existing support structures, but there is a general lack of awareness about disability that is not unique to the institution. For example, I have a disabled-parking permit, but people leave notes on my car that say I shouldn’t be parking in a space for disabled people," she explains.

It was these experiences of discrimination that incited Isobel to establish the University of Sheffield's Disabled and Ill Researchers’ Network.

"I was ranting about these types of encounter at the pub with a colleague, Kay Guccione, who had already helped to set up networks for postgraduate parents and for researchers whose work is emotionally demanding. She helped to bring together PhD students who have disabilities. We meet every three months and have a Google community and an e-mail list. We also share our experiences on social media using the hashtags #chronicallyacademic or #PhDisabled," says Isobel.

"The idea is to provide peer support, so that members know that there are others like them out there. Higher education has conventionally been able-bodied, but we now have more diversity, and that includes disabilities. We are working with the university administration at Sheffield to improve the process of applying for health-related leaves of absence for those with a chronic condition."

Sharing advice for others to follow in her footsteps

Isobel shares some fantastic advice for others wanting to establish a support network at their own workplace.

"Create a website for the network, and invite people at your university who have a disability or illness to write a piece about their experiences of managing their PhD or postdoc. Because many conditions can be hidden, I also advise students, no matter where they are studying, to disclose their condition to their advisers and to set up boundaries and reasonable adjustments — for example, the need for regular breaks during the day or ruling out weekend work — that are necessary to protect their health," explains Isobel.

"I’d also like people to feel comfortable with their disability. It’s a sign of strength to have got this far in academia while facing extra obstacles."

Join incredible women like Isobel at the University of Sheffield

With a strong commitment to diversity, inclusion and gender equality, there are plenty of opportunities for strong candidates in a host of academic and support roles at the University of Sheffield. Search and apply for exciting and challenging jobs today.


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