The idea that research makes a difference is in my blood.
Only in middle-age have I realised that this assumption was shaped by my upbringing. My father championed civil courage in areas of conflict, and my mother devoted her life to fighting for women’s rights and transformed approaches to childbirth.
I opted to study Social Anthropology at university because of my interest in how cultural norms are sustained and transformed. I became a contract researcher, first in Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge and then at the Glasgow Media Group. Fifteen years of contract research made it difficult to follow through findings, as I moved from one project to the next. However, it did mean I could design my own projects with the help of the ESRC and Wellcome Trust.
Throughout my career I have pursued my interest addressing social problems, from examining the AIDS crisis (at a time when anti-gay discrimination was institutionalized) to researching child sexual abuse (when there was reluctance to acknowledge such things could happen at all). Later, my work focused on debates about risk and emerging technologies, and the representation of ethics and human genetic research.
My most recent work looks at the treatment of patients with catastrophic brain injuries. I now work alongside my sister, Professor Celia Kitzinger from the University of York. Our joint focus was prompted by what happened to our sister, Polly Kitzinger, after a car accident in 2009. This on-going experience led Celia and I to research other families’ views, exploring the beliefs and values that shape diverse reactions to the most severe forms of brain injury. We are also analysing the gulf between media representation of ‘coma’ and the realities of such states, and examining legal and medical practices which shape decision-making about these patients.
Celia and I now co-direct the ‘Coma and Disorders of Consciousness’ research centre, working with colleagues in philosophy, health sciences, history, literature, sociology and economics. We have translated our research into an on-line multi-media resource for families and health care practitioners. Our work has informed new guidelines from the Royal College of Physicians and been cited in a House of Lords report and a briefing for MPs on vegetative and minimally conscious states.
I am delighted our research has won awards for both ‘Impact in Society’ (from the ESRC) and ‘Impact on Policy’ (from Cardiff University). I believe the ‘impact agenda’, for all its problems, can encourage public debate and collaborative intellectual enquiry to help solve complex issues. Cardiff University has provided a fertile context for developing innovative approaches. Every time I feel overwhelmed by the challenges, a new opportunity presents itself to do something innovative. It is that which makes me ‘get back on the horse,’ allows me to keep on learning, and offers the prospect of making a difference.