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Your Path in Research: Alexandra Smith, Public Health Research Support Officer

Alexandra Smith, Public Health Research Support Officer

Alexandra’s role is part of the NIHR’s national infrastructure to facilitate research in non-NHS settings, and is based at Devon County Council (DCC) and funded by the Clinical Research Network. She describes her background in research and what she loves about the job.

When did you first get involved in research?

After undertaking my MSc in Psychological Well-being and Mental Health, I worked as a Research Assistant at The University of Nottingham in the Nursing, Midwifery and Physiotherapy department based in Queen’s Medical Centre. This gave me real world research experience and put my skills into practice. I also picked up a lot of valuable knowledge from the medical world, particularly around terminology and study design and conduct. From this experience I became more interested in health holistically, and pursued a PhD at the University of Exeter on the holistic health benefits of walking groups, which I am just completing.

Why did you decide to get involved?

Pursuing a research career was a natural progression from my studies, and I became ever more fascinated with the process of enquiry, thought processes and procedures involved, and mitigating challenges for research excellence. I enjoy being at the front line of knowledge production and am keen to disseminate learned knowledge into practice for better health outcomes.

What has been the highlight of your research career so far?

In October 2021, I will be disseminating the findings of my PhD research in a 1-hour webinar to the Department of Health and Social Care. Using mixed methods and unique approaches in this subject area, I sought to understand walking group participants’ joining, remaining, and leaving motivations, particularly regarding organisational, landscape, physical health, mental health, and social capital factors. I clustered individuals based on motivations, and argue that for sustained attendance and sustained physical, mental, and social benefits, walking groups should advertise themselves targeted to specific motivational types.

Why do you believe research is important?

Without a robust and generalisable evidence base, we are effectively guessing at resolutions to health problems. We need to take a scientific approach to ensure that our findings are generalisable, representative, do not cause further harm, and benefit society. 

What do you love about your job?

My role means that I get to meet such a diverse range of people, from different specialisations, interests, knowledge, perspectives, and approaches. For example, I work with colleagues across DCC discussing transport, environment, economy, the wider determinants of health, health protection, health promotion, mental health, children and young people, sexual health, complex lives, crime, COVID-19… The list goes on and is endlessly interesting and fascinating. We also work closely with partner organisations such as the community and voluntary sector, academics, Devon and Cornwall police, clinical commissioning groups, GPs, Torbay Council and Plymouth City Council. At every encounter I meet incredible people doing incredible things, and get to share my love and passion for research and develop this critical area in public health.


Find out how you can be part of research on the National Institute for Health Research website.