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Spotlight interview: Sophie Edwards


On leaving RGS, Sophie Edwards (RGS 2008-2015) completed a BSc in Human Biology at Loughborough University, followed by an MSc in Public Health at the University of Bristol. Since graduating in 2020, Sophie has been working as a Covid-19 Health Protection Practitioner for Public Health England. We caught up with her to discover what this role entails and the highs and lows she’s encountered over the last year.


Since November 2020, you’ve been working for Public Health England – can you describe a typical day?

The role varies hugely, and I am often working in different teams during the week, working closely with consultants and the local authorities. I work in small teams managing Covid-19 outbreaks and cases within care homes, homeless shelters, schools, workplaces and GP practices. This involves in-depth discussions and risk assessments with the setting to assess their infection-control measures and testing regimes to prevent further transmission and fatalities. Recently, I have been in a dedicated variant and mutation team, carrying out enhanced contact tracing for the new variants of Covid-19. This team aims to understand how the new variants behave and spread within the community. Weekly clinical meetings involve a wide variety of professionals including health protection practitioners, public health consultants, doctors, vets, statisticians and epidemiologists. These meetings provide an overview and discussion of current outbreaks and cases for many infectious diseases from STIs, zoonotic diseases, vaccine-preventable diseases and blood-born viruses.


What have you found most challenging?

The most challenging part of the role is hearing the severity and consequences of the pandemic when dealing with vulnerable settings such as care homes, homeless shelters and specialist residential settings. When building relationships with the staff, you develop an understanding for how tough and relentless the pandemic has been over the past year for them.


And most rewarding?

The most rewarding aspect of the role is being able to make a genuine difference to public health and prevent serious illness and fatalities during the pandemic. This is achieved by arranging mass testing to detect cases, identifying outbreaks in the early stages to prevent further disease transmission, educating settings on vaccines and infection prevention control, and working on datasets to understand the new Covid-19 variants.


Congratulations on completing your MSc in Public Health – what was it like to graduate during the pandemic?

Graduating during the pandemic was really strange as I wasn’t able to celebrate and say goodbye to my course mates. Since March we transitioned to online learning which meant both lectures and dissertation meetings had to be done over Zoom and I soon began to hate the phrase, “You’re on mute”! The University of Bristol was really well adapted to online learning, which made my home-learning experience a lot easier. We were all really busy with dissertation research and exams which meant we never felt bored and everyone on my course was great at keeping in touch and chatting.


Can you summarise your dissertation project and your key findings?

My dissertation investigated the dietary, lifestyle and socio-demographic predictors of metabolically healthy obesity and metabolically unhealthy normal-weight in adolescents. The study used data from ALSPAC, which is a longitudinal birth cohort study based in Bristol. Key findings highlighted females were more likely to be metabolically healthy in both the normal-weight and obese groups when compared to males. Being born to a mother aged >30 increased the likelihood of being metabolically unhealthy in both sexes for the obese groups. Sociodemographic factors such as household income, social class and housing tenure were associated with being metabolically unhealthy in both the normal weight and obese groups for both sexes.


What advice would you give current students considering a Human Biology degree?

My first piece of advice is that an A Level or degree in Biology does not limit you to working in a lab! When I chose my A Levels and degree I think there was a lot of misconception that the main outcome of studying biology was to work in a lab, which is not the case at all. Biology leads to so many career opportunities in many fields such as in epidemiology, environmental health, sport and exercise science, healthcare, the pharmaceutical industry and public health.

I highly recommend choosing a course which offers a placement year as they really make you stand out at interviews. You gain so much experience that many other students won’t have had. I completed a placement year with a global pharmaceutical company in the commercial team, working on marketing vaccines and preventable health products which was invaluable to help my learning and to form the basis of interview discussions.


Where would you like to be five years from now?

I hope to be halfway through the public health registrar training programme and eventually complete my training to become a registered Consultant of Public Health. This involves several assessments and working in local authorities, clinical commissioning groups, hospital departments and other health settings.


What’s the best book you’ve read and why?

This is a very tricky question! The Spirit Level by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson is an excellent book which explores the vast socioeconomic and health inequalities within society. The authors discuss how inequalities are intrinsically linked to higher incidences of drug usage, obesity, higher prison populations and poorer health outcomes. The book discusses reasons for this relationship and investigates how changes in health and social policy can be used to reduce these inequalities. It’s a really interesting book to read, not only from a public health perspective but it also increases your awareness and understanding for social issues.

In terms of pleasure reading, I highly recommend The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena if you like a good plot twist and thriller (or anything else by this author!).


What hobbies and interests do you have outside of work (in normal times!)?

I absolutely love doing art in my spare time. I have my own pet portrait business where people commission me to draw their pets using pastel pencils. I also create abstract art in the form of acrylic pour paintings. Aside from art, I spend a lot of my time horse riding with my new horse in Bristol.


If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 16-year-old self?

You absolutely do not need to know your entire life plan and career path by the age of 16, or by the end of your A Levels! Whilst they are important, your A Levels are not the be all and end all. Choose a subject you love, and it will make learning and revising a whole lot easier for you. Don’t feel like you have to follow the crowd – not everyone has to become a doctor, lawyer or an accountant. Really make use of the careers department at school as they are incredibly helpful with CV writing and exploring your options. A major tip I have is to find people who are in career positions which interest you on LinkedIn and message them. Ask for advice on how they got to where they are today and if they can offer any work experience opportunities.

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