Q&A with Professor Rachel Cooper
We are delighted to welcome Professor Rachel Cooper to the BRC as Professor of Translational Epidemiology.
Since completing my formal training in epidemiology – an MSc in Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (2002) and a PhD in Life Course Epidemiology at UCL (2006) – I have pursued an academic career in which I have always strived to ensure that my epidemiological research addresses strategically important, novel questions that have the potential to benefit population health.
Between 2006 and 2018 I was based at UCL – my first job post-PhD was in the Centre for Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology at UCL Institute of Child Health and after a year I moved to the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing where, over time, I progressed from Career Development Fellow to Programme Leader Track.
During my time in London, I was very fortunate to work with excellent mentors, colleagues and external collaborators on a number of high-profile projects which showcased the benefits of taking a life course epidemiological approach to the study of health. I also gained valuable experience of primary data collection and study management through my involvement in the day-to-day running of the MRC National Survey of Health and Development, which is the oldest of the national British birth cohort studies.
My interest and expertise in applying a life course epidemiological approach to the study of ageing developed through my work on the Healthy Ageing across the Life Course (HALCyon) collaborative research programme funded by the New Dynamics of Ageing (2008-2013). I gained further useful insights into ageing research and fostered important international collaborations during research visits to the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam research group at the VU Medical Center in the Netherlands (funded by the Royal Society) and the Laboratory of Epidemiology and Population Sciences at the US National Institute on Aging (funded by an MRC centenary award).
In 2018 I decided to take a short break from academia and spent almost a year working as a Senior Analyst in the UK Government’s Department of Health and Social Care. This was an incredibly illuminating experience and provided me with valuable insights on how to ensure that my research has policy relevance and achieves impact. I have been applying this new knowledge since my return to academia in 2019.
What drew you to this field originally?
I have always wanted to work in a field that focuses on helping other people. While studying for my A levels I considered applying to medical school but after completing work experience in a hospital I decided that medicine was not the right career for me. However, I remained interested in the possibility of a career related to medicine. While studying for my undergraduate degree in Human Sciences at Oxford University I was introduced to public health and epidemiology and was privileged to be taught by leading figures in these fields. From this point on, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in epidemiology.
What challenge are you currently trying to address in your research?
By taking a life course epidemiological approach to the study of healthy ageing, my research focuses on the challenge of identifying opportunities across life to support the development and maintenance of key aspects of health and wellbeing that are important as we age. The ultimate goal is to improve people’s chances of remaining active and independent in later life and to reduce lifetime inequalities in these chances.
In my new role at Newcastle I hope to establish a programme of research that builds on and extends my existing research portfolio. For the last 15 years I have used data from large observational, population-based studies to lead research which demonstrates the value of physical capability across life for healthy ageing, investigates the potentially modifiable lifetime factors associated with musculoskeletal health outcomes including sarcopenia and explores the dynamic interplay between physical activity and musculoskeletal health and function.
Much of my work is interdisciplinary and involves close collaborative working with other academic groups. I am therefore excited about the opportunities my new role in Newcastle provides for me to collaborate with scientists in other disciplines, clinical academics and NHS clinicians to address important societal challenges and work towards the common goal of improving people’s lives.
What do you think your research brings to this region and the people living here?
Evidence shows that people with greater exposure to socioeconomic adversity are not only more likely to live shorter lives than people with less exposure to adversity but also to live more of their shorter lives in poor health. Stark inequalities in lifespan and health span urgently need addressing to improve the wellbeing of our ageing population. This is especially important in regions across the north of England, including the north east, where the burden of inequalities in health is particularly high.
A key strand of my research focuses on inequalities in health and the identification of strategies across life to mitigate the detrimental effects of socioeconomic adversity on health and wellbeing. I hope that the findings from this research will benefit people living in the north east and beyond and I plan to work hard to ensure this.
Looking forward, what do you think will be the next major breakthrough in your field?
Looking forward, I see great potential for major breakthroughs in research on multiple long-term conditions (MLTC).
Multiple long-term conditions pose many challenges for patients, their families and carers and, health care systems. With growing recognition of the scale and importance of these challenges, research into MLTC is rapidly evolving. Many recently funded research projects, including the ADMISSION research collaborative, led by Prof Avan Aihie Sayer that I contribute to, are drawing together data from a wide range of different sources, applying novel methodological approaches, working collaboratively across academic disciplines and clinical specialties and involving patients and the public in the co-design and delivery of research. I think this research has real potential to identify new treatments and ways to deliver care that better suit the needs of people living with MLTC and so improve quality of life and health outcomes for the many millions of people around the world living with MLTC.