Dr Loubaba Mamluk is a Senior Research Associate in Epidemiology, currently based in the National Institute for Health Research Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care West (NIHR CLAHRC West).
Until recently, most of her work concerned early-life influences – for example, studying the effects of low-to-moderate prenatal alcohol exposure on pregnancy and childhood. But then she decided to change the course of her research completely.
"After the war broke out in Syria and so many people fled the country, I really felt I needed to contribute something to what is now a global situation," says Loubaba, who was born in Syria and moved to the UK in 2009.
"I was determined to use my skills as an epidemiologist to give some support to people who have been through some of the worst wars that we’ve seen recently. This issue is very important to me personally, but it’s also a worldwide issue – there’s been an exodus of 4.6 million refugees from Syria alone."
Loubaba is currently in the pilot phase of a research project looking at the mental health and wellbeing of Syrian refugees in the UK and how these change over time. Various strands of the project include an assessment of the barriers to their accessing mental health services in the UK.
"The main study is called the Syrian mental Health Assessment and MIgration Study – or SHAMIS, which means sun in Arabic," she explains. Changing direction is a risky move for a researcher, as she acknowledges:
"You're changing your CV and your profile, and you're working with people you’ve never worked with before. It would be very easy for them ask 'Who are you, and why are you suddenly doing this work that we've been doing for years?' But when I moved into the migration field, everyone was very welcoming and supportive. They said 'This project is excellent, we can help you with this; would you like to come to this conference or speak at that conference?' That really gave me the confidence to go forward."
The need for this kind of support for female academics, she agrees, is pressing. "Being a woman in any job can be difficult enough," she says.
"Being a woman from an ethnic minority working in academia is a challenge. And being Syrian unfortunately adds to that difficulty in any job right now because of travel restrictions and visa extension challenges for non-permanent jobs.
"I’ve been lucky with the women in academia who have been supporting me," she adds, citing her line managers in Population Health Sciences, Dr Luisa Zuccolo and Dr Sabi Redwood, and on the migration side of things, Ann Singleton from the School for Policy Studies.
"My managers and directors are mostly women, and they go out of their way to support other women and help them progress. I think that's key: to say 'Okay, who do I work with, how can I support these female junior staff?' Because women understand how difficult it is."
A grant from the ESRC Acceleration Fund enabled Loubaba to visit refugee camps in Lebanon in order to assess the feasibility of collecting comparable data there that the project could contrast with data gathered in the UK.
She also organised a workshop with senior researchers at Bristol and was able to bring over collaborators from Sweden, Denmark and Norway for the event, which led to the launch of a new, multi-regional collaboration.
"We intend to share parts of a core questionnaire and to collect similar data for comparative studies in the future," says Loubaba.
"I’ve also been interviewing Syrian refugee families in Bristol, because I wanted to be sure that this is not just ethical but helpful – do people actually want this? Do these families feel that it’s important that these questions are asked? And their responses were extremely positive."
The SHAMIS study is still in its early stages, but Loubaba emphasises how crucial it has been for her to have the support and encouragement of her peers and managers at Bristol.
Of initiatives like Athena SWAN, she says: "I think it's so important for women in science and medicine to have a foundation to build on and goals to work towards. I think we're on the right path, but there's so much yet to do."