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Spotlight on… Rebecca Sear

Professor Rebecca Sear joined the MARCH leadership team at the start of 2023 as our new Deputy Director. In her interview she gives insight into her research, shares book recommendations and shows us her most treasured ‘possessions’.
Rebecca Sear

What is your role at LSHTM and what does it involve?

I recently took on the role of Deputy Director of MARCH and I am delighted to be working with Debra Jackson and Susannah Mayhew to support MARCH-related research at LSHTM. I’m a demographer, anthropologist and human behavioural ecologist, based in the Population Studies Group in the Department of Population Health – a lovely group and department to be in. I am hoping to raise the profile of population research within MARCH.

How long have you worked here and what was your previous job?

11 years, so I’m not an LSHTM ‘lifer’ but have moved around London institutions – University College London for postgraduate and postdoctoral work, then the London School of Economics for my first lecturing role, as well as a brief stint at Durham University.

Where are you from?

I was born in Hertfordshire but moved to South Wales when I was four (where my mother’s family is from). So, despite having spent most of my adult life in England, I still cheer on Wales when they’re playing England at rugby.

Tell us about a project you’re currently working on:

I’m currently working on a collaborative paper provisionally titled ‘Shifting the focus away from the individual in public health’. Public health focuses on the individual – for some very good reasons – but humans are embedded within families, communities and wider social networks. Public health interventions are likely to be more successful if they don’t ignore the influence of family, community and social network members on individuals; and it’s also important to recognise that interventions will not just affect individuals, but their families and social networks.

What three words would you use to describe your role?

Stimulating, varied, challenging.

What is your favourite thing about working here?

The people! I’m sure everyone says this, but LSHTM is full of incredibly talented staff working hard to make the world a better place; and my new role in MARCH allows me to meet more of them.

Proudest career achievement?

I’ll twist this question slightly and talk about one of the most useful things (I think) I’ve done in the last year. Isabelle Lange and Louise Day asked me to develop a session on menopause for their Foundations in Reproductive Health module, which I was delighted to do because it’s such a neglected topic in public health. The session took a biocultural approach, highlighting research on how hormonal profiles vary between populations, as well as how cultural factors related to the reproductive lifecourse vary. Variation in both physiological and cultural factors help explain why experiences and perceptions of menopause differ across the world.

The session also let me bring demographic and evolutionary perspectives to health outcomes. A prominent health professional promotes the idea that menopause is ‘unnatural’ (and so requires medication), because, she argues, in the past life expectancy was so short, we would all have died before we reached menopause. Unfortunately, this misrepresents both demography and evolutionary research. Life expectancy was short in the past partly because of high child mortality; those who survived childhood had a reasonable chance of living to the age of menopause and beyond. Research on the evolution of menopause – including some of my own – suggests menopause has a long history in our species and may have evolved because of the help post-menopausal women can provide to their existing children and grandchildren.

Did you know several whale species, including killer whales, have menopause, likely for the same reason? A better understanding of both demography and evolutionary research can really broaden our perspective on health issues, and help avoid problematic narratives about what is ‘unnatural’.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I had absolutely no idea! But I’ve been fortunate enough to find myself in a very rewarding job, so students perhaps shouldn’t worry too much if they haven’t been laser-focused on a particular career since kindergarten.

How does being a member of MARCH support your work?

MARCH aims to bring researchers together from across LSHTM working on similar topics, so being a member of MARCH lets you meet interesting people, including potential collaborators, who you might not otherwise come across. At the MARCH Retreat earlier this year, for example, I had the privilege of meeting Professor Rashida Ferrand for the first time. I was asked to interview her in a ‘Life Scientific’ format, which was a lovely idea, especially given my very inspiring interviewee! (‘The Life Scientific’ is a BBC Radio 4 programme in which physicist and broadcaster Jim Al-Khalili interviews prominent researchers about their life and work).

“When I’m not working I am…”

Walking. I prefer to walk than take public transport around London and go out walking every day when working from home. Walking gives me space to think and process the day. Then to completely switch off my brain, I’ll get far too absorbed in reality TV (once muting someone I know well on social media just because they kept giving out The Great British Bake Off spoilers…). But only the nice reality shows, where everyone supports one another even if they’re in competition (maybe how I’d like academia to be!)

What is your favourite food?

Cake; all kinds. I love to bake though rarely get to flex my baking muscles, as no one else in my family likes cake (they are perfect in every way except for this one major flaw), and I’d end up eating far too much of it if I baked at home. One workplace tradition at LSHTM I was delighted to discover when I first started work here was ‘Cake Wednesday’; the Population Studies Group stopped for cake every Wednesday at 4pm, which was especially wonderful given how many fantastic bakers are in the group.

What is your favourite book?

I couldn’t possibly pick just one! Instead I’ll highlight three non-fiction books I’ve read recently and highly recommend, all related to my burgeoning interest in how science is done. Aaron Panofsky’s Misbehaving Science and Marilyn Brookwood’s The Orphans of Davenport are quite different books but both illustrate how science is imperfect because it’s done by humans and humans are flawed. Brookwood’s book also includes some heart-rending detail on how flawed science can lead to real world harm. Adam Rutherford’s Control: the Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics is an important read given that eugenic ideology – the belief that human populations can be ‘improved’ through certain kinds of policy – is creeping back into the mainstream academic literature, despite its very clearly documented harms.

What is your most treasured possession?

I think I’m more their possession than they are mine (no one ‘owns’ cats, right?), but we got two ‘pandemic pets’ in 2020 – kittens Kevin and Gatsby – and they have brought much joy.

Rebecca's cats: Kevin (L) and Gatsby (R)
Rebecca's cats: Kevin (L) and Gatsby (R)

What would it surprise people to know about you?

This isn’t exactly a ‘surprising’ fact but relevant to the ‘Life Scientific’ interview I did at the MARCH Retreat in a ‘six-degrees-of-separation’ way – my brother is a physicist and works in the same department as Jim Al-Khalili.

 

Learn more about Rebecca’s research.

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