Name: Dr Rebecca Simmons
Research institution: MRC Epidemiology Unit, Cambridge
Research career length: 10 years
Research Council: Medical Research Council (MRC)
Location: Cambridge, England
Brief summary of research: Diabetes epidemiology - the primary and secondary prevention of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease
A-levels: Biology, French, Mathematics
BA Human Sciences, University of Oxford
MSc in Epidemiology, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
PhD in reducing the burden of type 2 diabetes: public health aspects of primary prevention, University of Cambridge
Oneida Community Health Centre, Wisconsin, USA. Clinical research assistant conducting a type 2 diabetes prevalence survey in a Native American community
Wellcome Trust Centre for the Epidemiology of Infectious Disease, Oxford, Laboratory technician
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Research assistant in reproductive epidemiology
World Health Organisation, Geneva, Switzerland, Intern in the Diabetes Unit
MRC Epidemiology Unit, Cambridge, Career Development Fellow
MRC Epidemiology Unit, Cambridge, Senior Investigator Scientist, researching the primary and secondary prevention of diabetes and cardiovascular disease
Finding patterns in the incidence of disease among large groups of people, increasingly contributes to our knowledge of how and why illness occurs. As an epidemiologist, Rebecca Simmons uses large sets of data, taken from thousands of people, to help predict who might develop potentially life-threatening illness, such as heart disease or diabetes, and then uses this information to find ways of preventing it.
I came from a working class background where only one member of my family had been to university, to train as a teacher. I loved school and was a complete swot. It was no surprise I ended up going down the academic route and my family was supportive. I had a strong interest in science and human health at sixth form, and toyed with the idea of becoming a doctor, but applied to do a degree in Human Sciences at Oxford. Both numbers and words appeal to me. I would have loved to study English Literature, but I was worried about job opportunities after pursuing this path, and knowing how much I loved numbers as well as words, I felt that science would combine both.
After winning a scholarship to America to work on diabetes during my first degree, and having completed a number of disease modules, training to be an epidemiologist was the obvious choice. Epidemiologists study patterns of health and illness in large groups of people, so I get to play with numbers (statistical analysis) and write (scientific publications), in a bid to improve human health - my three major passions! The Medical Research Council funded me, both for my Master’s and PhD , and I now have a tenured (permanent) research position.
My work involves developing statistical models to predict who might develop diabetes, heart attacks or strokes, and I then try to develop and evaluate ways to prevent these things happening. I'm interested in trying to encourage people to exercise and eat more healthily, and how to make healthier choices easier for people to make.
My time is spent carrying out statistical analysis, writing academic papers and liaising with collaborators (other researchers). I travel overseas about once a month. Sometimes I stay for an extended period, such as time I spent in Hong Kong, looking at their diabetes epidemic. With the fast pace of globalisation and the scale of the health problem I work on, there are lots of opportunities for foreign travel.
I write grant applications for funding and review grant applications and scientific papers for publication. I also lecture and supervise students and manage postdoctoral staff, budgets and finance, and am involved in planning for the future of our group.
As my career progresses, I think about using the organisational and management skills I have learned in science to lead a small non-governmental organisation or charity, or possibly work in university administration at a high level. The skills you learn in senior science positions are very transferable to other jobs.
I have to thank my parents, who instilled a very strong work ethic in me, and I have been lucky enough to find a discipline that I love. I don't actually consider myself to have a job. I am just amazed every day that someone is employing me to write and play with numbers, and I can use these skills to try and contribute to a healthier society.