Professor Sue Pavitt

Sue Pavitt is Professor in Translational & Applied Health Research at the University of Leeds’ School of Dentistry. Her ‘Don’t Smile’ COHESION pilot project won the NCCPE Engage Award 2016 in the Engaging With Young People category.

Sue Pavitt grew up in Birmingham among a working-class family. Her mother had lost three teeth by the time she was a teenager.

Poor health, and a need for health education, were issues then as much as they are now. “The fact my mother had lost so many teeth so young meant that, unsurprisingly, she was obsessive about me and my brother going to the dentist.”

Her mother left school at the age of 14 after what had clearly been a poor education. “She was virtually illiterate”, remembers Sue, now Professor Pavitt at the University of Leeds.

It is safe to say that her childhood experiences brought Professor Pavitt closer to the inequalities poverty can bring. It easily explains her desire to give something back to society through her research.

In Yorkshire today, a shocking 45% of 12-year-olds have rotten teeth – the second worst record in the country after parts of the West Midlands, where Professor Pavitt grew up.

“Oral and dental research shows a massive problem of health inequality”, she said.  “The poorest areas are the ones with the poorest oral health. Teenagers in poor socio-economic areas of Leeds and Bradford are particularly hard to reach and so we wanted to find a novel way to reach them.”

An innovative approach

Professor Pavitt and her team use innovative ways to take research to the public. In the COHESION project she worked with drama students to disseminate the research. Her students love the feeling that they are paying back to society as they work with pupils in the more deprived parts of Yorkshire and the Humber.

It is this kind of creativity together with a determination to share the findings of research by different, and relevant means, which marks her out.

She said: “Given the poor oral and dental health in our area we just wanted to get our message out there to the people that would benefit. Publishing in a science journal just doesn’t do that and it certainly doesn’t reach teenagers. We had some great research we wanted to share, but anyone that has teenagers knows you can’t tell teenagers what to do – and I should know…I’ve had two myself.”

Professor Pavitt takes a lead role as a champion for public engagement at the University of Leeds.  She’s been a beacon for the importance of public engagement in medical research for many years, and is currently an academic representative for the European Patients’ Academy (EUPATI) - a pan-European Innovative Medicines Initiative of 33 organizations. It focuses on education and training to increase the capacity and capability of patients to understand and contribute to medicines research and development.

No research about us without us

The ‘Don’t Smile’ project is “a love story with a dental theme.” It focuses on reaching vulnerable children in areas of high deprivation, presenting them with key messages about oral health.

Teachers and pupils from Batley Girls’ High School have been fully engaged with the project from the beginning. A hallmark feature of Dr Pavitt’s work is ensuring that people/patients are always entwined in the research. “No research about us without us” is the motto. Said Professor Pavitt: “I think people drop out of trials when they’re not patient-centred enough, so we never have trials without patients at the centre.”

Professor Pavitt has high praise for the School’s Co-Head David Cooper and the ethos of the school to tirelessly create opportunities to broaden the girls’ experience. It was his enthusiastic championing of the project that facilitated access and has allowed a flourishing partnership, she believes.

It’s equally important too, says Professor Pavitt, for research project teams to do a lay summary for the public taking part, so that, by the end of the project, they hear and understand the results. “There may be wider benefits that are worth sharing”, she adds.

Bringing together the arts and sciences

Professor Pavitt clearly relishes a challenge. Cross-departmental working in any institution requires energy and patience. This project brought together arts and science departments, no less. She adds: “It’s quite difficult to set up in reality. But one of my biggest skills is getting people together, because I want as many people as possible to benefit.”

In order to encourage good oral health within a specific demographic (teenagers), Professor Pavitt brought a fresh approach to the Don’t Smile project.  The production of a play brought her dentistry students together with university drama undergraduates. Together they co-produced the play with Batley Girls’ High School, which has a high proportion of ethnic minority pupils. They worked with professional theatre company Theatre of Debate to help deliver the performance.

It is this energy to find new ways of tackling seemingly intractable issues which is typical of Professor Pavitt and her team. “We thought that theatre could be a new and engaging way to get people to think about what happens when your oral health isn’t very good.”

It’s an inclusive approach which clearly pays dividends. Excitingly, the collaboration with Batley Girls’ High School has continued, with a new project developing. The new project is called RAISED in Yorkshire (Research Activity In Schools Evaluating Dental health) and involves pupils monitoring oral health and tooth-brushing behaviour.

Indeed, the involvement and enthusiasm of the schoolchildren and the teaching staff is something Professor Pavitt is clearly proud of. “It’s been such a privilege,” she said.