Bella Starling is a Wellcome Engagement Fellow, on secondment from her role as Director of Public Programmes at Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. She coordinated the Our Health, Our Future project which was shortlisted for the NCCPE Engage Awards 2016 in the Health & Wellbeing category.
Bella Starling first looked to a career in science to find solutions for her family’s health issues.
At a young age, she found herself caring for her mum, who had a brain tumour. There were mental health, drug and alcohol problems in their home in London, too. “I went into science for very personal reasons”, said Bella. “Naively perhaps, I embarked on a scientific career in order to cure my mother and sort my older brothers out.”
Science as a catalyst for social change
Disappointed that she couldn’t find immediate solutions within science itself, as her career progressed she began to realise that a part of the answer lay in communicating more clearly what science can, and can’t do, and appreciating different forms of knowledge within science. It’s an important message and one which she is passionate should be available to everyone, and not just the privileged few.
“I have always become outraged about inequality”, added Bella, substantively Director of Public Programmes for Central Manchester NHS Trust and Research Associate at the University of Manchester, though currently fulfilling a Fellowship role with Wellcome, exploring public engagement with science as a catalyst for social change.
One statistic which sits uncomfortably is the fact that a girl born in East Manchester today will have 15 fewer years of good health compared to a girl born in Richmond in London. “This is just wrong”, she says.
A more inclusive approach
After studying for her degree and PhD at the University of Edinburgh, Bella pursued a career in stem cell research at King’s College London and the Institute of Psychiatry. It was around this time she became interested in science communication. The shift in career direction began to alter her approach: “We need to talk about health and science differently. We can’t keep it within health care and academic institutions. We need to be inclusive of different voices and socially innovative to address inequalities.”
Her study and practice of public engagement with science evolved. “When I was studying science, science communication was just that: communicating what it does/is.
“There followed a move to understand science better so people would trust it more. Now, it is about understanding that science comes with public accountability, that we need to be listening as much as communicating in our scientific practice, and that science is also part of culture”, she said.
The Grenfell tower block tragedy in London is front of mind during our discussion. “There were very serious safety concerns expressed by residents but an institutionalised inability to listen to communities – with disastrous consequences. In health care, contextual knowledge is everywhere. We need to continue to get better at curating conversations about health across society.”
Engaging underserved communities
Much of Bella’s work focuses on young people. ‘Our Health, Our Future’ brought together 12 to 17-year-olds from areas of Manchester with low health outcomes. The project culminated in a conference and a drama performance where the youngsters engaged with health experts who listened to their concerns first-hand, and stimulated young people to become agents of change within their communities. It also challenged thinking within the Manchester Academic Health Science and Biomedical Research Centres. Said Bella: “The project stimulated a strategic focus on engaging under-served communities in health research - no mean feat! It influenced the Centre’s direction, towards a more diverse and inclusive approach to better health care.”
The ‘Our Health, Our Future’ project recently inspired work in Oldham with diverse young people, co-creating mental health priorities with civic, health and research authorities.
The interface between arts and sciences is also an area of great interest to Bella. She believes that working across the two disciplines can work well in reaching people with different backgrounds and engaging them with scientific issues, by building on common social identities. “After all, science and the arts are both creative”, said Bella.