Taking a lead in women’s health

As part of our 25 and up: the Academy for the next generation' programme to celebrate emerging research leaders, we hear from Dr Jackie Maybin.

Jackie is a Reader and Honorary Consultant Gynaecologist based at the Centre for Reproductive Health at the University of Edinburgh. She has received support from the Academy via a Starter Grant for Clinical Lecturers and is currently taking part in the third round of our FLIER programme.

A persistent taboo

I work in the field of women's health, specifically looking at heavy menstrual bleeding. This symptom affects up to one in four women and is extremely debilitating. The blood loss can be so heavy that it causes iron deficiency anaemia, and in some cases requires blood transfusion. Even when less extreme, women can bleed through onto clothes, need to change pads or tampons every hour and may be unable to leave the house during their period. This results in days off school, college or work and loss of financial income. Despite all this, it remains a taboo subject so is under-diagnosed and insufficiently researched.

My team aims to change this by improving the treatment options for people with heavy periods, hopefully preventing them from having to resort to risky, fertility ending surgery.

Working for a lightbulb moment

My interest in this area came out of clinical frustration; I couldn’t explain why people were having heavy periods and therefore what would really help. That's unsatisfying for doctors and patients, and the only thing that I believe helps in this scenario is high quality research. So, I started a PhD studying the breakdown and repair of the womb lining at menstruation to see if we could identify new treatment targets.

I really like the phrase ‘the electric light bulb didn't come from the continuous improvement of candles’, and I believe we have to think outside the box and try to do things differently. Previously, research has focused on improving the hormonal treatments that we've already got. Our research examines the physiology of the womb lining and what goes wrong when heavy periods occur. This way, I hope we can find completely new treatments that are more efficient and have fewer side effects, resulting in positive health outcomes.

Learning from failure

Just after completing my PhD, I applied for a Starter Grant with the Academy. I was unsuccessful, but it was one of the best things that ever happened in my career. You learn much more from failure than success. I had to really think about what I was doing, how I was writing grants and my bigger research vision. The second time I applied, I made a much stronger application and was successful.

The Academy provided valuable feedback, supported my re-application, and provided opportunities to present my findings and network with other medical researchers.

My learning from that process and the data generated from the Starter Grant were fundamental to my successful application for a Wellcome Trust Clinical Career Development Fellowship.

The bigger picture

I have also benefited hugely from the Academy’s mentorship scheme and FLIER leadership programme. FLIER has created space for me to think more strategically, develop my research team and gain training in those often neglected but vitally important areas like networking, finance, agility and collaboration. It has also helped me to make connections in industry, charities and other organisations.

To drive real change in women’s health we need to connect across different sectors to improve the situation for patients.

Striving for balance

It can be hard to balance clinical work, research and your personal life. There have been points in my career where 80% of my work was clinical, which involved a huge number of busy night shifts and weekends in obstetrics and gynaecology departments. I found it incredibly difficult to find time to write a research fellowship and maintain my research programme, and balance it all with a young family.

Those parts of a clinical academic career can be tough, but everything that’s worthwhile is hard at times and there are ways to get through it. I am fortunate to have amazing mentors, sponsors, team members and peers. I don’t think it’s possible to be successful without that support. Sometimes it is short-term pain for long-term gain, and this was certainly the case for me. Securing a fellowship gave me the freedom to change my job plan and align my research and clinical interests.

Addressing inequalities

Heavy periods have a detrimental impact on society, and they can ruin lives. They may not be life threatening, but they’re certainly life altering. There is ample evidence that people who menstruate experience huge health inequalities and that these disparities can be even greater for black people and minority communities.

To improve this, we need funding for high quality research to increase our knowledge about the way the uterus functions. We must acknowledge the bias that exists in society; ensure equality, diversity and inclusion are embedded in our clinical and research systems; and involve patients and the public in our research design.

It’s a privilege for me to be working with patients to research the common, debilitating symptom of heavy menstrual bleeding. Realistically, we’re unlikely to solve all the problems during my career, but if you don't start then you're definitely not going to finish, so I’m making a start.

Dr Jackie Maybin is a participant of FLIER round 3, our cross-sector leadership programme and attended our media showcase event in Edinburgh, presenting her research area to national journalists.

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