IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Q&A with Professor Carol Rivas

Carol Rivas is a Professor of Health and Social Care at IOE's Social Research Institute.

What attracted you to take up your position at IOE?

I knew colleagues here and felt it was well-aligned with my own values and interests. I was already on mailing lists for IOE and also wider UCL groups, so it seemed sensible to come and work here and interact more directly with staff. My department is a great place to work in, and I definitely made the right decision; working in such a nice part of London is a plus.

How long have you been at IOE? 

Roughly 5 years, since June 2017. Prior to that I was leading a large study at Southampton University on the use of AI to analyse survey freetext responses.

This was an innovative project, and an NIHR spotlight study, for several reasons. First, in terms of what it was trying to achieve, since freetext responses often do not follow grammar rules, which - putting it very simply - means standard AI text analysis approaches that rely on detecting sequences of parts of speech are not very accurate. Second, the project integrated small sociological studies to evaluate and improve the AI work. In addition, it was the first study to use the multivariate data analysis form of concept mapping to develop themes from the data that were negotiated across a range of stakeholders - the AI work produced groups of freetext responses that needed theme names to be useful in policy and practice. Furthermore, it was the first study to use the health economics method of discrete choice experiments to decide which displays of the final data - clinical dashboards - would be the most likely to be taken up by commissioners and clinical staff and whether there was a market for the approach.

I have a multidisciplinary background, and whilst now sitting within the Social Research Institute and specialising in more qualitative methods and in psycholinguistics, I have at other times been a programmer, a health economist, a cognitive neurospsychologist, and a quantitative data analyst. So I can draw on the skills and experience learned across my career to answer my research questions using the best tools for the job, hence so many ‘firsts’.

What do you most enjoy about your position and why? 

Interactions with my colleagues within a departmental culture that promotes collegiality. Being fortunate to have funding that enables me to include my colleagues in my projects to bring extra dimension and richness to my work. This takes it to another level and also positions it more broadly and impactfully. For example, many colleagues are grounded in theoretical or policy-facing work, and I come from a more practice-based background, so we are a marriage made in heaven!

Developing the researchers and PhD supervisors of tomorrow - and also learning from them! Being in roles within the Faculty that can make a real difference, such as through my Equity and Diversity work.

What working achievement are you most proud of? 

I am proud to develop and undertake research projects that maintain standards of high rigour throughout, choosing transdisciplinary approaches that aim to make use of the most appropriate methods for the research question. Throughout my research career, I have tended to be at the forefront of new developments, often facing obstacles as a result, rather than adopting what is fashionable for an easier win. I, therefore, see myself as a methodological change-maker.

My work always aims to be transformative for the people it focuses on - to change people’s lives in some way - whether this is through big shifts in policy and practice or smaller advances, so it is difficult to pick out any one project. But two recent examples are illustrative.

The first is a project called HEAL-D, which developed a culturally-tailored diabetes self-management education and support programme for people of African and Caribbean heritage in the UK. In 2019, we won a national award. HEAL-D is now being commissioned within the NHS.

The second is my current work, CICADA, which is considering the strengths and assets different migrant communities have drawn on to cope with inequities and discrimination in health and social support in the face of ill health and disability. We are collecting their stories about their pandemic and post-pandemic experiences, with around 250 interviews, a survey of around 4,000 people, and workshops. Significantly, we are including people from diverse minoritised ethnic groups (including undocumented migrants) with a range of disabilities and chronic health conditions.

What is the focus of your research and what benefits do you hope your discoveries will bring? 

My current general research focus is on marginalised groups and the importance of using intersectional approaches. I have already mentioned CICADA, a study that specifically uses members of marginalised groups as our co-researchers. The aim is to use findings to improve their health and social care in the future, hopefully developing small changes in practice that will lead to better experiences for marginalised people.

The intersectional lens is important. We should not be judged on single characteristics such as the colour of our skin or the disability we have, but every one of us should be understood in terms of the complex multiplicity of factors and experiences that shape us.

 What I tend to look at is the commonalities of marginalised experiences that can be used to drive person-centred humility in policy makers and practitioners. Within these commonalities, there will be nuanced differences between groups, but current approaches often emphasise these as markedly different and hence, homogenously categorise and ‘other’ particular communities. 

What's the most important thing you've learned from your students?

To recognise that all lecturers have unavoidable biases in the materials they present and to acknowledge those biases transparently to students as something they should deliberate on and critique, not only in terms of their courses but also when considering any information they are presented with through their careers and their lives. This has encouraged me to be reflexive, open, and honest about my positionality to students. 

Do you think being in London and/or at UCL benefits your work and why? 

UCL is in a great location that is pleasant to visit, and UCL East adds a different dimension to this with different possibilities. The main campus, so close to two key London stations, makes it easy for potential and existing collaborators to visit me from outside London. It also enables more spontaneous but often important meetings, those of the style ‘I arrive at Euston at 10 from Manchester, let’s grab a quick coffee before I go off to my meeting with NHS England’.

The site is equally accessible to research participants from other parts of the country; as my research often considers people with illnesses and disabilities, the proximity to Euston and King’s Cross is a considerable plus.

Being close to so many other London universities also facilitates collaboration within London, and of course there are all the exhibitions, knowledge exchange opportunities, and resources that London has to offer.

What other subjects interest you?

Well, I started my career as an ethologist, but I have always been fascinated by history too. 

What might it surprise people to know about you?

When I was 24, although unable to swim, I sailed across the South Atlantic on a 26ft yacht (a size that is usually reserved for leisurely cruising around the coast of a country). I did the full works, such as navigating by the sun and stars when the satnav broke, checking the CB radio for local warnings of pirates, catching swordfish and eating them, and steering through a storm at night on shipping lanes with waves engulfing the boat.

Is there anything else you would like to add about your experiences at UCL or IOE?

I would just like to thank all those people who have contributed to my work or co-supervised students with me and from whom I am constantly learning. As my career history shows, I do not like to sit still; there is still so much I want to absorb, and UCL is a great place for enabling this.

Last updated 17 February 2023.