Student & ECR Spotlight – Sarah Breathnach highlights the importance of trialing ideas to understand what works and what doesn’t work

Please tell us about your career pathway to date.
I studied Psychology at Trinity College in Dublin and completed my masters in Behavioural Science from Stirling University in 2017. While studying for my masters, I read about a collaborative PhD programme between the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) and University College London (UCL). I applied for the programme and started as a PhD fellow in September 2017. As a PhD fellow on this programme, I work between the Behavioural Insights Team and the Department of Behavioural Science and Health at UCL where I collaborate with my supervisors on healthy eating interventions for the workplace.
How would you briefly describe your current research/job to someone who is not familiar with your field of study/work? What is your main research interest?
I divide my time evenly between BIT and UCL.
BIT is a social purpose company dedicated to the application of behavioural sciences to improve people’s lives and communities. As a member of the research and experimentation team, I work across a range of areas from health and education to crime and the environment. We focus on improving outcomes by introducing a more realistic model of human behaviour to policy; and wherever possible, enabling people to make ‘better choices for themselves’. Our work is rooted in empiricism, meaning that we trial all ideas before they are scaled up. This enables us to understand what works and (importantly) what does not work.
At UCL my focus is on the application of behavioural science to diet and health. Combining ideas from psychology and economics, we have been working on testing new ways to make healthier dietary choices easier for staff while at work.
What are the main barriers you encounter when conducting research, or what information/skills do you lack to conduct high quality research?
This summer, I hope to run two field trials to test a healthy eating intervention in the canteens of two large organisations. Running field trials of this nature involves a huge amount of organisation, planning, and juggling of the competing priorities of stakeholders. Having only run small scale studies in the past, I did not feel equipped with the necessary project management skills to take on such a mammoth task. My supervisors at UCL and my colleagues at BIT have been integral to helping me develop the necessary skills to hopefully run a successful trial.

What could help you as a student to further develop in your current position?
Meeting with other early career researchers and sharing ideas, experiences and resources has really helped me to develop as a researcher. Also, collaborating with more experienced researchers from different disciplines has definitely helped strengthened my methodological skills.

What do you think will be the next most important development in the nutrition and/or physical activity field?
Accurately measuring health behaviours remains a challenge. Developments in measurement techniques and methodological approaches will undoubtedly be important for the field going forward.


You can reach Sarah by email: [email protected]