Student & ECR spotlights – Anna Roberts’ PhD aims to improve the quality of life of people living with and beyond cancer through physical activity

Please tell us about your career pathway to date.

I studied Psychology (BSc Hons) and Health Psychology (MSc), both at the University of Nottingham in the UK, between 2010-2014. In the year between finishing my MSc and starting my PhD, I held several part-time positions to gain different experiences that were important in securing my PhD position. I worked as a Research Assistant at the University of Nottingham, as a relief worker in a residential care home, and as a volunteer for a large cancer charity in the UK, in a role which aimed to support people living with and beyond cancer with a range of financial, psychological, social and physical issues following their diagnosis and treatment. I then moved to London to begin my PhD at UCL, with a few more months left to go. 


How would you briefly describe your current research to someone who is not familiar with your field of study? What is your main research interest?

People living with and beyond cancer (LWBC) can face debilitating side effects (e.g. fatigue, sleeping problems, anxiety and depression). Some treatments can also lead to loss of muscle and physical function, and can leave people LWBC at increased risk of other health conditions (e.g. heart problems). Physical activity can alleviate these side effects, improve quality of life, physical function and muscle strength. Observational evidence suggests that physical activity may also reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and both cancer-specific and all-cause mortality. However, people LWBC can find it difficult to increase physical activity after treatment, often due to these ongoing side effects and fear about what type of physical activity they can participate in and when, and how to start or increase physical activity safely. 

My research aims to look at whether smartphone apps are an appropriate and effective way to help people LWBC to increase physical activity and how best to integrate this type of support into the existing cancer care pathway in the UK.



What are the main barriers you encounter when conducting research, or what information/skills do you lack to conduct high quality research?

It is extremely challenging to recruit participants who are less active and who may benefit the most from the types of interventions we are developing and evaluating. As a result, the research I conduct lacks diversity and generalisability. Being able to recruit participants who are more representative of the general population may increase the likelihood of effective translation into clinical practice during implementation. 


What could help you as a student to further develop in your current position?

The chance to network and build relationships with researchers from different institutions around the world is a really important part of career development and opportunities for career progression and development (e.g. post-doc positions and research exchanges) can arise as a result. I have always found the ISBNPA conference to be incredibly supportive of ECRs and have valued the chance to receive feedback on my work and network with other researchers within a very friendly and supportive environment. 


What do you think will be the next most important development in the nutrition and/or physical activity field?

I believe the most important development that we must strive for with regards to the nutrition and physical activity research field will be to ensure that the research we undertake targets those most in need. For instance, those from underserved groups of the population (e.g. lower socioeconomic status) tend to be harder to target in appropriate interventions, are less likely to participate in trials and benefit from the research we conduct. Without work to specifically target these challenges, these inequalities are set to widen.