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The William Harvey Research Institute - Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry

New £11.6 million PhD Programme for health research in underrepresented populations

The Health Advances in Underrepresented Populations and Diseases (HARP) PhD Programme focuses research towards people and diseases that have traditionally been underrepresented in healthcare studies.

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Tackling health inequalities is the target of a bold new £11.6 million programme of research from Queen Mary University of London and City, University of London, which will train 32 healthcare PhDs over eight years.

Funded by Wellcome, together with support from The Medical College of Saint Bartholomew’s Hospital Trust, Barts Charity, City, University of London, Barts Health NHS Trust and East London NHS Foundation Trust, the Health Advances in Underrepresented Populations and Diseases (HARP) PhD Programme recognises that if groups of people are not represented in research, then discoveries from that research are less likely to be relevant or of benefit to them.  

Most research studies identify participants through clinics or other health settings, meaning groups of people who encounter difficulties in accessing healthcare are often the same groups who are underrepresented in research, making the health differences worse. 

Co-director of HARP, William Alazawi, Professor of Hepatology at Queen Mary, outlines the remit of the new programme:

“People can be underrepresented in research for many different reasons: social inequalities such as with gender or ethnicity; circumstances that marginalise people such as poverty or homelessness; and certain health conditions such as mental health or rare diseases. This is largely because researchers have not been trained to adapt their research to be more inclusive of people with different healthcare needs. If we don’t study disease in a particular group, how do we know that our discoveries are relevant to people in that group? These are the issues that the HARP PhD Programme will address.”

HARP co-director, Edel O’Toole, Professor of Molecular Dermatology at Queen Mary, adds:

“Once you become aware of the problems around underrepresented groups, you see it all over healthcare. If you live and work in the East End of London, you are constantly reminded of the consequences of this and many of our researchers are already working hard, alongside local communities, to address these problems. In fact this is what brought City and Queen Mary together in this bid.

HARP director, Márta Korbonits is a Professor of Endocrinology at Queen Mary, and leads a research programme into rare endocrine diseases. She has found similar challenges in her area of work, saying:

“If you have a rare disease there may only be a handful of clinicians and scientists working on that condition; therefore, research on disease mechanisms or diagnostic and therapeutic options is limited. HARP PhD fellows will be committed to redressing this major cause of health inequality.”

About the programme

HARP is open to any health professional, regardless of background and the directors are particularly looking for people who bring a fresh new perspective to research.

The programme also offers support for clinicians who have not previously had the opportunity to gain research experience. They will receive 12 months’ salary, and funding for research costs, in order to gain insight into research and improve their chances of success in competing for a PhD fellowship.

Professor Leanne Aitken, co-director of the programme and Associate Dean of Research and Enterprise at the School of Health Sciences at City, University of London, shares:

“Over the lifetime of the programme, we will recruit 32 PhD fellows, regardless of background or profession, who are driven and enthusiastic and show their ability to conduct world-class research with our supervisors. 

“Getting the right people and improving the culture and environment in which they work is the first step towards achieving the health advances our underrepresented populations urgently need.”

Fellows will receive financial support from Barts Health NHS Trust and East London NHS Foundation Trust for a year after their PhD to remain academically active and continue to benefit from mentoring support from the HARP Faculty for two years.

Social Action for Health, a community-based health charity which works with local communities to address health and well-being issues most affected by health inequalities, have pledged to support HARP researchers’ learning in community engagement. 

Ceri Durham, CEO of Social Action for Health comments:

We are very aware that current academic researchers do not generally come from the communities with the greatest health difficulties. By supporting a programme which changes this, we are supporting a feasible and ambitious employment option for those underrepresented groups. In turn, this will support those communities to articulate their needs and priorities and ensure a cycle of research leading to sustained change and increased representation going forward.

How to apply

Candidates can apply to HARP at the harpphd.org website. The deadline for September/October 2022 entry is Monday 31 January 2022.