Valerie Dunn is a co-founder of the Creative Research Collective ( and Visiting Research Fellow, University of Cambridge, Dept. of Psychiatry/National Institute for Health Research Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRC) East of England*

As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was about 12, the careers person at my ‘rough school’ (my mother’s words) asked everyone what they wanted to be. I said I wanted to go to university. I had no idea what I wanted to study, but I was quite clever and, secretly, liked learning - this wasn’t something you admitted to. Everyone, including the teacher, laughed. I didn’t embark on a degree at until I was 24, at Bulmershe College, which was later subsumed, I think, by Reading University’s Faculty of Education.

What was your first professional job? And first project there?
Before research, I worked in children’s residential care, trained as a teacher and worked in the charity sector. My first research post was at the University of Oxford, Dept of Psychiatry. I was a research assistant on a large epidemiological study of eating disorders which involved interviewing women in their homes. I loved it.

Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
Moves were usually imposed as studies were completed, funds ran out or I moved house. From Oxford I moved to Cambridge, to Developmental Psychiatry, as a research assistant on a large study of risk factors for mental health disorders in adolescents. I led on the longitudinal arm which followed up young adults an average of 10 years after their adolescent depression. I then project managed another community study of mental health in 14 - 17 year olds. I co-designed an interview with parents to record family-focused adverse experiences in their children’s lives.

When did you first turn towards a social research career?
I’ve always been most interested in the social side of mental health research. In 2008 the University became a partner in the NIHR CLAHRC* collaboration which involved a shift to more collaborative working with NHS and social care partners. I began working in a more participative, creative way with young people which feels like my natural home. Last year I co-founded the Creative Research Collective with artists, film-makers and group work practitioners (see the photo - I’m second from the left, with (L-R) Tom Mellor, Lizzy Hobbs and Andy Dunn) to develop the more participatory, creative approaches we started within the CLAHRC. So far, we’ve produced short films and a programme to prepare young people to leave child and adolescent mental health services.

What has been your best professional moment?
I have two:
Seeing my first paper in print was thrilling. I had learned a complex form of analysis which felt like a huge achievement. Professor Ian Goodyer was very supportive, giving me the opportunity to take on more responsibility, despite not having a PhD. I gained a lot of confidence.

Secondly, with young people in care, we made a trilogy of short animated films about life in the care system. The second film - Finding My Way - won the young people a British Film Institute (BFI) documentary award. A group of us attended an event at the BFI Southbank. The shortlisted films were shown and critiqued by the judging panel. When the winner was announced, there were gasps of absolute disbelief and delight from our young people. They were presented with one of those enormous cheques and did a radio interview. A truly memorable day.

...and worst?
No major disasters but interviews with a few very unwell young people stay with me.

Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
Not really, but I worked with Nick Midgley and his team (UCL/Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families) a couple of years ago and was so impressed with the way he and his team related to and respected the young people we worked with. They were warm, open, caring, insightful and focused on enabling and empowering the young people. He’s been helpful since and I appreciate his wisdom and experience in qualitative research.

Do you have a favourite quote?
In a classroom discussion an enthusiastic 10-year old was bursting to speak, waving, gasping and only just managing to stay seated. When his moment finally came, he leapt out of his chair with ‘Well, I’ve got two and a half ideas about that!’.

What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
I’m finding my way myself so don’t feel able to offer much advice. But I think perhaps participatory, creative approaches aren’t taken seriously by some academics and their institutions. So, I would suggest the young person thinks carefully about the way they wish to work and the sort of career they want. I would also recommend a grounding in, and understanding of, quantitative methods and a PhD would come in handy too.

*National Institute for Health Research Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (NIHR CLAHRC) bring together local providers of NHS services and NHS commissioners, universities, other relevant local organisations and the relevant Academic Health Science Network in England. CLAHRCs conduct applied health research across the NHS and translate research findings into improved outcomes for patients.

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