Sonia Vougioukalou

Ethnobiology PhD

Staff members were genuinely interested in the doctoral research, even if it wasn’t their area of specialisation.  

What was your area of research?

I looked at the way people in the Cook Islands engage in health-seeking behaviour, which means what do they do when they’re ill? Do they go to the traditional doctor, or do they go to the hospital? They often did both.

My PhD was an integrated study of medical anthropology, ethnobotany and plant conservation: I was able to see how they access plants and conserve them in order to be able to treat themselves and others. I also looked at how this bundle of indigenous knowledge on plant use gets passed on to the next generation.

I enjoyed the complexity and challenge of researching how a knowledge system affects a natural system and the other way around. It’s an interplay between culture and nature and I think that’s really dynamic and exciting.

Why did you choose to study at Kent?

The University of Kent is the only university in the UK that offers an ethnobiology PhD course, which is a combination of anthropological and biological sciences. I was attracted by the unique combination of the natural and social sciences.

I also had the opportunity to harness the power of digital and online media in ethnography. My PhD was associated with the work of Professor Michael Fischer at the Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing. We were developing methods for digital and interactive ethnography that were methodologically quite innovative at that time.  

What attracted you to the PhD? 

Before coming to the University of Kent, I had completed a Master’s degree
which involved spending a month and a half in the Cook Islands on the South Pacific. I’d looked at the Pacific Banyan, an endangered strangler fig tree species which was very important culturally and spiritually.

I wanted to further my studies in the cultural and biological importance of medicinal plants. Professor Fischer at the School had expertise in social anthropology in the Cook Islands and he agreed to be my supervisor.

What was really special about studying at Kent was that staff members were genuinely interested in the doctoral research that was going on, even if it wasn’t their area of specialisation.  

We had a very vibrant research community with weekly meetings and seminars, spending a lot of time discussing our ideas afterwards.

What does your current job involve?

I work in the School of Healthcare Sciences at Cardiff University. I’m a Research Associate in Health Services Research, working mostly in health and social care projects.

My particular expertise is in the use of participatory methodologies to understand the often-different and difficult experiences of patients, relatives and healthcare providers and to contribute to improved health services.

I use approaches from medical anthropology such as ethnographic and visual methods to understand patients’ experiences of illness, treatment and survivorship.

Overall, I would say that my research contributes to the delivery of speedier inexpensive innovation in health and social care services through engaged research.

I’m also developing new techniques in visual anthropology: I’m complementing my work with arts for health workshops, helped by an experienced artist researcher. Patients make art of their own experiences so they can be communicated directly to healthcare professionals. These are then shared online through our project blog.

Another thing I’m doing is working in collaboration with a developer to create an app which gives cancer patients access to online financial advice. So I can still apply digital and visual anthropological methods to my work, this time to improve cancer care.

We’ve also just been awarded a large grant by the National Institute for Health Research for a two-and-a-half-year research project using ethnography to improve dementia care in hospitals. I worked with my colleague Dr Katie Featherstone, who’s leading the research, and with clinicians, and people living with dementia and their carers, on a research proposal about using ethnography to improve the humanity and dignity of dementia care service users.

What I’ve done is not the obvious career choice after doing a PhD in Ethnobiology, but it’s not an impossible one. If more people were willing to consider it, then anthropology could be used to make a real difference to patient care.

It would work for graduates who want to make a difference to people’s lives in a very direct way – not everybody does or is able to work so closely to human suffering.

What’s next for your career?

While I continue my research I’m looking for opportunities to get a permanent lectureship in the field of applied health research specialising in cross-cultural healthcare and health inequalities.

What advice do you have for students considering undertaking a PhD?

I think that it’s important to grow a thick skin. Scrutinising ideas and knowledge is part and parcel of academia so it’s important to have the courage of your convictions and not to let criticism get you down.

It’s also very important to be determined in the path you want to take – before I established myself as a researcher I had numerous job and grant proposal applications rejected. After each rejection I always sought advice on how to improve my skills and how to present them in a grant or job application.

I have very fond memories of the University – the campus and city are very pleasant and the academic community was unique. I still keep in touch with the other alumni; we have good memories of the time and space we were given to develop our ideas, even though they didn’t lead to working on our PhD topic for the rest of our lives. Perhaps that was for the best!