Researcher Profile - Pru Hobson-West
Contemporary science and medicine and the role of non-humans
Dr Pru Hobson-West is a Professor of Science, Medicine and Society.
Social scientists need to recognise that society is not just made up of humans – it also includes non-human animals.
How would you explain your research?
My research looks at contemporary science and medicine and, in particular, the role of non-humans. I am interested in the role that animals play in the production of medicines (as models in the laboratory), and their role as consumers of medicine (in the veterinary clinic). My work tends to focus on areas of 'controversy'. For example, I have worked on the topic of vaccines in both human and animal medicine, and tried to understand why some people campaign against their use.
What inspired you to pursue this area?
My personal journey into this field began during my PhD when I discovered that some people who campaign against vaccines for children are concerned that vaccines are tested on animals. I tried to find published research from sociologists to help me understand this. However, I noticed that whilst sociologists have studied health and medicine for decades, they have tended to ignore the role of animals. One of my research aims is to change this.
How will your research/work affect the average person?
One of the reasons I like researching health and medicine is because it is part of everyday life. Hopefully my research will help our understanding of the ways in which health and medicine cross species boundaries. Many of us also have close relationships with particular non-humans– for example as pets in our home. Better sociological understanding of these relationships may ultimately impact on how we care for animals with whom we share the planet.
Public engagement can be one way to help ensure that research has an impact beyond the University. I have enjoyed developing public engagement activities as part of my research career.
How does your research/experience influence your teaching?
My research has always fed into my teaching. Before joining the School of Sociology and Social Policy, most of my teaching was to students in the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science where I still hold an Honorary role. This means that my research can have a direct impact on the future veterinary profession.
My current teaching focuses on helping sociology students to understand controversies involving science and medicine. In doing so, I draw heavily on my own personal experience of what it is like to study a controversy that is still ongoing, and the need to always be reflexive about your own role.
What's been the greatest moment of your career so far?
I enjoy research for many reasons, including the opportunities to work on joint projects with wonderful colleagues and PhD students in Nottingham and around the world. One of my key achievements was being awarded a large five-year grant from the Wellcome Trust to study the role of animals in laboratory science. This grant is awarded to five Universities including the University of Nottingham, which means I get to work with, and learn from, leading researchers from across the UK. Being awarded research grants also means you get to create jobs and opportunities for new colleagues, which is another reason I am passionate about research.
What's the biggest challenge in your field?
Some social scientists still find it difficult to see the importance of animals and human-animal relations as a topic for academic research. Traditionally, this means that there have been fewer conferences, journals and funding opportunities for work in this field. However, the good news is that this is changing rapidly, with more and more teaching and research now going on in this area. It is also possible that the current Covid-19 pandemic may lead to even more interest in the relationship between human and animal health, given the way in which the virus appears to have crossed species boundaries.
What advice would you give to someone considering an undergraduate degree in sociology?
My advice would be to go for it! My advice would also be not to worry too much about the titles of modules you take: It is impossible to predict at the start what you will find the most interesting. For example, there may be a relatively small point made in one of the lectures that you end up researching for your dissertation and beyond.
Finally, I would suggest adopting a ‘sceptical’ attitude to everything you read. Information in the media, on websites and even in publications written by researchers should all be subject to criticism and challenge.