Arriving in the UK 17 years ago Dr Blell was excited by the huge potential that NHS data offered for research.
A socialised healthcare system dedicated to delivering care for all, and one which gathered immense amounts of information that could be used to help answer any number of questions seemed remarkable. It was a sharp contrast with her home country of the USA where care is highly fragmented.
However, over the years she felt growing concerns over ethics and governance in the UK, and also worried that public concerns about data use were not being taken seriously enough.
After originally studying at the University of South Florida she took a masters and PhD in anthropology at Durham, remaining there as a researcher. Initially her research addressed questions of epidemiological significance using the quantitative data resources generated by some of the UK’s large longitudinal cohort studies, which involved the integration of data from medical records with data collected over the lifetimes of the participants.
Dr Blell then went to East Africa where she was engaged in capacity building projects with public health professionals. Since returning to the UK she has worked in academia, was awarded an HDR UK fellowship in 2018, and is currently based in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at the University of Newcastle where she is a biosocial medical anthropologist.
These days her prime area of interest is the research system itself and the end uses of data. This includes whether there are entrenched biases in algorithms on which research and care are based – meaning that some sections of society are underrepresented or ill-served by the healthcare system. It also embraces whether the public is sufficiently informed about data use, and how it can be used by government, large organisations and businesses.
This could be either to carry out research that is unethical, to make data a source of profit or in the use of personal information for surveillance.
While much of her work is academic, Dr Blell is also engaged in public facing projects including collaborating a group of artists to create thought-provoking pieces, including a video and an app, raising awareness of issues on data use.
Mwenza’s career path
- BA (Hons) in Anthropology, University of South Florida
- MSc by research in Biological Anthropology, University of Durham
- PhD in Anthropology, University of Durham
- Researcher, University of Durham
- Lecturer, Virtual University of Uganda
- Teaching Fellow and Researcher, University of Bristol
- Lecturer in Sociology, University of Cambridge
- Rutherford Fellow and Newcastle University Academic Track Fellow, Newcastle University.