Career file: Ally Gibson

Ally Gibson, is a long-time ISCHP member and co-host of the ISCHP pod-cast. Originally hailing from South Africa, Ally has just taken up a lectureship in the recently established School of Health at Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand).  Prior to this, she held a postdoctoral fellowship in the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at UNSW Sydney (Australia), where she also coordinated the Qualitative Research Network Hub.  We asked Ally about her career path, experiences, and thoughts about working as an academic.

Tell us how your involvement with ISCHP began and about your experience thus far.  My first foray into the ISCHP community was prompted by my PhD supervisor, Christina Lee, just months after I had started studying at the University of Queensland in Australia in 2011. That year, it was being hosted in Adelaide and Christina thought it would be a good idea for me to, ‘just go along and meet lots of lovely people’ working in the area of critical health psychology.

Ally with ISCHP comrades, Brett Scholz and Gareth Treharne, in Queenstown New Zealand.

Coming from a strong tradition of critical psychology in South Africa, and having previously worked with Catriona Macleod, I had already had exposure to the values and practices that characterise this field, but that first conference gave me a unique opportunity to meet a lot of academics working in the area at one time. At the conference, I was struck by how much ISCHP felt like a genuine community of practice. That, despite the geographical distances separating everyone, there were relational and collaborative ties that seemed to draw people together and consequently generate new knowledge in the field.

Of course, like any community, people cluster together and break off into smaller groups at times, but I remember being warmly welcomed by ISCHP members, and particularly the effort that many of the senior academics made in taking the time to have conversations with me and my fellow PhD students. Keen to get involved in such a community, I signed up to be a Post-Graduate Student rep on the ISCHP committee, then moved on to be an Early Career Liaison and have contributed in other ways through The Operative Word podcast and running conference workshops.

The Operative Word is the International Society of Critical Health Psychology’s podcast, co-edited and presented by Britta Wigginton, Ally Gibson, and Brett Scholz. New episodes are released every second month. Listen or download from whichever platform you get your podcasts.

Going to the biennial conferences are the highlight of my conference calendar, allowing me to see friendly faces, catch up with international colleagues, and share knowledge with each other – not to mention the unmissable events, like the Pecha Kucha talks, the 5-Minute Challenges, and the requisite dancing at the conference dinner!

How did you come to be an academic? What prompted this career path?  Like most students in psychology, I originally thought I’d make a career of being a clinical psychologist, until I reached my Honours year. Catriona Macleod supervised my research project, where I was introduced to key texts in discursive theory, feminism, and women’s health. Needless to say, I was soon hooked by the opportunities research in critical health psychology allowed for interrogating taken-for-granted assumptions and practices relating to health and illness.

Catriona went on to supervise my Master’s of Research, after which I moved to Australia to work with Christina Lee, later joined by my co-supervisor, Shona Crabb, who I met at my first ISCHP conference. I count myself extremely lucky to have been mentored by such successful academics, who also happen to have been so generous in sharing their knowledge and skills with me.

This year I finally find myself in New Zealand, which I’ve considered my ‘academic home’ for a while now, where I get to work with Antonia Lyons and be active in the dynamic community of critical psychology that works in this country. As I always say, I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything other than what I do now.

Ally during a visit to Aotearoa New Zealand, her “academic home”, in 2017

If you could change something about academe, what would it be and why?  If I could change one thing it would be the relentless drive towards unattainable metrics that seem to ever-more present in academe globally. While it’s worthy to set goals to challenge yourself and work towards, I believe the metrics that are being set by universities are becoming increasingly impossible to reach, and are already having destructive psychological and social effects on academics. I’m continually disheartened by articles and anonymous letters in papers like The Guardian about the burnout, suicides, and psychological distress being caused by the current metric-driven culture of academia.

Personally, I have experienced the impact of trying to live up to these standards, which I have paid for at times in very real ways with my psychological and physical health. I have also experienced first-hand the impact that uncritically buying into this culture can have on social relationships between academics, where colleagues are pitted against each other, where competition is valued over collaboration, and ideas become closely-guarded secrets. It’s taken a conscious effort on my part to push back on that culture and managing feelings of still being ‘good enough’.

I think what sets ISCHP apart is that a different culture is fostered both at and between conferences, through people’s generosity and warmth – something which continues to give me hope while working in this career.

What are you working on at the moment?  I’m currently dabbling in a few things, including co-editing a book. My main focus right now is on a pilot project that I’m leading on issues of ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ in the provision of cervical cancer screening to trans and gender diverse people. I was lucky enough to find a team of incredible collaborators at the University of New South Wales, University of Sydney, Family Planning NSW, and trans advocacy group, Pash.TM. Despite having moved countries (again!), I’m keen to get stuck into analysing the transcripts of interviews we conducted last year with key stakeholders in trans advocacy and cancer screening. Our aim is that this will generate some exciting ideas to explore in a larger, funded project in the future.

If you got an enormous research grant to do any research you like, tell us about the project you’d do!  Goodness! That would be like winning the academic lottery. I would love to do a project that allows me to collaborate with colleagues located in the UK, Australia, and Canada (as well as locally in NZ!), where we could examine cancer prevention strategies that are created for LGBTIQ communities. I would be interested in better understanding contextual nuances, in terms of how cancer prevention campaigns are tailored for a community that is so diverse in its makeup. I would imagine most of the grant money would be spent on using creative, visual methods (which can often quickly add up!), and on activities that promote knowledge exchange between the research team and community members and organisations – something that doesn’t usually come cheap, unfortunately!

What/who inspires your work and why?  Too many to mention! I find that most of my mentors or sources of inspiration do come from the ISCHP community. I can think of people like Kerry Chamberlain and Ginny Braun who are my go-to people for a stimulating and challenging conversation about qualitative methods and their application in health research. But one of my main areas of interest is also the interplay of gender and sexuality with health and illness, which always leads me to check out what Gareth Treharne, Damien Riggs, and Liz Peel (among others) are up to. And I also always find the work of Sara Ahmed resonates with my thinking, because of the ways she manages to so eloquently articulate things that I’ll be in the process of questioning or exploring.

How would you like to be remembered/what do you want to be remembered for by the academic community one day?  I hope to be remembered for always being approachable and generous as an academic, to be considered a mentor and collaborator to others.

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