Dr Nayha Sethi

Chancellor's Fellow, Usher Institute, College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh

 Tell us about your background and journey to your current role?

I studied Law with French at Queens University in Belfast. I didn’t really enjoy my core modules but was excited by my optional module on medical law and ethics. I could identify most with that and the challenges around how we make difficult decisions that affect us all at some point in life. I knew I didn’t want to practice law but there was something  really interesting about medical law. I did my Masters in Law at Edinburgh and whilst I was writing my dissertation I was looking for jobs like my other friends were, most of us were applying for things like internships in Brussels. My brother said ‘if you like Edinburgh and the Uni, why don’t you ask around  if any jobs are going?’ and one of my Professors had a research fellowship on the Scottish Health Informatics programme. I applied not thinking I would get it – I was greatly lacking in confidence – low and behold I got the job and worked on that over three years. I was responsible for helping to develop a governance framework  for a consortium of four universities and  NHS Scotland. It was our role to identify the ethical, social and legal issues around reusing health data for research. That sparked my interested in data and I realised there was far more to it  than dry data protection law – there are lots of fascinating ethical questions, like how we facilitate important research whilst also safeguarding  privacy. There are lots of nuances around different stakeholder attitudes around data use to balance and incorporate into governance approaches as well.

So this is when I decided that my career would be in data in the health research context and alongside that, I got more and more excited about a long-term career in academia. I started a PhD part-time, I did that in five years, and in the meantime I started another fellowship at the Farr Institute. This looked at how we can overcome some of the barriers stifling important research across different sectors whilst also safeguarding the different interests of individuals and organisations. All of my fellowships have involved interdisciplinary work, especially my third fellowship before my current role where I was able to learn from anthropologists, philosophers, social scientists as well as other lawyers. The project used the anthropological concept of ‘liminality’ – this idea of inbetween-ness a state of flux and transition – and emphasised the need to  capture different human experiences in the health research landscape. My role in the project involved exploring how we try and regulate in times of uncertainty when we don’t know how technology and treatments are going to evolve and be applied. I explored this in the context of Global Health Emergencies and research and innovation.

Data and innovation are really important topics for me– we work on the assumption that innovation is good in itself, we often emphasize innovation in funding applications and we see it encouraged within policy,  – but I think we need to slow down and ask ourselves what we want and why – why are we so obsessed with ‘the new’ and with change, is it just for the sake of it?

So the Chancellor’s Fellowship in Data Driven Innovation came up and I thought ‘ooh, I need to apply!’ I sounded it out with colleagues and mentors and I thought it was an exciting opportunity in terms of my own career and cementing my independent research voice, but also contributing towards something incredibly important. It’s so important that we get the governance of this innovation project right, that we innovate responsibly. If you think about scandals like Cambridge Analytical, Facebook and care.data, it’s clear that it’s so easy to get things wrong and to lose public trust.

It’s a really exciting time with the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Deal – for example, lots of countries are engaging with big data, data driven innovation and the idea of  ‘Smart Cities’,we’re currently living  in the fourth industrial revolution and an era of big data. I’m so happy to be a part of it and actively shaping it.


Can you tell us about a typical day of work now?

To be honest, I don’t have a typical day. As you know being in academia, it’s always hectic and your day depends on deadlines and meetings. At the beginning of each day, I try and spend time looking at the news just to keep in the loop with what’s going on in the world. My meetings can range to participating in research seminars, conducting internal and external meetings for committees, sitting on working groups, one-to-ones at the university, I also supervise students. I do a bit of teaching – and I try to squeeze some time in for reading and writing. At the minute I’m working on a book chapter, a research proposal, a conference and some articles. I mentor some junior colleagues, largely on their proposals and applications. It’s a very varied jobs but it’s a delicate balance on trying to keep up your commitments but safeguarding time for your own intellectual curiosity and research.

I always prep for meetings – I recommend to people to go in with an idea of what you want to contribute and what you want to get out of discussions. It makes meetings so much more efficient for everyone involved.


So what part of your work is your passion and that you wish you could do more of?

Good question. I’m working on a funding proposal for a project that looks at concepts of innovation and what it actually means to do innovation and especially responsible innovation it means different things to different people in different contexts and in different times.

There are lots of invisible practices that are shaping innovation and that’s something I’m really fascinated by.

I’m working on a few different projects at the moment. I’m starting to get my head around AI as well, health applications of AI. I’m reading an amazing book at the moment called Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks and another one called Re-Engineering Humanity, they’re both focused on how data and related technologies are affecting and transforming society (both positively and negatively) and what it means to be a human being at this time. That’s the stuff that excites me. I’m excited by the possibilities of these developments but again – we have to confront and balance all the potential with the questions around misuse of data, safeguarding important interests, avoiding further perpetuating inequalities. There’s a sense of urgency with my work, we should have thought about some of these questions years ago rather than after technologies are already in use. There’s lots of work to be done and it needs to be done now!


What specific projects are you doing ?

I’m co-editing a handbook on health research regulation, which has 40 different chapters with people from all over the world and multiple disciplines contributing, looking at which regulatory tools we should implement with regulating different health spaces and technologies. For example, my own chapter looks at rules, principles and guidelines. There’s a big debate going on at the moment as to whether we create specific legislation for AI, whether we adopt hard and fast laws or whether we adopt overarching principles that are more flexible but also more abstract.

I’m doing a project with a colleague in Argentina where we’ve been interviewing people on the barriers to data driven innovation in the health sector. Argentina is a middle-income country though and we’re thinking of doing research on more low-income countries to explore data poverty and inequalities around data use. Argentina is very interesting, there are some excellent private hospitals who are leaders in adopting data-driven technologies and then there are some hospitals who struggle to keep up with their paper records. There are huge discrepancies whilst governments are massively pushing digitisation.

I’m also working with colleagues in Singapore and Melbourne to think about dynamic and responsive governance frameworks that can adapt to rapidly changing attitudes, practices and landscapes.

My own independent research is focussing on how we build responsible approaches to research and innovation in health for example in AI.


What do you think women bring to this line of work?

So much! Women are typically under-represented in this area so they can bring different intellectual insights in to male dominated disciplines. We also tend to be kind, pragmatic, generous with our time, and supportive, which are skills that shouldn’t be underappreciated whoever is giving and receiving them.


What would you recommend to women and girls who’d like to do what you’re doing?

Don’t apologise before speaking (don’t start your sentences with ‘Sorry’ and try not to undermine yourself). Know your own worth, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want, and don’t be afraid to be direct. It’s so helpful to find role models, critical friends and critical allies. Academic relationships are about your academic capabilities but they’re also about open mindedness, open spirit and humility. Identify your strengths and appreciate them, but recognise that we live in an extremely competitive world where not every paper will be published, you won’t get every job you apply for, not all funding you’ve applied for will be awarded. That can be disheartening but picking yourself up and resilience are important. Be kind to yourself and kind to others. Know your own self-worth and be your own cheerleader as well as cheering others on!


Do you find your work supportive of women?

I really do. I am incredibly lucky to have bosses, colleagues and mentors who are extremely supportive and know the challenges women can face. Our university is pretty good in terms of initiatives that help and recognise women – Athena Swan is one and the Scottish Feminist Judgements Project . That being said, there is a lot of room for improvement. There is still a lack of women in senior positions, particularly Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women, within academia. Women are disproportionately affected by things like precarious contracts and  taking a career break, to have a family and so on. There’s still a lot of covert discrimination towards women that isn’t always obvious but can have serious effects.


Are you confident that things will improve?

Yes, I am. It has changed in  positive ways already, for example there are more female  colleagues, more diversity in offices and more women delivering keynotes at conferences. But again, that’s not enough, there are still plenty of all male panels for example, but it’s got better over the last 10 years. It all links with the wider issues in STEM, doesn’t it?

I work with inspiring and incredible women and have some great male colleagues who are genuinely supportive of women succeeding. I’m also so happy that this Women in Data project is happening! Showcasing what women are up to and giving platform for role models is so important.

A couple more tips – call out behaviour in respectful ways, people don’t always realise they’re doing something harmful and would probably like the chance to rectify it. For example, challenge, sometimes subtly and sometimes with plain talking, why it’s almost always the woman taking the notes in the meeting! Remember too you don’t always need to be liked and agreeable in absolutely everything you say and do, sometimes things need to be said and you need to be true to yourself!


What is the best opportunity you’ve had in your career thus far?

Gosh! I’ve been extremely lucky in general. To be honest, this current Chancellor’s Fellowship – it’s a really important step in my career in terms of establishing and driving my own research agenda. Edinburgh has an amazing track record in Data Driven Innovation so I’m working with incredible colleagues in a lively, fast-paced environment not just here in the city but in a global context, because these are not just domestic but worldwide issues and projects!


What are you proud of?

Getting my PhD, it is very time consuming especially when working full-time and trying to have a life outside work and study. That was challenging. It is a test of perseverance, patience and determination. Sitting in my viva ( oral examination) – and as we chatted about earlier before the interview began about imposter syndrome, we all get it – but sitting there and thinking ‘YES this is novel, this is original and I AM the expert’ was just great. There’s something so empowering and satisfying about going through that process. I put down ‘Dr Sethi’ with pride.

I’m also proud of the various teams I’ve been a part of, inspired by Professor JK Mason (Ken), who is sadly no longer with us, he was one of the professors I studied under when I first came to Edinburgh and we became friends. He was amazing and was still writing textbooks when he was 95! We established the Mason Institute based in the Law School and it was so incredible to see that team form and evolve, inspired by Ken’s values around openness of spirit, generosity and capacity-building. At the heart of this is that academia is not just about writing papers, it is about contributing to something bigger than yourself.


Lots of things to be proud of! So what do you look forward to?

I’m excited about this project around responsible innovation in different contexts. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to innovation. It’s a process – like consent, it is not a moment, it’s an ongoing process.  Approaches to law and ethics ought to be reflexive.


What do you do when the working day is over?

Music is a big part of my life. I love gigs and I’m learning to play the sitar at the moment. Learning an instrument is fun, meditative and the science is teaching us that learning music develops parts of the brain that other hobbies can’t.

I love gin and tonic and relaxing with friends. Getting out and about to see Scotland too, it is such a stunning part of the world. We are so lucky to live in this place. I love travelling and  cooking –  I’m from Northern Ireland my parents are from Delhi so food is a big part of my life and I love feeding people.


Do you have a hero or heroine to share?

I have many heroines,  Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai are incredibly inspiring young women, but it’s important to remember your everyday heroes at home – friends and colleagues who are heroes and heroines, trooping through life and inspiring me on a daily basis!

Image of Dr Nayha Sethi
Dr Naya Sethi is a DDI Chancellor's Fellow

We’re in the middle of the fourth industrial revolution and an era of big data. I’m so happy to be part of it and be actively shaping it

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