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Researcher Spotlight: Dr Lucy Blake

17 Nov, 2014

Lucy BlakeOur Researcher Spotlight shines on Dr Lucy Blake this week. Dr Blake is a research associate at the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, conducting some fascinating research into family relationships – especially those within “non-traditional” families. Her work helps give a voice to those people who can get overlooked by assumptions about what families consist of…

What are you working on? 

I’m working on a number of different studies at the moment, all of which are about family relationships and psychological well-being in families created by assisted reproduction. I’m currently coordinating a study based in the US looking at families in which gay couples have become parents through the use of surrogacy, a process in which a woman carries a child to term for the intending parent/s.

I am also working on a UK study of families in which heterosexual couples have started their families through the use of donated sperm, donated eggs or surrogacy. In addition to these large-scale studies, I’m conducting a smaller scale, qualitative study of men’s experiences of genetic and non-genetic fatherhood.

I am also interested in estrangement, where relationships between family members have broken down.

What does your average day involve?

I don’t really have an average day at work. One day I might be trying to recruit families for a study, which can sometimes be quite glamorous. I recently found myself at ‘Family Week’ in Provincetown, Cape Cod, where over 500 families headed by gay and lesbian parents had come together for a week-long holiday.

On a more typical day, I might be doing data entry and basic project management tasks – which essentially means emailing, database work, and drinking lots of tea.

Other days I might be working on an analysis for a paper – either doing some statistics or reading through streams of interview transcripts. If it is a Friday, our research centre stops for coffee at 11, which is a lovely time to catch up with colleagues and eat a slice or two of cake.

Why is your work important? 

The Centre for Family Research produces research that is used by legislators and policy makers all over the world. Families continue to change and there are many new and emerging family forms about which we know relatively little.

We provide policy makers with evidence that can be helpful when debating a number of questions. For example, do children have a right to be told that they were conceived using donated sperm or eggs? How do families created by surrogacy, and the surrogates and their families, fare over time? Do children growing up in a family without a mother differ from children who grow up with a mother and a father, and if so, in what kind of ways?

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What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

The families with which I work are typically in a minority. The children I talk to may have been conceived using a sperm donor, and/or growing up in families headed by one mum, two mums, two dads, etc. These are the families who do not commonly feature in children’s story books, and the children in these families often feel that their families are invisible. Our research gives these families a voice, and it is this aspect of my work that I am most passionate about.

More broadly, I hope that the work I do will have a positive impact on the kinds of conversations that we have about family as a society. There is a lot to gain from moving beyond assumptions and studying families as they actually are.

How did you come to be working on this in this field?

I knew that I wanted to study Psychology before I really knew what it was. I have always been interested in people and in relationships. My interest in family relationships in particular is no doubt driven by own experiences and family history. Trying to figure out what matters for relationships and what makes families work is something that I think I will always find interesting.

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career? 

I am very fortunate to be in the middle of a five-year postdoctoral position. The learning curve has been steep, and the lessons that I am learning will no doubt be of great value throughout my career. I suspect that I will never again have this time or freedom to pursue my research interests, so I appreciate that it is a luxury.

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

No one question comes to mind, but I do often end up having very personal conversations with people I have only just met. There was the immigration officer in Brisbane who told me how he and his wife had been trying to have a child for over ten years without any luck; the Cambridge Professor who expressed regret that his main contact with his grandchildren who lived far away was through Skype; and then there was the stranger who told me that he had only learnt of his adoption when he was 12 and how that had come as a big shock. There really is no telling how the conversation will go!

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

Again there is no one question. There is without a doubt a contentious political and religious element to the work that I do, so discussions can sometimes turn fiery and personal. These days I generally try to speak less and listen more.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I spend a great deal of time writing papers for scientific journals and doing statistical analyses, but was never particularly interested in maths or science at school. I wouldn’t have dreamt for a moment that I would do the job that I have now. I also love nothing more than to binge-watch really bad quality reality TV.

What keeps you awake at night? 

I sleep like a log – it’s getting out of bed that’s the problem.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

enjoy yourselfAs a teenager I remember feeling particularly anxious about one of my A-level exams. On the day of the exam, my dad said to me – “You’ve done all of the work, so just go out there and enjoy yourself.” At the time I thought he was a bit mad, but as I get older, it’s a mindset that I think is very important. Work hard, give it your best shot, and have fun.

The chain reaction question, set by previous spotlit researcher Dr Lindsay Hall is this: What keeps you sane?

I do half an hour of iyengar yoga practice before work, which helps keep me calm, healthy and strong. And I’m also lucky to have thoughtful, considerate and supportive colleagues who I can turn to for help and encouragement.

You can find out more about Dr Lucy Blake’s research by following her on Twitter and by reading her papers ‘Daddy ran out of tadpoles’: how parents tell their children that they are donor conceived, and what their 7-year-olds understand and Parent psychological adjustment, donor conception and disclosure: a follow-up over 10 years.

Image credit: Dr Lucy Blake,  “My two dads” by J L T on Flickr – CC-BY-SA

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