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Inspiring Women: Baroness Deborah Bull and how the arts can support science

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life

said the painter Pablo Picasso. In the last few months, this quote came to my mind very often, particularly when my thoughts and heart felt particularly dusty, due the covid-19 situation.

During this time, as with other difficult times, the healing power of art, in the form of a book, an inspiring painting, or music, has helped me to find new energy and positive thoughts when I was feeling down.

One day, I experienced a similar effect after talking to an inspiring woman, Baroness Deborah Bull, and I think this is because she is a woman of the arts, among other things.

As a doctor and a scientist, I have always thought that science is not something separate or opposite to art. On the contrary, I feel that scientists could (or should) be a bit like artists, and that, alongside logic and methodical research, creativity and inspiration are what often make the difference in scientific discoveries.

With her long and diverse career, Deborah embodies the dialogue between art and science in all its potential. She danced professionally with the Royal Ballet for 20 years, before becoming creative director of the Royal Opera House. Currently, as Vice President and Vice Principal at King’s College London, she is the sponsor of an important research project on the effect of art on physical and mental health. Moreover, to add to her impressive resume, since 2018, she has sat in the House of Lords as Baroness Bull.

Having discussed inclusion with the clinician Paola Dazzan, and the impact of women in basic science with Francesca Cirulli, now is the time to talk with Deborah and the rising power of connecting art, science and politics. By the end of this blog, we will see how artists can fit into scientific and political environments and make the most of their “diverse voice”.

I started by asking Deborah how her career as an artist, or more precisely, a dancer, had begun.

Deborah: My passion for dancing started when I was very little. I could probably dance before I could walk- or so my Mother said- and I had always known that I would become a ballet dancer. After years of hard training, when I was 18, I was offered a place in the Royal Ballet and I had 20 years of a ballet career, ending up as a principal dancer.

Me: I know that you gradually gained higher positions involving more responsibility, like when you became creative director of the Royal Opera House in your late 30's. You know, in academia we don’t have so many women in senior roles or in positions of power, is it the same for the arts?

D: Yes, there are some aspects in common. In the ballet world, there are more women than men, but in positions of power, the situation is inverted. In particular, many women are ballet dancers or teachers, but not choreographers or company directors. In the art world in general, like in academia, the percentage of women falls as you go up the ladder, probably for some of the same reasons.

(If you want to know more about this, Deborah talked in detail about this in her speech at the House of Lords on the occasion of Women’s International Day 2020).

Me: This was not the case for you, though, as you gradually gained leadership positions. How did you make the transition from being a ballet dancer to the subsequent parts of your career?

D: I stopped performing in my late 30s, having found a series of opportunities presenting themselves alongside my career: I started writing, participating in TV and Radio shows, and undertaking a range of activities at the Royal Opera House, which then became a formalized job. I feel very fortunate because it’s not always easy to move forward from a career that has been very consuming, like the career of a ballet dancer.

Me: It looks like you built up a career through the development of different skills apart from dancing, like communication and creativity, and it seems that you have been able to be flexible. Can this be an ingredient for a successful career?

D: Yes, for me, it is the ability to connect across subjects and to be ready to flex, together with a certain amount of bravery to step away from the conventional path and think things differently.

You can’t keep doing things in the same way - the world around you changes, and in order to keep achieving, you need to change as well. Sometimes, I think it is about having developed a body of knowledge that is transferable to different domains. In my case, through the process of becoming a dancer, I learnt about resilience, dealing with failure, leadership skills and so on, and this creates a body of knowledge that is useful for what you do next.

Me: How did this body of knowledge bring you to King’s College London?

D: After 11 years as part of the Royal Opera House executive team, a position at King’s came along, in 2012. King’s was bold enough to appoint me even though my curriculum vitae was different from other senior people in the institution. King’s really does recognize the value of people who are able to make connections between the university and the world around it — in this case, it was London’s cultural landscape. I was able to build on a long history of partnership at King’s to extend its relationships across the cultural sector and to bring many excellent initiatives together under a strategic framework.

Now, Deborah is the executive sponsor of the world’s largest-ever study of the impact of arts intervention on physical and mental health- SHAPER. The project, funded by a £2m grant from the Wellcome Trust, will study three interventions: movement and music sessions for stroke patients, singing for women with postnatal depression and dance for people with Parkinson’s disease. We covered the launch of this project in another InSPIre the Mind blog, here.

Me: The core idea of this big project is that art can boost both physical and mental health. When did the epiphany about this hypothesis come and how did you manage to translate it into a big research project?

D: When I was a ballet dancer, there was a project to bring pairs of dancers to hospitals and hospices to perform for the patients. Once, at the end of the visit, I had a pleasant chat with a patient, mainly about things like my costume and my experience as a dancer. Afterwards, the ward sister thanked me, and told me that the patient had not spoken at all since she arrived. That raised in me a question: what was it about that experience that had made a difference for that person? Over the following years, I witnessed how the art experience had a positive effect in different settings. In schools, I saw that children who struggled to achieve made real improvements after engaging in arts activities. Similarly, in prisoners, arts and creative activities can develop important skills like communication, discipline and the ability to work as a team.

One of the joys of coming to King’s was the chance to connect with researchers who could bring new insights to all this. Eventually, with a brilliant group of researchers and arts partners, King’s has secured the grant to deliver the SHAPER project. The research project is in partnership with Guy’s and St Thomas’, King’s College hospital and South London and Maudsley NHS foundation trusts, arts organisations and community centres in Lambeth and Southwark. The ambition is to see these arts-based interventions embedded in NHS treatment pathways and recommended by the NHS funders, the Clinical Commissioning Groups.

Me: Why do you think the arts have this unique ability to help people and make them feel better? I think that this question is even more crucial in this particular period, with the covid-19 and social distancing rules significantly impacting on people’s mental health. Now, the positive effect of the arts is needed more than ever.

D: It is a very complex question with several answers! Art communicates without words, so it enters the body via a different language which provokes a different response, an emotional one. It can also offer a safe space for expression and to deal with some personal issues. It allows us to recognize the common element of being human, the fact that we fear and celebrate the same things.

We also know that different types of arts can have a different beneficial effect on the body: dancing provokes the release of endorphins, singing can be good for lung function and an art experience can help in different ways, often providing a sense of achievement which leads to wellbeing. And it is not surprising that during the lock-down period, people were finding ways to make music, or to read together.

At that moment, my mind pictured the image of my Italian compatriots singing together from their balconies at the start of lockdown. I remember how, in that period, art became a relief for them, and, at the same time, watching them performing was a big relief for me.

Photo from Reuters

Deborah and I then went onto talking about her experience as politician in the House of Lords. It was during this conversation that important aspects regarding the role of women came up.

D: The House of Lords is a fascinating place, with many expert voices across science, medicine, law and civil society. In parliament, women are very active. However, sometimes it looks like there are “gendered” speaking lists. For example, if there is a debate about social care or wellbeing, you can see more women speaking. In some other debates, like those about Brexit, there are not so many female voices as you would expect. This also made me realize that there was no particular mention in the debates about the impact of Brexit on women. That is why I did a speech on the topic, highlighting how, in 7-days of transcripts of debates about Brexit, counting 280,000 words, the word “women” appeared only 13 times.

Here, you can also find the link to another speech that Deborah gave last year, highlighting gender disparities in political roles. I concluded our conversation by asking her whether there is a particular project she is promoting in the House of Lords at the moment.

D: Yes, one of the things that I am working on is the problem of weight discrimination or stigma. My interest comes from the potential impact of long-term bullying in young people and whether this can lead to eating disorders or other mental issues. There is a growing stigmatization of obese people, but there is no legal protection for this discrimination, so I am raising awareness of this and I am also bringing together colleagues from the policy area, obesity community and the psychiatry community, to look together at whether there is a need for legislation and, if so, what would be the best route to get there.

As a psychiatrist myself, and one who has worked with patients with eating disorders, this is a topic that really captured my interest. I know from clinical experience how bullying, and in particular weight teasing, can be a risk factor for the development of these diseases. Also, from a research point of view, we know that obesity is often associated with depression. That is why I find Deborah’s work important to tackle crucial environmental factors behind this comorbidity, like stigma and discrimination.

I thank Deborah for our long and fascinating conversation, and I will certainly follow closely her work in the future!

We are now at the end of this story and this blog, which I like to think of as a little piece of art in itself. I personally believe that the unique ability of art is to provoke and engage people, and to generate feelings, reactions (good or bad) and passion. This is what I hope this article has done for you, providing a stimulating diversion from the worries of our current situation.


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