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Returners Support Programme

Dr Nicola Heslehurst, Senior Lecturer in Maternal Nutrition, NIHR Advanced Fellow, PHSI.

Nicola Heslehurst

I returned from maternity leave/shared parental leave to my Senior Lecturer role in March 2021. I had already secured funding via the returners support programme for a Research Associate (RA) for 6 months at 0.5FTE, and for childcare to support my NIHR Advanced Fellowship-related travel while continuing to breastfeed. 

The RA support has been invaluable. Within the first 2 months of my return I have submitted seven papers for publication and a stage 1 funding application to HTA. This would not have been possible without the RA support increasing my capacity, as I also returned from leave to my existing wider commitments and responsibilities relating to my NIHR fellowship research programme, PhD and masters student supervision, personal tutor for medical and nutrition students, my journal Associate Editor and special issue guest editor roles, and my leadership roles for Fuse (the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health) and the UK Association for the Study of Obesity. Since my return, I have also taken on a leadership role for the PHSI EDI committee. 


From a personal perspective, securing the returners support funding has been positive for my mental wellbeing relating to juggling academic and caring responsibilities on my return to work. On top of “normal” challenges when returning from maternity leave, COVID has added to the stress. I had planned to come back to work full-time but had concerns about my daughters transition to nursery given the lack of social interactions during her first year of life. Knowing that I had a funded RA to support my academic workload in this transition back to work was reassuring. The returners support programme has also given me confidence that I can continue to breastfeed while working full-time, even if I need to travel. My previous experience of returning from maternity leave, and the challenges of work-related travel, led to a decision to stop breastfeeding earlier than I had planned to, which I later regretted. This time, with the funded support for childcare relating to work travel, I feel much more supported to continue to breastfeed until the time is right for me and my daughter – as a public health nutritionist specialising in pregnancy and early life research I understand how important this is for us both!