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Scholarship student transforming lives by combining art with medicine

Thursday 25 May 2017

Here at Hallam we pride ourselves on being a university that transforms lives. And that is something that is certainly true for Fine Art graduate and PhD student Sarah Smith, who, in the space of just a year, was named 2016 Student Radiographer of The Year, received one of the Vice-Chancellor's prestigious PhD scholarships, and, earlier this week, delivered a rousing speech at the House of Lords to an audience of MPs, Lords and valued friends of the University.

Sarah’s journey to university has not been an easy one. Having escaped a domestic violent home situation with her family, and then experiencing homelessness during her teens, Sarah was driven to create a life that was different to the one she knew growing up.

It was Sarah's ambition to study art at university. So, through Hallam's partnership with her under performing school, she applied to study Fine Art - becoming the first member of her family to ever go to university, or even finish school.

“While at University I started a non-profits arts organisation and delivered workshops to deprived schools in South Yorkshire. After graduation, I began to get opportunities to do socially engaged art residencies, and I worked in America at the YMCA of Greater Boston with at risk teenagers. I fiercely believed that I could help other people who were like me, from precarious backgrounds, too.”

In 2012, Sarah fell ill and it was the experience of being a patient which made her decide she wanted to give something back to the NHS and so she returned to the University to study radiotherapy. "I felt that with my personal experience, my creative work ethic and my yearning to be a compassionate healthcare professional, I could make a small, positive difference within radiotherapy,” said Sarah. “I felt that by using my creativity, I could somehow begin to bridge the gaps I found in being a patient and going through that experience.”

Sarah won the prestigious Society and College of Radiographers 2016 Student of the Year award for her creation of RADCARE - the first ever radiotherapy patient information smartphone app. She also went on to set up A Radiotherapy Story - a website which hosted monthly photo diaries from different people involved in the radiotherapy care pathway including, patients, clinicians, ward receptionists and cleaners.

Sarah was awarded a Vice-Chancellor’s PhD Scholarship to further develop her research into how creative art practices can help inform patients going through radiotherapy treatment. Her comic, which explains the photon beams of the radiotherapy machines through illustration, has been picked up by healthcare professionals across the country who have asked to use the comic as a talking tool to help explain the process to their patients.

"I was so shocked when I found out I won the scholarship – I didn’t think I would actually get it! There would be no way I could do this without the support of the scholarship. I feel absolutely incredibly lucky that I get to combine my two degrees to come up with something that is going to make a difference to people’s lives.”

In a climate where science, technology, engineering and maths dominate higher education, Sarah is a great advocate for the foundation that her creative undergraduate degree gave her. She said: “For me, as the first person to finish school and go to university in my family, art was the way forward. It helped me see the world with a criticality I’ve not experienced to such a level in healthcare. I think I was able to get the best marks in radiotherapy because of the self-reflectivity an art degree gave me. In art, you learn about politics, society and the community - which you can apply to absolutely anything. I’m pretty sure over the next 10 years we will see art take a more prominent role in disciplines such as engineering and medicine. I really feel they go hand in hand.”

Sarah Smith received a Vice-Chancellor’s PhD scholarship, which enabled her to carry out her research which is helping to make a real difference to people’s lives who are undergoing radiotherapy. Find out more about how donations are supporting the life-changing research going on at Sheffield Hallam University here.

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