It’s a cold Friday afternoon in Cardiff. Snow is covering the trees and the park outside; the view from the window looks like a greeting card.
I pour myself a cup of tea and get ready to ‘meet’ Gill Windle. I say meet in inverted commas because Gill right now is sitting in her office in Bangor University.
We try to connect on a video call but the technology gods are against us today so we settle for a good old chat over the phone instead.
Gill is a professor at the university and an associate director of one of Health and Care Research Wales’ funded centres, the Centre for Ageing and Dementia Research (CADR).
But all of that is a long way from where Gill started out.
“I actually went back to university as a mature student,” recalled Gill. “I didn’t do the traditional school, A Levels and university route. I left school at 16, worked and then I did an access to higher education course at Coleg Menai. That was in 1996 and the following year I started a degree in psychology.
“It was quite early on in my degree that I thought I really like the research side of things. I just really loved reading and writing and I guess that’s where it all started.”
While Gill was studying psychology she was surrounded by researchers who she describes as “some of the best in the world”.
“That feeling brushed off on you,” she said. “It was nice to feel that you were learning from people who were at the forefront of what was being done at that point in time, particularly around neuropsychology and issues around brain and behaviour.”
In the last year of her degree, Gill started to think about what she could do next. She sent emails to a few lecturers offering her services as a research assistant, either paid or unpaid.
“I had a couple of replies; one was from Professor Mark Williams, who does a lot of research around mindfulness, particularly people with severe depression. He said, ‘we’ve got a couple of weeks do you fancy doing that?’
“Those two weeks turned into six months covering someone for maternity leave and that then turned into a two and a half year research assistant post. While I was doing that I did my Masters and then I got funding to do a PhD, and it kind of all rolled on from there really.”
At an early point in her research career Gill remembers a pivotal moment.
“I was working with Vanessa Burholt at the Centre for Social Policy Research here in Bangor and the first thing that people said to me was, ‘if you want to stay employed doing research and you’re not keen on going into lecturing, then you need to bring your own money in’.
“So that kind of stuck with me. I learned very quickly how to write research proposals!”
After Gill finished her PhD, she took on a fellow role that was jointly funded by the Neurodegenerative Diseases and Dementia Network and the Older People and Ageing Network.
“That funding supported me to write research proposals,” explained Gill. “I actually did quite well, especially with the research councils.
“Universities would never be able to pay somebody to dedicate the time to writing proposals, so without that fellowship funding I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did.”
Gill has had her calculator out recently and there’s a hint of a smile and pride in her voice as she shares her sums with me.
“I had a quick tot up and over the past five years my research proposals have brought in around 11 and a bit million pounds in grants. So, that’s not bad is it! And that was essentially from being funded to write research proposals.”
Gill’s first research studies were about ageing but now her focus is on dementia; a switch that happened when she started working with Professor Bob Woods at the Dementia Services Development Centre.
“For me one of the issues is around care,” said Gill. “Traditionally so much money has been invested in trying to find cures and understanding the causes, the genetic causes, and far less has actually gone into care.
“And the reality is most people are living with dementia so we need to know how best we can support them, so they can live as well as possible.”
As we chat, Gill tells me about her younger years as a competitive swimmer, the horse she owns and her love for the outdoors. Exercise is Gill’s antidote to a busy work life.
“When you’re sat in front of a computer all day, it’s good to have something you can switch off with.
“I enjoy swimming still but now I’m older I don’t like doing competitions any more – I think I get enough competitiveness through my job that I don’t need to put myself through it at the weekends as well!”
I’m keen to find out what Gill thinks is her biggest achievement so far in her career.
“My PhD, because it was all mine!” laughed Gill. “But also my ‘Dementia and Imagination’ research study.
“That was an arts and science project. It was really out there in terms of the interdisciplinary mix, and we did things that other studies hadn’t done before.
“We went to festivals, like Green Man, and the arts were used just as conversation starters – getting people to talk about dementia.
“I think that’s had quite a legacy actually. We’re still feeling the impact of that project now.”
As for the future, Gill wants her research to tackle issues of exclusion and fear that surround people living with dementia.
“I’d like to think that people living with dementia feel able to step out of the door and take part in society. It’s probably as simple as that actually, because at the moment I don’t think they do.”
Gill is about to start work on a new project looking at some of the rarer forms of dementia.
“We’ve only just got used to talking about dementia, without talking about what type of dementia. I think that’s perhaps the next steps, particularly where we’re talking about tailored treatments. We have to think about the different experiences people have living with the different kinds of dementia, because they are quite different.
“I would imagine that perhaps in five years’ time the vocabulary we use when we’re talking about dementia will be different.”
The snow hasn’t reached Gill, which is good news as she has plans to go out on the hills this weekend walking with her husband.
Her thoughts will be far from work out in the fresh air but Gill tells me she’ll soon be putting her bid writing skills to the test again.
“I really want to be able to develop the team that we’ve got here at Bangor because I think one of the issues for dementia research is there’s not enough people coming through to do the work.
“Just developing capacity is a major focus for me over the next few years so I’m going to be looking for funding that can support that kind of activity.”
For now, we’ll have to wait and see who might follow in those 11 and a bit million pound footsteps. It’s officially the weekend and Gill is switching off her computer.