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Professor Mary Barker BSc, MSc, PhD, C Psychol

Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Science, University of Southampton Honorary Reader in Psychology, Institute for Women’s Health, University College London

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I am a chartered psychologist with experience of working in academic public health research and the public sector.

As a psychologist, I am interested in finding effective ways to support young men and women to become better nourished, both for their own health and well-being and for the growth and long-term health of their children.

The focus of my work is the development and evaluation of behaviour change interventions designed to improve diet, physical activity and well-being. These primarily target adolescents and women of childbearing age, to translate findings from epidemiological and mechanistic studies of the developmental origins of health and disease into interventions to improve long-term health and well-being. These interventions offer the opportunity to test models of health behaviour, and have helped elucidate the psychological mechanisms that underlie behaviour change in young women. I co-lead a multi-disciplinary team in the Medical Research Council Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit in the development and testing of a programme of complex behaviour change interventions to improve diet and body composition in population health settings in low, middle and high income countries.

Our team’s ‘Healthy Conversation Skills’ approach to improving diet and physical activity has been widely adopted in the UK as the delivery mechanism for the UK government making every contact count agenda and in large projects around the world, including the Healthy Start Workforce programme in New Zealand and the Healthy Lifecourse Trajectory Initiative (HeLTI) in Canada, South Africa, India and China. A Healthy Conversation Skills approach to improving public health was mentioned in the report of the WHO commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, has informed priority setting by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and was featured in the 2015 Chief Medical Officer for England’s annual report.

I received a BSc in Psychology from the University of Southampton in 1986 and an MSc in Environmental Psychology from the University of Surrey in 1988.  My research interest at the time was in the relationship between offending behaviour and the physical environment and, as a consequence, was appointed Research Officer working for the UK government at the Home Office. This led to a period conducting research at the University of Bristol studying the development of sex offender treatment programmes in prisons and the probation service. I moved into health research following my appointment at the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, University of Southampton in 1994. I completed my PhD in 1999 and have ever since carried out research aiming to identify ways of supporting young women to become better nourished, both for their own health and well-being and for the growth and long-term health of their babies. I was appointed an Honorary Reader in Psychology, at the Institute for Women’s Health in January 2017 and Visiting Professor at the University of Agder, Norway in 2018.


BSc, Psychology, University of Southampton 1986

MSc, Environmental Psychology, University of Surrey, 1988

PhD, University of Southampton, 1999

Appointments held:

1988-1991 Senior Research Officer, Home Office Research and Planning Unit, London

1991-1994 Research Fellow, Faculty of Law, University of Bristol

1994-1999 Research Assistant, MRC Environmental Epidemiology Unit, University of Southampton

1999-2006 Research Fellow and 2006-2011 Senior Research Fellow, MRC Epidemiology Resource Centre, University of Southampton

2011 to 2018 Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor, MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, University of Southampton

2017 to date Honorary Reader, Institute of Women’s Health, University College London

2018 to date Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Science, MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, University of Southampton

2018 to date Visiting Professor, University of Agder, Norway


Research interests

My research is focused on the development and evaluation of behaviour change interventions designed to improve diet, physical activity and well-being. My core research is carried out in the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit University of Southampton, and in the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre (NIHR funding £14,500,000) where I am co-lead for Behavioural Science and direct the Centre for Participatory Medicine.

Our behavioural science approach combines in-person, educational and digital interventions to improve diet and physical activity behaviours. Our team at the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit has developed and tested an in-person approach to empowering behaviour change that we call Healthy Conversation Skills. This is a set of skills, based on evidence of what works, that enables health and social care workers to motivate and support behaviour change in their patients and clients in a brief and opportunistic way. Training the existing workforce has the advantage over more programmatic interventions of having greater reach and of being sustainable. Though these skills can be used in any setting, we have a programme of research that applies them to improving women’s health before conception and during pregnancy.

Our flagship educational intervention is LifeLab, LifeLab is a unique, state-of-the-art teaching laboratory dedicated to improving adolescent health by giving school students opportunities to learn first-hand the science behind the health messages. LifeLab forms a platform for our interventions with UK adolescents.

Our digital interventions are developed under supervision of Prof Lucy Yardley using an iterative, person-based approach.

In projects incorporating all of these approaches, I am involved in developing and testing interventions with pregnant women, pregnant teenagers and secondary school students in the UK, women of child-bearing age in Hamilton Ontario Canada, adolescents in a rural area and young women in an urban area of South Africa and young people and women of child-bearing age in Mysore India.

PhD Supervision

I am currently supervising seven PhD students in studies relating to health behaviour, public health and mixed methods research. As of September 2017, I have supervised three PhDs to completion.

Research projects

I have involvement as principal or co-investigator on a large number of studies. Some of my key projects are listed below:


  • Engaging adolescents in changing behaviour (EACh-B): improving the diets and physical activity levels of teenagers
    Funding: NIHR 2017-2022 (£2,166,779)
  •   NIHR Global Health Research1000 days plus: Global Nutrition Research Group, INPREP3
  • Funding: NIHR 2018-2021 (£1,800,000)
  •  Global Challenge Research Fund NCDs Foundation Awards UK/India/Africa: Transforming Adolescent Lives Through Nutrition, TALENT
  • Funding: MRC 2018-2019 (£199,900)
  •  Team Grant - Healthy Life Trajectories Initiative (HeLTI): Early INterventions to Support Trajectories for healthy lifE in India, EINSTEIN
  • Funding: Canadian Institutes of Health Research/Indian DBT 2017-2022 (£4,100,000)
  • SPrING Southampton Pregnancy Intervention for the Next Generation
    Funding: MRC/SBRC/Danone Nutricia 2013-2018
  •  Pilot and feasibility study of a complex community intervention to improve rural adolescent health in South Africa, Ntshembo
    Funding: MRC/Wellcome/DFID 2017-2019 (£150,000)
  •  HUGS for Health: Healthy Bugs for Healthy Babies
    Funding: Canadian Institute for Health Research 2016-2021 (£876,000)


Research group

Human Development and Health

Affiliate research groups

Institute for Women’s Health, University College London , Research Centre for Excellence on Lifecourse Nutrition (FEED)

Memberships and external professional activities:

Member of Public Health Wales Obesity, Diet and Nutrition Expert Advisory Group (2014-15)

Member of the Norwegian Research Council public health board (2012-14)

Member of UK MRC guidance development group on process evaluation in complex public health interventions (2012-14)

Member of international advisory group and collaborator on Canadian ‘obesity prevention in pregnancy’ network, ENRICH (2013 to date)

Member of steering group for Tommys/Kings College London teen pregnancy nutrition intervention trial (2012 to date)

Member of NIHR Nutrition Biomedical Research Centre behaviour change group (2008 to date)

Trustee of the International Society for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (2015 to date)

Elected member of committee on Health Psychology in Public Health Network, UK (2014 to date)

Member of Independent Trial Steering Committee for BeCCY, an HTA funded trial of a website for contraceptive decision making (2015 to date)

Associate editor, Public Health Nutrition (2008 – 2012)

Associate editor, Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (2012 to date)

Associate editor, Journal of Health Psychology (2013 to date)

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MSc Diabetes Best Practice, module coordinator for MEDI6109-34597-17-18: Psychosocial Aspects of Diabetes-34597

MSc Public Health, lecturing on design and evaluation of complex interventions,

MSc Public Health, dissertation supervision and marking

MSc Health Psychology, dissertation supervision and marking

BM4/5 Marking of critical appraisal final exam scripts

Professor Mary Barker
MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit,
Southampton General Hospital,
SO16 6YD

Room Number : SGH/MRC/MP95

Facsimile: (023) 8070 4021

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