Mary Barker, Behavioural Science theme co-lead

MaryBarkerMy own research is focused on the development and evaluation of behaviour change interventions to improve diet,  nutritional status and body composition in young men and women, prior to conception, during pregnancy and post-partum. 


The approach of the Behavioural Science theme combines in-person, educational and digital interventions to improve diet and physical activity behaviours. Our team 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 enable health and social care workers to motivate and support behaviour change in their patients and clients in a brief and opportunistic way.

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.

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

Engaging adolescents in changing behaviour (EACh-B): improving the diets and physical activity levels of teenagers (NIHR Programme Grant for Applied Research 2017-2022)

Improving outcomes for pregnant teenagers: development of a complex intervention to improve quality of diet (MRC Public Health Intervention Development 2015-2016)

SPrING Southampton Pregnancy Intervention for the Next Generation (MRC/SBRC/Danone Nutricia 2013-2018)

Pilot and feasibility study of a complex community intervention to improve rural adolescent health in South Africa (MRC/Wellcome/DFID 2017-2018)

BOOST: supplementation with cereal bars or tablets in young pregnant women (qualitative study) (Danone Nutricia 2016-2018)

HUGS for Health: Healthy Bugs for Healthy Babies (Canadian Institute for Health Research 2016-2021)

Life course programming of stress responses in young adults in India: A multi-faceted approach to explore mediating factors and develop interventions (Wellcome Trust/India DBT Alliance Fellowship Award 2017-2022)

Wider work and national roles

In addition to the project work listed above, I am a collaborator on the Canadian Institute for Health’s HeLTI programme of preconception intervention studies in Canada, India, South Africa and China, worth CAN$70 million. I was appointed Honorary Reader at UCL Institute for Women’s Health in January 2017. I review grant applications for the MRC, the NIHR and the Wellcome Trust, and review protocols for the Cochrane Collaboration. I am on the editorial board of the Journal of Health Psychology and the Journal of the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease.

Overview of career path and education, including key publications or awards

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, went on to work as a Research Officer 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 in the UK and around the world 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.