Helena’s Aviva fellowship placement project capitalised on her experience in dementia and ageing research in order to identify (novel) risk and protective factors for dementia and mortality. She worked to provide an overview of the current state of knowledge to help answer the questions:

  • What are factors that may identify those individuals who may be at high risk of developing dementia?
  • Who may be particularly protected from dementia?
  • What are factors that determine mortality risk among those with dementia?

Helena’s report aimed to inform the underwriting process for insurance products and aid in the design of the Aviva wellness app for corporate customers, which is meant to support individuals in leading a healthy lifestyle.


Dementia places an enormous burden on society as well as on individuals and their families. It is also alarmingly prevalent: one in 14 adults over the age of 65 and almost one in five of those aged 80 and above suffer from a form of dementia. Insurance companies play an important role in providing financial security for patients with dementia and their families. For insurers an understanding of the risk and protective factors to optimise annuity underwriting is vital to their business. Other products such as life insurance can also benefit from information about dementia risk due to the disease’s adverse effects on life expectancy. Finally, a better understanding of dementia and mortality risk factors can also aid in the design of products meant to support people in making healthy lifestyle choices, such as the Aviva wellness app.

Aviva’s aims to better understand risk factors for dementia and mortality were a very good fit with Helena’s general research interests and prior experience. It was important to her to determine whether her expertise would be beneficial outside the academic field she has been working in. She was keen on gaining a better understanding in working in the commercial sector, especially in an industry related to healthcare.

The fellowship allowed Helena to learn more about working with non-academic partners. This was a contrast to her academic work which focuses more on basic research and is less concerned with the direct application of Helena’s findings. Helena therefore had to adopt a different mindset to the way she went about her research, which she believes will be very useful in case she aims to engage in commercial research in the future.

Helena also gained insights into Aviva’s products and services, improving her understanding of the insurance industry. Most importantly, the fellowship allowed her to realise that her academic knowledge can be leveraged for real world applications that can support the commercial interests of a company.


Some of the insights Helena gained through her review of recent data on risk factors were:

  1. Hearing loss is a strong risk factor for dementia, even from midlife onwards
  2. The underwriting process for enhanced annuities would benefit from incorporating information on psychiatric symptoms because of their negative impact on life expectancy
  3. Providing customers with a sense of control over their own health is more likely to support healthy lifestyle choices, highlighting the need for personalised approaches to an app aimed at improving wellbeing
  4. Sleep may be the lifestyle factor most closely related to a variety of other key behaviours such as a healthy diet, exercise, and substance use.

Helena’s report outlined further possible factors that could be leveraged but would require further scrutiny. The report can be used for further projects Aviva may wish to support.

Helena writes:

“The fellowship was my first experience of working with a large company and gave me a better understanding of how my skills can be useful outside academia. They have made me more open to the idea of working outside academia or in engaging in further collaborations with industry. During the PhD project that Aviva will be funding I will act as a co-supervisor to the PhD candidate to give an introduction to the kind of work I have been doing with Aviva to provide ideas for further research into some of the opportunities I laid out in my report.

The fellowship allowed me to expand my understanding of research beyond the academic sector. It prompted me to analyse prior research with a very different lens and ask how the information could be leveraged. I believe this skill will be very useful in further work in industry and in assessing the wider impact of my current research. The fellowship also required better communication skills to bridge the gap between my technical knowledge on dementia research and the knowledge of the Aviva team. This is very different from the kinds of writing and presenting findings in an academic setting. This skill will be helpful in communicating research findings to a broader audience in the future.

I mainly employed skills I already possessed during my PhD work in producing the report. Originally I was supposed to do more primary analysis during which I may have worked with data scientists at Aviva. I was able to talk to many people working in very different departments and various topics within Aviva which gave me a better understanding of where my skills could fit in and what kind of focus my report should take. The result was a more goal-oriented mindset during my research with a focus on deliverables.

It took me a bit of time to gain a good understanding of the kinds of products Aviva offers to their customers and how I should target my research efforts to best provide deliverables suitable to these products. On my first day I was introduced to many people working on very different problems, which left me with a very large set of questions that would be important to answer.

Over the course of my fellowship , I was introduced to people working in three different Aviva offices which gave me a good understanding of the multifaceted nature of the company’s work but could also be challenging in trying to hone in on a key set of questions for the relatively short period of the fellowship . As a result, my focus in the beginning was rather broad. I presented preliminary findings after a month of the fellowship and then received clear feedback that helped to further crystallise the focus of my continued work.

Working independently has never been an issue, the main challenge was rather to understand how to best learn from the interests of different Aviva teams to identify where I could be most useful.

In general these experiences were very positive. They prompted me to think differently in terms of communicating research findings and in choosing deliverables. As said above, I needed some time to gain a good grasp on the different products and services and how I could best contribute. This allowed me to communicate with a number of people working in very different areas (analytics, market research, underwriting, product design to name a few). The main difference in communicating between people from industry and from academia was in the way academics talk about uncertainty or lack of knowledge. We tend to hedge our statements in order not to make strong claims when we are not completely convinced that we really understand a topic.

Different members involved in my research project provided different inputs into how my findings may help their specific products and services. Whenever I presented a new finding, they asked the questions that showed me how to best think about my findings in terms of their use for Aviva. For the Aviva wellness app team, this meant asking how my findings may be used in providing a better experience for their customers to support them in making healthy lifestyle choices. For the annuities team, this meant asking specifically how risky certain factors were and how independent they may be of others that Aviva were already considering in their models.

A good asset for the project was my ability to work independently and quickly implement feedback. At the same time, I am a good team player and able to adapt to the needs of others on a research team. I also enjoy written communication of my findings to help those with less technical knowledge gain useful insight into my research field. Going in I was hoping to be given a good overview of the products and services of Aviva and their corporate culture, a good support from a diverse team and yet the possibility to work independently. I was also hoping to improve my data science skills by collaborating with the very capable data science team at Aviva. Unfortunately, the latter was not feasibly due to the issues with data access outlined above.”

What advice would you give to prospective applicants to the Grand Challenges Scheme? 

“In general the Grand Challenges Scheme is a great opportunity to broaden the scope of your research and understand how your technical knowledge can be leveraged outside academia. This may provide you with greater confidence in your abilities and the utility of your knowledge beyond a narrow field. The scheme also provides a good opportunity to gain an understanding of commercial research, the need for clearly set goals to be achieved during a short period of time and a focus on deliverables. This mindset may be quite different from the typical academic process but will be useful in expanding the scope of your career opportunities.

If you are aiming to work with data it is vital to ensure accessibility well before the onset of the project. Many useful datasets online may only be readily available to academic research, while access to commercial research requires an application and a review process that may extend beyond the duration of the research project.

In general I would recommend it to anyone who is keen on expanding their research experience beyond academia and learning whether working in industry may be a good fit for them.”

Helena Gellersen’s fellowship with Aviva took place between August and December 2019

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