Iria finds her NICHE with NIHR Career development award

Skills, passion and experience in dementia care leads to research role

Iria Cunha is a practice linking pin in the University’s NICHE-Leeds (Nurturing Innovation in Care Home Excellence) partnership with Springfield healthcare. She has recently been awarded a prestigious National Institute for Health and Care Research School for Social Care Research (NIHR SSCR) individual capacity development award.

The award is in recognition for her work to ‘develop research capacity and capability as a social care researcher and practitioner focusing on research with and for people living with dementia in care homes.’

Iria explained, “Through research colleagues from the University, I learned that the NIHR SSCR has funding available to support social care professionals. I applied for the Career Development Award and I am so excited I’ve been successful. I’ve always been curious about research and recognise how important it is”.

 I applied for the Career Development Award and I am so excited I’ve been successful. I’ve always been curious about research and recognise how important it is.

Iria started work in Springfield Healthcare in 2014 as an Activities Coordinator, and since progressed into the Dementia and Wellbeing Lead. She works with seven care homes on supporting the wellbeing of people living with dementia. She’s passionate about dementia care and how to improve day-to-day life and care for people with dementia.

Bridging the gap between care and research

When Springfield Healthcare joined the NICHE-Leeds care and science partnership, Iria felt it was the perfect opportunity get involved. “In 2022 I started working as a Practice Linking Pin and in this role I work on ‘bridging’ the care homes and the University of Leeds. Over time, as I’ve worked with NICHE-Leeds researchers I wondered how to develop my research skills, and the possibility of pursuing a future career in research,” she explained.

NICHE-Leeds is a partnership between care organisations and the University of Leeds (with Leeds City Council and Leeds Beckett University) which aims to enhance quality of life, care and work in care homes. The partnership brings together the skills of researchers with the skills and experience of frontline care home staff. By working collaboratively partners can identify priority areas for improvement in care and reduce the gap between knowledge and current practice and new advancements or ways of providing care and support.

Professional development

Iria explained, “I’ve been awarded funding that will support me with completing a Master’s degree in Dementia Studies, developing my research skills, receiving mentorship from academics of the University of Leeds, and developing my professional and academic network. I’m already thinking that after my masters is finished I’d then like to do a PhD!”

Iria was mentored by Professor Karen Spilsbury and Dr Reena Devi, of the School of Healthcare who inspired and motivated her to explore the possibilities of putting her skills and experience to use in in research.

Iria said, “I’m excited to work on developing my research skills, and I hope to be able to develop knowledge that will enhance the quality of life and care of older people living in care homes. I feel very honoured, excited and proud to have been given this unique opportunity. It is a privilege to work in Springfield Healthcare, a company that has always supported and believed in me.”

Nurturing Innovation in Care Home Excellence in Leeds (NICHE–Leeds) is the UK’s leading care home / research initiative ( Established in Autumn 2018 the model is based upon a successful ‘Living Lab’ model which has been active in Maastricht since 1998.