In this week’s Profcast, Dr. Jason Gill, Professor of Cardiometabolic Health at the Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences at the University of Glasgow answers our questions…
Why did you become an academic?
I was fascinated by science at school and loved the concept of doing an experiment to find the answer to a question. It seemed much more interesting than just learning something from a book. So, from a pretty early age I had a vague idea that I would like a career in ‘research’ but I was not really sure what that meant in practice. But I guess I am a somewhat ‘accidental academic’. I was reasonably good at triathlon when I was young (competed at the World Championships as a Junior) and went to Loughborough University to study Physics and Sports Science, largely because of its sporting reputation. I trained two or three times per day throughout most of my time at university and would, on occasion, be leaving to go training as some of my fellow students would be coming home from the night before. Being at university was a convenient way to essentially be a full-time athlete with a bit of studying on the side. But in my final year of my undergraduate degree, I realised that I was not really talented enough to compete at the highest level, so ‘retired’ from competitive sport and found that I suddenly had loads of time on my hands. I turned the time and effort that I had been putting to training to focusing on my studies and ended up getting a First in my degree. Because I of this, I was lucky enough to receive a scholarship to do an MSc (this was in the days that these still existed). I had nothing better to do, so thought why not spend another year as a student. During my MSc project, on the effects of exercise on lipoprotein metabolism, I realised that this was really what I wanted to do with my life, so my project supervisor, Prof Adrianne Hardman, and I submitted a PhD studentship application to the BHF to continue this work. The application was successful, and three years later I had my PhD. I then came to Glasgow for my first post-doc job in 2000 and the rest was history….
If you were not an academic what would you be?
It’s not something I have given much thought to. I am naturally curious and love learning new things and solving problems, so I think that I probably would want to work doing something involving learning and problem solving, even if I was working outside of academia. I guess a wide range of jobs could fit this remit.
When was the first time you felt accomplished as an academic?
Publishing my first paper in 1998 was the first time that I felt like a ‘proper’ scientist. I was still doing my PhD, and it was such a buzz to know that my work was now in the proper scientific literature. I’m not sure I have ever felt truly accomplished, though. One thing that I learnt very quickly is how much you don’t know and how many people out there are smarter than you. Both of which are great because they keep spurring you on to learn more and get better.
What are the best and worst reviewer’s comments you’ve ever received?
My best comment was not really a comment at all. I once had a paper accepted in a very good journal without any corrections. I was shocked and elated. It certainly wasn’t the best paper I had written, but I guess that sometimes you just get lucky. My worst was a rejection from BMJ within an hour of submission – the editor clearly didn’t think that the paper was worthy of serious consideration. Submitting to BMJ was a cheeky punt really, so rejection was expected and I was not too disappointed, I just didn’t expect it to happen so quickly…
If you could do one thing to improve population health in the UK what would it be?
I think that obesity is probably the biggest public health problem currently facing us. There is only so much we can do to tackle this by targeting behaviours at the individual level as our behaviours are influenced by the environment much more than we are generally prepared to admit. In Singapore, where men undertake compulsory National Service, recruits who are obese on entry have to undertake an additional 10 weeks of basic military training over those who are a normal weight, which has been shown to induce about 12 kg of weight loss on average. I am definitely not suggesting this as a viable option in the UK, but it does provide an example (albeit extreme) of what might be possible if we think out of the box and consider creative radical approaches at policy level.
How do you achieve a work life balance?
I find it quite hard. You can’t fit an academic job into a 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday template, so your work invariably creeps into everything else and academics are pretty driven people always trying to do more. Your mind never really switches off, so work is always hovering in the background. My wife and I make a point to schedule in “free time” in the diary, when we might catch a movie or go out for dinner, and this certainly helps. I also like to set myself challenges that are nothing to do with work to give me a chance to focus on something other than the next grant or paper. For example, I successfully swam the length of Lake Windermere as a challenge for my 40th birthday earlier in the year, and I am also trying to learn the guitar, but with rather less success.
How has academia changed since you started?
I think that academia has become much more target- and benchmark-driven. Targets can be helpful, but not everything that is important in science and academia can be distilled into easily measureable metrics, so they can also somewhat distort the nature of way that we prioritise our work.
What makes you happiest?
Lots of little things. When the fog lifts and you first understand what your data are showing you. Being ‘in the zone’ during a run when the effort disappears and you are just floating along. Having time to think properly. Watching a movie with my wife. Being lost in the music at a gig. Successfully completing a task or learning something new.
What is your favourite book?
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It contains my all-time favourite quote “Nothing is ever as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it”. I have put this up on my fridge to help me keep things in perspective.
Where is your favourite place in the world?
New York City. I am a city person and it is the best city in the world. My wife and I spent our honeymoon there and I can’t wait to go back.
If you could go back in time and do one thing differently what would it be?
I don’t think that I would change anything. You never know what the future holds and, at any point in time, you can only make the best decision that you can in light of the evidence that you have available. I think that I have always made reasonably good choices in the context of the available information. Of course, not everything has turned out as expected, and hindsight gives you 20:20 vision, but that does not mean that I would go back and change any of the choices that I made at the time.
Who has helped you most in your career?
Different people at different career stages. I am very lucky to have had a number of very supportive mentors and colleagues who have hugely helped my development as a scientist and academic. I couldn’t name just one and don’t want to write a list as I am likely to forget someone very important…
What part of your job do you find most challenging?
Finding time to fit everything in. A 25-hour day would be helpful.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Failure is a necessary part of the process to achieve success.