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The Profcast: Professor Kate O’Donnell

  • Mar 30 / 2016
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The Profcast: Professor Kate O’Donnell


For our first Profcast of 2016, we speak to Kate O’Donnell, Professor of Primary Care Research and Development at the Institute of Health and Wellbeing, University of Glasgow.

Why did you become an academic?

I never consciously “became” an academic; I think I rather fell into it. My first degree was a BSc in Immunology at Glasgow University. It was an exciting time in immunology (probably always is) –  T cell receptor being identified, HIV was isolated. So there was a real buzz and I wanted to be part of that, so I went on to do my PhD in Immunology. What I then gradually realised over several years was that I loved research and the academic tasks of writing and communicating, but I wanted it to be nearer “people” than bench research allowed me to be. So I took a couple of career turns and finished up as a primary care researcher. It’s taken me a long time to feel I can say I am a primary care academic and not feel a fraud.

If you were not an academic what would you be?

I’m not sure ….. I love teaching, so I suspect I would have ended up in teaching. However, my previous background was all science-based, whereas my work is now much more sociological and social policy. So I might have had to do some re-training.

When was the first time you felt accomplished as an academic?

I’m not sure I ever feel accomplished – it’s a bad character trait of academics. We are too self-critical. High points include getting a paper from my MPH project published in the BMJ and sitting at Glasgow graduation ceremonies when postgrads that I have supervised, whether Masters, MDs or PhDs, graduate.

What are the best and worst reviewer’s comments you’ve ever received?

Best would be any set of comments that keeps the door with the journal open a bit longer. Worst comments are when you feel a reviewer has an entirely different world view and you have to counter that without being rude!

If you could do one thing to improve population health what would it be?

Support macro-level strategies that make it easier for people to choose healthier options in life. The proposed sugar tax on soft drinks is an example and a minimum unit price for alcohol would be another. Ensuring a living wage would also help – people need a basic standard of living before they can start to think about how their social conditions are impacting on their health. Improving population health needs population strategies, not pushing it all onto individual choice.

How do you achieve a work life balance?

I don’t! I love what I do, so it then becomes hard to leave it behind. Email and smartphones don’t help, so I find I’m always sneaking a look or doing something at home. I go to quite a lot of concerts and theatre, often involving one of my girls, and I love going to the opera. I am trying to improve my work life balance. I like walking and aim to restart slow jogging this year although my Achilles tendon seems less happy with that plan. I’ve been learning Spanish for years now and I might even re-join a choir as singing was one of the great loves of my life when I was younger. Watch this space!

How has academia changed since you started?

It gets ever more work intensive and metric-focussed. That drives everyone to an ever more unhealthy work life balance, which is getting unsustainable. On the positive side, I think we are all much more focussed now on conducting research “with” people, in partnership, rather than “on” people. There is also much more emphasis on communicating our work and findings with the public. I don’t think academia was ever as ivory-towered as it was portrayed, but there is a definite move towards public engagement now which has to be beneficial for everyone.

What makes you happiest?

Chilling with my husband and daughters is pretty high up there. Both my girls are very musical and also act, so watching them perform is probably when I am happiest.

What is your favourite book?

That’s like asking who is my favourite daughter – impossible! I’ll go for which books have stuck in my mind. First The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. I just really enjoyed it. (Although the best literary depiction of Death is in Terry Pratchett’s Mort.)

Second is Bloody Foreigners by Robert Winder. It charts the history of migration in Britain and is great at reminding us how much Britain, and all of us, owe to the successive groups of people who have migrated here over hundreds of years. As we watch the awful news broadcasts and listen to increasingly xenophobic politicians, I would make everyone read this.

Where is your favourite place in the world?

Achnahaird Beach and, close by, the Summer Isles in Wester Ross. Both are by Achiltibuie, North-West of Ullapool and I’ve spent many happy hours there with my family – usually dodging the rain.  It has all the things I love most – mountains, sea and ever changing weather.

If you could go back in time and do one thing differently what would it be?

Study Social Sciences at University. When a teenager, I wanted to be a doctor so school subjects focused on that – in particular Maths, Physics, and Chemistry. In retrospect, although I was bright I was better at English, Geography, History and Music. No one ever sat with me and said “there are other possibilities”. Now when I get into conversations about French sociologists, I keep thinking I need to read more sociology. Perhaps that should be my retirement plan!

Who has helped you most in your career?

Many people. My husband, for being there and supporting me in what I need to do (and accepting the lack of work-life balance). My first PhD supervisors for telling me lab-based research wasn’t for me (see below)! Professors Jim McEwen in Public Health and Graham Watt in General Practice for employing me as the West of Scotland Health Services Research Co-ordinator – I had come from the lab and barely knew what Health Services Research was. They took a punt on me and I think it has paid off.

More recently some great colleagues including Frances Mair, Carl May, Anne MacFarlane and Chris Dowrick. All have been invaluable in listening to me witter on and helped me make some key decisions. And finally, all the great researchers and PhD/MD students I have worked with, and those I am currently working with. Their hard work and research supports what I do too.

What part of your job do you find most challenging?

Keeping up – it’s an ever increasing treadmill of activity. So to everyone who is waiting for me to do something, I’m sorry, but I will get to it.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

From the aforementioned PhD supervisor “You need green fingers in the lab and you don’t have them”. At the time, I was so dejected by that but actually he was right and it spurred me on to find the right path for me. (But he could have said it a bit better ….)

From my Mum – “Always close up the poppers on your duvet cover before you put it into the washing machine.” Sound advice that I have passed onto my daughters.

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