Dr Alison Austin – Women in Science Day 2021
To celebrate Women in Science Day 2021, Deputy Director of Research at NHS England and Improvement, Dr Alison Austin explains how she started her career in the sector and what advice she would give those hoping to have a career in science.
Did you enjoy science growing up?
I was always one of those kids who wanted to know how things worked and enjoyed biology at school. I followed my mother and grandmother into nursing, and it was there that I really got interested in science, biochemistry and molecular biology to be precise, it fascinated me the huge impact on health that missing one gene or one enzyme in a pathway could make. So, I went to the University of Glasgow as a mature(ish) student and studied molecular biology then went on to do a PhD in molecular biochemistry/endocrinology, while still working part time as a nurse.
What does your current role involve?
As the deputy director of research at NHS England and Improvement I have a very varied role. Currently I’m focusing on how the team can support vital research in the NHS. This includes research into Covid-19 both in hospitals and at home. Over 900,000 people are taking part in this research in the UK, and that’s fantastic, this research is growing our understanding the best treatments for this awful virus and has helped researchers develop a COVID-19 vaccine – saving lives and giving hope.
I also work closely with others such as the NIHR. Together we want to ensure more people have an equal opportunity to take part in research and, that more healthcare professionals build research into their everyday work.
This improves care and treatment for patients and also improves job satisfaction for staff and improves patient outcomes across the hospital.
I’m passionate about involving people in what we do, ensuring people living with health conditions are involved in all our work cross research and innovation. For example, involving stroke survivors and their carers in a programme of work currently underway to identify what the research and innovation needs are in relation to stroke.
What and who inspired you to want to work in science?
As I nurse in the 80s, I became increasingly aware of the impact of science on our health and everyday lives. When I first joined the NHS it was 30 years after the discovery of ‘the secret of life’, and of course Rosalind Franklin played a key role in the discovery of DNA; Polymerase Chain Reaction was also being developed at the time. The idea that we could replace missing or faulty genes and restore health seemed like a science fiction fantasy, but I wanted to know more and get involved.
What is the best part about working in science?
For me it's been about being involved in ‘making it happen’ and seeing the improvement in people's lives. From those sometimes-heated discussions as students down the pub about the imagined potential or harm of gene therapy: was it possible, was it ethical, where would it lead us. To working in the Medical Devices Agency in the 90s starting to look at how we could trial products with modified cells and making sure we had the necessary regulations to ensure safety. To contributing to a Government report that celebrated 50 years since DNA was discovered, the completion of the human genome project and the emerging UK biotech industry. To working in Treasury as Part of Sir David Cooksey’s review of UK health research funding and how to translate lab-based findings into new treatments for patients. To now and supporting research in the NHS that is changing lives through our understanding of genetics and clinical trials/research involving gene therapy and other Advanced Medicinal Technology Products (ATMPs).
Covid-19 is horrendous. It is and will be science that gets us through it. The UK is once again leading the world with our Urgent Public Health research whether that’s the community based COVID-19 Infection Study (CIS) involving over 380,000 people across the country, to vaccine studies, or clinical trials involving people with COVID-19 in hospital or at home giving us vital information about how best to treat people. This work provides hope to our amazing front line NHS staff and everyone across the UK, and indeed the world.
What advice would you give to someone who is looking to start a science career?
Go for it! Study something that really interests you, not something that you think will give you a better job at the end of it – you never know where the road will take you. Never think something will never be possible, or never be needed, just look at computers, the internet or phones. Be flexible, step out of your comfort zone occasionally and appreciate what you do and how it fits with the bigger picture.
Dr Alison Austin, Deputy Director of Research at NHS England and Improvement
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.