10 February 2015

Behind enemy lines: a medic goes native among the scientists (Part One)

Professor Mark Pallen

Allow me to introduce myself. I am Professor of Microbial Genomics at Warwick Medical School and I have been here since April 2013.

Although I was once, like you, a medical student and then a medic, I am now a full-time non-clinical academic. I thought I might share my academic journey, highlighting some of the pivotal points in my career, illustrating how I made a living behind enemy lines, as medic going native among the scientists, while also showing how I had some fun along the way.

Learning points (some of them tongue in cheek) are highlighted in the boxes below.

Student years: becoming a medic

Me as a medical house officer
My ambivalence about whether I was really a medic or a scientist started early on. Like most sixth-formers who are good at science, especially biology, I was encouraged to apply to do medicine. I got into Fitzwilliam College Cambridge to study medical sciences. I have to admit that I was always more interested in facts than in people and nowadays would probably fail to get on to a medical degree because of a lack of “caring experience” or a “people-person” mind-set. But back then academic credentials were all that mattered.

As soon as I arrived, I started to wonder whether I should transfer across to the Natural Sciences course. But, as everyone pointed out how lucky I was to have gotten on to the medical course, I stuck with it! One of the great features of the Cambridge experience was that medics and scientists often shared teaching and I also rubbed shoulders with science students within the college environment. As a result, I picked up on the excitement of developments in gene cloning and molecular biology.

Unfortunately, during my second term and again in my second year at Cambridge, I was hospitalised with pericarditis, which knocked the wind out of my sails academically speaking. The upshot was, as Charles Darwin (a hero of mine) put it, “during the three years which I spent at Cambridge my time was wasted, as far as the academical studies were concerned”— I graduated with a 2.2 L

However, all was not lost. A final-year dissertation on the transmission of leprosy piqued my interest and forced me to adopt the rigours of tightly argued scholarly discourse. I even managed to get it published in an academic journal (although that happened several years later: 'How might Mycobacterium leprae enter the body?' [on PubMed]).

Learning points:
  • A student is not a vessel to be filled but a torch to be set alight!
  • It is possible to redeem a career after a poor start, although it is better to get things right first time.

Back then, most Cambridge medical students went elsewhere to complete the clinical phase of their course. I went to the London Hospital Medical College, right in the heart of London’s East End. The contrast with the cloistered world of Cambridge could not have been greater—I enjoyed the pubs, parties and curries!

Disappointed with my performance at Cambridge, I set about re-building my academic credentials by winning several essay prizes. One of these, awarded through a national competition run by the leprosy charity LEPRA, became my first scholarly publication, which appeared the month I graduated as a medic in 1984 (The Immunological and Epidemiological Significance of Environmental Mycobacteria on Leprosy and Tuberculosis).

Learning point:
  • Start building your CV as a student. Every little helps, particularly early in our career.

It soon became clear to me during my clinical years as a student and during my year as a house officer that I was not temperamentally suited to front-line medicine or surgery, particularly as I hated doing without sleep. Nonetheless, during that time, I came face-to-face with a range of clinical challenges — I delivered two babies, made a blue-light trip in an ambulance to see a woman miscarrying on a sofa, performed an appendectomy, assisted at an all-night aortic aneurysm repair and participated in a harrowing unsuccessful attempt to resuscitate a young child dying of asthma.

Coming in Part Two:

  • Specialist training in Medical Microbiology - my transition into becoming a microbiologist and early steps as a clinical academic
  • Parachuted behind enemy lines - working with non-medic scientists (including appearing on University Challenge)

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