Learning to lead in eye health research

Professor Alastair Denniston is a FLIER participant, consultant ophthalmologist at University Hospitals Birmingham and honorary professor at the University of Birmingham. He is the Director of INSIGHT, a national hub for the use of large-scale data in eye health research.

Sight is the most precious of all the senses and yet across the world more than a billion people are affected by some degree of sight loss. 

I know the impact of this first-hand, as my brother is blind. He lost his sight shortly after birth, and so I have seen the challenges that he has faced throughout his life. This has been a major motivator to me as I found myself drawn to a career in medicine, and then narrowing down to become an eye surgeon and eye health researcher.

As an eye specialist, I can bring the state-of- the-art knowledge and equipment to help the patients I am privileged to care for. But it is through research, that we can make ‘today’s best’ even better.

When I’m in clinic, I’m focused on one person at a time – hopefully improving their life through early diagnosis, treatments and so on. But when I do research, I’m potentially having an impact on hundreds, thousands or even millions of people.

Moving into the area of digital health and health data research – that is an area where you can make impact at a massive scale. For instance, we can take the work we do around image analysis of retinal scans and apply artificial intelligence. Tools like this could enable expert-level care that is available anywhere, 24/7, and is consistent whether it’s day or night.

I am always keen to support collaborations around my ‘North Star’ of patient benefit. We do get quite stuck in our silos, whether that’s the NHS, academia or industry, and I thought that FLIER was really innovative because it was supporting people who want to work across those sectors effectively.

The other thing that attracted me to the programme is that I don’t think I’ve ever had any formal leadership training. I’ve always learned on the job, but I was reaching that stage in my career where I was getting asked to take on quite significant leadership roles.

The major project that I have been asked to lead since starting FLIER is a really big grant with Health Data Research UK called INSIGHT. It’s a hub for research data in eye health. The project includes six organisations representing NHS, academia, industry and charity, so it’s absolutely in line with what FLIER is trying to train and prepare us for.

As director of INSIGHT, I’m working with senior people across all those organisations, bringing our various skills together to create an eye health biobank for UK and international researchers. What we’ve created is already the largest ophthalmic imaging database in the world. We’re in our fourth month of operation and making fantastic progress, but it’s also an amazing learning experience for me.

I can’t imagine leading this project without the additional confidence and training that FLIER has provided.

FLIER has helped me to see that I didn’t have to change who I was. I can have my own style of leadership, which is very collaborative, and that’s perfectly acceptable, indeed it’s a strong model of leadership. I don’t have to suddenly transform into a big macho boss who’s barking orders.

One of the first things we did on the FLIER programme was to talk about the concept of the ‘growth zone’. A lot of us have become experts in our own right and we’ve become very safe in that space. The idea of the growth zone is stepping out of that and into a place of stretch. It’s not always very comfortable, but we can recognise that we’re in a period of growth and really embrace that.

I think I’ve learnt more in the last year on the programme than I have since I first became a consultant. That was eight years ago, and I remember it was a period of rapid learning as I took on new responsibility. This last year felt like that again and it’s been wonderful.

The FLIER Programme is generously supported by the Dennis and Mireille Gillings Foundation and the Government Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy ‘Investment in Research Talent’ fund. If you would like to support the work of the Academy to develop talented researchers, visit our Supporters page.

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