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Dr Chris Gale

Reader in Neonatal Medicine at Imperial College London and consultant neonatologist

Connection to the Academy: Academy Starter Grant awardee (2013), Academy mentee (2014), Academy FLIER leadership programme participant (2019-21)

The Academy has been here for me at the pivotal points in my career. I have been able to access a really comprehensive package of Academy support, and without it I definitely don’t think I’d be where I am now. To me, the Academy is a visionary organisation.

It began in 2013 with my Starter Grant of £28,132. It might seem like a small amount of money. But at that time, when all I’d done was my PhD, to have a grant of any size, especially a five figure grant, felt enormous. And to me it was critical.

As the Academy knows well, it’s a period of your career when getting funding is particularly difficult. But if you don’t have your own funding, you get pulled to help with other people’s work. The Academy recognise the moments when help is lacking where it’s most needed. Having my own funded project gave me freedom. 

My Starter Grant was instrumental in helping me make a big change in research direction. My PhD focused on imaging data, but I used the Starter Grant to shift focus to using large-scale routine data, which is what I got my subsequent MRC Fellowship for and what I do now. 

I use everyday data recorded on very sick babies across the UK to find which treatments work, in a way that’s much simpler and much more efficient. Because I try to answer important questions through data that already exists, rather than going out to capture new data in a particular area, the impacts from my work are quite diverse. So for example I've shown that if premature babies are born in the wrong type of hospital, and later have to be transferred somewhere else, they are much more likely to have a bleed in the brain and to die. 

My research helped develop a UK-wide monitoring programme for infant brain injury, and I’m now working with the NHS to help make sure that babies are born in the right place.

How did your Academy mentor help you?

The Academy's grants and the mentoring go really nicely together, because when you’re starting to try and forge your own path is when you really need that support. Both me and my mentor started by attending an Academy mentoring workshop – it was a bit more formal than I planned, but it really helped us focus our goals and expectations from the outset and proved the foundation for a lasting relationship.

My mentor was fantastic. Kathy [Professor Katherine Pritchard-Jones FMedSci] was close enough to my specialty to understand it, but far enough away to give that wider view. Because a clinical academic career path is not very well-defined, it’s very helpful to have a sense check on your progress. And it's just lovely to have somebody who you really want to hear from, that critical friend, to help you come at things from a different point of view. She really increased my confidence, and without a doubt mentoring helped me develop my successful MRC Fellowship application.

The other thing the Starter Grant let me do was develop really strong patient involvement in my research. It allowed me to train in qualitative work, and in particular how best to engage parents. It was very important in making me think about how people respond to being part of research.

We don't consider some of the babies on our intensive care unit to be that sick – they might only need a small amount of care for a day or so. But their parents are massively impacted, in a way we don’t necessarily understand as clinicians. Hearing that parent voice, as they remember every little thing their doctor said, makes me realise how I talk to people sometimes. Clearly that changes the way you talk with parents and discuss babies on the unit. 

We don’t do enough of this honest listening as doctors, because often we don’t really have time. The kernel for these listening relationships for me was planted and supported by that Starter Grant. It affects everything, from how you treat people to what research you do. You can set up a great system to do research, but if you’re not asking the questions families care about, where’s the value? Equally, we need to do high-quality clinical trials to help keep future babies alive, while respecting the fact that the parents we are talking to about research are having one of the worst days of their life.

Then in the last couple of years, the Academy has been helping me again. As a medical academic you have to be able to lead, and to effectively advocate for what you think is important. But since I’ve had time to reflect on how I want to be as a leader, I’ve had a limited number of role models.

So I knew I needed the Academy’s FLIER leadership programme. But it’s only by doing it I realise how much I needed it.

It’s a fantastic programme that combines leadership and management training with unique insight into the UK life sciences sector. It’s so valuable to be able to discuss experiences – both the good and less good – in a confidential space with the other participants, and then have the theory to hang it on. There are so many amazing people who contribute to or are also taking part in the programme. It’s a huge honour and it’s been fantastically enjoyable. The impact of the people I’ve met, the collaborations, and what I’ve learned about myself and what I’d like to be as a leader, I don’t think can be understated.

And what the Academy does better than any other organisation is they make it fun! The events are so interesting: it’s a pleasure to meet the diversity of people who value the Academy and want to support it. Recognising the value of that social aspect is something the Academy does brilliantly. It fits perfectly with all of the other support I’ve had from the Academy. In the moment, you don’t realise how important that support is, but in retrospect it has completely changed the trajectory of where I’ve been able to go.

The Academy is an independent charity with no major endowments or legacy funding. Help us support more people like Chris by visiting our dedicated support us webpage.
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