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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

Career Path: Seeing the bigger picture

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    08 Mar

    Science fact

    Elephants rarely get cancer: less than 5% of captive elephants die of cancer, compared to 20% of humans. Elephant genomes have at least 20 copies of the tumour suppressor, p53, which may explain their low cancer rates relative to humans, who have only one copy. 

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    I originally trained as an epidemiologist, someone who studies patterns of health and illness in large groups of people. I was interested in trying to encourage people to exercise and eat more healthily, and how to make healthier choices easier for people to make. My work involved careful attention to detail - developing statistical models to predict who might develop diabetes, heart attacks or strokes, and then developing and evaluating ways to prevent these things happening. During this time, I honed my analytical and writing skills, and as I became more senior, I learned how to write funding applications, how to run large, multi-centre trials, and how to lead a group of research scientists.

    Up until that point, my career choices had been driven by my ambition to improve health and healthcare. At the same time, I was developing a talent for motivating and leading teams and I wanted to do this on a larger scale. I wanted to find out what it was like to work in the centre of a large organisation with a global brand. After ten years in epidemiology, I made a decision to leave academia and broaden my horizons. Luckily I didn’t have to go very far!

    I moved from Addenbrooke’s Hospital to the Old Schools in the centre of Cambridge to lead a large team as Head of the Vice-Chancellor’s Office. This demanding and fast-paced role was a real education for me. I wrote speeches, worked with famous philanthropists, attended high-level government meetings and learned how to keep a Vice-Chancellor on message. My exposure to communications, policy, politics, governance, and fundraising meant that I became much more aware of the “bigger picture” in which organisations operate. Rather than focus on one topic at great depth, I was forced to take account of a wide range of pressures and challenges that you face when running a very large organisation.

    This job inspired me to start a part-time MBA to further develop my management skills and I began to look for senior roles back in the research world. I wanted an opportunity to combine my experience of running an organisation with my ambition to improve healthcare.   I am now Deputy Director of The Healthcare Improvement Studies (THIS) Institute in the University of Cambridge. This is a brand new institute and our aim is to strengthen the evidence-base for improving the quality and safety of healthcare. I basically have my dream job. I get to combine my scientific skills and knowledge with my passion for leadership. I oversee 40 staff and a £40 million  budget and get satisfaction from both helping to improve healthcare delivery and running a large team.

    Choosing science opens up a huge range of career options. When I picked maths and biology A Levels at sixth form, I had no idea that I would be running a large research institute by the age of 38. Being able to understand the importance of both detail and the bigger picture has led to a very rewarding career.

    Dr Rebecca Simmons
    Deputy Director of The Healthcare Improvement Studies (THIS) Institute, University of Cambridge
    Bye Fellow in Public Health, Murray Edwards College