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RDM Image Competition Winner

Dear all,

I would like to start by saying what a privilege and pleasure it has been to lead the department from its formation in 2012, and to have worked closely with so many of you. I have immense pride in our many scientific achievements and in the calibre of the researchers, teachers, administrative and support staff that make up our department.

As you will know, I will shortly be stepping down from my position as the Head of Department, to devote my time more fully to my own research for the last few years of my career in Oxford. This seems to be a good vantage point to survey some of the progress made by RDM since its formation.

Firstly, I’m delighted that each of our divisions has fared well despite the headwinds of a difficult funding climate and, over the last two years, the pandemic. We have seen a good number of high calibre recruitments, as well as internal appointments, to professorial positions across our divisions and this has refreshed and invigorated our leadership. I’m particularly pleased that the scientific power and focus of the MRC WIMM has been strengthened with the appointments of KJ Patel to lead the Institute and the MRC MHU, and Alison Simmons the MRC HIU. I think the excellence of the MRC WIMM is centrally important to Oxford medicine and it’s been great to see collaborations develop with other parts of RDM; I’m sure there is potential for further development there.

It has been exciting to see new scientific programmes develop that have the potential for transformational change in coming years. I’d include here advances in stem cell biology, DNA repair, cell and gene therapy – including gene editing, and fundamental immunology, through to advances in clinical studies, imaging and patient phenotyping that provide sufficient precision to drive mechanistic insights. These same patient-based capabilities will be critical going forward for evaluation of novel therapies.

One of the places where the added value of the department has been most apparent is in graduate studies. The RDM Scholars programme has attracted international applicants of a higher calibre than many of the individual programmes used to see before. We initially had 96 graduate students, our current tally stands at 137. This has involved a lot of work (and funding!) but I hope will pay dividends for years to come.

Similarly, we have made major efforts to support candidates for externally funded fellowships. Over the last 6 years, 84 RDM researchers have made fellowship applications (some multiple – and I thank them for their persistence!) and 46% have been successful, with equal success rates for women and men. I think that is an exceptionally good number. We have worked hard to help research staff achieve the markers needed to enable promotion. Since RDM was formed, 55 new PIs have been appointed, of whom 37 were internal promotions, with senior postdocs and clinical fellows becoming PIs, for example through achieving URL or AP titles. Overall, this drive to bring in and support young researchers and their career development, in order to train a future generation of scientists, is perhaps what I am most proud of.

At the same time as striving for excellence, we have worked hard to try and make the department a supportive environment to work in. We launched the extremely popular mentoring scheme in 2014 and the Career Development Committee in 2015, both championed by Alison Banham and Leanne Hodson, and obtained the all-important Athena Swan silver award in 2016 (renewed in 2019). Dedicated support with funding applications is now provided along with numerous training courses, a formal Environment and Culture working group was convened in 2018, and last year, we put together a Respectful Behaviours framework to provide official backing for the kind of working culture we want to build in the department. Sadly, in some areas we’ve still got a long way to go, not least to improve gender balance and diversity. The proportion of female PIs has nudged up from 23% to 26%; I would have liked faster progress. Nevertheless, I believe that RDM does have a reputation as a good place to work and we are seen within Oxford as leading the way in many aspects of culture and working environment, and so I’m hugely grateful to all of you who have driven these efforts.

While all of the above is about people – which for me is the key – buildings and facilities matter too. Looking forward, we have a number of exciting new infrastructure projects starting which should enhance our research and, particularly, its clinical impact. These include new clinical imaging capabilities, with cutting edge CT, machine learning and MR platforms, a new Therapy Acceleration Laboratory that will derive mechanistic insights from clinical samples from patients undergoing early phase trials, and an advanced cell and gene therapy unit to support development and delivery of novel therapies. You can read more about all of this in the ‘Upcoming projects’ section in the attached newsletter.

Finally, I would like to offer my personal thanks to all of you who have helped with the running of a large, complex department with over 700 members. I am indebted to our Division Heads, and their admin teams, who have worked so hard to champion and support their parts of the department. Much as I value cohesion of the department as a whole, maintaining identity in its constituent units is necessary and important.  I want to thank also those who have taken responsibility for Graduate Studies, within the divisions and, even more, across RDM as a whole, in particular, Deborah Gill and Marella de Bruijn. I have had amazing support from our RDM Strategic team, covering the building blocks of those areas of progress highlighted above: researcher support, graduate studies, EDI, communications, personnel and finance; it has been a pleasure to work with such a talented and committed team. While there are too many key individuals to name personally here, I would single out two close colleagues (with whom I’ve worked for many years!) without whom my task would have been impossible. Ruth McCaffrey, as most will know, has been the architect of RDM’s approach to providing personal and career development support to researchers at all career stages. Lynn Clee has worked tirelessly, and (frankly) excessively, to help us all stay financially afloat and on track. Lynn has looked after our vitally important admin teams and been our key interface with the Medical Sciences Division and the central University; it is credit to her and the RDMS team that RDM enjoys its good reputation and the unwavering support of the Medical Sciences Division. So, sincere thanks to one and all.

I look forward to seeing what the department achieves in coming years, from the fortunate vantage point of a researcher within RDM.

With best wishes,

Hugh Watkins

2021 newsletter