Susannah Fleming: “sometimes I think we learn as much as the students.”

January 1, 2016

Susannah Fleming is Module Co-ordinator for Essential Medical Statistics, as well as a supervisor for MSc students. She is a Quantitative Researcher at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences.

What was your earliest ambition?

I’ve wanted to be involved in science of some sort for as long as I can remember, whether that was as a doctor, mathematician or engineer. I think I’ve ended up with a good balance overall – I trained as an engineer, and now I mostly work on analysis of medical research, so a bit of all three!

Who has been your biggest inspiration?

My high school physics teacher. She showed me that women could do science for reasons other than wanting to be a doctor (pretty much every girl I knew who liked science was planning to go into medicine, and that’s not what I wanted). She encouraged me to consider other options, and not to let ideas of “this is the way everyone else is doing it” to influence my decisions about what I wanted to do.

Why did you get into EBM?

Although I didn’t want to be a doctor, I’ve always had an interest in medicine. When I was considering topics for my DPhil, I had the opportunity to use my quantitative skills to look at how we could improve the initial assessment of unwell children. It ticked all the boxes for me: developing statistical and computational models, and the potential to make a real difference to patient care. Before I knew it, I was doing a complex systematic review, and loving it.

What do you feel has made the most difference in EBM?

I think the internet, and particularly specialist search engines and databases, have really revolutionised the accessibility of evidence.  I can’t imagine trying to do a systematic review without those resources.

Describe your approach to research in three words.

Systematic, innovative, determined.

What do you like most about teaching?

I love the interactions with students, and particularly being able to see that moment when a concept “clicks” for someone – when it suddenly stops being an abstract theory, and becomes something that they understand and can apply for themselves. I also love seeing their enthusiasm and perspectives – interacting with students who are learning a technique or skill for the first time can remind you why it’s so important, and show you new facets of it. Sometimes I think we learn as much as the students.

What has been your most innovative piece of teaching?

In the past, I’ve been asked to help teach some fairly dry subjects to young people. With a bit of imagination, I turned a session that could easily have been “Death by Powerpoint” into a series of activities that covered the same topics but had my class moving around the room, learning from one another, and thoroughly enjoying themselves. It was more work to prepare than a simple talk would have been but was a lot more enjoyable for everyone – apart from the tutor following me, who had a much more rowdy and excitable bunch of teenagers to deal with than they were expecting.

When are you having the most fun at work?

In research, I’m in my element when I really get into writing the code for an analysis. I completely lose track of time because I’m so focused on the work. In teaching, the most fun is interacting with students in small groups or one-to-one in practical activities. I can get to know them, and I can tailor the teaching to exactly what they want to learn.

If you weren’t a teacher what would you be doing instead?

I chose to stay in academia because I love both teaching and research, and it allows me to do both. So if I wasn’t teaching, I’d probably be doing full-time research, either in academia or industry.

What do you find hardest when teaching?

I think the hardest thing is finding exactly the right level to pitch your teaching. You want to stretch your students so that they learn and develop as much as possible, but without pushing them so hard that they feel out of their depth. If you have students who start off at different levels of knowledge or skill, it can be hard to make sure that everyone is getting the most out of your teaching.

If you were given £1 million for research, what would you do?

With all the pressure on health care services, I’d want to look at how people can be supported to manage their health in the community, and how to help them to make the decisions on where and when to ask for help.

What one resource should every EBM enthusiast read?

I’m going to choose a skill, rather than a specific resource. I think the ability to develop a clear clinical question in PICO (or equivalent) format is absolutely vital. It is a key step in both designing new research and understanding existing research.

For more interviews in this series, please click here.

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