Meet Deborah Ashby, Director of the School of Public Health


Photo of Professor Deborah Ashby

An interview with Professor Deborah Ashby following her appointment as Director of the School of Public Health

Note: The below article was published when Professor Deborah Ashby was appointed Interim Head of the School of Public Health. Professor Ashby has since been appointed as Director of the School of Public Health, effective from July 1 2018.

Professor Deborah Ashby has taken on the role of Interim Head of the School of Public Health at Imperial College, following Professor Elio Riboli’s decision to step down.

Deborah Ashby holds the Chair in Medical Statistics and Clinical Trials at Imperial College London where she was also founding Co-Director of Imperial Clinical Trials Unit. She is a Chartered Statistician and her research interests are in clinical trials, risk-benefit decision making for medicines and the utility of Bayesian approaches in these areas. Deborah was awarded the OBE for services to medicine in 2009 and is currently President-Elect of the Royal Statistical Society.

I sat down with Deborah ahead of UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science (11 February) to find out more about her career so far:

How did it feel to be asked to be Head of the School of Public Health?

I was very flattered to be asked but in all honesty initially I was unsure. However the more I thought about it the more I thought that this is an exciting and timely opportunity. I had already been Deputy Head of School so I had some idea of what the role entailed. I was very struck by something that Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller said when she gave the School of Public Health Athena SWAN lecture which was that when you have a change of leader you don’t need a leader that is exactly the same as the outgoing person, you actually want diversity in leadership over time. I think Elio did an incredible job over his 11 years as the Head of School but I realised that I could bring a different dimension to the role especially in my area of biostatistics and trials and thought that would be of benefit to the School.

Can you tell us more about your research and time at Imperial?

    My background was primarily in epidemiology but I had started to become more involved in trials and was recruited to come to Imperial to work specifically in trials.

    My work at Imperial is a really nice mixture with variety which I enjoy. With Neil Poulter, I set up Imperial Clinical Trials Unit. I have been involved in a number of large studies such as looking at the feeding of small babies or the treatment of patients in intensive care, specifically those with sepsis. Those studies tend to be more on the clinical side but in combination with that I do work on the methodology of trials and in particular I have spent more than 20 years involved in drug regulation. I got invited to lead a large EU project looking at whether we can bring more formal methods of decision making into drug regulation, which was absolutely fascinating.

    So some of my time is doing the applied, primary studies and the rest this deeper thinking about ‘what does it mean' and 'how do we best use the data’ and what I really enjoy is that blend. I work with teams of people who are doing most of the hands on work and that gives me a real buzz because it is great to interact with so many talented, younger members of staff who are so passionate and who I can help steer with my experience but who can also keep me up-to-date with the latest techniques and methods. One of the aspects of my work that I get great pleasure out of is the supervision of PhD students.

    What do you see as upcoming priorities for the School of Public Health in 2018 and beyond?

    The world of public health is extremely broad and ever-changing so there will always be new and exciting challenges on the horizon. For the School of Public Health we have been tasked with how we can make our global research more applicable at a local level, especially with Imperial’s commitment to the White City area of London. Thinking about how our research can be translated to make a real difference within a local area will be key.

    I would also like to see us build on and grow some of our strengths that are becoming more and more vital today such as our methodological skills, behavioural science and health economics. We have some great people working in these areas and I would love to see them expand further.

    The other priority is continuing to train the next generation of public health professionals. Our postgraduate offering is expanding next year with our new MSc in Health Data Analytics and the school is exploring newer and more modern methods of teaching to improve our offering to students and looking at ways to take advantage of technology to build capacity in public health across the globe.

    The skills needed to work in public health are becoming more and more sophisticated with discussions about developments such as big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning, so it is important we can skill up our own workforce but also the next generation through graduate education and our PhD programme.

    What advice would you give to yourself if you were just starting out your career today?

    Well, in all honesty, I had no idea where I would end up, I just kept doing what I enjoyed. So I think I would encourage anyone to do what you enjoy.

    I would also say don’t be afraid to try new things. I was very lucky to be encouraged by others to go into new areas, outside my comfort zone and they have given me great satisfaction.

    I appreciate that it is harder for people starting out today. Starting my career in the early 1980s had some particular challenges, certainly as a woman, but there weren’t the same expectations as there are on the current generation. The expectations now are that you will get big grants and high impact papers. We carried out important work and those things certainly came as a by-product but we didn’t have that same immediate pressure.

    So if I was starting today my advice to myself would be to relax, focus on work that you think is important, continue doing what you enjoy, but always be open to new challenges.

    What is the biggest challenge you have faced as a woman in science?

    The biggest challenge I faced as a woman in science, and it wouldn’t be a problem today, was an inadequate formal education in science. When I was at school you only carried on one science beyond the age of 13, unless you were going to do medicine or engineering.

    I think earlier in my career people didn’t necessarily expect a woman to be doing science but once they realised you were you actually got remembered. I think it was hardest earlier on especially as a young mother, people would make assumptions that you weren’t interested or mobile but once you got beyond that you were flying.

    What are you proudest of in your career or research, so far?

    I am most proud of the fact that I have taken maths and statistics, which I love, and been able to use them in such a variety of areas and, in some cases, made a real difference to people’s lives. So it is not one single discovery but the promulgation of good statistical practice on a variety of fronts and the training of research students who have taken that on to the next step. In fact, I am especially proud of the PhD students and young people who I have taken on who have then gone on to Chairs and senior positions.

    Who was your inspiration

    The answer is, a variety of people. When I was 11 my headmistress told my parents that I was ‘university material’. When my parents came home from parents evening saying that, I asked ‘What is university?’ because I was the first generation of my family to stay at school beyond 16, let alone go to university. I was inspired by people at various points throughout my education and career who encouraged me to do more, for example my tutor at university who supported my desire to continue on to do a masters, and later a Dean who encouraged me to say yes to an early invitation to sit on a national committee. So rather than one specific individual it is the people who encouraged me to think one step ahead, and those early influences were probably the most pivotal.

    If you could change one thing what would it be?

    I would like everybody to know what their opportunities might be, especially at school. I know that my grandmother was not allowed to stay on at school at the age of 13 because her parents needed her to go and earn a wage. My ex-husband used to teach in one of the poorer areas of Liverpool and more recently in the East End and many students still have little sense of what is possible through further education, or that it really is open to them as well. So I would like to see that people understand the opportunities that are out there and that they can take them. It hits women the hardest but it is largely tied in with social-economic diversity. I wish that everybody knew where education could take them, either on leaving school or at a later stage. I believe education is truly transformative and life-changing, and I am so grateful that I had that opportunity.

    Professor Deborah Ashby will deliver the School of Public Health Annual Athena SWAN Lecture on 20 February. Find out more and reserve your free place.


    Jack Stewart

    Jack Stewart
    School of Public Health

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    Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 2664

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