Professor Dorian Haskard of the National Heart and Lung Institute was elected as a College Consul earlier this year.
A College Consul acts as a spokesperson for academic standards and opinion. The Consul sits outside the management structure and advises on matters that arise across Imperial, including academic appointments and promotions, and disciplinary and grievance hearings of one form or another. The consuls are elected into post by fellow senior academics.
"To be able to understand problems that arise in the workplace you’ve got to think more broadly than simply understanding the academic challenges" Professor Dorian Haskard
Professor Dorian Haskard is currently based within the Vascular Science Section at the National Heart and Lung Institute (NHLI) which he previously led, and is the network lead for the College's Vascular Science Network. He is also President of the International Society for Behçet’s Disease and serves on the National Anti-Doping Panel (NADP).
Following Professor Haskard's appointment to College Consul I took the opportunity to sit down with him to find out more about his views on the role, and his research career to date.
What does a College Consul do?
There are six College Consuls, drawn from across the four Faculties, and we form a team of internal ambassadors who operate outside the line management system. We offer a repository of independent opinion, with the aim to provide balanced and unbiased views. We sit on appointment and promotion panels for academics and the object is to ensure it is a fair process with no discrimination, positive or negative, and see there is parity across the Faculties and Departments for job levels. I can foresee one of the challenges of the role will be when I am called in to advise on senior posts in subjects that I am less involved with, such as space craft design! We also get asked to be involved in or chair disciplinary matters, which may be issues such as harassment and bullying, or plagiarism.
How did you get the role?
I was asked to put myself forward. It seemed a good time in my career to take on the role, as I have held various leadership roles but no longer have any direct line management responsibilities. I do have a lot of experience (good and bad) in academia, and in life in general, having brought up three children! I therefore think I can apply my experience usefully to the role. To be able to understand problems that arise in the workplace you’ve got to think more broadly than simply assessing the academic challenges and consider what is going on behind the scenes. Something may seem a cut and dry case at a superficial level, but when you explore further there can be unforeseen mitigating circumstances.
What do you think will be the key challenges?
The system wants to see that justice has been done, and to compensate anyone aggrieved, but mitigating circumstances can be hard to balance when the implications may have lifelong effects for that person and their career or life. I can see that the weighing up of cases will at times draw on all my experience, to provide the fairest outcome for all.
What is challenging today, with regards promotions and appointments, is getting to grips with what achievement is, and what that should be for different job levels. We live in a world that for all sorts of reasons is increasingly stressful - grant money is harder to obtain, good journals are increasingly difficult to publish in, and young families provide increasing pressures – this is increasingly challenging. How do you judge if someone working part time has achieved the same amount as a full-time role? I don’t have an answer to that yet. A very talented person may have published half the amount as someone else, but for very good reason as they are doing other important work the rest of their time. The change in the working landscape requires us to adjust our traditional ways of looking at success and fit into modern life. We shouldn’t have rigid ways of looking at things, we need to be flexible, but of course remain fair.
Another challenge, that is not personal or collegiate, is the wider political challenge facing the country at the moment. There is a lot of uncertainty, and there are major worries for international students, I like to think whatever happens with Brexit we won’t put off good students and academics. Of course, that doesn’t stop people being anxious and we have to be aware of that. Whatever your views are, everyone needs to have an eye on protecting higher education. The vibrance of universities depends on having not only international students but also international dialogue and collaboration.
Why did you become a scientist?
When I decided to become a doctor I don’t think I really knew that I would end up as a scientist, but in retrospect I think I always had an interest in the biology of disease. I did my degree in Physiology and Psychology at Oxford and went into medicine as I wanted to be a psychiatrist. But then as I went further on in medicine I got increasingly interested in the pathobiology of disease. I was always planning on switching to psychiatry the next year, or the the one after that, and then got to the point where I realised that the switch wasn’t going to happen.
What research area are you interested in?
I had a fellowship in Dallas Texas and got involved, at an early stage, in a field that became very big - understanding how genes in blood vessels are altered during inflammation. And that’s something I’ve remained interested in throughout my career in different aspects.
One aspect is how you can image gene expression in blood vessels. The whole world of molecular imaging is still an emerging one, but it has progressed greatly over the past few decades. Dr Ramzi Khamis did his PhD with me and is now collaborating with me as an independent researcher, developing antibodies for optical imaging of patients with atherosclerosis.
The other side is the more fundamental molecular biology of cells, and I have a current project analysing how RNA regulation is important for gene expression in macrophages in relation to thrombosis.
I am particularly interested in understanding the biology of normality, and the control systems that keep us in balance. Plus how one can exploit these systems to remain healthy, e.g. how can you eat, or exercise to stay healthy. So in a way my interest is more on prevention over treatment now. Medicine has made vast advances but it is also increasingly expensive, and we shouldn’t take it for granted. We need to also look at our own lifestyles and what we can do for our own health.
I am captivated by how evolution has allowed the balance in systems to evolve. One of my interests is in transposons, which are segments of DNA that can replicate and move within a genome. The biggest example in humans is the Alu element, which is now responsible for around 10 per cent of the genome. These elements used to be thought of as junk DNA, but in various places where they have integrated they alter gene expression. We tend to think about Darwinian evolution as minor mutations over millions of years, but this might have had a much quicker impact. We are looking at a protein called tissue factor (TF) that is one of the main drivers of thrombosis. It turns out the DNA for TF has Alu elements embedded in it, we are doing intra-cellular imaging work looking at the hypothesis that Alu insertion has made a big impact on how the protein is expressed and this in turn may affect the predisposition to thrombosis.
I am fascinated by molecular evolution and think many of our problems can be understood in that way, if we fully understand evolution it can help us adjust to how we should be living. We’ve evolved to be in a state of balance and if we defy that we end up with disease.
What can you see on the horizon?
I do have some concerns around the relationship between science and society. On the one side there is public engagement with science, and Imperial is good at that, but on the other side of the coin is scientist’s appreciation of society. I sometimes think that scientific invention can run away with itself, without much thought or discussion on what it is for. I wonder where we are heading with machine learning and AI - what will the impact be on society and jobs. Are we fully considering the wider societal implications in all that we do as scientists? There might be more dialogue needed, and the opportunity taken to reflect on the bigger picture, by bringing in other fields of expertise, such as history and the arts, we can look at issues through a broader spectrum and not one purely based on a science focus. However, that said, Imperial is an amazing organisation and I see it going from strength to strength in leading the challenges ahead, and in adapting to change.
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