Shaun tells us about his role as Professor of Health Services, the joy he gets from firing up his chainsaw and how a squirrel could one day make his life complete!
- Tell us about your role at HSRU
I'm a professor of health services research and I've been at HSRU since 2013, which makes my Aberdeen job the longest job I’ve ever had.
Apart from the research role (see below), I see the role of a professor as being somebody who should always be able to see a way through a problem, either themselves or by knowing somebody who can solve it. I always appreciated those sorts of people earlier in my career, people who made you feel safe and that everything would be alright. Sometimes I think I can do that and it is one of the most rewarding bits of the job.
- Tell us a bit about your background and what you do now
My original background is applied physics (not physics or, even more unlikely, theoretical physics. I always knew I was more of an engineer than a scientist..) and then I did a PhD in bioengineering in Glasgow. By the time I finished my PhD I was absolutely desperate to escape from research and I applied for jobs in oil companies because I wanted to travel. That didn't work out but after four more happy years in Glasgow I moved to Oslo in Norway. I wanted to live in another country and learn another language and it didn't matter which country or which language. I had a friend in Norway and saw a job and that job is what got me into trials. Spending six years living in another country in another language will always be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Now I mainly work on trial methods, which is to say I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can improve the way we do trials. For a long time that focused on recruitment but I now do some work on retention too, influenced by HSRU’s Katie Gillies. A big focus for the last few years has been trying to improve inclusion and diversity in trials and, for that matter, other areas of health research. That has put me in contact with people who are very different to myself and I always enjoy that.
About seven years ago I set up something called Trial Forge, with the aim of bringing people together to try and improve trial efficiency. While I always wish things moved faster, it has been pleasing to start to see people outside Aberdeen doing Trial Forge stuff. I feel a warm glow when I see something badged Trial Forge that I didn't lead.
- How do you usually start your day?
On weekdays I'm usually at the computer before 8.00 and have a fairly fixed routine of first checking my bank account to see if I'm still solvent before deleting as many emails as I can without causing offence, then I check twitter, then I work through email. For years I've used my inbox as a sort of To-do list and it does structure how I work.
Weekends don't include an alarm clock and after breakfast the first job is always to go and feed the red squirrels. The number of red squirrels living around us is increasing and they see enough of me now for me to be able to sit a few metres away and watch them. I can't describe how exciting I find watching red squirrels, if one ever takes a nut out of my hand my life will be complete.
- What is your favourite thing about your job?
In addition to working with lots of fabulous people across lots of institutions, I like the fact that as an academic I can change what I do in my job without having to find a completely new job. Three years ago I wasn’t doing anything on inequality, now it's almost all I do. There is variety and we have a lot of freedom, and I like that.
- How do you relax outside of work?
Squirrels obviously but also mountains and the outdoors in general. My wife and I looked for houses that didn't have a garden because we had no interest in gardening. We ended up with a house with two small borders and we are now obsessed, me particularly, with gardening.
We also have quite a lot of woodland around us and the house came with a wood burning stove and this combination has inevitably led to buying a chainsaw. Before buying one I did a course so that I wouldn't take my leg off the first time I fired up the saw but I enjoyed using one from the very first moment. I do wonder sometimes whether I ought to take a more advanced course. My brother uses a chainsaw professionally and dangles on ropes in trees, chainsaw in hand. It does sound tempting..
- What was the last thing you tweeted about or what was the last book you read?
My last tweet was to re-tweet an ad for a job in HSRU. The last book I read was ‘Heroines of World War II’, one of my wife's books that I found on our shelves. It turned out to be a book describing the astonishing courage of women in the face of indescribable evil. I'm now reading one about quantum mechanics, another of my wife's books. Reading in bed is a new activity for me, a decision informed by the results of a trial– the People's Trial (https://trialsjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13063-021-05831-3). Reading in bed helps me to sleep, as the trial suggested it would!
Shaun's answers were provided in September 2022