Life and Work: Dame Nancy Rothwell

Well it’s my very great pleasure today to talk with Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell. Who is the vice chancellor and president of the University of Manchester, the largest single-site university in the UK She’s an eminent pharmacologist and she’s also an honorary fellow of the British Pharmacological Society. So Nancy maybe we could just turn the clock back and talk about your early days as a pharmacologist, what made you decide that was the career for you and who and really inspired you in those early years Well actually I had a slightly unusual route because I dropped biology at the age of 14, as I found it boring and my chosen career was going to be art, but I had a very good art teacher who wisely said “Nancy you’re not bad at art, but you’re not good enough to make any money out of it” so my second choice was maths, and then I went to open days and all the mathematicians applying looked odd so I chose to do actually was physiology and biochemistry, but with a lot of pharmacology in it and I had no idea of what career I was going to take until my final year project and I was inspired by my tutor Mike Stock, who I then worked with for quite some time and the other two people who inspired me greatly I heard John Vane speak and he was amazing and Jimi Black I heard him speak and both were amazing scientists, amusing people, nice people, and so I thought maybe I could do that So when people look at you in your career I guess the assumption is it all came easy, you never had to struggle. True or false? Oh false, obviously always, but there struggles, are sort of good struggles, in the sense of like every scientist you know you get your grant turned down and the referees are utterly stupid and they’ve got it all wrong and they didn’t read it or your papers rejected or experiments didn’t work for a while or you didn’t get that thing you were going to get, but on the other hand if it was easy it wouldn’t have been fun. You need a bit of struggle. Okay I know I completely agree with you, although my first grant was for a fridge which I didn’t get you know that wasn’t a fun day but talking of publications obviously publications are really important on everybody CV you have more than 300 I think yours which of all of those when it got accepted were you most pleased with what do you think the most important scientific discovery you’ve made over the years I think I’m gonna eat slightly and say to and the first one did get into a very high postage Journal and it was an article in nature and it was called the roll for brown adipose tissue in diet-induced thermogenesis in 1979 and and that was quite a big discovery but actually the next big paper I didn’t get into nature or science and I was really sorry about it but it got very highly cited and that led to a lot of things and that was showing that interleukin 1 receptor antagonist reduces damage caused by a stroke in a completely different field of course to the first one, because I changed in the middle so those I think are the two big big ones for me and I guess importantly in the sphere of pharmacology is animal experimentation and some people are really shy and nervous about talking about that you on the other hand have been at the vanguard of describing the need for animal experimentation in medical science, can you just give us your thoughts on that I mean do you think we should be doing more talking to the public the reality versus the myth. I think we should and I think we should for several reasons and certainly most of the people have trained with me have been very open about what they do do a lot of public speaking I think we have an obligation however you’re funded in some way the British taxpayer funds you either your university or your salary or your grant or something else and I’m not of a view that people should automatically accept what we do or the need to use animals it’s their personal judgement I only feel that they should have the facts put in front of them in order to allow them to make that decision and it’s quite worrying how many people don’t have the facts and believe things that are myths or all things that are told to them wrongly and I’ve been on a few difficult and aggressive meetings with people who disagreed with me but on the whole most people even if not they’re not keen on animal use they appreciate you taking the time to explain it to them Do you think leaders in pharmacology are of a certain type? what do you think the key skills and pharmacology we’ve been doing it both since the 80s some time ago now and it’s changed a lot over the decades what do you think this sort of key skills that leaders in pharmacology need to have? well I’m not sure I would say there are unique things because I think there are issues of leadership in almost every walk of life that come through. You know

and engaging with others about hoping to have some sort of vision and direction about listening and you know about recognising the need that just because you say something people won’t believe you. I think they’re generic skills I think in pharmacology probably more than some areas of science, pharmacology is a little bit like engineering because it’s often problem-solving rather than problem discovering I think most people in pharmacology are looking to find an answer and a solution and the other thing that I think is somewhat different to some of the sciences is you very, very often have to have one foot in the door of academia and one with industry, because however good a scientist you are you’re not going to be able to produce a new drug you’re not going to be able to market it so you have to have that relationship with the commercial sector large and small and I always have done yeah and you know that was my next follow-up question actually is about your experience of working with big pharma, smaller biotech, how a university best engages with the private sector, what the pushes and pulls are that are different and how young scientists who need to publish survive that collaboration if you will? Well I’ve generally had positive experiences but I know many scientists and particularly younger scientists feel that you know industry or now I don’t want to do that they’ll constrain me there can be some constraints but I haven’t found too many and there’s an interesting contrast because I’ve worked with very small bar Tech’s who are exciting innovative and fleet of thought but then I’ve worked with Big Pharma who have the resource to be able to do things that you could never dream of doing yourself and I found that for universities and for scientists the best approach is not to think about how much money will this pay what can I get out of it but look at it as a shared venture where they can bring expertise and skills as well as resource and facilities and some of our best discussions about problems have been with scientists in academia which have found very enjoyable and then of course I took on a different role because I was a non-executive director of AstraZeneca for nine years and that was a fantastic experience of understanding how a multi-billion pound multinational company works. Now I would bet my house that you’ve had offers to move into that private sector so why did you decide to remain an academic given given that? For me the heart of being a scientist is training other scientists and having PhD students and while that is possible in industry it happens much less but it’s the wider thing of being in an educational institution that I mean the students are away at the moment it’s lovely and quiet and wonderful but I miss them being in a place where you’re educating young people you’re training young scientists that for me was at the heart of what I always wanted to do and so I always no thanks. I guess I always get a bit upset if someone tells me I can’t do something. Yes. So I guess for me it’s being able to follow your nose as you will as long as you can get the funding to do it you can do it. That is certainly another thing that the sense that and I think it’s it’s a slight myth as men you in industry told me the idea you can do what you want I saw young got the money to do it but that doesn’t matter I think I can. Yes I want to do something different I think I can do it in a university and whether I can or I can’t the fact that I feel I’ve got that freedom I said to one leader in industry I said look if I don’t if I don’t want to go to work tomorrow I won’t and he said have you ever done that no no but the point is I feel I could do good yeah can we move to the women in science she touched on it briefly I mean I remember the first time I met Nancy Rothwell not a Dame at that point. Not a professor. No no it was a long time ago and I was a very new PI pretty nervous actually on my first few weeks in Manchester and I walked into your room and I can’t even remember why but you’re in the middle of probably three or four tasks at once and there was this just incredible energy and enjoyments as well as the sharp intellect I mean have you how did you develop that persona have you always been like that? I think most successes in life 90% hard work enthusiasm and optimism. And do you think it is more difficult for women to achieve in a scientific sphere or? I’m sure it is it must be because there are fewer of them so I have to acknowledge that I often people say have I found barriers or discrimination I’ve said no not really actually my biggest worry is the perception from women that it will be too hard and I think the perceptions probably worse than the reality actually in most people have supported me have been men and have been very very supportive I really worry about all these discussions about glass ceilings what glass ceiling what message are you giving to young women to tell them they’ve got to break through this gossip. If you make that mountain so high why would anybody even leave basecamp. Exactly

you wouldn’t even try. Okay so if you were starting out as a pharmacologist today what do you think would be the big challenges and what advice do you give to those young starters in today’s world? I would say make sure you don’t lose the sheer joy of discovering and of research, find smart people around you to help and advise you and support you people who will not only support you but will in a nice way criticise you and say actually that’s a mistake you know you need somebody sometimes to pull you down and say stop going down that route it’s not getting anywhere and the other thing is choose very very carefully the people you work with and you employ that they are the people who are going to make or break you and one wrong decision with somebody you’re not going to get on with can be damaging so I think but but do look and if you’re a university actually people are so willing to help you and so keen to support young pharmacologists young scientists in general you’ll find plenty of people just go and knock on the door like you did with me. Yes indeed and I guess the the sort of the the billion dollar question so let’s just transport ourselves with both back in the lab full-time budget unlimited you’re looking out there and you’re saying if I was going to go for the big grand challenge research question in pharmacology what would it be what are the big unsolved critical questions that we this this society of pharmacologists has to address going forward? so I mean I would say this wouldn’t I but it has to be around brain disease I think because really we still have so few tools and I don’t mean the ones that everybody talks about like dementia which is a big one the massive problem of depression of some of those psychiatric diseases I think if we could get a better handle and we are getting better handles on understanding brain function and dysfunction that to me is a massive prize to be able to understand what is it that suddenly and I’m sure we both know people who were happy individuals suddenly not with external factors suddenly it starts crash if we could understand that imagine the difference we could make that to me has to be the area that you know with all the tools we’re developing particularly modern imaging particularly now all the molecular tools and genetic tools and so on they have to be the big things but they’re tough. yeah so now thinking about you in your role as vice-chancellor and president of this enormous university looking forwards how on earth you do it all you know you have so many jobs on your CV you’re still running your own research team how are you managing to do all of that just with 24 hours in every day. well first of all I should dispel a few myths to say I run my own research team is probably an exaggeration I’m lucky enough to have six or seven people who trained with me who have University positions they do all the hard work and they indulge me so it’s wonderful so I go to the lab meetings I discuss the problems I go through the grant applications I see them with results I don’t have to do all the day-to-day hard work I still teach I do a few first-year lectures and I think coming back to what I said before choosing the right people I have an amazing team of people around me these are the other leaders in the university of the vice president’s deputy and so on who are phenomenal and we work very much as a team then I have a brilliant team in my office that are like guard dogs and answer so many things and I think I’ve become I didn’t used to be but I become very very good at prioritising and structuring things and I’m an avid list writer, love lists Love lists mainly because I love crossing things off. So I do remember you know talking about science and the public and I do remember with really enjoyed your Christmas lectures sat there riveted for me preparing those talks actually is more difficult and takes longer than doing your regular research because you know about that and it’s straightforward to do it and we all get better at that with practice but how long did you have to prepare for the Christmas lectures? so that I’ve often said that was probably the hardest thing I ever did in my career and I once I’ve decided to do something I tend to go full pelt into doing it so for six months six months ahead you start having weekly meetings and you start thinking about it because yeah a 60 minute lecture on average you would have 60 demonstrations or examples or pictures the last three months it was pretty much full-time and the two weeks before and the two weeks of filming I bet I didn’t get more than four or five hours sleep a night but it

was such fun but really hard it wasn’t just me giving a lecture it was knowing which camera I’m looking at one spot I’m standing on what’s the cue for the next prop to come on to where I’m gonna get a kid from you know it was the whole but I loved the sort of theater of it all it was amazing and I guess you know for me I would just love to see the public understanding science better than they do and you know the scientific reporting in the newspapers to be elevated a little I mean do you agree that. I do We have of course Brian Cox who is doing a fabulous job from Manchester. I mean Brian is brilliant, but he gets accused by his fellow scientists of dumbing down and he shrugs his shoulders and says well you know if I’m getting to five million people I think that’s a fair trade-off and he doesn’t really dumb down. but yeah I mean it varies interesting apparently there are more column inches or whatever you measure now on science than there were ten years ago some more is reported but sometimes you say huh how did that arrive but it’s not even reporting of science that I worry about it’s the science behind other things that I think are more of a concern if it’s if it’s a science correspondent telling us our story they’re usually pretty good actually one of the worse than since I came across was the MMR vaccine and I had a long debate with the media and they said well we gave equal weight to both sides of the argument and I said well that’s your problem because 99% of scientists are in one place not the other and yet you gave fifty-fifty how can that be right. so its a bit frustrating. sort of following on from that how you can influence of course is your co-chair of the prime minister’s Council for science and technology I believe so how’s that going yes we’re quite open actually most of our reports are published they’re obviously all directed at the prime minister but many of them are also at other ministers whether for science or Treasury and so on it is one of the most interesting things I’ve ever done because it’s a group of very very clever people from very different backgrounds and quite a few of them are not scientists you know we have economists and several economist actually and social scientists and some of what we do is in response to questions from government quite a lot of what we do is we ask what we think is an important topic at the moment that we could comment usefully on and our reports usually short we get to meet amazing people so people come in from industry from government and tell us about things that are ongoing we’ve had joint meetings with the past president in the United States equivalent group very interesting indeed and also very very good support so all those are a lots of reports written for me it’s it’s you know workload that is manageable and very enjoyable and I guess just to towards the end of getting all these questions that it’s great to hear all your answers but when you finish being the vice-chancellor and president of the University of Manchester what do you want to look back on and say I’m really proud of what I did there I I suppose the university being known for some really big discoveries unimportant things I can’t say it was down to me but it was fabulous a few months after I was appointed that the Nobel Prize was awarded and then I went to the ceremony in Stockholm another area your own area amazing that we’ve just been awarded 40 million pounds for cancer research but also amazing some of the work that’s been done on history and culture just last week when they found all of our enterings correspondence in a filing cabinet in one of our departments and then I suppose the transformation of the campus will all be on a single site by 2020 2020 one too many things really but one of the things is meeting students and past students so I’ve got a I’ve got a slide which I show and it’s in two parts from the first part is a young girl who was in the audience for the Christmas lectures that I gave and then many years later I was sent a picture by her mother and she’s graduating with a first-class degree in chemistry from the University of Manchester with a note from the daughter saying you inspired me and I guess since we are thinking about the British pharmacological society today what do you think they should be focusing on as a society going forward I feel but they do need to embrace the wider inputs to pharmacology and that is happening but I think it really needs to happen anymore and by that I don’t just mean molecular genetics I mean new physics new materials yeah informatics you know now there are so many tools that can be input and we’re

trying to develop an institute here which is about bringing skills across the university for health benefit and some of those are in the social sciences or in behaviour or in business as well as in physics in engineering some of the systems engineers are some of the best people you could find at designing a way of looking at a complex system like a brain you know it’s our computer scientists who are doing a lot of work on brain science I would urge the society to to work with people from them very many rather than the immediate areas that impact on pharmacology indeed and I guess perhaps the last question today since we’re sitting here in Manchester one of the things that’s special about Manchester in my view is we now have a develop a devolved healthcare system the first one in the UK what do you think that’s how do you think that’s going to help us what do you see is the main impact of Divo bankers so cool yeah so the devolution of the health budget which is six billion pounds a year I think there’s a small advantage in allowing that to be targeted to particular local needs but by far far the biggest advantage is the fact that the health and the social care budgets are now under the same control so previously where there might be a drug that cost a lot of money but allow people to get back to work six weeks earlier might not be used because nobody counted the six weeks earlier they counted the cost of the drug nobody was looking at would he actually be cheaper to have earlier diagnostics than have people turn up at hospital with a heart attack would it be better for people overall to get them out of hospital quicker and into care homes there is the possibility of doing that and following it is a lot of interest from a lot of companies because three million population all under one control they’re fascinated by the ability to potentially do large-scale trials on those people whether it’s compliance and of course Greater Manchester was the first electronic trial the Salford long study which was very successful very Qi these are the sorts of things that we can be exploring which pharmacology shall be exploring doing a trial where you don’t have to see the patient saw electronic yes I mean I for me you know the pharmacology I think is this multidisciplinary process and I think one of the things I recognized in Manchester having been here for so long now and visited around the country in other countries and I think you know your influence is showing here is one of the things Manchester does really really well is collaborate across boundaries and I think you know that that lack of if you like ego this ability to all muck in together on a single problem I think is very characteristic of the Mancunian approach I think it is and it’s interesting a number of us went to a very very prestigious university overseas to talk about Devo mank and somebody’s senior at that university said how did you get these people all to come and I said how do you mean so well one of them is a health economist one of them three medics one of them’s an information technologists one of them is a social scientist was a mathematician why would they all come and I said because they’re all interested in the problem and they all sees their own strengths being complementary to other strengths so they’re coming together on it and that’s what we need to do just solve health issues that might be a good place to to end talking to you today Nancy thanks for your time it’s been great to have insight into how you came to be a pharmacologist and how you’ve developed such a remarkable career since then