This October Health Data Research UK (HDR UK) were finally able to welcome our 2020 and 2021 PhD Programme cohorts in person for the first time at our induction event. Our 16 PhD students, from six UK universities, assembled for the first time for two days of long overdue cohort building activities.

On Day One, I was joined by Talent and Training Director Sarah Cadman, and we kicked off with my personal introduction to HDR UK, our ethos, and the importance of the PhD programme in our overall mission. I emphasised that each of our students represents a massive investment by Wellcome and HDR UK and that they would have our fullest support throughout their studies to maximise the impact of their research. I particularly mentioned the unique flexibility they possess within our programme to shape their own training and development and not be bound by a pre-determined syllabus.

I led the students in a group exercise to consider why they thought HDR UK had selected them, reminded them of their interview process and asked them to consider what qualities HDR UK had been looking for and why they had succeeded. I then informed the students that the exercise was not merely for reflection but a precursor to asking them to join in the recruitment process that has recently open for our third cohort. At HDR UK we really want our students to not only be participants in the programme but also to be leaders who can influence and improve the programme for subsequent cohorts.

The students then took on an entirely different type of activity: The Marshmallow Challenge. Armed with nothing more than a few paper straws, paper card, scissors and some Sellotape, each team of four students was asked to construct the tallest freestanding structure that could hold a marshmallow at its top. This challenge really brought out the competitive spirit in our students and a mixture of solutions arose from the truly outstanding to the not-quite-so upstanding (quite literally!). Ultimately the team of Claire Coffey, Breeshey Roskams-Heiter, Tianxiao Wang and Xiyun Jiang emerged victorious with their splendid blue structure reaching the room ceiling.

There was no let up after the excitement of the marshmallows. A short coffee break and the students were back at it with an exercise I call “Round Robin Teaching”. Students are asked to teach a concept to a partner in five minutes. The recipient then teaches someone else what they just learnt and this person must then teach what they have learnt back to the person from whom the concept originated to see how much information and insight has been preserved. I was genuinely impressed with the enthusiasm shown by the students who all made a serious attempt to teach and learn over very short time scales. This exercise is designed to mimic scientific interactions between supervisors, their students, and external collaborators where information can get lost in translation particularly in interdisciplinary partnerships.

PhD Students in London. October 2021.

Day One ended with a keynote talk from returning former HDR UK Training Director Professor Peter Diggle. I was delighted that Peter was able to join us and give a tour de force of his professional career from his early days as a boy living in the shadow of the Sellafield nuclear plant through his studies with the great statistician, Julian Besag, and work that took him to all corners of the world including Sweden, CSIRO (Australia), and Johns Hopkins (USA) before arriving back in the UK in Lancaster. Peter outlined the foundations of statistical modelling and inference upon which his work is built and which is the bedrock of our PhD programme as well. Though retired from his role as Director, Peter will always remain a close friend to the programme.

Associate Director Max Little – the new “fun one”

At dinner, I was delighted to announce the appointment of our new Associate Director, Max Little from the University of Birmingham. Max had undergone a rigorous selection process at HDR UK in which a committee of our PhD students had been selected to evaluate all our candidates for their technical, teaching and communication skills. We place tremendous faith and trust in the ability of our students to take on professional tasks within the programme to extend their experience and to give them a genuine role in the operation of the programme.

Sadly, Max’s appointment marks my retirement as the Programme Director who is the “fun one”, which will now be Max’s role, as I move to being the “serious and responsible one”.

Max will formally start his position shortly and I and the rest of HDR UK look forward to working with him in the coming years.

The following day kicked off with students being asked to consider the nine principles that collectively form the Bradford Hill framework for establishing evidence of a causal relationship between a presumed cause and an observed effect in public health research. While formal methodology is appropriate for the mathematically well-versed and statistically trained, the purpose of this exercise was to make students consider the qualitative aspects of real-world policy and decision making, and the communication skills they will need to develop to enable an effective conversation with stakeholders in different sectors and disciplines.

Our current PhD cohorts

The group then split into two groups with Professor Peter Bannister (VP Life Sciences, Ada Health) and his team of Academy of Medical Sciences FLIER colleagues: Dr Rebecca Sims, Professor Marc Vendrell and Professor Richard Mellanby introducing the 2020 Cohort to the Leadership course. Peter began by outlining the multi-part, multi-year leadership programme that will span the next three years of their PhD involving a cross-sector range of academic, industry and NHS leaders. Rebecca, Marc and Richard then introduced different leadership styles and both personal and more academic perspectives on leadership. This introduction was a prelude to the start of a year-long project for the 2020 cohort where they will seek to learn and apply their emerging leadership skills supported by Peter and colleagues.

Professor Marc Vendrell (University of Edinburgh) talking about Leadership

While our students are at an early stage in their careers, we are deliberately encouraging and developing leadership skills early. Unlike a university which graduates hundreds of PhDs every year, at HDR UK we only have 16. Every student is therefore unique and special to us and we will use our national platform to its fullest effect to support each and every one of them to become future leaders in health data science.

Meanwhile, in the other room, Max and UCL University Lead, Ioanna Manolopoulou led the 2021 cohort in a series of data science exercises building on his work in wearables and Parkinson’s disease. Students were asked to consider the wider issues in tackling data science problems, which extend beyond simply the algorithms and data, but issues such as replicability, reproducibility, ethics, project management and infrastructure. Students were shown that technical expertise developed as part of a PhD only comprises one component of the technology development pipeline and that the health innovation pathway involves many more activities and stakeholders.

Sadly, after two action-packed days, it was time for our students to return to their homes and the care of their universities. However, we look forward to them returning for a busy series of immersion weeks, courses and seminars that HDR UK have programmed for them throughout the academic year. I could not be more excited about what comes next for these students.

Special thanks to our Talent and Training programme and various members of the HDR UK Central team for supporting us in planning delivering this event.