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“We’re having a huge impact on the field of clinical medicine and education”

Published: 10 January 2022

Rachel Allen

Professor Rachel Allen recently completed her inaugural lecture at St George’s, University of London. Inaugural lectures offer newly arrived or promoted professors the opportunity to introduce themselves, update colleagues on current and future education or research plans, and share their work with wider audiences.  

Professor Allen is the Director of the Institute of Medical and Biomedical Education (IMBE) at St George’s, as well as the Academic Lead for Quality and Partnerships. She has spent 14 years at the university, having joined in 2007 as Lecturer in Immunology and Infection and moving through a variety of roles since. 

We caught up with Professor Allen to get her reflections on her inaugural lecture and to understand a bit more about her background in academia and beyond. 

What different roles have you taken on at St George’s? 

Joining as a lecturer, I found myself in both a research role and an educational one, working with the Biomedical Science programme at the university – which gave me the chance to move beyond focusing purely on research.  

Another role was as Divisional Coordinator for PhD students, which was a great experience. When the position above this became open, I had the opportunity to apply for a role as Associate Dean looking after research degree students across the institution, which I really enjoyed, because that was a way of seeing the breadth of research across all of St George’s.  

My next role was a real step up within the university, that brought in more strategic oversight to my career, taking on the role of Head of the Graduate School and working with colleagues from a variety of courses.   

When the role as Director of IMBE came up, I had six years of experience as the Head of the Graduate School and felt like I was probably a good fit as I had taught, assessed or been involved in the validation of the majority of programmes awarded by St George’s.  

I love the role of IMBE Director and look forward to growing our reputation. The impact of our academics includes those involved in developing international guidelines or developing national assessment systems, leading on education and beyond. I work with great people and look forward to continuing to do that. 

What have been your career highlights so far? 

Establishing doctoral training partnership studentships at St George’s for the first time was a big highlight. The university hadn’t had access to these grants, so working with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to achieve that was a big deal. Our doctoral training partnership was quite distinctive, as students could do a Master’s first, or go straight into a PhD, alongside access to internships, a wide range of modules and flexible funding for short courses.  

As well as the doctoral training partnership, we expanded the university’s postgraduate portfolio, including developing the Genomic Medicine MSc course. This provided research-informed training for NHS workers, growing our approach towards professional education courses as well as undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.  

From a research perspective, my work was focused on one of the standard fundamental molecules of immunology, called HLA proteins. These proteins present samples from virus proteins on the outside of infected cells so they’re recognised by the immune system and can be killed. I was working on a particular variant of HLA protein, which is associated with a condition called ankylosing spondylitis and wanted to work out why it causes disease.  

I went through multiple projects trying things out and moving on when they didn’t work. And then, by chance, I found it was folding into a different form. I investigated further and found that this alternatively folded form could be seen by different immune receptors. This opened up further research avenues exploring these immune receptors – leading me to set up my own research at St George’s and trying to understand how these proteins, which can turn up or down the immune response, might influence disease outcomes.  

What makes St George’s special? 

The collaborative nature at St George’s makes it a great place to work. You can just have a conversation with someone and they’ll help you to look into something.  

I find there are always different challenges and opportunities to do different things. Being a specialist institution, St George’s has allowed me to collaborate closely with others across the university and evolve my role.  

The university also has a great name for infection and immunity research. When I was looking at postdoctoral roles during my PhD at Oxford, people I was working with had been through St George’s or knew people that worked there. It made it much easier to transition to working in a new environment. 

What advice would you have for anyone starting their own academic career? 

I think aiming high and looking for opportunities. It can be very easy to be focused on what you think you want to do and perhaps not considering other opportunities that might be around you.  

For example, I would never have thought of applying to Oxford for my PhD. It was my undergraduate project supervisor who encouraged me to apply. I would have applied to just two Scottish universities, but his approach was, “No, you start up there with Oxford and Cambridge. You apply there, and then if they turn you down, fair enough.”  

He was quite an influence in in that respect, and that’s something that stayed with me. There are always opportunities around and sometimes it’s just taking that jump in applying for them – giving it a shot, even if it’s not what you would originally planned to have done.  

The next speaker in the inaugural lecture series will be Professor Kirsty Le Doare on Monday 31 January 2022. Further details on the event, including how to register to attend, can be found here. 

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