Dr Judith Holloway

Judith Holloway_457x220Dr Judith Holloway, associate professor and programme director in MSc Allergy
Date of interview: 22nd Nov 2017

Q1: What has been your educational and career path to date?

A:  I did my undergraduate degree in Biology here in Southampton and enjoyed specialising. I saw a PhD advert for research looking at the immunology of asthma in adults with the world-renowned Professor Holgate. It was fantastic opportunity and, as somebody with multiple allergies, I thought why not do that whilst I make up my mind what I want to do with my career.

Afterwards, I became a postdoc for Prof Warner, another world leader in children’s asthma and allergy, and studied the development of allergy in the unborn baby during pregnancy.

I got the opportunity to start teaching on the MSc allergy during my first postdoc, and I absolutely loved it. When Dr Warner, the Programme Lead, left I was chosen to take on the role, which was my dream job, allowing me to combine teaching with research.

I was also able to shape the MSc and redesign it to make it really relevant to the students who came on the course. I’ve been running it for the past 10 years and at Southampton. We now have an MSc that’s part of the only World Allergy Organisation Centre of Excellence here in Southampton. We teach our students to treat their patients better and give them the skills to pass on their knowledge so they become leaders in their field around the world.

I’m so lucky to be able to do what I just love, and it’s been fantastic.

Q2: What's your main research area of interest?

A: My research is into allergy, asthma and, more recently, basic research using microvesicles as biomarkers for point of care diagnostics.

We’re right at the infancy of this really exciting area. Microvesicles are about 100 to 1000 nanometres in size, and until recently we couldn’t measure them. As biomarkers will potentially impact on the way you clinically treat people, they could be predictors of disease or the severity of disease. The techniques developed look at these particles, and open up new worlds of opportunity applicable across multiple different diseases.

My collaborators include Dr Englyst in the UoS Human Development and Health academic unit, who looks at cardiac disease, stroke, infection and now allergy and David Smith, a UHS consultant anaesthetist looking at changes in microvesicles during cardiac bypass surgery, their recovery phases and correlations with recovery, potentially allowing tailored treatment to improve outcomes.

I work with my students on a wide range of projects, from developing new educational tools for dietitians through to service evaluations, determining the needs for allergic disease in Gibraltar and developing new clinics in primary care. It’s a fantastic opportunity to work with students on projects they are passionate about and then help them publish their work, but it also improves patient care and clinical practice.

Q3: Who and what inspired you to embark on a health-related research career?

A: I think it was a bit of an accident that I did embark on it. I would say probably my mum inspired me.  She was the one who found the advert for the PhD, and without her saying ‘Go on, Judith, have a go’ I wouldn’t have ever felt I was capable of doing a PhD. She believed in what all of her three daughters were doing. My mum died ten years ago and like me, had multiple allergies and asthma, so our own health is very similar.

It’s very powerful knowing that actually through your teaching and research you can make a difference. When I started, I naively thought my research might mean that my children would not have allergies and asthma, but it’s just so complicated and we are now very well aware of the fact that actually we won’t solve it for my children and we might not solve it for their children, but it’s a progression towards more knowledge.

Q4:  What is your response to being nominated?

A: I‘m so honoured and humbled that somebody has seen something in what I do that has meant they’ve taken the time to nominate me. That’s just awesome, because we’re all so busy in our working lives that for somebody to have seen something in what I do and say ‘Yes, she’s a good egg’ - that’s just incredible.

I’m so passionate about passing on my knowledge and helping the next cohort of professionals to develop the skills they need, whether that’s through my teaching or through my mentoring.

Often the work we do is done subtly, hidden behind the scenes, so when people take the time to tell us the impact of what we’ve done it’s fantastic, and for somebody to recognise this and take the time to single me out - that’s awesome.

Q5: What have been the highs (and lows) of your career?

One of the highs of my career has to be the week before last, when I was awarded a national teaching fellowship from the HEA for my work in allergy. It’s the highest teaching recognition that you can get and for me, that was fantastic.

It’s really nice for the university to have been recognized as well, because actually it’s tough in teaching at the moment, but personally for all my passion and ability to be recognized on national level, that was a massive high.

One of the lows for me was as an early career researcher coming to the end of one short term contract and needing to find the next job. I’d had five fantastic years in my first postdoc, but couldn’t move from Southampton for personal reasons.

Many postdocs have to move from an area they are passionate about and might have to compromise what they want to do in order to have a job. It’s easy to lose sight of where are you going. That can be very difficult. I’ve seen a lot of postdocs struggling with that, and I mentor them and try to help them get through those very difficult periods.

I got my lucky break during my third postdoc, with only a month left on my contract and nothing else lined up after it. I got the lectureship, became Programme Lead for the MSc and took my first step onto the academic career ladder.

Although that was the bottom rung and there was a long way to go, actually it was my first permanent job, and the relief was huge - having something you can build on, grow and become independent. Sometimes being an early career researcher can be very tough.

Q6: What are you most proud of (career or non-career related)?

A: I’m most proud of the MSc, because you can create a taught programme that teaches people how to do whatever it is you want to do and they can go away with knowledge of whatever it is that you’ve given them. But actually creating something where you also give them the skills to use that knowledge, to change their clinical practice and influence others, allowing them to develop best practice and become the leaders in their own hospitals or in their own countries - that’s a different type of education all together.

Our students recognise what they are getting, and our teachers, clinicians, nurses, dietitians and scientists, all working together, are all invested in it. It’s very multidisciplinary, designed to give the students the very best of every single aspect that we can give them.

That, as a product, is a fantastic design and we’ve used that model to create other MScs and other clinical areas. So now, it’s not just allergy; there are MSc’s in diabetics and genomics medicine, other clinical areas where we can really make a difference for the workforce.

Q7: What do you do when you’re not working at Southampton?

A: I have two children and a fantastic husband, and at the moment we seem to spend a lot of time running around delivering children to X, Y and Z. I love my cricket, so I’m very happy to chip in and help by scoring for the under 11’s, 13’s or 16’s girls and boys cricket - I love it.

As a family, our biggest passion is geocaching - we love going out, walking, exploring new places, or discovering new things about places we thought we knew. We’ve found over 2500 geocaches across the world. It is free and fun and you learn history, geography and all sorts of stuff. If we do get spare time, then it will be spent geocaching.

Q8: What advice would you give to someone thinking about a career in health-related research?

A: I would say choose an area that you are passionate about and go for it, because there is nothing better in being able to make a difference in something that you really care about.

Also keep your eyes open for any opportunities there are, because health related research has changed so much in the last 20 years, and the opportunities to collaborate, to be innovative, cross-disciplinary and work with other people who have different specialties that you didn’t necessarily know at all can be amazing.

Working with clinicians is also fantastic and you can really look at the multidisciplinary areas. Although I’m an immunologist, I’ve done so many things with other people because I haven’t pigeonholed myself as just an immunologist.  It’s a networking collaboration.

Really explore the opportunities. I really believe that when the times get tough, and they so often do, it’s that bit of passion inside you that keeps you going and knowing it’s relevant.

I think also there are opportunities to begin to teach, like I did. I work with quite a few young post docs to give them opportunities to start their teaching careers as well.

Although they’re scientists on short-term research contracts (most of them first and second  postdocs), we work with them to try and give them some teaching experience, to try and help them broaden this side of their CV, because if you want to have a balanced portfolio you need to do a little bit of both. So do go and find these kinds of opportunities for education, especially if the educators will support you, train you and teach you.

Think about getting a mentor - somebody to talk to when the times are tough, or when the times aren’t tough. Have somebody completely independent from your day-to-day job, who you can just go to and say ‘Right, this is my situation, can I talk it through with you?’

A mentor can be there to discuss big career decisions, or for help with coping and developing your work strategies. Your mentor can also help you to remember your work-life balance, which is so difficult to prioritise in today’s busy world of academia. All of us at all stages of our career could benefit from having a mentor, so that’s my third piece of advice.

Q9: Are there any research opportunities for early career researchers in your ongoing or future projects?

A: Research opportunities come in two main ways - through jobs and through collaboration. To create jobs, we as the seniors have to get the grants in, and that’s always difficult, particularly when like me a large focus of my job is education.

So having the actual jobs can be difficult to make that opportunity happen, but having an opportunity to collaborate with people who have their own funding, but want to come and get some experience at whatever it is, that’s always a possibility. Some groups will find it easier to do than other groups.

I also think that because microvesicles are such a new field, it’s applicable in so many areas. There are quite a few groups exploring microvesicles, using different techniques to look at them in different ways.

Q10: Is there anything else you would like to add?

A: If any early career researcher would like to find out more about what an academic does and how they got there, don’t ever be afraid to go and ask. Most of us would be delighted to share what we have done and talk to early career researchers (ECRs) about whatever it is they want to explore, so it doesn't have to be formal relationship.

It doesn’t have to be ‘I would like you to mentor me’ or ‘I would like you to supervise me’. It could just be a simple email saying ‘I’ve heard your name, I’ve seen your stuff and would it be possible to come and talk to you?’

All of us were ECRs once, and as the landscape and climate changes so much, just come and ask. So that professor who you think is right up there - don’t worry about it, just drop them an email asking if you can come and chat.