Inspirational leadership matters: supporting the next generation of clinical academics

Dr Maddalena Ardissino

This festive period, Three Wise Women from the Faculty of Medicine will be giving us the gift of wisdom.

The journey to becoming a clinical academic can be long and arduous, with many obstacles. Dr Maddalena Ardissino, from the National Heart and Lung Institute, reflects on her own experiences as a trainee and explains why mentorship is key to supporting the growth and development of young, aspiring clinical academics.

Almost exactly five years ago, I stood amongst a crowd of young academics at a poster session at the Intensive Care Society’s annual conference, experiencing a feeling of anxiety I’ve never known before or since. I was in my fifth year of medical school and standing in front of a group of excellent researchers who were about to listen to me give my first scientific presentation. It seemed unthinkable to me, at the time, to think that they might have the slightest interest in what I had to say.

Since then, my journey through clinical and academic training has been what I can only describe as an adventure. I quickly realised that there isn’t a single defined path for clinical academics, with each individual moulding a slightly different journey. When I look around at my fellow clinical academics at the National Heart and Lung Institute, however, there is one key feature that we all share: enthusiasm. And behind this feature there is one single, common theme: the support of a truly inspirational mentor.

Learning from your trainees is not a cliché

My initial motivation to support upcoming clinical and academic trainees was born out of acknowledgement of the profound impact that my mentors had on my own scientific curiosity and enthusiasm. I wanted to give something back to the academic community at Imperial that had, and continues to have, a central role in my successes.

After my first experiences of mentoring BSc students and academic foundation trainees, I started to acknowledge a new fact. Enthusiasm is present in bucket loads among the medical students and early career trainees, but it is also a trait that needs open doors and opportunities to thrive. I strive to provide these open doors. Despite significant improvements in the past few years, medicine remains a career that is difficult to access for those who are less privileged. Every year, I see advertisements for courses costing hundreds of pounds for interview preparation, CV building and research methods. A clear boundary to access for students from less fortunate backgrounds. For this reason, I started to run a free interview preparation course for medical students applying to the Specialised Foundation Training program. While running this, I continue to be astonished by the capabilities and motivation of the young academics at Imperial and many other medical schools. Not only do I enjoy seeing their learning progress and successes, but I find myself motivated by their enthusiasm in return.

Doing research with heart

I do have an agenda. I am passionate about improving the representation of women in research, and this is something I sincerely hope to transmit to the young academics I mentor and through my research. In the field of cardiovascular disease, for example, our understanding of sex-specific risk factors and the role of reproductive health remains limited. Beyond this, the clinical incorporation of the little evidence we have remains very low: how many times do we ask about reproductive history during a cardiovascular risk assessment?

The greatest skill that my academic mentors have taught me through the years is to care deeply about the work I do. This feeds motivation, enthusiasm and engagement in my everyday tasks. I truly cherish this approach and strive to transfer it to young clinical academics. The academic community at Imperial is globally renowned for its creativity and innovative approach, and together we can capitalise on this to produce important research that, as far as I can help it, leaves nobody behind.

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