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Issue 151 Spring 2024

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| Features

A head and shoulders photograph of Professor Wiebke Arlt

Wiebke Arlt

Professor Wiebke Arlt was appointed as Director of the MRC Laboratory of Medical Sciences and Head of Imperial College London’s Institute of Clinical Sciences in January 2023, and she has since become President-Elect of the European Society of Endocrinology (ESE).

We last interviewed Professor Arlt in The Endocrinologist in Autumn 2021. Here, Sophie Clarke catches up with her after what have clearly been a busy couple of years.

Sophie: Congratulations on being elected as ESE’s new President-Elect, particularly as the first female President-Elect. Tell us about your involvement with ESE, and what excites you most about your new role.

Wiebke: Thank you. At least half, if not more, members of ESE are women, and endocrinology is increasingly a female discipline. However, in the past, women were under-represented, and so we are now doing a lot of work in ESE to make sure that the committees are representative of the membership.

Two years ago, together with Cynthia Andoniadou and Jenny Visser, we created a group called EUWIN, or European Women in Endocrinology. We have now started a webinar series: the first was how to become a committee member, and the next on demystifying awards. In the same way that women tend to wait until they tick all 30 boxes before they first put in for an academic position, we see the same with awards. The aim of this second seminar was to demystify the process.

I have been involved in a number of initiatives as part of ESE. When I was still in Germany as a young scientist, we wanted to develop more support for young endocrine scientists, so we created a group called EYES, the ESE Young Endocrinologists & Scientists, which is an ESE Committee. This Committee brings together young endocrine scientists and clinicians from across Europe, facilitating interaction and collaboration. This is very important because young people are the future – you need to motivate them to take part and to be active.

S: Tell us a bit more about your job – you were recently appointed as Director of the MRC Laboratory of Medical Sciences.

W: The MRC Laboratory of Medical Sciences is one of the seven core-funded MRC Institutes, and one of only two institutes that have their own physical space.

Previously I was at the Institute of Metabolism and Systems Research in Birmingham, and I very much enjoyed my work there, in particular supporting younger scientists and their development.

I was attracted by this position because it’s not only a research institute that does lab work, it also has a national mission, being responsible for transdisciplinary training. It has a national beacon function that we will extend now for clinical scientists everywhere. For example, we plan to offer a leadership and mentorship programme resembling that of the Academy of Medical Sciences SUSTAIN programme.

The Academy of Medical Sciences report has shown that, in the last 10 years, 25% of clinician scientists have been lost. Therefore, it is really important to understand how clinician scientists can be supported, so that they stay as clinical academics.

For example, young clinicians have said that they would like to have more mentorship and more support while being exposed to demands from both the clinical side and the academic side. Obviously, this occurs at a time when everybody has young families, providing both demands and opportunities – the regret is often that people let go of academia as the first thing, in particular women.

It is one of my declared goals that we really ensure that we have diversity: with women, with people from low resource backgrounds, with people from ethnic minority backgrounds. In science, we need people with different perspectives.

S: What do you find most rewarding about your job at the moment?

W: I love my old science, but I love looking into things that can help in diversity, or gender equality, or early career scientists. I love that, in my job, I can focus on both of these things.

S: Do you have any words of advice to someone starting out in their career or, perhaps, at that midpoint, where there are lots of pressures and demands?

W: Find support. Find somebody – a mentor, somebody who has no agenda – who can give you independent advice and support.

I think of one mentee of mine who got in touch. She was in a very difficult situation when we first met, with lots of demands on her, in her clinical training and academic development and at home with her children. She was thinking of giving up on academia because she thought she could not deliver at the level she was used to. I advised her, in this situation, to completely focus on the current needs, and I reassured her that nothing would be lost.

If you take time to focus on the current demands that you face, you need to recognise that you might not be able to perform at the same high pace as before, but it’s just natural. And when your circumstances change, you can come back. Indeed, this is what she did, and she was grateful for the support – otherwise she might have given up altogether.

S: Finally, is there anything else that you’d like to share with the readership of The Endocrinologist?

W: I think you need to be active and political, and you should always strive to have leadership skills, even if you think you’re not suited to be a leader. Leadership may come more naturally to people who are extroverted and intuitive and who see the ‘big picture’, but everybody can lead, they just need to learn how it works best for them.

If you don’t take on leadership, then you have no voice and you don’t change things. That’s the thing with research. If you didn’t undertake research, then nothing would change – research is not a ‘nice to have’, it’s an absolute must. We will not provide good medical care if we don’t continuously do research, recruit our patients into trials and support young trainees to undertake research. That’s critical for our future.

We also need to change the conditions. We know that 50% of junior doctors leave two years after completing their training. This cannot be compensated for by 20 new medical schools. We can only make up for it by changing how they experience their work and, from observations and feedback, we can see that they always love to do research and something new.

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