As a doctor, Anna Dominiczak has risen to the very top of her field. She’s the Regius professor of medicine at the University of Glasgow, she’s head of the College of Medical, Veterinary & Life Sciences (CMVLS), and she was appointed as a dame commander of the Order of the British Empire in the Queen’s birthday honours list – not bad for someone who didn’t want to study medicine in the first place.
“I come from a medical family, so I was surrounded by medical talk as a child,” she remembers. “As a very young child, I decided I would never touch medicine with a barge pole because there was too much of it at home and it spoiled my appetite – there were frequent discussions about blood and urine over the dinner table.”
As she grew up, Dominiczak began to realise just how fascinating the world of medicine can be and how there would always be a need for doctors in the world. “I saw that this was the type of job in which you’d never be bored,” she laughs. “I grew to understand that this was what I wanted to do and I’ve never regretted it since.”
Dominiczak was born in Poland during the Communist era. Her secondary school in Gdansk was at the gates to the shipyard where Lech Wałes founded the Solidarity movement that would eventually topple the Communist Party. After studying medicine in Poland, Dominiczak moved to Glasgow when her husband got a job as a clinical registrar in biochemistry at the city’s Royal Infirmary. “It was on 12 July, 1982, and it was raining,” she laughs. “I just came along for the ride. It was he who persuaded me – I would probably have never made the move without him.”
That move was to launch Dominiczak on her rise to the top. After passing her Professional
& Linguistic Assessments Board (PLAB) exam – the conversion qualification needed for doctors who had studied under different training systems – she became a junior house officer at the Royal Infirmary.
After six months at the royal, she trained to become a member of the Royal College of Physicians while working at the Royal Alexandria Infirmary in Paisley, now the Royal Alexandria Hospital, and it was there that she met Dr Joan McAlpine, a consultant geriatrician. Having a woman in such a senior role was a rarity in Glasgow at the time and came in stark contrast to the situation in Poland, where many women had trained as doctors following the Second World War, including Dominiczak’s mother.
From Paisley, Dominiczak moved to the Medical Research Council (MRC’s) unit at the Glasgow Western Infirmary, which she says was, at the time, “one of the best units in the world for high blood pressure research”. She studied for her doctor of medicine (MD) degree by research at the University of Glasgow. “It’s the degree that you would normally do at your home university but I couldn’t go home because martial law had been declared,” she explains.
Her move into research was cemented by a year as a visiting associate professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbour in 1990, which led onto a British Heart Foundation (BHF) senior research fellowship back at Glasgow in 1993. From there she began to build her own research group and the university’s Cardiovascular Research Centre, for which she served as director between 2000 and 2010.
Her relationship with the BHF continued too, with Dominiczak holding the charity’s chair of cardiovascular medicine at Glasgow between 1997 and 2010. During her career, she has become one of the world’s leading cardiovascular scientists and clinical academics, carrying out major research into hypertension and cardiovascular genomics over the past 20 years.
Dominiczak’s career took a different turn in 2010 when she led the creation of the CMVLS, which brought together three former distinct faculties. “I wasn’t sure about the move into management to begin with because it was a difficult change and some people never make this change.
“But I had done a lot of research and I had a very strong feeling that the colleagues who had started off with me as juniors were ready to run it perhaps better than I would have. By that stage, I could do something more strategic because I was ready to have this bigger vision for biomedicine in Glasgow.
“Also, for a number of years before, I felt there was a need to bring together biomedicine across the university rather than have three separate faculties. We used to have the faculty of medicine, the faculty of life sciences and the faculty of veterinary medicine, and each had its own dean and its own strategy.
“I felt very strongly that if we brought everything together with the same or a similar amount of money then we could achieve more through inter-disciplinary collaboration by harnessing that translational potential. So I felt I was ready for this jump, this change. My current role has been the best job I’ve ever had.”
Six years later and there’s been no looking back. The college has a budget of around £230 million a year and employs more than 2,200 staff, making it larger than many universities in the UK. Together, those members of staff teach some 5,000 students and generate £106m of income through their research. The college is organised into three schools: medicine, dentistry and nursing; veterinary medicine; and life sciences. It also has seven research institutes: biodiversity, animal health and comparative medicine; cancer sciences; cardiovascular and medical sciences; health and wellbeing; infection, immunity and inflammation; molecular cell and systems biology; and neuroscience and psychology.
“By creating the three schools and seven research institutes, we very clearly showed – both internally and externally – what are our priority areas,” explains Dominiczak. “That, in turn, allowed us to push for excellence, both in teaching and in research, because nobody now in this world can do everything.
“If you try to do a bit of everything then excellence is impossible. If you select areas in which you want to be not locally but truly internationally competitive then you have a chance. Through this structure, we have said to colleagues internally and externally that Glasgow biomedicine strives for excellence.”
The college has worked closely with the Scottish Lifesciences Association (SLA), with the trade body joining in industry days at the university. Double the number of people turned out for its second industry day compared to its first, showing the increased interest in working with the college.
“These seven research institutes showed our priority areas to industry,” Dominiczak says. “That’s palpable now – if you come to Glasgow then you know what you’re going to get. If you’re an SME interested in immunology, for example, then you don’t have any difficulties finding out information about what we do in that area.
“That clarity has been very important in forming successful links with industry. Prior to 2010, it would have been more difficult.”
One of the jewels in the college’s crown has been bringing the Stratified Medicine Scotland Innovation Centre (SMS-IC) to Glasgow. The organisation was one of the first three innovation centres created in 2012 by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), in partnership with Highlands & Islands Enterprise and Scottish Enterprise. There are now eight innovation centres throughout Scotland.
Dominiczak points to the SMS-IC as one of the college’s successful collaborations with industry. The centre brings together National Health Service (NHS) Research Scotland, the universities of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow, services company Thermo Fisher Scientific, and Aridhia, a small business run by software entrepreneur David Sibbald that specialises in analysing vast amounts of genetic data and patient records.
The SMS-IC isn’t the college’s only partnership though. AstraZeneca, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical businesses, and the university came together to create the GLAZgo Discovery Centre in 2014, with members of staff freely moving between the company and the university to carry out joint research.
The new Imaging Centre of Excellence (ICE) – which is due to open alongside the SMS-IC at the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital (QEUH) in Govan, on the south side of the River Clyde – will also contain a whole floor for industrial partners. That’s in addition to the university’s incubator space available for precision medicine businesses, which sits beside the SMS-IC, where Aridhia has already moved its head office, with space for 40 staff.
One of the challenges of the role has been raising the cash needed to support so many projects. “I suppose it’s all about people and money, isn’t it?” smiles Dominiczak. “We have raised £70m from external sources for clinical academic facilities on the QEUH site. Raising money slows you down.
“The other thing in academia is that – as they say at the Harvard Business School – every academic is their own ‘strategic plan’.
To bring people together in a world where not everything can be a priority is a challenge. To maintain that balance between excellent research and excellent teaching is a challenge. And to bring everybody on board to have teams that work together.
“I sometimes think that the college management group is now my lab group. Just as when you’re running a big laboratory group, you need to bring everyone together to have the same priorities – it’s even more difficult with ten senior professors but that’s what we try to do.”
And it’s something that Dominiczak does very well indeed. Her achievements as both one of the world’s top cardiovascular experts and her abilities as a university manager were recognised in the Queen’s 90th birthday honours list this summer, when she was made a dame, having previously been appointed as an officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) back in 2005.
“I felt fantastic,” she laughs. “It’s very strange really – it comes as a thick letter and you wonder what it is. You know it’s something unusual because there’s a stamp on the envelop that tells you it’s from Downing Street and I normally don’t get letters from Downing Street.
“I was thrilled because, no matter whether you’re a royalist or not, it’s a recognition of your life’s work and it’s fantastic. It’s just magical. I’ve not been to the palace yet to be invested.
“The nicest thing that happened was the reaction of colleagues. It was amazing. I kept every card I got and every email I got and there were hundreds. The generosity of people and the nice things they said have been fabulous.
“Academia is based on merit and so I don’t think it will open any doors that wouldn’t have been open otherwise, but I see it as something good for the college and the university. I don’t see it as an award for me, it’s for the team really. In these types of jobs that involve buildings and strategy and development and new projects it’s really about the team and not the individual. I’ve been blessed with fantastic teams.”
Six years into her role as head of the college, Dominiczak is still clearly brimming with enthusiasm for her job. As she looks out of the window of her office at the Wolfson Medical School along University Avenue to the university’s iconic tower, she gives a hint at what continues to motivate her.
“In Glasgow, we have a ‘tower syndrome’,” she explains. “Once you come to Glasgow, you realise that it’s such a fantastic city and the university is such a fantastic place. It has grit, it’s real, it’s so linked with the city.
“You feel that, when you do things for the university, the whole of the city of Glasgow benefits. It’s been a fantastic place to work. Once you’ve been here and you’ve understood Glasgow then you can’t go anywhere else – the tower is like a magnet that keeps you here and helps you to do things better.”