I have always defined (my)research as what interests me. Funders often have not agreed. I am attached to Francis Crick’s ‘gossip test’: you should always do what you find yourself gossiping about. Research is what you think about in the shower. So, I am interested in learning in medicine; how we can promote new ways of doing things; how we can unpack the dark matter that is clinical competence; how we can change and improve what we offer medial students; and how tech and the internet really does change many (but not all) things. I am happy to drag such memes into discussions about OER, copyright, open learning, funding, value for money in education, and whether modern universities are really capable of fulfilling the hope that many staff — and students — historically put in them. As for understanding the importance of institutions (in the sense that economists use the term, rather than the bricks) I am a late starter, and have a lot of catching up to do (“You can fix a clock, but you have to negotiate with a system”, Alan Kay). My blog provides clues.
For almost 20 years I was interested in using genetic approaches to understand skin disease and skin biology. This involved the mapping and gene identification of a number of disorders (monilethrix, Darier’s, Pachyonychia) although my interest focussed on skin cancer and mechanisms of sun sensitivity. I published early papers on the effects of UVR on skin p53 expression, and the somatic genetic changes of skin cancer. Most notably, my laboratory (in collaboration with Tony Thody and Ian Jackson) identified the ‘gene for red hair’ (MC1R) and its relation to melanoma. Over the course of a dozen or so years we studied its clinical relevance (and here), its genetic epidemiology and evolution (with Rosalind Harding). My earlier contributions are summarised in single author reviews in the Annual Review of Genetics (37 | 67 | 2003) and the American Journal of Human Genetics (75 | 739 | 2004), and a farewell to much of this field, coauthored with Rosalind Harding, was published in the J Invest Dermatol in 2012.
In around 2005 I became very interested in the problem of diagnosis in dermatology—both by machines and humans— and the basis of clinical expertise and learning. A central skill of the dermatologist is the recognition of morphology. The research (and teaching problem) is how we can attach semantics to images using either automated systems or cognitive prostheses (much as a calculator is a prothesis that makes some calculations easier). Much of this work is in collaboration with Prof Bob Fisher in Edinburgh Informatics. We have pursued two approaches: use of 3D image capture, and the development of a content based image retrieval system (Dermofit), which we have partially commercialised. This sort of approach has I believe obvious relevance to teaching, clinical practice and clinical expertise,and has rekindled my fascination with how students learn and how we should encourage them to learn.
I have worked and published in several other areas: the measurement of itch using limb-worn accelerometers; experimental studies on contact sensitivity; skin imaging; the relation between statistics and medicine; and the nature of clinical discovery.
My research career started the day I stumbled into Sam Shuster’s office in Newcastle as a third year medical student. It was not so much that he changed my life (he did), but that I found what I had been looking for. Sam was wonderfully and creatively dissatisfied with the state of the world; believed in the academic ideal; and was electric to be around (and lots of fun things seemed to happen when he was around). He also believed you could make both the world and clinical medicine better by thinking hard about things and by ridiculing pomp and cant wherever you found it. Klaus Wolff would describe him as the enfant terrible of British dermatology and whilst Sam would, I suspect take some pride in the comment, I suspect it would lead to an aside on writers (and readers) who prefer clichés to hard thinking. Klaus would no doubt smile back with equanimity, as befits the Vorstand of the Mecca of academic dermatology. For Sam, for all the high-table bullshit of academia, there was always a link between being an intellectual and being a protector of integrity. Truth was never an optional bolt-on. And he loathed Margaret Thatcher.
Red hair for non experts here.
Some stuff on itch here