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Meet Professor Claire Sharpe An interview for International Day of Women and Girls in Science

11 February 2024

Professor Claire Sharpe is the dean of education in the school of Medicine at the University of Nottingham and a consultant nephrologist at two locations in London. In 2024, she joined our board of trustees. We caught up with her for a quick Q&A on her journey from medicine student to dean of education. 

K: Can you remember how old you were when you knew science/medicine was the career for you. Was there a sudden epiphany or spark? 

C: It wasn't that there was that epiphany really. I've always known I was more interested in maths and sciences than humanities. I was thinking about all of those things around the age of 13/14. Then as I got more into the science and the biology side of things, I became more interested. I've always been a people person so the whole caring side of it, I think it just all came together that medicine was what I really wanted to do.  

K: What drew you to renal research in particular?   

C: I was doing general medicine in Hillingdon Hospital, which didn't have a renal unit, but a dialysis patient who was on dialysis somewhere else came in and needed to have renal replacement therapy. I found the whole process quite scary because I knew that I didn't have the resources to hand to make them better quickly. So really it came from realising I didn't know enough about it and not wanting to allow myself to be in that situation again. 

Femail with long blond hair with glasses on her head.
Professor Claire Sharpe

K: Why do you believe those considering a career in medicine or research should consider the renal pathway?  

C: Renal medicine, traditionally, is a specialty that a lot of people are quite anxious about. It has a perception of being quite difficult, but it's got a huge benefit as it crosses lots of boundaries. Once someone's a renal patient, unfortunately they’re a renal patient for life. You get that opportunity to really build relationships with people and learn from them and their experiences. You work closely with surgical teams, and you also work on the other end of the spectrum with palliative care teams. I think it has something to offer in every aspect and it's a really rewarding specialty so that's why I went into to renal medicine, because it's got something for everyone. 

K: What does a typical work week look like for you?  

C: It isn't really ever the same so typical is quite a difficult one. As dean of education in the School of Medicine at Nottingham, there's lots of stuff happening. I am responsible for the running of the medical undergraduate degree and have oversight for all the other education that goes in the school. I really enjoy the clinical side of things when I get to practice medicine, and I really enjoy the face-to-face teaching with students, but there's quite a lot of important meetings that happen around that. 

K: Can you share some highlights or milestones from your clinical journey?  

C: I did my first registrar job in renal medicine in Brighton and my SHO (Senior House Officer) is now my husband. So that was a highlight from my clinical career.  

I did clinical training, then spent a year in Australia doing renal medicine and when I came back, I embarked on my PhD at Kings with Bruce Hendry. That was a real milestone because that changed the course of direction from being a full-time practicing clinician to the academic pathway. I also had my first baby during my PhD and then I went back into clinical part-time. Quite a lot of people do a PhD but very few of them carry on in the academic pathway and it's really about getting that next grant. I managed to get an intermediate fellowship from the Department of Health and National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), which was a five-year career development path and that really kept me on the academic pathway. 

K: What are your thoughts on the importance of diversity and inclusion in research and medicine? 

C: Interestingly, gender diversity in medicine is quite a nuanced issue because between 60 and 65% of medical students are female, so in university women are in the majority but when you look at the other end of the spectrum, far fewer consultants are women. I chaired the Athena SWAN Committee when I was at Kings, which is about making sure there is equal opportunity for women in science.  

Diversity is really important because we all bring different ideas to the table. It never ceases to amaze me what a different lens achieves when you have someone else thinking about a problem. Whether that diversity is gender, ethnicity, personality type, or neurodiversity. You need all of those different lenses to increase your chances of getting the right outcome. 

K: What are your experiences of being a woman in medicine? Are there advantages vs disadvantages?  

C: I actually think it's quite difficult to distil the answer down to my gender because we are all complex mix of all sorts of different things. I would never say my gender has been an advantage or a disadvantage. It's just how everything comes together, really. 

K: You recently joined the Kidney Research UK board of trustees. Why did you make the decision to join?  

C: Kidney research has been part of my professional life since I got my clinical training fellowship which was in 1997. I've received lots of funding from Kidney Research UK which has been pivotal in my research career. I also did six years on the grants committee that was fantastic, and there's a community ethos which I think is really inspiring. I just want to be able to continue to support the charity and give my little bit to it where I can. 

K: What are your hopes during your time on the board of trustees at Kidney Research UK?  

C: Well, I'm very early on in the process so I'm not totally sure what is achievable. My hope is to work really well with the other trustees to keep Kidney Research UK on track, and to protect it from the bumps in the road which often come along. I don't see me or the trustees as being the most important people in the charity by any stretch of the imagination. We are there to have a governance structure and to allow the other people that work in the charity to do the good stuff. 

K: It must be rewarding to be a mentor alongside all your other achievements. Is there any advice you repeatedly give your students?  

C: The bit of advice that I was always given as a woman was ‘you have to learn to say no’ because it's a typical female response to just say yes when you're asked to do something, even if it's not in your best interest. My career has really been based on saying yes and I'm glad I didn't follow the advice because I would have said no to things that have turned out to be the most impactful things in my career.

So, it's not ‘say yes to everything,’ but if you're going to say no, really think through what the consequences are and pick your yes and no’s carefully. 

K. What advice would you give to aspiring young women looking to make their way into the field?  

C: A very simplistic one is if at first you don't succeed, try and try again. It can be a bit soul destroying when you put a lot of work into a grant application and it's turned down but having been on the other side of the fence for a long time, there are all sorts of reasons why people aren't successful in grant applications. Take the feedback, however painful it might be, and work with it and grow as a result of feedback. Look at the people around you that are where you want to be and ask them about their journey, because it's very easy to assume that everyone got there in a straight line without hurdles. That's very rarely the case. 

Thank you Claire for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak to us for International Day of Women and Girls in Science. 

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