UCL Population Health Sciences


Q&A with Ibrahim Abubakar

28 September 2021

Professor Ibrahim Abubakar shares his top priorities as the new Dean for the UCL Faculty of Population Health Sciences.

Professor Ibrahim Abubakar

A world-leading scholar in infectious disease epidemiology, Professor Ibrahim Abubakar began his post as the new Dean of the UCL Faculty of Population Health Sciences on 1 August 2021. Here, he talks to us about his background, what attracted him to the role of Dean and his top priorities for the faculty. 

What attracted you to the Dean’s role?

UCL is an amazing institution with immense breadth and depth in research and education. As I have been here for nearly a decade, and have worked in three of the seven Institutes in our faculty, I am aware of and very proud of our strengths and values. I can also see so much potential in many areas of our work, especially in terms of how we can work better between institutes, which has become even more important in the context of the pandemic. It was therefore not a hard decision to put myself forward as a candidate for the Dean's role. I am looking forward to working with colleagues over the coming years.

What do you see as the faculty’s strengths and how will you build upon our successes?

The key strengths of our faculty lie in our people – there is excellence in all parts of the faculty, driven by our desire to solve the major health challenges faced by humanity. The life-course and population health focus of the faculty also means we have the ability to address a broad range of important research questions and train the next generation of public health and clinical leaders. In my view, we are second to none in terms of our track record in inequalities research and in child health. As a population health faculty, it is very pleasing to see how we have risen in subject-based rankings while acknowledging the limitations of these systems. We also have methodological depth. For example, we have possibly the largest grouping of academic clinical trial expertise in Europe and our work in informatics and data science continues to grow from strength to strength.

Looking ahead, what are your top priorities as Dean of the UCL Faculty of Population Health Sciences?

First and foremost my top priority is our people – teachers, professional services staff, researchers and our students. How we support all to achieve excellence in their work is a key priority for me. We will work to develop a transparent and clear plan to improve staff and student wellbeing, allowing all to deliver an excellent education and research programme with impact. I have some specific ideas about our direction in research and education, where I see an opportunity to leverage our strengths to achieve greater impact. However, my approach will be to speak to colleagues and reach a consensus on the top goals.

What is the faculty’s most pressing challenge right now?

Like the rest of society, we are living in unusual times. The consequences of the pandemic – how we return safely given the uncertainty around the winter and the potential waning of immunity post-vaccination; how we ensure that our students have the best experience possible and how we restart and deliver research excellence and impact in all our departments, will remain the most pressing issues for the coming months. 

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I joined UCL in 2012 and have been in several roles. My last role was the Director of the UCL Institute for Global Health which I held for 5 years. Prior to that I led the Centre for Infectious Disease Epidemiology within the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care and was a senior investigator at the MRC Clinical Trials Unit at UCL. I have previously worked in other UK universities, including the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the University of Cambridge and the University of East Anglia. I trained in Cambridge and Norwich within the NHS and at the then Health Protection Agency/Public Health Laboratory Service (which are all now part of the UK Health Security Agency). 

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

What gets me excited is the impact (potential and realised) of our work on the most vulnerable in society – the programme of epidemiological, clinical and intervention research we have delivered on tuberculosis (TB) in the UK and globally influencing guidelines and policy from prevention and screening to diagnosis and treatment is one example. More recently, the impact of our initiative with the Lancet on migration has placed migration and health in the centre of many policy debates which has been very pleasing to see. We have extended some of the work we have done in TB to other areas such as the use of peers to improve engagement of patients with hepatitis C and approaches to understand the transmission of emerging infections in Africa. 

Tell us about your research specialism.

I am an infectious disease epidemiologist with a clinical background. Over the last three decades, I worked here in the UK and internationally, initially with a primary focus on tuberculosis research and subsequently across a range of infections including hepatitis, HIV and emerging infections, such as Lassa Fever and Crimean Congo Haemorrhagic Fever. Our work in migration and health initially in TB and subsequently through a Lancet Commission has led to a wider focus and the creation of a global initiative with regional networks. 

What other piece of research outside of your own subject area interests you?

I have a broad interest in how interdisciplinarity and the power of science can shape our futures. Important areas where I see opportunities include how we go beyond measuring to tackling inequalities nationally and globally and how we address anthropogenic climate change and its consequences. Another important area is the opportunity presented by artificial intelligence and data to inform how we improve the quality and quantity of life. In solving major challenges using technology, I am keen to understand the central role of human behaviour. The promise of omics (genomics, transcriptomics, metabolomics, proteomics) and genetics in diagnostics and therapies is another area that would likely deliver impact in the next decade. 

And finally… what advice would you give students joining us this academic year? 

UCL is an incredible place – we are surrounded by much culture, history and opportunities for fun and personal development. In addition to studying and learning in one of the best academic institutions in the world, please look around and enjoy what London has to offer.