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My route to Professorial Teaching Fellow: George Grimble

Dr Grimble on his mixture of traditional teaching approaches and ‘entrepreneurial education’.

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7 October 2019

Dr George Grimble is one of six colleagues promoted to Professorial Teaching Fellow this year – a grade introduced at UCL in 2017-18.

A pioneer in nutrition education, he created Europe’s first course in Clinical Nutrition at Roehampton University in 1994 after leaving his position heading up research in gastroenterology and nutrition in the NHS.

He received a UCL Education Award in 2018 and is now partially retired, having handed the reins over to colleagues in the Division of Medicine.

You’ve just been promoted to Professorial Teaching Fellow. What is your role?

I consider myself an educational entrepreneur - I like to build things from the ground up. I am first a teacher and a mentor to help develop colleagues.

I began my teaching career at Roehampton where, in addition to active research in Intensive Care Nutrition at King's College Hospital (KCH) and acting as a director at Helix Biotech (UCL), I also designed and ran the first graduate programme for Clinical Nutrition in Europe.

I joined UCL in 2008 when there was only one specialised paediatric nutrition module at The UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health (GOS ICH). I literally started with nothing and built it up in partnership with Professor Alastair Forbes in the Division of Medicine.

I found it interesting that Professor Sir Jack Drummond had been Dean of the UCL Faculty of Medicine from 1929-1930 and then Scientific Advisor to the Ministry of Food. He designed the national rationed, wartime diet (based on “sound nutritional principles”) that would feed the nation and improve its health. After 1945, UCL, never utilised this link and didn’t teach any major nutrition programmes until I came in 2008.

Now we have a very successful MSc in Clinical and Public Health Nutrition, an MSc in Eating Disorders and Clinical Nutrition (the first of its kind) and a BSc in Nutrition and Medical Sciences. Two more have recently been approved. These are an MSc in Dietetics and an MSc in Obesity and Clinical Nutrition.

I’m now gradually retiring so only work one day a week at UCL teaching, supervising MSc projects, investigating strategic possibilities for international joint programmes and working with colleagues to revamp the Medical School Nutrition curriculum. I handed over the running of the programmes to my very capable colleague, Nathan Davies, who I mentored and am pleased to see also promoted this year.

What are the challenges in your role and how are you addressing them?

The biggest challenge for me was starting a completely new area at UCL, from scratch and with very little resource.

I knew, however, that I could engage a fantastic teaching faculty and there would be no shortage of clinical projects at University College Hospital (UCLH) - I just had to be able to utilise them in an economical way.

I had to build a course that gave the students a rich programme, and the course is very lecture heavy. I could be considered “old fashioned” in my teaching approach because I believe that excellent lectures, and exposure to experts, is a great way to learn.

Traditional lecture-based teaching that proves successful: a case study on George's nutrition programmes

My experience informed me what mattered and where I could cut corners - I would sometimes be late for paperwork but never late for feedback or teaching.

I knew that we could only succeed if we developed a flat-team structure with excellent administrators as I’d done at Roehampton.

I knew that I would eventually step down so succession planning was also a big challenge - I started talent spotting from the beginning and progressively engaged colleagues in delivery of the programme. By 2015 I could pass on responsibility for seven modules and all research projects to colleagues I was mentoring. This gave me time to write a new BSc in Nutrition and Medical Sciences which leaned heavily on the successful BSc in Applied Medical Sciences.

The hard work paid off and it was in year seven of the programme when recruitment really took off. Student recruitment has increased from eight to 170 (BSc and MSc), which accounts for 70% and 25% of the Division of Medicine and Faculty enrolments, respectively.

What’s the best thing about your job?

I love working with young people, they’re dynamic, full of energy and just at the start of their careers.

I only run postgraduate taught courses so I like the fact that someone else has ‘trained’ them in the basics which I see as a luxury from a teaching point of view.

For the first few years I was both course tutor and personal tutor for most of our students and was privileged to help students with all sorts of issues.

Recruitment in nutrition is overwhelmingly female (~90%) and a high proportion of our students come from the Middle East and North Africa where many of these young women face social inequalities. We give them a good education and they become graduates of UCL. They go home empowered, with new ambition and social standing – I like that I can play a small part in making a difference to peoples’ lives like that.

What do you think of the Academic Career Framework?

It was long overdue. It allows people to be recognised and rewarded for their teaching experience without having to make fundamental changes to contracts. It’s now perfectly clear how you can progress in your career, which we’ve needed for a long time.

I like the emphasis on gaining Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. It’s a requirement for promotion and allows you to develop your own career.

The most challenging part of my promotion application was completing my application for Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA).

You are required to write reflectively which I really struggled with – like most biomedical scientists I write descriptively and analytically, but not reflectively. Once I got the hang of it, it was OK, but it took me a long time to understand how to approach it. Luckily, I had two great mentors to help me through the five revisions I had to complete! (Dr Mina Sotiriou in the Arena Centre and Dr Markella Ponticos in the Division of Medicine).

What are your thoughts on the status of teaching at UCL?

As mentioned, I think the Academic Career Framework dignifies the teaching stream at UCL. It’s been developed in a purposeful way and UCL’s done a good job of it.

However, I think it’s a shame that there is such a dividing line between research and teaching.

Back in the day, researchers like Andrew Huxley and Aaron Klug (both Nobel Prize winners) taught me as a first year UCL undergraduate – it’s so different now. Researchers are tied up with grant applications and REF and very rarely teach, as they don’t have the time. It is a shame because at some point many will move into more mainline posts in universities where teaching will be de rigeur. Teaching experience also translates into great departmental and conference presentations.

What achievements helped you to make a case for promotion?

I think it was my innovation in teaching. I created several ‘firsts’ in terms of programmes and really enjoy course development.

Teaching is my priority and if I do that well, then everything else falls into place. I have sat on various committees etc, but my focus has always been on making really good, successful courses.

I also believe in being a ‘well-rounded’ academic and demonstrating that. A colleague at Roehampton once told me about conceptualising academic balance as a stool, resting on the three legs of enquiry:

  1. Scholarship – you learn what’s known.
  2. Research – you discover what’s not yet known.
  3. Teaching – you tell people about it.

What would you say to people just embarking on a university career?

You need to know what you’re getting into as only 0.45% will become Professor. It’s hard. You need to develop resilience and resistance.

The biggest advice I could give would be to find colleagues who will help you build resilience in a way which suits you.

I started a prayer group here to support colleagues who share the same Christian faith, but we also focus on building resilience. In the Division of Medicine, programmes like Athena Swan have been very helpful.

Having said that, it is a great career – you get to do all sorts of interesting stuff. You can never guess what you’ll be doing and if you’re smart then you’ll get to choose things that you love to do. In my case it is currently research on nutrition for people attending foodbanks and figuring out protein needs of patients with kidney failure.