Stress expert who thrives on her subject

November 15, 2002

Angela Clow juggles multiple roles in a hectic schedule as project leader, caring mum and the practical woman of her department. In the third of our series All in a Day's Work, Harriet Swain meets a versatile and happy academic.

Name : Angela Clow

Post : Senior professor of psychophysiology in the department of psychology, University of Westminster.

How long in the job : Three years.

Salary : £36,634 (including London weighting)

Loves : Teaching, because it makes a difference to people's lives and allows you to meet many interesting individuals; and research because of the discovery element, the competition to beat others in the same field, and the communication of findings to the scientific community and the public.

Hates : Having to mark student work

Just two small strides separate the tray of coffee things on one side of Angela Clow's room in the University of Westminster's psychology department from the fridge under the desk on the other. The room was not popular, and not just because of its size - three years ago, a psychologically disturbed lecturer in the department murdered a colleague in a research laboratory down the corridor. But on a central London site where space is at a premium, it is unusual not to be sharing an office, and the view is fantastic - a huge window overlooking the rooftops of Oxford Street, filling the room with light.

A self-confessed early bird, Clow has been up since 5.30 doing housework and making her sandwiches at home in Dulwich before arriving by train just after 8am, missing the crowds that throng the West End later in the day. The psychology department is not exactly thronging yet either, and won't be for another hour or so. She uses the lull to write letters, deal with emails and make phone calls. A couple of students want appointments; someone is keen to know if Clow will collaborate on a project involving a kind of herbal extract he is enthusiastic about (she doesn't know whether or not he is mad and whether or not to agree - it depends if he's managed to come up with funding); an ex-student who is now a lecturer has asked for advice connected with her research; someone wants a copy of a talk she gave at a conference recently; someone else wants to bring two PhD students to a conference she is organising for the British Psychological Society (she's worried the money won't be available to pay for them).

Clow likes having lots going on. "I love my work because I am in control of what I do," she says. "It is a wonderful combination of mixing with young people and doing your own research and going to conferences. I am busy, but that is because I choose to be." Her commitment has paid off - two weeks ago she was appointed professor of psychophysiology.

Clow studied psychology and physiology at the University of Leicester before gaining a PGCE from the University of Exeter and a PhD from the Institute of Psychiatry in London, followed by postdoctoral studies at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London. In 1989 she became a senior lecturer in the school of biosciences at Westminster, moving to the department of psychology relatively recently. Her research focuses on the biochemistry of stress - particularly the study of salivary cortisol.

Lisa Thorn, her PhD student, comes to discuss the latest instalment of her thesis. They chuckle over a poem emailed over from Frank Hucklebridge, one of Clow's partners in the Psychophysiology and Stress Research Group, the heart of Clow's research work. Hucklebridge is an immunologist, Clow a neuropsychologist and Phil Evans, the third member of the team, a health psychologist. They are best known for their studies of diurnal patterns of cortisol.

Clow goes through Thorn's work, asking her to check a reference and helping her to clarify a point. They then discuss in detail how to take it further, including how to devise another experiment.

Thorn leaves. Time for Clow to do some administration in her role as chair of the research committee in the psychology department. She has to ensure that research money from the research assessment exercise is evenly distributed and to devise ways of encouraging as many people as possible to apply for research grants. This year, she has hired a member of last year's RAE panel as a consultant to give tips on boosting the next RAE performance. Clow believes strongly in the close relationship between research and teaching. "Students know when you know what you are talking about, and my research links mean I can supervise really good projects," she says. This year she won a national teaching fellowship award and is using the money to investigate experimental practical work in teaching biological psychology.

Stephen Beardsmore, a consultant, arrives to discuss a business idea - "ways of wisdom" - for which he is trying to raise money. The idea is to devise a type of e-coaching program for employees, delivered over a corporate intranet, to help relieve stress in the workplace. He wants Clow's help in proving to potential funders that the program works by reducing stress, measured in terms of cortisol levels.

Clow suggests a colleague who may help with carrying out the proposed trials, while Beardsmore reports back on how funding is going. He wants Clow to write to the government's new head of social research, saying that this is just the kind of partnership between universities and business that the government supports and asking for funds. Clow agrees and they set up a follow-up meeting.

Clow dismisses Beardsmore because she needs to get on. "Stephen does all the work of finding money," she says. "I get kudos from the university for finding the money, and it doesn't take up much of my time."

The telephone rings. It is the registrar asking if Clow will be an independent observer on a panel dealing with two students accused of plagiarism. It is the first time she has been asked to do this and she is not entirely sure what it involves.

The telephone rings again. This time it is her son who has gone to have a look at his room in Cambridge, where he is to study history. He is dismayed that it has only one plug socket.

Clow meets up with Hucklebridge and Evans for a working pub lunch. They discuss two research projects they are involved in with hospitals, update each other on PhD students, and try to juggle diaries so they can fit in meetings together. The relationship between the three seems similar to that of siblings, complete with in-jokes and rivalries. "We're very competitive," Clow says affectionately. "We usually have at least one fight a day," agrees Hucklebridge. Evans, chair of the research management group in the school of social sciences, humanities and languages, has to rush off, and Clow, fortified by Diet Coke, and Hucklebridge, fortified by two pints of bitter, get more gossipy. They moan about the difficulty of making grant applications when their work is interdisciplinary and when grant committees, they claim, are full of old buffers, some of whom do not believe in links between neurology and physiology.

Clow returns to her office and checks post and emails.

Hucklebridge arrives for help with a poster presentation for a forthcoming conference. Clow takes on the role of a mother helping with coursework and keeps telling him off because he hasn't kept the style consistent. She breaks off from time to time to look at incoming emails. "Would you have ever written something like this to your tutor?" she asks, slightly shocked at the informality of one from a new student: "Hiya form tutor, hope everything OK, c ya around."

Another PhD student pops her head around the door. She's studying internet relationships, but there seems to be something wrong with her email system and she hasn't received Clow's latest communication. Clow is able to reassure her face-to-face and they discuss the new email mentoring scheme the student has set up for first-years. The only feedback so far is that students have not been using it yet because they have not got the hang of the system. Everyone is amazed that email should cause any problems for today's students.

Hucklebridge goes and Clow turns to her "To Do" list. She has to start thinking about a couple of talks for A-level students - talks that turn out to be rather different from those she agreed to give originally ("still, they're paying me"). She also has to send off a CV in connection with the university's bid to become one of the Department of Health's complementary medicine centres. Over the next couple of months, she needs to complete a journal paper from a recent conference, prepare a talk for a small brain-immune network, where she particularly wants to impress because the other speakers are big names from prestigious international universities, and prepare another talk for a continuing professional development course for GPs. Meanwhile, she must tell Evans not to be too intimidating to a PhD student whose data collection has got rather out of hand. She also wants Evans's input as a new member of the British Psychological Society on a strategy document from a BPS committee.

Also hanging over her is a grant application to the Wellcome Trust about how the effectiveness of low-dose aspirin varies according to the time of day it is taken (she believes it is best taken in the evening, when cortisol levels are low). But she will probably work on this at home, rewriting it many times. "I spend most of my time at work reacting to things and people," she says. "I cannot really concentrate here, so I take a lot of stuff home."

There's another email from Hucklebridge. He has organised a conference in Lisbon but hasn't yet worked out how to pay for it. "One of the roles I play in this department is to be the woman and point this sort of thing out," she says, exasperated.

Usually Clow would be thinking about getting the train home by now, but Monday is her late day and she has to teach an evening MSc in health psychology. She can see why it is important, but hates it because she is at her best in the mornings and she likes to be home for tea with her teenage sons. She starts thinking about what she will say.

Panic - she cannot find her notes for the lecture. She scrambles around to find them.

She has found her notes and takes a quick break for food before going through them.

Panic again. It is a while since she checked her notes and cannot remember what one of her slides means. She rings a colleague for help. Usually she enjoys teaching, but she is nervous about this lecture, partly because she has not yet got to know the students and partly because mature students tend to be rather impressive.

Satisfied that tonight's lecture is under control, Clow rings her younger son at home to check up on his GCSE chemistry coursework.

She makes her way to the lecture theatre, armed with a list of her students' names and photographs.

The session finishes 15 minutes early because the students decide to take a shorter break than usual in the middle. Clow has been talking for most of the time. By the end, she is wiped out - ready to go home for her low-dose aspirin and an early bird's early bed.

Next week: Liam Twigg, a psychology student from Birmingham University

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