Interview with Deborah Ashby

The president-elect of the Royal Statistical Society on stepping into Gladstone’s shoes, Florence Nightingale and why Brexit is nightmare for medical statisticians

September 13, 2018
Deborah Ashby

Deborah Ashby is director of Imperial College London’s School of Public Health, where she is a professor of medical statistics and clinical trials. She holds senior roles at organisations including the National Institute of Health Research and Cancer Research UK, and was appointed OBE for services to medicine in 2009. She will become the president of the Royal Statistical Society in January.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Westminster Hospital in London in 1959, in the middle of an August thunderstorm.

How has this shaped who you are?
I was brought up in Essex, but regularly stayed in Westminster with my grandmother. Because it was so close, I was allowed to go to the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) on my own, which left me with a lifelong love of pottering around art galleries in whichever city I’m visiting.

When did you first consider studying mathematics at university?
When I was 11, my headmistress at Southend High School told my parents that I was “university material”. When they told me, I had to ask them “what is a university?” as I didn’t know anybody who had been to one. I was really excited to discover that you could carry on studying, rather than having to work at a dull job. Both my parents were very numerate: my mother was a comptometer operator, doing complex calculations for quantity surveying, and my father an accountant, so I already enjoyed numbers. With some excellent schoolteachers, mathematics became my natural path.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
After the University of Exeter, I did a master’s degree in medical statistics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. One of our tutors realised that, coming from a maths background, students had little insight into medicine, so arranged a hospital visit to meet some patients on the wards then observe an operation. The entire cohort, all seven of us, scrubbed up and went into the theatre. I’m not even sure whether the patient had given consent. That wouldn’t happen now – and MSc cohorts are many times larger, so they wouldn’t all fit in. But the lesson, to understand the context of where data come from, was well taken.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Do what you enjoy, but don’t be afraid to take on challenges that seem beyond your comfort zone. Also, those boys are no better at maths and science than you are.

You will be only the fourth female president of the Royal Statistical Society. Why do you think there are not more leading female mathematicians?
The RSS has so far had only three female presidents, but the composition of the society is more balanced, especially among younger members, and more women are taking senior roles. I will be the third female president this century, whereas there was only one in the entire previous century, so I fully expect to see more female presidents.

Some amazing historical figures – Harold Wilson, William Gladstone and William Beveridge – have held the presidency. What do you hope to bring to the role?
The origins of the society in 1834 were in addressing social issues. I want to focus on what that means in the 21st century. At Imperial, we are using data analytics to address an amazing range of health challenges, locally and globally. Those challenges have parallels in other areas, including education, crime and justice, and the environment. The society also needs to engage in debates about ownership and stewardship of data, and the issue of trustworthiness in data systems around us, especially in a post-Facebook/Cambridge Analytica landscape.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated discipline?
An inadequate formal education in science. At my girls’ school, you carried on only one science beyond the age of 13 unless you planned to do medicine or engineering. I did physics, so I still feel ignorant about chemistry and biology, although I’ve picked up a lot thanks to colleagues taking time to explain stuff.

What is the biggest misconception about your area of study?
Many people think that mathematics – particularly statistics – is hard, or not for them, or scary. And that somehow it’s acceptable to be innumerate. Mathematics and statistics are like any other language – if you start small and keep practising, then fluency follows.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
The RSS’s first female fellow was Florence Nightingale in 1858. As well as being “the Lady with the Lamp”, she was a pioneering and passionate statistician. She worked with William Farr – who set up the birth, marriage and death registration system for England and Wales – to analyse data from the Crimean campaign, which she then used to procure royal support for a royal commission on the health of the army. She then turned her attention to the record-keeping in London’s hospitals, doing far more to improve health through these initiatives than she did directly via her nursing.

What keeps you awake at night?
Metaphorically speaking, Brexit is the stuff of nightmares. I’ve really enjoyed my work in regulating medicines and related research with the European Medicines Agency. It is sad that the EMA will leave London, and both the agency and the UK have a lot of work to do to ensure that patients continue to have timely access to high-quality, safe and effective medicines.

What would you like to be remembered for?
Using mathematics and statistics to make a real difference to people’s lives; and, by those I’ve taught, for sharing the joy and potential of statistics, and giving them the confidence to develop their own skills.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

The University of Bath has named Ian White, currently a deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Cambridge, its next vice-chancellor. Professor White, the van Eck professor of engineering at Cambridge and master of Jesus College, Cambridge, will take up the post next April. Professor White, who was professor of physics at Bath from 1990 to 1996, said Bath was “a university community I care deeply about, having worked here at a very significant stage in my academic career”. He added: “The founding vision of Bath, that of providing a rigorous and relevant education to students, and serving society through world-class research, resonates profoundly with me.”

Carolyn Evans will become vice-chancellor of Griffith University in Queensland in February. Professor Evans is currently deputy vice-chancellor (international and graduate) at the University of Melbourne, where she was previously dean of Melbourne Law School. Professor Evans, an expert on religious freedom, said that she was “committed to continuing Griffith’s distinctive traditions of interdisciplinarity, innovation, excellence and social justice”.

Feng Youmei has been appointed chancellor of Duke Kunshan University, near Shanghai, becoming one of China’s few female university leaders. The institution was established by Duke and Wuhan universities four years ago. Professor Feng, a former executive vice-president of Wuhan, will lead it as it admits its first undergraduates.

Lisa Jackson Pulver has been appointed deputy vice-chancellor (indigenous strategy and services) at the University of Sydney. She joins from Western Sydney University, where she is a pro vice-chancellor.

Brian Webster-Henderson has been appointed pro vice-chancellor of health at the University of Cumbria, where he will lead the establishment of a new Institute of Health. He is currently dean of learning and teaching at Edinburgh Napier University.

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