Robert Semple Interview

SfE BES 2015 (RGB)

With six weeks to go until SfE BES kicks off in Edinburgh we’re launching the conference blog with an interview with Dr Robert Semple, this year’s winner of the Starling Medal which recognises UK Research Excellence. Read on to find out about Dr Semple’s career so far and his top tips for upcoming endocrinologists. 

First off, what’s your current position? I’m a Reader in Metabolism and Endocrinology, Honorary Consultant Endocrinologist at the University of Cambridge.

Tell us a little about your career so far and how you ended up in your current position: I read Natural Sciences and then medicine at the University of Cambridge.  In fact, apart from 2 years spent in clinical training posts in London my whole career has been spent in Cambridge, which has provided a very fertile and exciting environment in which to combine research into the mechanisms of insulin action with clinical practice in endocrinology and acute medicine.  I am now a reader in metabolism and endocrinology and an honorary consultant endocrinologist, personally funded through a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellowship.

picWhat inspired you to work in endocrinology? I caught the bug in two stages, first becoming fascinated by the signalling mechanisms used by insulin to influence cell metabolism, which were being worked out while I was an undergraduate biochemist, and second being drawn to the challenge of understanding the true cause of the very generally defined but globally devastating type 2 diabetes.  Making a bridge between very basic cell biology and real people in clinic with disability and disease has never lost its appeal.

What do you most enjoy about job? The satisfaction I feel at solving a puzzle by making a diagnosis has never diminished, and if the disorder is rare even previously undescribed, or the presentation is atypical, that satisfaction is strongest.  A different  but complementary reward comes from using good communication with individual patients to achieve therapeutic results, which is often particularly important in engaging with and helping to motivate patients with type 2 diabetes.  Making a new discovery of the basis of a disease, and then communicating this effectively to the patient so that they feel satisfaction at having contributed to the discovery, as well benefiting clinically from the new insight gained, is the apotheosis of my job.

What is your career highlight so far? I tend not to dwell on that.  Many of the pieces of work in uncovering new genetic forms of disease which I have led have been the result simply of persistence, and of keen clinical observation, but also of much good fortune in having exciting genetic technologies to hand to apply to the problems.  The evolving highlight of my work for me is that some of these findings, especially in the area of genetic activation or inactivation of insulin signalling, are beginning to yield novel insights into human biology on one hand, and on the other are beginning to change the experience of healthcare of affected patients.

What do you see as the biggest challenge in endocrinology right now?

  1. Finding the right way to attract and retain the best and most dynamic trainees into the speciality,
  2. Leading and shaping the medical and wider societal response to the juggernaut of obesity-related metabolic disease that is already upon us.

What do you think will be the biggest development in endocrinology in the next 10 years? Life would be boring if I knew that.  I hope that the way obesity-related metabolic disease is managed will have improved radically both in terms of the way services are configured, but also through continued therapeutic exploitation of endocrine hormones linking gut, brain and fat, possibly using therapies combining more than one hormonal action in one drug.

What are you most looking forward to at BES this year?  As a clinician scientist I feel particularly spoilt for choice. The “speed dating” of the “How Do I” Sessions is really good value in refreshing my knowledge across a range of clinical problems, while I also look forward very much to hearing about endocrine aspects of low body fat states, and about the current state of play of investigation of FGFs in diverse, major endocrine disease.

Any words of wisdom for aspiring endocrinologist out there? Serve a good apprenticeship learning the traditional arts of the doctor, but do not let the conformity and prudence required of the clinician blunt the scepticism and curiosity of your inner scientist: observe keenly, do not ignore findings that challenge received wisdom, and attack dogma where you find it.

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