Please talk us through your academic background and some of the milestones events in your medical training

I graduated with a medical degree from Bristol University in 2007, before embarking on the beginning of my surgical training. Along the way, in 2011 I completed a PGCE in Medical Education at the University of Dundee, and a PhD at the University of Edinburgh in 2018, investigating the link between Vitamin D and colorectal cancer and this work was also recognised with an RCS Hunterian Professorship. In 2021, I completed my surgical training and after RCS fellowships in Leeds and Sunderland I returned to Edinburgh as a consultant surgeon in 2022.

I have been the trainee representative on the Association of Coloproctology of Great Britain and Ireland Research and Audit Committee and President of The Dukes’ Club 2020-2021. I maintain a strong interest in surgical training and publishing and am currently Assistant Editor at the British Journal of Surgery, a member of the RCSEd Younger Fellows Group and sit on the RCSEd Robotic Taskforce.

During your working week, what’s the typical split between time spent with patients and your medical research?

I devote a day a week to research. The rest of my time is spent either on surgery, performing exploratory procedures like endoscopies, seeing patients pre and post surgery and keeping up with the many admin tasks my job requires. I also spend time, like I am doing here, supporting charities like Bowel Research UK with their external communications because of the vital role they play in funding new research in my specialism.

How did you choose a career in colorectal surgery and post-graduate medical research?

I was always interested in science as a boy and how the body works. At school, I really enjoyed biology and chemistry, and was supported by my family in pursuing a career in medicine and research. During my first year as a qualified doctor I’d decided to keep my options open when it came to which speciality to choose, but found I was most similar in temperament, ethos and outlook with surgical colleagues. I have worked all over the UK, but chose to move to Edinburgh given the exciting work going on in colorectal research. I had the very good fortune to be working with Professor Malcolm Dunlop who had achieved a remarkable career combining surgery with ground-breaking research.

How important is research to the future of new treatments for bowel disease?

You’ve only got to look at advances over the last three decades to see how much we owe to research. There have been some brilliant improvements in all areas of medicine, leading to much higher complete cure rates for diseases like bowel and breast cancer.

Years ago, breast cancer surgery involved much larger operations, often the removal of an entire breast and surrounding tissues. Today, many operations are smaller, removing lumps only, with remaining cancer cells eliminated with carefully calibrated doses of radiation and chemotherapy.

In bowel cancer, surgery remains the most important treatment but drug and radiation therapy have a role to play. It is important that we remember to consider the quality of life for patients after treatment, and our aim is for people to be able to live as regular lives as possible after it.

What are your specific links to BRUK?

Because I was president of the Dukes’ Club (part of the ACPGBI) which supports trainee surgeons, and a member of its grants committee, I became aware of research grants for surgeons wishing to continue their academic research. I went through the same hoops as all applicants, receiving no favours, but was very lucky to be awarded a grant to start work looking at the relationship between Vitamin D and bowel cancer. BRUK funded this study and has continued to support my latest work on Vitamin D that has just been published in Frontiers in Nutrition (https://tinyurl.com/2t9mndcv).

I am hoping my relationship with BRUK will enable me continue my research all the way towards a full scale clinical trial because our challenge is to verify that Vitamin D improves post-operative bowel cancer rates in the UK population. Where we stand at the moment is we believe the vitamin appears to limit tumour formation and spread, and reduces inflammation. Proving this would be an excellent outcome for patients because the vitamin is safe, cheap and very well tolerated.

What the key personal traits that make someone a good researcher?

A medical researcher is part of a large team, working in close association with surgeons, patients, nurses, scientists, lab technicians and others, most of whom are very busy and often under pressure. We all need to pull together in the same direction, and it requires good communication skills and the patience to know that breakthroughs often take years and years of steady determined work, with disappointments as likely as successes. A good researcher needs to be able to keep their focus on the bigger picture, and also needs to be an advocate for the benefits of scientific research. Personally, I know how easy it is spend time on other tasks so I make sure I ringfence the time I spend on research each week and don’t allow myself to be distracted. This takes some inner resolve.

What do you most like about your job?

What I love most is that every day is different and there’s never a dull moment. And of course I have the enormous satisfaction of being about to help people on a daily basis. Few jobs can rival the pleasure of knowing you have been able to cure someone’s cancer, improved or even saved a life. I also enjoy being able to work alongside dedicated and like-minded colleagues.