This week Mona’s guest is Dr Uzma Tufail-Hanif, Deputy Programme Director for the Master of Surgery in Vascular & Endovascular Surgery.
Mona Siddiqui: Tell us a little more about your research and your work at the University – what do you do?
Uzma Tufail Hanif: I currently manage a Master of Surgery degree programme which is aimed at supporting the professional and academic development of trainee vascular surgeons. The programme is delivered completely online in partnership with the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh.
Vascular surgery itself is one of ten surgical specialties practised in the UK. Vascular surgeons are trained to manage diseases of the vascular system which includes arteries, veins and lymphatics. This might involve endovascular surgery which is often performed through minimally invasive techniques such as angioplasty- where narrow or blocked arteries are widened through the insertion of stents.
People often wonder how we can possibly teach surgeons online without ever seeing them face to face but it’s something we (Edinburgh Surgery Online) have been doing as a group since we launched our first online Masters in 2007.
MS: You haven’t always worked in academia have you. Can you share more about your career background?
UTH: I was pursuing a career in research – I’d always wanted to do cancer research. I first started my journey towards that through a Masters project with a company that was developing cancer vaccines. I then worked for a short time at the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research and then I came back to Edinburgh to do my PhD, where I investigated novel drugs for lung cancer treatment.
By the time I submitted my thesis I had a one-year-old baby and was starting to apply for postdoc positions. But very quickly I realised I couldn’t take on a post knowing that I would want to expand my family within the three-year period that the project would typically have funding for – my conscience just wouldn’t allow me to start and then interrupt the study knowing how much effort goes into securing research funding.
So I planned to go back to research after baby two – except baby two had his own plans. He was born 15 weeks early which meant the next few years were spent in and out of hospital and going back to a research lab no longer seemed possible.
They say that when one door closes another one opens. For me that door led me into academia and the timing was perfect. My little one was getting stronger and having fewer hospital admissions so I began working part time, delivering problem-based learning tutorials to undergraduate medical students here at the University.
In the UK, vascular surgery was awarded specialty status in 2012 after having previously been practised as a sub-specialty of general surgery. With its own curriculum and training programme, the decision was made to add a Master of Surgery in Vascular & Endovascular Surgery to the Edinburgh Surgery Online portfolio. I was recruited to develop and launch this programme in 2013 – when the first trainee vascular surgeons started training in the UK. So that is when I moved from undergraduate medical teaching into postgraduate education in an online environment.
Not everywhere in the world has dedicated programmes for vascular surgery so we do attract surgeons from all over the world. Practise is so varied globally but what we’re trying to do is teach them a UK-centric, evidence-based approach to vascular surgery in a manner which complements their workplace training. In doing so, we also help our students prepare for professional exams, like Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons, that they need to pass before they can practise as an independent consultant surgeon.
MS: Would you regard Edinburgh as pioneering this discipline?
UTH: I think we are when it comes to delivering surgical education online. We now deliver eight Masters degree programmes having started with one. It’s very unique to enable surgical trainees from around to the world to be able to stay in their home countries and increase their knowledge. In some of these countries, especially in the developing world, there might only be one surgeon for a huge population so it’s critical that they can stay where they are to serve the people that need them most and at the same time increase their knowledge. We’ve produced over 1,000 graduates in our time now and it’s amazing to think that these are all surgeons that we as a team have been able to help educate.
MS: So looking back at your recent or distant past, what is one regret you can share with us?
UTH: I do miss lab work and I always thought a part of me regretted not continuing in research but on reflection, having thought about things for this interview, I don’t believe I regret how things turned out. I sometimes correct myself when saying my baby was born early, by saying he was born into the world exactly when he was meant to be. I think now I see how everything has turned out exactly as it should have. It somehow feels quite fitting that after doctors saved the life of my baby, I ended up dedicating my time to supporting their education. If my efforts somehow contribute to one doctor saving one life that they might not otherwise have had the knowledge to be able to save, then I think that the path I’ve taken is completely worthwhile and surely must be as good as contributing to the effort to cure cancer.
MS: And what is your one hope that you carry forward for the future?
UTH: The University has this motto that we’re open to the world and being online does help us in that respect but scholarships are critical to widening access so that we can truly open up to the world. We offer in excess of 30 scholarships at Edinburgh Surgery Online from our own funds alongside a number of scholarships funded by philanthropists and the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission. My hope is that we can attract more philanthropic funding so that we can support the development of more surgeons in the places that need them most.