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Leading a university
  1. Andrea Nolan


Andrea Nolan became the principal and vice-chancellor of Edinburgh Napier university just over a year ago. She qualified as vet from Trinity College Dublin and, after a spell in practice, she has worked in the universities of Cambridge, Bristol, and the Technical University of Munich. In 1999, she became dean of Glasgow vet school before moving into university-wide leadership

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I HAD always wanted to be a vet, at least for as long as I can remember. I grew up in Ireland in a suburb of North Dublin. My father was a civil servant, as was my mother until she was compelled to resign once she married. We had no animals growing up and, apart from occasional visits to relatives ‘in the country’, I had no real exposure to the life of a vet. My parents were passionate about education; neither had been to university but they were hugely supportive of ‘whatever I wanted to do’, as were my school teachers who nurtured ambition and possibility.

In 1975 there were two veterinary schools in Ireland, Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin. I was offered a place at both, but decided to join Trinity College Dublin (I liked the campus and my brother was there) and joined a class of just 13 students. In 1977 the two schools merged and my class expanded to just over 50. Most of our education and training was undertaken at facilities in Ballsbridge, where behind red brick walls in the heart of Dublin were operating theatres, small animal, farm animal and equine clinics, lecture theatres and a postmortem examination room. I enjoyed my student days; I was a fairly good student in terms of academic attainment, not exceptional. I spent all my vacations ‘seeing practice’ in large animal veterinary practices in Cavan and in Mayo, with four-week spells in Oxfordshire and in an equine practice in Newmarket. I balanced this with a vacation job as a domestic in a Dublin hospital where I worked to support my student life, and while at university I studied piano at the Royal Irish Academy of Music; music has always been a passion.

My first job after graduation in 1980 was in a small mixed practice in Oxfordshire. It was a very steep learning curve as I was launched straight into the life and work of a vet, with significant responsibility. I learned a lot, and to this day remember with great fondness the clients and the community and the high regard in which the local vets were held. I left after nine months to take up a post as a research assistant in the University of Cambridge. This was a turning point for me, although I did not recognise it at the time. Reflecting on why I applied for the role, I had really enjoyed physiology and pharmacology as a student and I was curious about research. The project was to develop a total intravenous anaesthetic technique for horses. I surmised that anaesthesia was effectively applied physiology/pharmacology, and I would be able to learn about research while remaining connected with veterinary practice. I was offered the job despite being an hour late for the interview after I got lost around Cambridge city; I think I was the only applicant.

I loved that role; I worked with a ‘legend’ in the veterinary anaesthesia community – Leslie Hall, studied for the diploma in veterinary anaesthesia and awakened a passion for research. I was hooked. Funded by a Wellcome Veterinary Training Scholarship, I undertook a PhD at the University of Bristol, working with Avril Waterman-Pearson and the late Alex Livingston, both vets who were driving forward research on understanding and alleviating animal pain. At that time it was a hugely neglected area: they enthused me with their passion for what people would now term ‘translational research’ – using the most up-to-date scientific techniques and approaches to tackle challenges relevant to the practise of veterinary medicine. I was awarded a PhD in 1986 and, after working in the Technical University of Munich for nine months, I returned to the University of Cambridge as a Wellcome Veterinary Fellow in the department of pharmacology. I intended to spend some time there but within a year I saw an advert for a lectureship in veterinary pharmacology in Glasgow. The timing was not great; I had just bought a house with my partner and we had taken on two puppies. After a period of long distance commuting we had just ‘settled’ in the one place, although we were both on three-year fixed-term funding. I applied for and was offered the job, and such was the opportunity that I moved to the University of Glasgow veterinary faculty in 1989, with the conviction that ‘it will work out!’

During the 1990s I developed my academic career and research reputation in the field of animal pain, its recognition and management, and in 1998 I was appointed professor of veterinary pharmacology. They were great years for me. I loved my work – teaching, doing research and doing some clinical anaesthesia. I felt I had the best of all worlds; it was a great environment. It was also challenging in many ways, not least personally as I had my four children, and like so many others learned many skills – juggling different needs and many demands, managing time and sleep deprivation, to name but a few – skills that have been invaluable to me throughout my career.

During those years, I engaged in faculty life through a range of committee work, and I thoroughly enjoyed the hurly burly of academic debate. My official move into management was serendipitous; my boss moved on and so, in 1997, I became head of the division of veterinary pharmacology and joined the faculty's management group. Two years later I was elected dean of the faculty of veterinary medicine – I was the only person to stand. I had learned a lot from my predecessor, and so I was not totally unprepared. I look back with real appreciation of my colleagues across the university and the staff of the veterinary faculty who gave me the space and support to grow into the role. It was quite a change for me and for them, but it was hugely enjoyable and energising, even the very challenging times, and there were many of those. And although I cut back on a lot of the things I loved doing as an academic, I found a new passion in leading the faculty and being a part of a bigger community in the university, and contributing to the development of our profession through membership of the RCVS Council.

After five years as dean I entered a new phase of my career in university-wide leadership. Looking back on my first few months as vice principal for learning and teaching, those were among the most challenging of my working life as I grappled with acronyms, tried to understand the myriad of regulations associated with all kinds of degrees, learned new ways of working with people from different disciplines – the arts, humanities, social sciences, engineering, education – and joined the senior management team of the university. But these years were hugely rewarding; I was well supported and challenged, worked with great people and had lots of opportunity to develop. I led activities, functions and projects that I could never have foreseen, and travelled to many parts of the world, opening my eyes to higher education in a myriad of international contexts. I decided that I would like to lead an organisation, and so in 2013 I left Glasgow to become principal and vice-chancellor of Edinburgh Napier university, a role I have held now for a year.

I was asked by a student recently if I had set out to become a university principal. From the story above, clearly not; that was a relatively recent goal. I believe that if I had made different choices along the way, I would have had a satisfying but very different career that I will never know. At all stages I've had opportunities, some I created but many that arose unexpectedly. I've had great colleagues and friends, and a supportive husband and children. And my learning as a vet, working with colleagues and clients, prepared me well. I learned to ask questions, to listen, to observe, to make decisions, and I learned about relating to people of all perspectives. I was also asked by the same student, ‘where will you be in 10 years time?’ I don't know, but the journey is bound to be interesting and that in itself is exciting.

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