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Escapism in a time of COVID: My Churchill Travel Fellowship

Every fortnight, we hand over the blog to one of the London Shapers, to give you a flavour of what they do, how they think and what's really going on in our hearts and minds. Today's piece comes from Maxine Mackintosh, who is a Researcher at the Alan Turing Institute and The Health Foundation.

On all counts, it seems an odd time to be writing about both a travel Fellowship, and in the name of Winston Churchill. It is late June: Europe has been on varying degrees of lockdown since February. Travelling down the road even a few miles is practically an exotic excursion, and getting on an airplane and crossing a border is incomprehensible. #BlackLivesMatter has grown in its strength and ubiquity as a movement in the last month, which has included challenging and toppling the idols we memorialise in statue-form across the UK: Cecil Rhodes, Edward Colston and now Winston Churchill, are just some.

In Autumn last year, I completed my Churchill Fellowship which funded me to visit New York, Boston, Kenya and Uganda to meet and explore the amazing people and organisations doing fantastic work in health data science. The Churchill Fellowship is a scheme that funds up to 150 Fellows a year to travel for 4-8 weeks anywhere in the world, to research any topic. These are not designed to be academic grants, but are positioned as “inquiries into real-world issues”, the learnings of which are then shared on their return. They are a truly unusual fellowship in their willingness to fund just about anyone to explore just about anything. Being an academic myself, the open-endedness of this opportunity is unique (and certainly at the time highlighted the lack of trust, freedom and serendipity grants and fellowships so often come with, allowing people to explore in their own way, what is right for their learning).

I’m a Researcher at the Alan Turing Institute and The Health Foundation where (in non-COVID times) I would usually be spending my time building models, analysing NHS data. However, in the years leading up to my Churchill Fellowship, the huge range of commercial, ethical and skills challenges around data science, particularly applied to health really emerged. I was motivated to apply for the Fellowship, and go to East Coast US and East Africa to experience two vastly contrasting, but equally booming hubs of digital health.

So how does the Fellowship work?

You complete a short and accessible application which covers the usual questions of where you want to go, why you want to go, and why this area of work matters. If you progress, there’s then an additional stage of information required before you’re invited to interview. Interviews (at the time I did them) were very short; only 20 minutes. I was being interviewed in the “Science, Technology and Innovation” category and I had the good fortune to be interviewed by a panel of science journalism and FRS glitterati. Whilst the interview was fair and enjoyable, the panel certainly did not shy away from diving directly into challenging questions. (As an aside, I did think I had flunked the interview at the point at which I said I would not be shouting Churchill’s name from the rooftops in the ambassadorial nature of the Fellowship whilst I would be in Kenya and Uganda given the atrocities he committed there).

Shortly after, I heard I was successful. You are then provided with plenty of support and structure by which to plan your trip. You have to book your flights and demonstrate that a substantial chunk of time has been confirmed to meet people and institutions, but as the Trust regularly reminds you, you’re recommended to keep plenty of time open for last minute meetings, trips, serendipity, and also holiday and rest time.

Coming clean, I had very structured goals and ambitions going into the Fellowship (and certainly what I said in the interview!) I wanted to learn about collaboration structures in health-technology, start-up culture in this space, and how different initiatives are addressing the skills and capacity shortage in health-data science. Some highlights were meeting people from: NYU Langone and NYU; Boston Children’s Hospital; Mount Sinai Hospital, the Diversity Innovation Hub, Cityblock Health, Healthtech Women, Makerere University, mHealth Kenya, Pulse Lab Kampala, R Ladies Kenya and Uganda EMR. But I found myself learning a lot more by being less focussed. I’d have coffees with people, shadow individuals on their errands, sit in their offices and absorb the tone, give talks, roast coffee beans…and in one instance deliver some blood on a motorbike to a town hospital a mile away. Excessive planning went out the window pretty quickly. Particularly on “Africa time”.

I could not recommend this opportunity more highly. For many, COVID has been a very disruptive and stressful time. But for others, it has taught us to slow down, learn to be alone and be more attentive when we are out and about. The Fellowship was a huge jolt of these for me, and also made me realise I have truly missed sitting back and listening to individuals. Allowing organic conversation, not having an agenda, and simply listening are difficult to justify in hectic everyday life. Particularly in London where everyone is busy, meetings get made months in advance and actions are clear and results-oriented. But I learnt the most on my Fellowship when I was trying the least.

I will be publishing my post-Fellowship report in the coming months. I’m aware the nitty-gritty of health data science in the US and East Africa will not be of huge relevance to many readers. However, whether you’re young or old, academic or left school at GCSEs, it’s rare to have periods to so freely explore what amazing things amazing people all over the world have to offer. It’s unclear what the Trust will do given the pandemic, but keep an eye on their website for when applications re-open.

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