An Interview with Robert Farley

Current Job: Head of Medical Physics / Consultant Clinical Scientist at The James Cook University Hospital,  South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.  R Farley Profile Picture

Scientific Discipline/Field: Medical Physics (Radiotherapy Physics is my specialism, but I also have interests in Nuclear Medicine and Physiological Measurement)

Country: UK

Pick some letters (L,G,B,T,Q etc.): G

Website: http://southtees.nhs.uk/hospitals/james-cook/

Twitter: @robMedPhysics

What does your job involve?

The Medical Physics Department at South Tees comprises three sections: Radiotherapy Physics, Clinical Measurement and Nuclear Medicine; hence my role as Head of Department is incredibly varied, but I am fortunate in that I still have to do some practical, hands on science in radiotherapy physics. I find this aspect of the work particularly rewarding as after a long day working on a linear accelerator, for example, there’s a real sense of a job well done. In addition, if you have a trainee physicist with you, it’s a really good opportunity to demonstrate how the theory translates into clinical practice and help consolidate their learning.

As well as the day-to-day physics and training, I am also responsible for the overall departmental strategy for and overseeing the research, development and governance by making sure that new techniques and service improvements are implemented in a way that improves patient outcomes without compromising patient safety. This often involves working with many different staff groups, be they surgeons, pathologists, radiographers etc. We are seen as innovators within the trust and often have to take the lead in bringing new ideas to fruition; indeed we are often approached by people from other departments who have had a really good idea and just want to know what to do to make it a reality.

My role also entails working professionally at the regional and national levels. As we are part of a regional training consortium, we need to work with Health Education North East (HENE) and other NHS trusts to ensure that training capacity meets future workforce requirements for Clinical Scientists in each of the Medical Physics and Engineering Specialisms. I am also an assessor for candidates applying for entry onto the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) register via either the Association of Clinical Scientist’s routes, or the Academy of Health Care Science’s equivalence route.

At time of writing, I am just starting my two year tenure as Deputy Director of the Professional and Standards Council at the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine (IPEM) which will be followed by a further two years as Director of the Professional and Standards Council. It is through IPEM that I am trying hard to raise the visibility of LGBT+ scientists in clinical engineering and medical physics.

How did you get to this job (education etc.)?

My route to my current position is somewhat atypical. My first degree was in chemistry at the University of York where I remained to do a D.Phil in physical organic chemistry. This ignited my interest in Electron Paramagnetic Resonance and free radicals (I remember being fascinated by magnetism as a child and even at 14 being totally unsatisfied by the ‘O-level’ domain theory of magnetism, my question being “so what makes the domains magnetic?”). I then spent two years at the Unversitaet Zuerich studying fast, free radical reactions by laser flash photolysis and optical modulated absorption spectroscopy as a post doc, although there was plenty of EPR within the group to maintain my interest. I then moved to the EPSRC National Electron Nuclear Double Resonance (ENDOR) Service in the Chemistry Department at Cardiff University, again as a fellow, where I spent seven years studying a wide range of systems: free-radicals, transition metal complexes, colour centres, etc., etc. My special interest, common to many projects, was using ENDOR spectroscopy to obtain structural information from disordered systems, such as polycrystalline powders and glassy frozen solutions, using a technique known as magnetic angle selection. During this period I also undertook a PGCE for Higher Education, which has stood me in good stead over the years.

Anyway, the realisation that I wanted to remain a hands-on scientist; the fact that, in practice, I was doing more physics than chemistry; and wanting more security than a continual series of fixed term contracts led me to medical physics. Originally, I was thinking in terms MRI; however, it was Radiotherapy Physics that really grabbed my interest. I therefore, embarked on the IPEM Grade A training, as it was then, in Stoke (and it was an excellent training experience) which also required undertaking an MSc in Medical and Radiation Physics at Birmingham University. I remained at Stoke for the second part of my training and, having obtained professional registration, continued there for a total of eight years, becoming a Medical Physics Expert (a role defined in law) during this time before moving to the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital as Head of QA and Dosimetry in Radiotherapy Physics. Although I was only at Shrewsbury a few years, I was fortunate in that it was an exciting period in which a great deal of service development was going on. Whilst at Shrewsbury, a similar role to the one I was already doing was advertised at a bigger centre in Middlesbrough. As both my husband and I had always intended to move back to North Yorkshire and despite it being a sideways move, I applied and was successful. Unbeknown to me at the time, the Head of Medical Physics there was shortly to announce his retirement and, precisely one year after arriving in the trust, I started in my current role as Head of Department.

Do you feel being LGBT has affected your career decisions?

No, not at all.

Have you had any reactions from colleagues about being LGBT, either good or bad?

Certainly during my time in the NHS my colleagues have been absolutely great and I’ve never had a negative reaction that I can recall. Prior to that it was pretty much the same, though in the early days of my career I had a few negative comments, but those were different times!

Did you have any role models growing up (LGBT, STEM, totally unrelated…)?

As I was born before humankind had walked on the moon (but after the first human heart transplant, I hasten to add) and grew up in an era where there was only negative portrayal of gay people (men specifically – I’m not sure that the L, B or T let alone the + had even registered) and where pride marches were referred to on the news as “groups of homosexual demonstrators” and elicited tutting from those watching, there were no LGBT+ role models. However, it’s those groups of so-called homosexual demonstrators that enable men to write on their profiles that they and their husbands plan to have families and women the same with their wives; for that, they’re not so much my role models as heroes!

My scientific role models are Prof Bruce Gilbert, one of my D.Phil supervisors and Dr. Julia-Claire Handley my training supervisor and colleague at Stoke, now Head of Radiotherapy Physics at the Christie Hospital, both of whom are superb scientists with a really pragmatic approach.

I also have two scientific heroes namely Alan Turing (not specifically because he was gay) and Rosalind Franklin, two brilliant scientists in my opinion.

What are your plans for the future?

To ensure that the Medical Physics Department at South Tees becomes known, not just for its  scientific and clinical excellence but also for its inclusivity and acceptance and also to raise the visibility of LGBT+ physicists and engineers, particularly those working in healthcare.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Yep. I have been very fortunate to encounter some superb people (many of whom have become friends) both because of their scientific and technical abilities and also because of their attitude towards LGBT+ people. However, I would also like to say that it is an absolute privilege to work with my current colleagues, again because of their attitudes and because, without exception, they are all extremely talented. I’m proud of every one of them.

And last, but by no means least, I need to say thanks to my husband, Andrew, who for the best part of twenty years has encouraged, supported and stood by me – and he’s not even a scientist.

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