In the words of Jay-Z, allow me to re-introduce myself. My name is Phil Hefford, and exactly 2 years ago I was in Vietnam on a virus hunting mission, sent on orders by my LSHTM MSc Medical Microbiology summer project. A lot has happened since those young, yuppy days – but my ‘Med Micro’ background kicked off a lot of good fun and I feel more hungry than ever to stay immersed in the field of Tropical Health and Disease.
When I finished the course, my classmates all went off in various career directions. Some went straight into a PhD, such as looking at the pathogenesis of the Tuberculosis causing bug Mycobaterium tuberculosis; joined a clinical diagnostics lab; entered the world of biotechnology; began their Microbiology speciality training as a medical doctor; or just went off travelling after a rigorous 12 months of pure mental fusion.
For me, I had a few PhD interviews looking at HIV, TB vaccines and brain infections. Although I did well to even be short-listed for these competitive studentships, and even came 2nd (or back-up option) to one of them, nothing came of these interviews. I was however offered another bat virus project which would likely turn into a PhD out in Vietnam, but I turned the option down as I wasn’t completely convinced.
Down but not defeated, I was forced to re-evaluate my options and indeed – just exactly what the heck I wanted to do. I certainly knew I loved research relating to tropical diseases, but was I really infatuated to focus on one particular aspect of microbial science for the next 3 or 4 years??? Probably not, and I’m sure this came across in my interviews too. Principal Investigators don’t short-list people for interview if they’re not already happy with your academic ability based on your grades, but in an interview they do want to see evidence of problem solving within their particular research area and a ‘well-read’ background on their pathogen(s) of interest. They want to be convinced that the person in front of them will have the dogged determination to get through 3 to 4 years of experiments-gone-wrong and midnight tantrums. I clearly wasn’t ready yet.
I did however, have a long and deep passion for medicine in general. This was particularly cemented when I joined in on ward rounds in the Tropical Disease Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, a medley of wild and wacky diseases, fascinating case presentations and tremendous people. Utterly mesmerising, and thoroughly engaging.
So I looked around, decided to get some paid healthcare work in London to boost my credentials and then submit an application a year later. I worked firstly as a physiologist – still with the ethos of ‘public health’ and preventative medicine but nothing to do with microbiology. After 14 months of genuine boredom (but getting more out of it than simply ‘ticking a box’) I moved on to work in clinical trials in a support role for patients, in the familiar territory of virology research. By this point, I had already interviewed for Medical School, and as each week went by in my new job, I would grow more and more anxious as to whether the route I had taken had paid off or not.
And then…. 3 months later, I got the e-mail – “Dear Mr Hefford, …. We are delighted to offer you a…..”
I didn’t bother reading further than that for at least a few hours. I’d got what I worked hard for and what I feel, with complete certainty, is what I truly want – a shot at a career in medicine. I’m still on a buzz, but I’ll have to find some composure before starting at Leicester Medical School this September.
Although I worked the necessary slog in London for 1.5 years to earn money and gain valuable healthcare experience, I kept my interests broad and related to tropical health and disease. Before I joined LSHTM, I volunteered for a charity which aims to provide sustainable first-aid training to rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa (at the moment, focused in the Eastern countries). Alongside my paid jobs, I’ve been volunteering as a lead research co-ordinator for them, and ran a small qualitative study over 2 weeks last year. I believe that my influences at LSHTM have pushed me to stay engaged in matters concerning health and disease in tropical regions, and the last 1.5 years in my voluntary role have given me so much valuable experience which surely boosted my credentials for medical school but also for my career in the future, as a researcher and in a leadership role for projects in low-resource settings. I would advise anyone with similar interests to my own, to use their spare time for fun, but also in ways which keeps them engaged in public health!
Oh yeah, and before Medical School kicks off, I’m going back out to Kenya and Tanzania for the charity to run another study with a bigger team of researchers. This time – it’s 6 weeks!!
I’m psyched! And I’m completely hooked.