An interview with Dr Claire Nolan

International Women’s Day 2020 – interview series

In celebration of International Women's Day, we interviewed five women from Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Foundation Trust.

In this interview we spoke to Dr Claire Nolan about her research aspirations, what she enjoys most about working at Harefield Hospital and the women she looks up to. 

What do you do?"Claire Nolan"

I’m a senior research physiotherapist at the respiratory research unit at Harefield Hospital. 

The type of studies we do involves people with chronic respiratory disease as well as pulmonary rehabilitation, physical activity and outcome measures. 

My special interest is in Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF).

Describe your typical day.

This is going to sound really cliché but there isn’t a typical day.

We’re a clinical research team so the bulk of our day involves either recruiting patients to take part in the study or doing assessments as part of a research study. The number and frequency of those assessments varies on a day to day basis. 

I’m involved in writing research papers, carrying out statistical analysis, and reviewing papers for journals. 

I’m also involved in a number of committees including the British Thoracic Society (BTS) pulmonary rehabilitation advisory group and the American Thoracic Society web committee.

I also manage a team of four fantastic researchers, and I help with their training and development. 

What inspired you to get into your chosen career?

I originally decided to become a physiotherapist because I was inspired by a musculoskeletal physiotherapist who was treating me for a knee problem. I remember thinking that what he was able to do was really interesting. 

My background into research is a little different. I’ve always enjoyed learning and I just got to this stage in my physiotherapy career where I couldn’t really see a path forward in a direction that I would find satisfying in the long term. So, I decided I would return to university and study medicine, but I didn’t get offered a place. I spoke with Dr William Man, who’s my current line manager, about my options and he suggested that I go down the academic route. From there I took on a post that was part time research and part time clinical, and I’ve just stayed within this lab ever since, working first through my masters and then a PhD. 

What excites you most about your career?

The opportunity to direct or to have control over the areas that I want to investigate. So, one of the things that I’m really passionate about in my personal life is health equality and equality in general. Which is why the direction I now want to take my research career is in overcoming health inequalities in chronic respiratory disease. 

I feel so lucky to be able to have the choice to do what I want to do, provided I get the funding of course!

And what exactly would you like to research with regards to health inequalities?

I’m looking for funding at the moment but I’m going to try and base my research around pulmonary rehabilitation and access to it for all patients and specifically those, for example, who come from areas of low socio-economic deprivation or those who have barriers to accessing this important treatment. 

So pulmonary rehab isn’t widely available across the UK?

That’s right. There’s a huge problem with the availability of services, referral to uptake, and completion of pulmonary rehabilitation, so there are kind of 3 stages where we could focus our research. Looking at the reasons why patients don’t want to do rehab or the barriers they perceive would be one step in making this service more available. 

What do you enjoy most about working at the Trust? What could be done better?

I’ve been at this Trust for what feels like a really long time, in a good way. I joined in 2009 and it was the best career move I ever made. I have been provided with opportunities to do things that I never even thought of being able to do. Not that I thought they were unattainable, I just didn’t know that I could have the opportunity to do them.

I work with brilliant team and a really great line manager and mentor.  I also love working at Harefield Hospital, which has a really friendly environment. It’s a small site but in that way, you get to know lots of people from different departments. There are people I’ve known for over 10 years who I’ve never even worked with. I really, really enjoy that aspect of working here. 

The other aspect of the Trust which is great, is this strive for excellence clinically, whilst also pushing the boundaries with what we can do from a research perspective, which kind of leads me into where the Trust could improve. There has been a very successful push over the last few years to encourage allied health professionals into research. But what needs to happen now is developing the pathways for post-PhD. I understand that there’s work being done at the moment to do that and it’s a really hard thing to do because it hasn’t been achieved nationally. But I think that’s an area that the Trust could become a leader in. 

Do you remember any difficult choices in your career path?

Yes, I think there have been a couple actually. 

My first was whilst I was working in this Trust, actually. I was working as an inpatient cardio-respiratory physiotherapist and I had the choice to either stay working as a physiotherapist or choose to study medicine and I made a choice to study medicine, which I mentioned but obviously failed.  After that I had to really had to think about what I was going to do and how I was going to be happy in my career. 

I would also say post-PhD has been really challenging because as I said, there isn’t a specific career pathway so you’re trying to explore all opportunities, ensure that you’re doing as much as you can to progress and promote your career, but you’re not too sure what the right thing is.

How important is it for women to lift each other up and what does that mean to you?

I’m a feminist, I’ve been brought up as a feminist and my family have always promoted equality and it’s something that I hold very dear. But I think we’re at a stage now where it’s not about women holding each other up. I think its men and women supporting each other and working together to help each other, achieve common goals and to drive the agenda of the institution you work in. 

Are there any women, either in your field or outside of it, who you admire and why?

How long have you got? So, there are lots of women in my field that I admire but I’m going to choose just 2. 

One is Professor Anne Holland from Monash University in Australia and the other is Professor Sally Singh from University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust. 

Both are physiotherapists by background, and they drive the international research agenda for pulmonary rehab and chronic respiratory care, which I think is just an amazing position to be in. They consistently produce really high quality, clinically relevant research, and are involved in national and international efforts to promote pulmonary rehab and the management of patients with chronic respiratory disease. So, they’re really brilliant role models. 

And then outside of my area I’ve always admired Mary Robinson. She was the first female president of Ireland and was elected in the early 90s, which was a huge time of change in Ireland. As a young girl it was really inspiring to see this change and since then she’s gone onto work in the UN and I think she’s currently a member of a group of elders and who are working on issues that affect climate change. She’s had such a varied and impactful career and I really admire her. 

If you could go back in time, what one's piece of advice you would give your 13-year-old self? 

I was thinking about this. No, I think it would be (it’s sounds a bit weird) but probably just not to take school so seriously. 

Don’t worry about the spelling test at the end of the week. Don’t take school so seriously and have lots and lots of interests. Be involved in sport, music, learn as much as you can. And keep your friends and family close to you.