30 марта 2017
Interview with the head of the Academic Writing Office

Please tell me about yourself: university you graduated from, your activities, scientific conferences you participated, and the scope of your research work.

I was born in Liverpool. I went to the same school as Charles Darwin, who everybody knows is the author of “The Origin of the Species.” After that I went and studied Humanities in Newcastle. When I finished my studies, I went to Spain, and for the last 25 years I’ve been teaching English as a foreign language. In the last 15 years, I have specialized in Medical English and Medical Education.

What are my great desires?—I’m very interested in introducing English into the natural working life of hospitals in both Spain and Russia. I would say that I have introduced “clinical sessions” in English into non-English hospitals; that is, introducing English as a language of daily clinical session, where the medium language is normally another. So, the content of the session remains the same but the language used changes. I am also very interested in helping scientists, researchers, and medical doctors publish in English, as well as aiming to improve their oral presentations, amongst other things. In the last two years, I have participated and given oral presentations at around ten international conferences, and this year I’ve published three or four articles with a few more in the pipeline.

I know that you come from a medical family. Have you ever wanted to be a doctor?

To say that I come from a medical family is a maybe a bit of an understatement. My father was a general surgeon, his father was professor of Orthopedics in Liverpool, my other grandfather was professor of ophthalmology, and my grandmother was amongst the first women doctors of England. So, the question is “Do you follow in the footsteps of your father?”—No, I decided to go another direction. But—and this is the interesting point—five years ago, my father had a heart attack and was in the ICU at a teaching hospital in Spain, and I visited him on a regular basis. It was then that I decided that I could possibly join the two sides together; the medical and the humanities. I decided that there was a need to introduce English into the medical profession in non-English countries, particularly in Spain. So, returning to the question, I am now delighted that to some degree I did go into medicine; possibly, some years ago, this would not have been the case. But I truly believe that to some extent medicine has called me.

What do you think are the most important skills for a professional, for a scientist?

For a professional, for a scientist, or for a doctor? That’s different.

For a doctor, for a scientist, and for a medical researcher.

Ok. Let me start off with a doctor. I have a very strong view about doctors. Because a doctor is someone who treats people. So, the doctor is not isolated, and the doctor is in a contact with society. First of all, they need to be very well trained, but perhaps more than well trained the doctor needs to be educated and of course completely updated in the latest techniques in their particular specialty. But the doctor also needs to be able to relate and, dare I say, empathize with the patient. The doctor has the beautiful but really hard task of marrying or joining the scientific with the arts, or with the humanistic. And the doctor’s role in society has changed considerably, as medicine is played out in a patient-centered setting, in a similar fashion to education which is student-centered. So, it’s very important that the doctor highlights the humanistic side. In no way does this mean that the doctor should not be really updated in the latest technology. However, the doctor does have a very difficult and extremely important role and privilege in treating humans at critical moments of their lives.

The scientist is different. Normally, he or she is not in contact with humans. The scientist doesn’t treat patients. So, I would say the scientist needs to be extremely critical, extremely analytical, and extremely curious of everything. But specifically, the scientist needs to know his or her role and the important part that he or she will be playing in helping the patient. Because even if there is no direct contact with a patient, the biomedical scientist is looking for future treatment for ways to improve medicine. So, I think there is a big difference between what the doctor does and what the scientist does. Nevertheless, we should never forget that very often the very best doctors are the very best scientists as well.

Can we say that the English language—to speak English, to write in English, to understand the English language—is one of the most important skills for both a doctor and a scientist?

We should never underestimate that nowadays English is the lingua franca for medicine, for science and for every other profession. But I would really emphasize that in medicine English is not just optional, but it is a complete and utter necessity. If a medical doctor wants to be at the top of his game, meaning that if he or she wants to be in touch with the latest trends in medicine, they need to read articles, and these articles are in English. And then, if they want to form a part of research, which as everybody knows is one part of fundamental column or triangle of medicine, they need to make research, and they need to publish that research in English. And if they want to explain the research and present it at scientific conferences, international scientific conferences (but not only international, because national conferences in many countries now use English), then they need English. Francis Darwin, the son of Charles said: “In science, the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to whom the idea first occurs”. And even if they only want to attend conferences, they need English. So, medical doctors need English—full stop.

Is it possible to combine medical profession and skills in linguistics? Is it necessary to have a special education in linguistics to start to write in English?

I think it goes back to what I’ve talked about on the Humanities. Traditionally, the Sciences and the Humanities were linked, but more recently, in the last 50–60 years, there has been a tendency to divide the Humanities from the Sciences. This is a mistake. And I think now everybody is realizing that this is a mistake. So, if a medical doctor has the time to go into linguistics, work in linguistics, and get a master in linguistics—this is obviously beneficial not only for them but for their patients, to a lesser degree. So, I would say—yes, it’s a fantastic line that is happening here at Sechenov University, which I completely back.

Just a few words about your work in the First MSMU, your projects, and your collaboration with the Department of Foreign Languages. How long have you been working with the Sechenov University?

This is a fantastic question, because it’s the one which I am very often asked. Let me say that in September 2014 I was lucky enough to be invited to give a presentation at the 1st Pyramid International Medical English conference. And at that conference I met Professor Irina Markovina and she said: “I’m very interested in what you’re doing and will send you an e-mail.” Well, if somebody says that in Spain or maybe in other countries you say “Ok, fantastic,” but you don’t expect anything. However, an e-mail arrived one week later, and we have been collaborating on a very regular basis since then. The meeting with Professor Markovina was the most important meeting that I’ve had for many years, and this is completely true. In 2015, I came to Moscow, to Sechenov, and gave a master-class and was also invited to an international conference on medical education with the Russian Health Minister being involved. And then, this year, 2016, I came again in April, and then, since May 2016, I have been contracted as the Head of the Academic Writing Office, which is a fantastic new project that I am extremely honored to be heading. I have travelled with Professor Markovina to Vladivostok, Krasnoyarsk, and I also represented the University at a medical communication conference in Aalborg, Denmark. Then, this September I went to Newcastle, where I gave a presentation at a medical education conference. So, there are a lot of really exciting new collaborations just beginning.


What is ‘academic writing’?

Academic writing is a very broad term, but we are really interested in helping medical researchers and medical doctors to publish in English. So, our aim, our main aim, is to introduce the belief, or the desire, or the hope that English will become rooted as THE language of scientific publications at Sechenov University. I think this is our objective, to make Sechenov an English-friendly setting. We hope to make doctors and researchers not only understand the importance of English, but, secondly, to be able to use it. This is an enormous challenge where we are only just beginning, and we really do need time to prosper because the objectives are so extremely important but extremely challenging, and anything worth doing needs time to put it into practice. So, the main goal, I would say, is to introduce English into the University, and in this respect, we want the University and all the people working and studying and researching to understand this. We aim to help them to disseminate their work in English.

Do you think that papers written by Russian doctors will be of interest to researchers outside Russia?

This is a very interesting question because all the doctors in Spain and in England who I have been speaking to—because I’ve been working mostly in Spain for the last 15 years in medicine, but I’ve also been connected with England for many years and more recently even more—are intrigued by what is happening in Russia and in medical profession. Nobody knows what is happening in the Russian medical profession. Doctors come up to me and say: “Oh, we might see one Russian at the conference, but he or she doesn’t say anything, doesn’t participate, doesn’t ask any questions. They don’t present, and we don’t know any papers published by Russian doctors or Russian researchers.”

So, they want to know. There is an enormous desire to know what is happening in Russia. And my belief is that for 80 years Russia was completely isolated scientifically from the world. This doesn’t mean to say that the science and medicine in Russia is not of a high standard; quite the contrary, because I think it is of a very high standard of quality. But the West doesn’t know what is happening in Russia as a whole and, more specifically, in medicine. And so, I think it is beneficial for both Russian medical professionals and their western counterparts to exchange ideas and learn from each other. I think that it was the great Nelson Mandela who said that “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” This is true, and knowledge of other cultures and other working cultures is the best form of education; you need to learn from the “other.” So, I would cite this as another of my great aims in the Academic Writing Office, and also on a personal basis, because I think it is extremely interesting. And I will give you an example. Just two days ago, we had a master-class on academic writing for pharmacists and medical students. We also held a video conference with the heads of an important teaching hospital in Spain. During this conference, I tweeted an image of the international video conference, and two or three hours later I had a tweet from the head of medical education in the North of England saying “We want to participate in these exchanges and video-conference because we believe that we want to know what Russians are doing, what the Spanish in Mallorca are doing, we want to exchange knowledge and ideas.” So, yes—it’s really important, and there is the proof. We want to build bridges between countries, between professionals and ideas. A big task but NOT impossible.

Please just a few words about your project called Medical Humanities. I know that you’re the President of the Medical Humanities Association of Mallorca.

Yes, this is completely true. For the last 10–15 years I have been extremely interested in the Medical Humanities. Why? Because I’m not medically trained but I have a deep desire and deep love of medicine, but am basically ‘humanistically’ trained, whatever that means. And Medical Humanities joins the two. There is a very interesting article by Professor Brian Hurwitz from King’s College, London, called What’s a good doctor? and the subtitle is By marrying the applied scientist to the medical humanist. So, for me this has been something that I’ve been very interested in for many years. And more recently, I proposed an idea to try to exchange and introduce Medical Humanities as a project to medical students in different European universities, starting with Sechenov Medical University. So, this was the principal idea that we have started with Sechenov Medical University in Russia and introduced into different universities—Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Queen’s University in Belfast, etc., etc. And we are going to introduce literary texts to the students so they can reflect on how they might improve, or change, their vision of medicine, how this might affect their treatment of patients, how this might make them reflect on their daily work in the hospital, how this might help them reflect on what medicine really means. Medicine is not only about treatment; medicine is about trying to help the patient, medicine is much more than just looking at the patient as a clinical case. Medical Humanities is an enormous field that, I think, is really needed now because there is a tendency for over-technicalization, for dehumanization. Introducing the Humanities into medicine is a way of rehumanizing the medical profession. Perhaps this is a good moment because now the medical profession and medical education have become more feminized, meaning that, 50–60 years ago, 80% of the medical students were men, and 20% were women. And now it’s the opposite. Maybe brining in the humanistic side, and linking it to this demographic change will give us more hope for the future.

What is your favorite book? Who is your favorite author?

Wow, unexpected question. I have a lot of favorite authors because I read a lot. I’m a big follower of Samuel Beckett. Samuel Beckett is a really interesting author, and he said something like “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better,” which is perhaps a good motto. He is a fascinating author who is very often misinterpreted. I’m a big fan of John Berger. Basically, John Berger is an art critic who has also written many books about medicine; for example, A Fortunate Man, about the life of GP in the UK in the 1960s, or Cataract, a more recent book about the effect of having his cataracts operated on. What I find interesting is this “fusion literature,” where fiction intertwines with fact, personal ideas, and emotions; a true example of interdisciplinarity, which I believe is both the present and the future. And now I’m reading a lot of books by doctors like Gavin Francis who wrote Adventures in Human Being, or Henry Marsh, a neurosurgeon, who wrote Do No Harm. But now as I’m working in between Mallorca and Sechenov I mustn’t forget that I also become being a bigger and bigger fan of Russian writers, so I mustn’t forget to mention Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, who, as everybody knows, was educated at Sechenov, but is probably one of the greatest dramatists and short story writers of the last two hundred years. And Bulgakov. Bulgakov is a fascinating author and another doctor. But so many authors, and not enough time to talk about them all.

Can you recommend any books in English for our young doctors, for our young researchers?

I would say now that the medical students must read the book by Gavin Francis's Adventures in Human Being. It’s a very interesting book and I think all doctors should read it.

Do you have any hobbies?

Wow, another good question. One of them is reading. I have a lot of hobbies, I love doing a lot of things. Everything I enjoy, and I really do everything. The problem is time. My hobby is being with my family. That’s not a kind of hobby, but I enjoy spending time with my family, I enjoy doing things with my family. We live in a really special part of the world, we live in a great island Mallorca that is really beautiful, but, even better, we live in an area which is in the Tramuntana mountains. In the Tramuntana mountains, we have beautiful areas for trekking and walking. So, I really enjoy walking in the mountains. We like going to the Pyrenees, and in the Pyrenees, we do crazy things together, like rafting and doing canyoning and jumping off bridges—crazy things that I really shouldn’t be doing but I love doing. Listening to music as well; I’m a great fan of everything from Bob Dylan to Beethoven, the Cure to the Clash, Miles Davis to the Beatles. I have to say that one author who you should read has just won the Nobel Prize for literature this year—Bob Dylan, and Bob Dylan is one of my heroes. And I love cooking, and I love eating. I like drinking good wine, and more than everything I like discovering new things about new cultures and communicating with different people from different cultures and different countries, and enjoying myself!


What piece of advice would you give to Russian medical students, researchers, and doctors studying English?

First of all, I think if you want to study another language, you need to be open to the possibilities of hearing the language, to listen to the language, which is slightly different, to communicate, using the language, to read the language, and to write the language. But you have to be open to acquiring the language. This is not difficult—with the Internet you can listen to podcasts in English about everything under the sun and with the Internet you can have free classes with anybody from any country, English-speaking country. So, open yourself up to the language, open your ears and open your eyes to the language. Second piece of advice is do not stop. Constancy is critical. Constancy is really, really important. And also it’s really important to practice not only at the weekends, but practice a little bit every day. Practice could mean watching a video, could mean listening to music, could mean reading a book. You got to do this on a daily basis for 20 minutes. Everybody has 20 minutes. In Moscow, on the subway you can read a book in English, you can listen to a podcast in English. And then, thirdly, I think this is important if you have the possibility to go to an English-speaking country, if you are a doctor, if you are a resident, if you are a medical student, and you have the possibility to do a rotation in an English-speaking country in a hospital—in New York, in Cambridge, in London, wherever—take it. Don’t be shy. Don’t feel your English is not good enough. Your English can only get better. You can only acquire more English, and you can only acquire more knowledge. Because if you acquire more English, you acquire more knowledge. So, these three things—be open to acquiring English, be constant, and be open to spending some time in English-speaking countries—three pieces of advice that come to my mind.

Jonathan, thank you very much.


Interview by Maria Mikerova

Prepared for publication by Alexandr Zaytsev

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