Heather Skirton retired from her role as Professor of Applied Health Genetics at the University of Plymouth, UK in 2017. She will be giving the ELPAG Award Lecture on Monday at 10.15 hrs. She talked to Mary Rice about her life and work.
Although she was interested in biology from a young age, Heather Skirton is modest about her early scientific abilities. «I studied phsyics and chemistry at school until Year 12, but I wouldn’t say I am a natural scientist. That’s an understatement – I have no idea how I passed my exams!»
Her mother was a nurse, so she grew up understanding about the body, she says. « I was accepted to do both nursing and speech therapy but decided for nursing because I had always wanted to be a midwife.» She became a registered nurse in 1974, and qualified as a midwife in 1980. Studies in psychotherapeutic counselling and genetic counselling followed, and from 2000 -2004 she was co-director of the MSc in genetic counselling at the University of Wales. She joined the University of Plymouth in 2004. Throughout her long career she has been a member of many professional organisations working in the field of genetics and ethics at national and international level, including being the first chair of the European Board of Medical Genetics.
“I think I have always tried to explore the psychological and emotional impact of a genetic diagnosis and testing on the family through my research, as I think that can be overlooked with the excitement of all the scientific breakthroughs,” she says. “I have also taught counselling skills to a wide range of people and know it makes a difference to their clinical work, so the fact that I might have helped them to work more effectively with families is the thing I’m most proud of.”
She’s happy, too, about the support she has received throughout her career, starting with her parents who were “wonderfully supportive”. Neither could she have achieved so much without the encouragement of her husband, whose contribution she describes as immeasurable. “I have been so fortunate to have been supported by talented and generous people who shared their work with me and gave me chances to contribute.”
A naturally positive person, she still has a few gripes about the state of science today. In her own field, she feels that not enough credence is given to the use of qualitative methods. “I think this would help us understand a lot more about the impact of scientific advances on families. And the extreme pressure to understand genomics means that genetic counsellors sometimes feel that they have less time to focus on the human side of our work – counselling. And the pressure to publish and be successful does sometimes have an impact on the openness and generosity of colleagues.”
Retirement has given her something of a break from these concerns, but it hardly seems like a quiet life. “I don’t have enough time to do the things I love as it is. My husband and I have five children and nine grandchildren, and just keeping in touch is a huge task. I love gardening and am very ‘crafty’. We also love travelling and this year went sailing round the Caribbean on a Tall Ship – an amazing experience!
Other interests include history and literature, particularly historical fiction. And she loves to sing and dance. “I am trained in drama and would have loved to go into musical theatre, but the musical stage probably had a lucky escape when I became a nurse!”
Her Award Lecture will take a walk through her research career and emphasise the application of her work to the real world. “I was first a clinician, so it’s important to me that my research helps to make a difference to families. And this lecture will also give me a chance to thank the very many generous colleagues who’ve been part of my working life over decades.”