Professor Abigail Woods
Professor of the History of Human
& Animal Health
Date started at King’s
Challenges and achievements
When and what was responsible for you becoming interested in your academic discipline?
As the first person in my family to go to university, I was steered towards the sciences and ended up studying veterinary medicine at Cambridge University. As part of that degree I had to intercalate for a year, and somewhat accidentally ended up studying history and philosophy of science. It felt like I’d entered an entirely new world. I absolutely loved it. Five years later, when I was in veterinary practice and beginning to wonder ‘is that it?’ I decided to take a year off and enrol for an MSc in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at Manchester University. I never looked back. The year off became a new career.
What are your research interests, and what drew you to this area?
As a vet, I was naturally drawn to the history of animal health and healing in 19th and 20th century Britain. Many scholars had worked on human health in this period, but virtually nothing was known about animals. This seemed surprising given how dependent humans were on healthy animals - for draft power, food, military performance, the agricultural economy and rural ways of life, sport, experimental science and companionship. In examining how health was defined and assessed in animals, and the measures taken to counteract their diseases, my research touches on all of these issues, as well as delving into the history of vets and the animals themselves. The historical connections between human and animal health is another key theme, which continues to resonate in the present day.
Tell us about a couple of your achievements that have been particularly rewarding.
I won a £0.5m Wellcome Trust programme grant at a fairly early stage in my career. This provided funding for several post-docs over a 5 year period. There were no useful precedents for how to run a research group in history as collaborative working is so unusual. I had to forge my own path, and ended up developing a close-knit team that has worked very productively together. There’s an intellectual buzz that comes from working independently to address a shared research problem. Helping post-docs to progress their careers has been really rewarding. We are all looking forward to the completion of our joint project book.
Do you have professional role models? Who are they and what do you find inspiring about them and their accomplishments?
I’ve been inspired by several male leaders of departments I’ve worked in or been closely associated with. Although I didn’t consider them role models at the time, I now realise that their high aspirations for their departments, the support they offered to colleagues, and their fostering of collaborative research cultures had a formative influence on my own academic ethos. Today I find myself repeating some of their advice or imitating their ways of working. More generally, I have been inspired in many different ways by my colleagues, and continue to draw lessons from them for how to improve my own performance.
What if any support has most benefited you in your career?
I had a wonderful PhD supervisor, Professor John Pickstone. He supported me to the hilt, and his death in 2014 was a huge loss. I’ve also benefitted immensely from the mentorship of Professor David Edgerton, who remains a close colleague. I have an extensive peer support network made up of people I completed my PhD with, fellow members of learned societies, and work colleagues, past and present. Also my partner, who valiantly holds the fort while I work 300 miles away during the week.
How do you balance an academic career with life outside the workplace?
Paradoxically, it helps to live in North Tyneside where my partner works. Although I have to commute weekly to London – which is a 9 hour round trip – it means that my life is neatly compartmentalised. I’m in London to work, and that’s mostly what I do, but once I’m home I achieve a better balance. The distance means that I can’t just pop into the office or hold a meeting on my off days, and walking my dogs on the beach at sunrise makes the travel worthwhile.
What do you feel is the most enjoyable/rewarding aspect of your job at King's?
I love the intensity and diversity of the intellectual stimulation that comes from teaching different types of students, fostering PhD and post-doctoral research, listening to seminar presentations and throwing ideas around afterwards. I also enjoy feeling part of a thriving, busy department. Currently I’m leading the department’s bid for an Athena Swan Bronze Award. This involves a root and branch assessment of how we operate with a view to identifying how to improve equality and diversity. It’s really rewarding to see the enthusiasm and the sense of possibility that this has aroused amongst colleagues.
How do you balance the various demands of a career in academia: research, teaching/learning, administration?
I’ve resigned myself to the fact that when term is in full swing I won’t get any serious research done. I might manage a few revisions to an article or to gather some research data, but I won’t achieve the head space I need to properly think and write, so I devote myself to teaching and admin. Outside term I try to push those commitments to one side, but they do tend to spill over and I always feel conflicted from the multiple demands on my time. The best way to achieve protected research time is to apply for grants: it’s a way of taking back control over your timetable.
What have you learnt from your experiences that you would like to share with others?
Invest in your interpersonal relationships. Academia functions through networks of mutual support and obligation and for women especially, it’s important to tap them. You might write that paper quicker if you shut yourself away, but in the long run (and it is a marathon, not a sprint), you need to take time to talk to people. You never know where having coffee with a colleague, or chatting to someone at a conference might lead: research ideas, networks, collaborations, impact, career tips, seminar invitations, and so on. It might also create an opportunity to do someone a favour – which they will repay when the time comes.