Professor Ulrike Schmidt
Professor of Eating Disorders
Head of Section of Eating Disorders
Consultant Psychiatrist South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust
Date started at King’s
Challenges and achievements
When did you first become interested in your academic discipline?
My interest in eating disorders was a series of happy accidents. I got an initial ‘taste’ (pardon the pun) of the discipline as a psychiatric trainee at the Maudsley. First, I obtained a 6 months research registrar post and completed a project on food cue exposure in bulimia nervosa. Then, I did a clinical post in the Child and Adolescent Eating Disorders Team where I learnt about family-approaches to anorexia nervosa. Based on these experiences, I was offered a 3-year research post in Eating Disorders as a Senior Registrar by Gerald Russell and Janet Treasure and after that I was ‘hooked’.
What are your research interests, and what drew you to this area?
Developing and testing theory-based psychological treatments was and remains my first love in research. My research interests are guided by the questions that I come across in my clinical work as a Consultant Psychiatrist in the Eating Disorders Unit at the Maudsley. From this, it is clear that for a significant proportion of our patients with very entrenched illnesses, talking therapies alone ‘do not hit the spot’. In these cases we are currently testing a range of novel approaches (e.g. neuromodulation treatment; attention bias modification) as treatment adjuncts, whilst in parallel trying to understand neural mechanisms of action.
Tell us about a couple of your achievements that have been particularly rewarding.
As a junior doctor, I wrote the first cognitive-behavioural self-care book for people with bulimia. We then carried out various trials which showed that with minimal guidance this works as well as specialist treatment. At the time this approach was seen as a bit of an oddity, whereas now this kind of evidence-based self-help approach which empowers patients and disseminates specialist care is very widely used as a first step in treatment of eating disorders and across other conditions . Recently, I have led a large programme of NIHR-funded research into better treatments for people with anorexia nervosa to completion. To see this programme come to fruition has been very rewarding.
Do you have professional role models? Who are they and what do you find inspiring about them and their accomplishments?
I do not have a single role model. Instead I have a whole ‘family’ tree of people, including several of my close colleagues, whose wisdom and good sense has influenced me over a life time. One of the people who inspired me early on in my career was Isaac Marks. He was passionate about understanding the causes of and developing better treatments for people with anxiety disorders and was one of the early proponents of empowering patients to help themselves and disseminating psychological therapies widely. His ideas form the basis for modern developments such as IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Services).
What do you feel is the most enjoyable/rewarding aspect of your job at King’s?
Being able to work with and supervise wonderfully talented PhD-students is a real privilege. Two of my students were awarded ‘Young Researcher of the year’ by the UK’s national eating disorder charity and I was delighted to be awarded the King’s College Supervisory Excellence Award in 2013.
Having lunch in the IoP canteen and meeting colleagues who work in different departments /disciplines is one of the highlights. It is an easy and enjoyable way to learn about new approaches and hear different perspectives on new developments. Of course, being able to make more formal use, of the incredible diversity of expertise in the IoP, e.g. for research collaborations, is fantastic.
How do you balance the various demands of a career in academia: research, teaching/learning, administration?
I do the things that require a ‘fresh brain’ ’ (e.g. planning or writing grants, papers or new talks and reading about new science) in the morning which is my best time. I create blocks of time when I am ‘incommunicado’ (i.e. switch off my email) so I can fully immerse myself in complex tasks without disturbance. I try to instil a ‘bring me solutions (rather than problems)’ mentality in my team and where possible I enlist help of others or delegate tasks.
How do you balance an academic career with life outside the workplace?
With difficulty! Academia is not a 9.00 to 5.00 job. I regularly work in the evenings and at weekends and I am yet to meet any academic who doesn’t.
Having family and friends not involved in academia very much helps me to keep a sense of perspective and balance and to remember that there is life outside the usual academic preoccupations. I also enjoy outdoor activities. I love going hiking with friends, especially if there are mountains involved, and I like running. Running clears my mind and I usually get my best ideas after I have been on a good long run.
What have you learnt from your experiences that you would like to share with others?
Find good mentors, colleagues and collaborators and cherish them. They will last you a life time.
Good science is a team effort. If you want to be a prima donna try the opera!
Meet setbacks, rejections and failure with resilience, i.e. see them as an opportunity for learning and then move on.
Be prepared to ditch your favourite hypotheses and learn from unexpected findings.
Read widely, discuss ideas with people within and outside your own field and give yourself time to think.