Professor Catherine Williamson
Professor of Women's Health
Date started at King’s
Challenges and achievements
When and what was responsible for you becoming interested in your academic discipline?
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to perform research whilst I was a medical student. It was exciting to discover new information about the cause and treatment of disease and this prompted me to pursue an academic career. I became interested in diseases of pregnancy as a junior doctor. I had looked after several women with complex medical diseases who were also pregnant, and I was fascinated by the challenge of managing serious diseases in the context of maintaining the health of a mother and unborn baby. It is exciting to focus on research that aims to improve the health of pregnant women and that will also have an impact upon the future health of her children.
What are your research interests, and what drew you to this area?
My research aims to explain why pregnant women are at risk of metabolic diseases. In particular I am interested in the cause of the commonest liver-specific disease of pregnancy (cholestasis) and gestational diabetes mellitus, two disorders I see in my clinical practice. I research genetic factors that make women susceptible to these diseases, as well as hormonal triggers of disease during pregnancy. I am also interested in preventing the consequences of these pregnancy disorders, including stillbirth and preterm labour, and my focus includes evaluation of drugs and finding better strategies for prediction and prevention of disease. When a woman has cholestasis or diabetes in pregnancy, her children are not only at risk of complications of pregnancy, but they also have higher rates of obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol in adult life and my research aims to understand why this happens and to find ways to prevent it. Another research focus is to understand why women die in pregnancy and to use this knowledge to write guidelines to reduce maternal mortality.
Tell us about a couple of your achievements that have been particularly rewarding.
It was rewarding to find genetic causes of cholestasis of pregnancy and to discover that marked increases in the breakdown products of the hormone progesterone can result in the development of these metabolic diseases in pregnancy. I am also proud that my research group was the first to show that the children of women with cholestasis are at risk of obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes in later life. I was one of the team of assessors reporting that the main cause of UK women dying in pregnancy is pre-existing medical disease. It has been very rewarding to see the results of my research quoted in guidelines for clinical practice to help prevent disease and death in pregnant women and their babies
Do you have professional role models? Who are they and what do you find inspiring about them and their accomplishments?
I have a number of role models. They include outstanding physicians, dedicated scientific colleagues. Qualities that they share are vision, drive and intelligence.
What if any support has most benefited you in your career?
The support of mentors has helped markedly. As a junior researcher several colleagues made time to listen to my ideas and help me refine and develop them. I am very grateful for this support. I continue to work with a wide network of collaborators, and their contribution improves many aspects of my research. I also enjoy close collaboration with several patient charities, and this has been invaluable in refining my approach to some research questions
What do you feel is the most enjoyable/rewarding aspect of your job at King’s?
I find the research and the clinical work equally rewarding. It is a pleasure to work in a university that shares my conviction that research of relevance to maternal and child health is extremely important for the health of the nation
How do you balance the various demands of a career in academia: research, teaching/learning, administration?
An academic career is very demanding, but also extremely rewarding. Research, teaching, administration and clinical work all require time and commitment if they are to be done well. An organised approach helps me to be productive
How do you balance an academic career with life outside the workplace?
It has always been a priority for me to combine my career with spending time with my family and friends. I aim to be as productive as possible at work to enable me to have good quality leisure time to enjoy with the people I love.
What have you learnt from your experiences that you would like to share with others?
It is a privilege to be a university academic. Research and clinical work are almost always stimulating and rewarding. It is hard work, but the rewards are immense. If you are excited by research ideas, focus on the excitement of gaining new knowledge and sharing this with others.