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Sarah Snelling was one of the winners of the inaugural Excellent Supervisor Award. Uniquely, nomination for her award was initiated by students.

Alongside supervising DPhils in her own group, lecturing and tutoring for St Hilda’s College, Sarah is the Senior Scientific Officer for the musculoskeletal theme at the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre (NIHR BRC).

She is also Director of Taught Courses for DPhil and MSc(Res) students, on the Nuffield Department of Orthopaedics, Rheumatology & Musculoskeletal Sciences (NDORMS) Graduate Studies Committee and the MSD Training Committee, and this really is just a tiny fraction of the ways in which she’s contributed to teaching and outreach. What’s her secret?

Supporting students to enhance research

It’s no secret that in Oxford there is a focus on quality and excellence in research, and, in Sarah’s experience, a group where all students are supported and guided by excellent teachers is one which will produce even better research.

It’s important to see students as individuals rather than vehicles for carrying out your research…projects can and should adapt around the individual and their strengths and interests: it is absolutely worth it for the progress that both the student and the group makes

Wearing her NIHR BRC hat, Sarah is responsible for reporting on the musculoskeletal theme and monitoring grants and publications: in the year running up to her 2019 TEA success, the theme published over 100 papers (including in the Lancet and JAMA) and raised an addition £10 million in external grant income. Sarah also helps to manage and grow external collaborations with other major themes of the BRC and with other NIHR units nationally. In 2018-2019 the theme established 10 new strategic partnerships with industry and had 30 active clinical trials.

 

 

Imposter syndrome isn’t just for students

Judging research quality is a minefield in itself, and metrics for assessing how well you’re performing as a supervisor are even harder to come by. Surprising as it may seem given her rapturous student feedback, Sarah confesses that winning the award reassured her that the efforts she makes are translated into an improved experience for her students.

There isn’t enough recognition for teaching! PhD students often send a thank you card at the end of their projects (which I absolutely love receiving and I keep them all). However there isn’t a formal structure that acknowledges and rewards teaching contributions.

Aside from rewarding effort, formalised teacher training for researchers needs to be made more widely available. Sarah created an NDORMS teaching workgroup with professors, post- docs, and current students in the department to identify content and evaluate teaching methods used in the core lectures and interactive training workshops run for new students. Building on the feedback she gathered, core lectures have been adapted to give a broad overview of translational research, and workshops provide specialist training in topics such as next generation sequencing, advances in immunology and Observational research.

 

What has changed for you since winning your  Teaching Excellence Award  (TEA)?

“I’m about to start the Oxford PGCert in Higher Education to learn more about teaching methods and theory – I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and the TEA was the encouragement I needed to finally enrol.”

 

Any final tips and tricks for fellow supervisors?

Sarah shadowed prior to taking on the directorship role within NDORMS Taught Courses, and she says that this form of practical experience is a great way to identify what works and what doesn’t. Her supervisors for her own PhD and also her first fellowship were models of supportive, collaborative science, and these examples have really stuck with her. Sarah’s example will stick with me, as will my envy of all her lucky students…

“For any young academic, Sarah is truly a perfect role model.”

She is a talented scientist who is a real team player, always generating new ideas and opportunities for her students.”

 “Outside of her academic capacity, Sarah always goes above and beyond to ensure the personal well- being of her students - on hearing my new born child was not sleeping, several baby slings, advice, and a smile quickly turned up on my doorstep! In short, she is an asset to the department and wider university”

“She is an inspiring scientist that has a remarkable capacity to excel at, and balance, work and life.”

“She is the most supportive supervisor I might ever have; her support is always personal and thoughtful and she is encouraging of both academic and personal pursuits.”

 “She is very efficient, organized, human, and present. She also knows how to temporize complicated situations. She is friendly and professional, I could not hope to have a better supervisor.

She is a great listener. She was always the best person to bounce scientific ideas off as well as providing sound guidance when needed. Without her supervision, I am certain my DPhil experience would have not been as enjoyable as it was.”