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Professor Alan Bernstein is Director of Global Health. The Oxford Global Health initiative brings together researchers from diverse disciplines and showcases the ongoing range of impactful global health research at Oxford.

In this Sixty Seconds interview, we hear from Alan about his career to date, his vision for Oxford Global Health, and the lessons he has learnt throughout his career. 

Please tell us a little bit about yourself and what attracted you to this position?

My career in science started just at the beginning of the oncogene revolution in cancer research, and I was fortunate to have played a small part in that. My lab made contributions to several fields that I am quite proud of, but I suppose most people would say my major contributions to science have been in leading organisations, first as head of the Lunenfeld Institute in Toronto, then as the founding president of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and most recently as president of Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, the organisation that launched the current revolution in AI. I think the common thread in all these roles is the joy that comes from working with people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives for a common purpose, whether it's in solving a science challenge or making music (I played in a very amateur string quartet for many years). The great Sydney Brenner once said that science is simply the best way that humanity has come up with to understand the world around us. To which I would add that as a bonus, by so doing, it has lengthened, improved, and enriched our lives.

I was attracted to this position at Oxford for a number of reasons. First, what could be more important than the health of the world's people? Second, joining Oxford Global Health gives me the opportunity to work with an exceptional group of scholars right across the University. And third, it plays to one of the things I enjoy doing most, which is to bring people together from diverse disciplines and perspectives to address an important challenge.

What is your vision for Oxford Global Health?

That's still a work in progress but at this point, I would say it is to identify the big questions in global health, articulate coherent and cohesive narratives around them, and bring together the right colleagues, regardless of which department or division they sit in, to work collaboratively together to try to solve these big questions.

What do you think are the biggest challenges and opportunities for Oxford Global Health?

There are lots of challenges and lots of opportunities! One challenge will be for us to focus on a small number of big issues. A second challenge will be to figure out how best Oxford Global Health can add value to what colleagues want to do. What exactly is our role in all this?

The opportunities are many. In my time in science, there has never been a more exciting time to be doing health research. We have new platforms and powerful new technologies from high-throughput techniques to new vaccine platforms, GPS for population studies, new imaging technologies and so on. These new tools and technologies are becoming available simultaneously, and together they are acting as a crystallizing force, transforming how we approach questions in health at all levels from the philosophical down to the molecular.

Who or what inspires you?

Young people! They are so inspiring. Their energy, intelligence, boldness and fearlessness give me real hope that there is a way out of the mess and chaos that the world is currently in. It is young people who have always changed the conversation, done the paradigm-shifting experiment that has changed the course of a field or even created new fields.

What has surprised you most about working at Oxford?

I have been very pleasantly surprised by how entrepreneurial people are, and by entrepreneurial I don't mean it in terms of company formation (although that too), but rather the level of ambition and just getting on with it, trying new things, and new collaborations. That is to be applauded, and is particularly surprising in any university, but especially one that can trace its history back over 800 years. Second, I have been very pleasantly surprised by how genuinely welcoming everyone has been. I think that speaks to the recogniftion across the University that there is an opportunity here and maybe this new guy can help us realise it.

What have been some of the most important lessons you’ve learned throughout your career?

Ha! It is said that you learn from your mistakes. If that is true, then I have made lots of them. First, surround yourself by young people. The best ones challenge you and they are the best teachers. Second, don't aim for perfection. As the great Canadian poet and singer Leonard Cohen put it "The crack in the bell is how the light gets in". Third, always hire people who think differently than you do and whom you initially worry are smarter and better at research than you are. They are your legacy.

If you weren’t Director of Oxford Global Health, what would you like to be doing?

Not in any order: watching my grandchildren play, as my sister said to me once "it's like watching the best possible movie"; planting heirloom tomatoes; cycling somewhere beautiful with my wife; reading a really good book; catching up with friends, especially my many friends in science; going to science talks; playing in a string quartet with interesting people who play as badly as I do.

What would your perfect weekend look like?

Start the day watching a beautiful sunrise, breakfast and a leisurely read of the newspaper, a long walk or cycle with my wife and friends, reading a good book, dinner party with old and some new friends, at least one great bottle of wine, time to just sit and watch the waves comes in. A feeling when it's over that life is good and I'm lucky to be alive.

Professor Alan Bernstein