In praise of a portfolio career

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Thursday, 30 August 2018

By Adrian Longstaffe PhD BVetMed MRCVS MBACP and long-standing RSTMH member

“We know what we are but not what we may be…” Shakespeare – Hamlet Act IV

One summer evening in the 1970s, I found myself sitting in a deck chair in Regent’s Park, London waiting to teach a ballet class. Up to this point, most of that afternoon had been spent up to my elbows in dead horse – part of my job as a veterinary pathologist. And I thought: “if I can do this, what else can I do?”

So many directions, so little time…

I have been fortunate to have enjoyed multiple careers including veterinary medicine and pathology, scientific research, choreography, learning technology, acting, instructional design, university teaching, ballet, psychotherapy and personal development.  

As a research scientist, I gave my first paper in RSTMH’s old Manson House lecture theatre in circa 1972. And, about 20 years later, on the very same spot I introduced the Wellcome Trust Tropical Diseases Videodisc Project to the world, this time as a developer of learning technology.

But why would anyone considering working in tropical medicine be the least bit interested in this story?

Reflecting on this with Claire Coveney, RSTMH’s Membership Manager, at a recent RSTMH dinner, Claire felt that for many people a lifetime involvement in tropical medicine could be a daunting prospect.

However, an example of someone for whom dipping in and out had been a great success might inspire others to give it a whirl. So here goes…

Working in tropical medicine

How did I come to have these two completely different bites at the cherry of tropical medicine?

First time round I was a 23-year-old veterinary surgeon with no particular interest in the tropics or even travel. Then I was presented with an opportunity to choose a research field. I knew that at that time – the early 70s – the science of immunology was exploding. And parasites, I rapidly came to realise, are superbly skilled at evading or confusing the immune response.

So, for three years, I worked on the immunology of African Trypanosomiasis.

By the time the second opportunity came around, 20 years later, I not only had this background in tropical medicine but had also established a reputation in the field of learning technology.

And so, I was invited to combine these to develop a computer-based teaching system in tropical medicine, using the amazing Wellcome Museum and Wellcome Trust image collection.

Using technology to teach

The 1980s were as exciting in terms of computer development as the 1970s were in immunology. I was fortunate enough to be part of this next wave front – learning to exploit this newly developing medium in the service of teaching, in particular for the benefit of the developing world. 

In fact, the rate of development of the Wellcome Trust Project was almost too exciting – as fast as we learned what we could do with the new technology, it changed. Frequently we didn’t even know what we didn’t know – a challenging period.

What did we achieve? We were able to introduce the concepts of e-learning into the field of tropical medicine well ahead of the game and apply these to a specific project. Proof of concept which provided a good foundation on which to build more. Nowadays, this use of technology is commonplace.

At the same time, I was leading a team supporting the University of Bristol in its e-learning development as well as promoting and supporting the same concepts in medical, dental and veterinary education nationally. Difficult, and very intense work. So intense that after 10 fulfilling years in this field, it was time for a complete change.

And then really into left field…

For relaxation, during this time I had also been involved with theatre and dance. A very different world where actors have to convey and express feelings which impact an audience.

This needs a great deal of understanding and skill around the psychology of emotion. I became increasingly fascinated with the non-rational. In particular, I wondered whether I could learn in an area which was not normally subject to rational thinking? A very different world.

Dipping into teaching balletic lifting and partnering at a ballet school in Wales and acting as an occasional supply teacher in movement for the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, I became fascinated by the psychology of performance.

This led to my retraining yet again, this time as a psychotherapist. I’ve now been practising as a counsellor for 18 years with a particular interest in leading personal development workshops.

And, at 75, I am still dancing!

So, what’s the point? Answer: flexibility, self-esteem, self-confidence

Having what Charles Handy calls a portfolio career has been immensely enriching. Above all, it has given me flexibility.

As a person, I’m not emotionally tied into a career because I’m not identified with any one career – I work as a pathologist or psychotherapist rather than identifying myself as a pathologist or psychotherapist. Self-esteem and self-confidence come now come from who I am rather than what I do. 

You might think that dividing time between activities, only some of which are seriously income generating, might induce a sense of insecurity. In fact, the opposite has been true.

For me, security has come from the knowledge that one can operate successfully in widely different disciplines – all the eggs are never in the same basket. When one door closes, there are six equally fascinating doors opening just down the corridor!

I’m not the only one. A close friend used to divide his time between being a much sought-after consultant veterinary surgeon to the greyhound industry and an equally sought-after member of the chorus of the Royal Opera House. As well as raising three children.

Transferable skills have so much to offer, but only if they are transferred…

I have continually been astonished by how learning in one area can be applied in another and how it is possible to bring fresh approaches to old ideas. I remember that, I think in the 1970s, a brilliant head of parasitology at the London School was in fact a virologist – as a result, he brought a completely different approach to the department.

Working with actors for instance, has given me a wide range of people skills. Actors go to work and put themselves emotionally on the line in public night after night.

The skills of emotional expression, development and control that they learn are potentially of huge benefit to the rest of us. In practice, these skills have not only helped my own journey but have helped me support others in theirs.

And, as a scientist, I have been able to see what happens when we transfer scientific method and analytical skills to the profoundly non-rational areas of psychotherapy and emotional development.

Working in tropical medicine was not planned. But, as in every other field I have tried, I have discovered people who were at the top of their game, passionate about what they do, and net contributors in this world.

From them I have acquired attitudes, knowledge and skills which have been profoundly rewarding.

Back to that dinner with the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene

What an amazing and inspiring group of people. I have been inspired by their intelligence and commitment – especially to the welfare of others.

I’m grateful that my involvement in tropical medicine has brought me into contact with such people and ideas and left me much better equipped for wherever the next wave is going to take me…

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