Blazing a trail

Fresh from being honoured with two prestigious medical awards, Professor Helen Whelton reflects on how a spark of inspiration fueled her trailblazing career. In conversation with Jane Haynes

29 Jul 2019

Sometimes, a small spark of inspiration is all that is required to set a talented visionary blazing the trail to success.

Fresh from being honoured with not one but two globally prestigious awards – the Distinguished Scientist H Trendley Dean Memorial Award and the International Association for Dental Research EW Borrow Memorial Award – Professor Helen Whelton, Head of UCC’s College of Medicine and Health, can still remember the moment that ‘inspired her whole career’.

A final year dentistry student in UCC, Helen was attending a guest lecture by then-Chief Dental Officer, Denis O’Mullane, at the time.

“He gave a talk about how fluoride toothpaste augments the effect of water fluoridation. It was something I had been curious about, but it was difficult to get questions answered,” Helen recalls.

“He answered the question for me, and I thought the way he dealt with it – and all the research that had gone into it, was so impressive. I just thought, wow, I’d love to do that kind of work.”

The stars aligned for Helen when, two years later, Denis took up the position of senior lecturer in paediatric dentistry and advertised for a research fellow.

“I was there waiting for it, and I had to compete for it, but I got the job and never really looked back,” she says.

If that single lecture ignited the spark, then it was Helen’s drive, ambition and passion that fuelled her rise through the academic ranks. She went on to hold the roles of both Dean of Graduate School and Vice Head of the College of Medicine and Health at UCC, before being appointed Dean of Dentistry at the University of Leeds.

The move to the UK was ‘reaffirming’ for Helen: “I felt that it was good for UCC to have produced someone who was competing at that level; and it was good for women, because there were very few female deans of dentistry in the UK – I was one of three.”

It is clear from speaking to Helen that, as well as being driven by curiosity, she is an innovator, through and through. Indeed, we need only look to what she has achieved as coordinating Principal Investigator of a Horizon 2020 grant exploring the use of big data in dentistry, for evidence.

"I felt that it was good for UCC to have produced someone who was competing at that level, and it was good for women..." - Helen Whelton

Helen, who held the Presidency at the International Association for Dental Research, recruited two colleagues to help her put pen to paper on the grant. Many hours of hard work later, and the green light signalled: a grant of €6million was awarded for a four-year project, to look at how data could be used to motivate dentists towards more preventive behaviour.

“This placed my belief that we should do more prevention,” Helen says of her vision for the grant and what could be achieved.

Her team was partnered with six countries, with involvement from dental insurers, universities, oral healthcare companies, the European Chief Dental Officers, and others.

“They believed in what we were trying to do,” explains Helen, “they believed that we should be able to take administrative data and feed back to dentists on how they are performing in their practice in terms of prevention, and compare them with other dentists.

“When you think about it, a dentist knows how they are doing in their practice, but they don’t know what kind of outcomes their patients are experiencing relative to other dentists. We wanted to use the data sets in the different countries to feed back that information.

“We actually found that very difficult to do, and we ended up developing an app for patients to feed back to, after their visit.”

The success of the project, Helen says, has also led to talks on setting up a platform for public health policy for oral health, as part of an initiative run in Europe.

For Helen, who had been contemplating the concept behind the H2020 grant for years before making the application, exploring the use of big data in the public health system could prove revolutionary.

“It’s exciting to think of the potential for the use of big data to really enhance the health services and treatments, and the patient experience; the potential for machine-learning and automating a lot of the routine decisions we make,” she says.

“It’s a bit like the ‘big data revolution’ – there is so much that we can do, and it’s just a matter of aligning the ambition with the health know-how and the technical know-how, and getting people working on that agenda. It’s hugely exciting.”

"I had a vision for what we could achieve, and it’s a real privilege to be given the opportunity to do that" - Helen Whelton

Equally as exciting, is being back in her alma mater for the past two years. As Head of the College of Medicine and Health, and Chief Academic Officer for the South South West Hospital Group, Helen is relishing the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.

“The draw for me to come back was the potential to develop things here. A lot of good work was being done; I had a vision for what we could achieve, and it’s a real privilege to be given the opportunity to do that,” she explains.

“It’s not easy, but I think we’ve got a really ambitious team of people in leadership at the university at the moment, who want to achieve for the university, the region and the country.

“I still have a job of work to do at the College of Medicine and Health, but an important factor for me is the team – you don’t do it alone; you do it with a big team and the support of family, and it’s really important to recognise that.”


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