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Profile: George Davey Smith

George Davey Smith

George Davey Smith (Copyright: University of Bristol)

Professor George Davey Smith heads up not one but two MRC projects: he directs the Children of the 90s cohort study and the MRC Centre for Causal Analyses in Translational Epidemiology (MRC CAiTE) in Bristol. His career has taken him from Wales to Nicaragua, and India to Glasgow. Katherine Nightingale met George to find out about his itinerant career, cycling and a life without admin.

George Davey Smith was away on unauthorised holiday cycling around Ireland when his counterparts at Cambridge medical school were taught about epidemiology.

Returning the day before the epidemiology module test, he received some limited instruction from friends in the pub, and then did better in the epidemiology test than in other parts of the course. “I realised this was something for me,” he says.

After completing his medical training, George worked as an epidemiologist in Wales, conducting a national survey of cardiovascular disease risk factors for a newly launched health promotion programme, HeartBeat Wales. He then did an MSc in epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

“Rather unusually, I went early into epidemiology, just after house jobs. I was genuinely interested in the notion of the health of populations as opposed to health of individuals,” he says.

Discipline hopping

One of the attractions of epidemiology for George is that it’s allowed him to explore many different disciplines, from looking at how people understand and interpret health risks to whole genome sequencing.

“I’ve been lucky as I’ve found several different areas I’ve been interested in — learning new things is always the most fascinating aspect of the job. It can look like you’ve got a grasshopper mind but I’m interested in a wide range of issues,” says George.

The field has allowed him to explore geographically too. In the late 1980s and early 1990s he worked on projects preventing childhood diarrhoea and then HIV/AIDS in Nicaragua. He started working on projects in India in 1992, and continues to be involved in studies of the effects of foetal and childhood nutritional supplements on health and development, and on the effects of rural to urban migration on cardiometabolic risk. In 2009-2010 he spent a sabbatical year in Delhi.

“I’ve managed to keep both strands going which I like. I’ve been very fortunate in being able to continue to develop projects and spend time in India and in the United Kingdom,” he says.

In the early 1990s George went to Glasgow to work on recruiting the children of members of established whole-community cohort studies of coronary heart disease.

“I’ve always been interested in intergenerational influences — the effects of early life and of previous generations on later disease risks. We were looking at how deprivation in childhood and infancy influenced cardiovascular disease in later life,” he says.

Cohort custodian

George now oversees the Children of the 90s study — also known as ALSPAC, the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children — in Bristol, as well as the MRC CAiTE, a centre which aims to develop new methods to study causation of disease at the population level.

Cohorts are powerful tools, but not without their own challenges, according to George.

“By their nature, cohort studies are set up to be able to look at a large number of hypotheses, and the important issue of being a custodian of such a study is to make sure it can be very widely utilised so maximum value is obtained from the resource.”

“Their power lies in that they can be used by scientists in so many different disciplines. They’re an extremely good investment in terms of what they actually provide to national and international science,” he says.

But the sheer amount of data generated by a cohort study such as Children of the 90s — and its near continuous nature — presents a mammoth task.

“You’re constantly collecting new data. We have the added complexity of being a family-based study so we have to link the offspring to the mothers but then also link them to the partners … and to the siblings. So the whole-family linkages are complex and maintaining the database a considerable task.”

An all-encompassing interest

So how does George balance his Bristol commitments with his international work and a family life? “There’s not much compartmentalisation! As I’m cycling on my bike I’m often thinking about the things I’m trying to write or some issue I’m concerned about at the time.”

“[My science] is an all-encompassing interest, I’d do a large chunk of what I do even if it wasn’t a paid job.”

Two directorships also present a logistical challenge, but with the help of the University of Bristol, George has found a solution. “Unusually I don’t have any university administrative responsibility at all and I don’t do any undergraduate teaching.” He must be the envy of scientists everywhere.

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