Wednesday 16 December 2020 11:39am
Young Otago-trained doctors Jonny Stevenson and Claire Munro were halfway through a year at the University of Oxford, when the COVID pandemic transformed their daily lives.
Jonny, the winner of Otago Medical School’s Rita Gardner Travelling Scholarship, was suddenly confined to home, working remotely to complete his MSc. At the same time, his partner Claire found herself setting off on her bike every day through a deserted Oxford to work on one of the world’s most important COVID vaccine development projects.
Both are high-achieving Otago Medical School graduates. Jonny was the top MB ChB student and top overall undergraduate student at Otago in 2014 while Claire graduated as the top medical student at the University of Otago, Wellington in 2016.
Before starting specialist training they decided to explore opportunities for study and work overseas.
Along with the Rita Gardner prize, Jonny was awarded a William Georgetti Scholarship to study towards a MSc in Global Health Science and Epidemiology at the University of Oxford. Meanwhile, Claire elected to work in a non-clinical role and applied for a job as a Project Manager at the Oxford Vaccine Group.
During the first six months of their time in Oxford they immersed themselves in the incredible opportunities on offer at the university.
While Jonny was learning from global leaders in health research on his MSc course, Claire was working alongside Professor Andrew Pollard and other leading infectious disease researchers to co-ordinate large-scale multi-centre randomised controlled trials.
In addition, they were able to attend lectures by Nobel Laureates in Medicine and Economics and international leaders from a diverse range of disciplines, including health, politics, business, philosophy, film, literature and sport. “We also attended a steady stream of dinners and other social events that allowed us to develop a strong network of friends across the university community,” Jonny says.
The pandemic brought everything to a halt, as students were asked to urgently return home and the gates of Oxford’s colleges were swiftly and unceremoniously hauled closed.
A full programme of events was replaced by a deserted campus and empty streets.
The move to lockdown coincided with exams, which were completed remotely with minimal fanfare. Luckily, Jonny was able to continue the research component of his master’s project off-campus, trawling through data from thousands of people to evaluate the association between hearing impairment and dementia. The findings, which may have important implications for the treatment of age-related hearing impairment and the prevention of dementia, are currently in the process of being submitted for publication. After graduating with distinction, Jonny was named as the top student in the MSc cohort.
Concurrently, the Oxford Vaccine Group had pivoted rapidly to focus on COVID-19 and Claire was at the heart of the action. She was redeployed to a number of vital roles in the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine trial, including co-ordinating the Data and Safety Monitoring Board and the Trial Steering Committee (of which Professor David Murdoch – the Dean of the University of Otago, Christchurch – is a member) and setting up multiple trial sites around the UK.
“I think if I wasn't working in such a fulfilling role I would have had a much stronger sense to want to come home earlier. But I certainly felt, particularly when things were going so well in New Zealand, that I could offer a lot more in the UK, working on this trial,” Claire says.
She says the vaccine work was intense but distinct from the pressures of a clinical role.
“It’s a different type of stress to clinical medicine. When you're in the hospital and you've got a really sick patient in front of you, that really gets your adrenaline going. This was more a case of I knew I had a really important job to do and I had to do it well.”
The couple found time to do some sightseeing.
Both are now back in New Zealand. Claire is currently working for the New Zealand Immunisation Advisory Centre and will soon commence GP training and Jonny is training as an Ear, Nose and Throat surgeon.
They will both remember their “incredible” time at Oxford which has reaffirmed their aspirations to work towards careers at the interface of clinical practice, research and health policy.
“A key theme highlighted during the global pandemic response has been the immense importance of high-quality medical research and well-informed health policy,” Jonny says.
Walking the corridors at that world-renowned university also offered a unique perspective on New Zealand’s – and Otago’s – role in shaping the global pandemic response.
“Even in the halls of Oxford, New Zealand was one of the major topics of discussion. There is universal admiration for the COVID response in New Zealand – and a large number of Otago researchers have been involved in that process. It's quite inspiring to see the work that's done here get that kind of global attention.”