Ask The Staff – Professor Peter Robinson

Professor Robinson with Leland Chong, Maria Mullerat-Pigem and Pouya Zohrabpour
Professor Robinson with Leland Chong, Maria Mullerat-Pigem and Pouya Zohrabpour

It seems rare that individuals at supposedly opposite ends of the dental school spectrum would meet. It is even rarer that three first year students get to spend an afternoon in conversation with the new Head of School. But that is exactly what Maria Mullerat-Pigem, Pouya Zohrabpour and I did, with coffee kindly paid for by the man himself. Professor Peter Robinson was generous with his insight and unreserved in his enthusiasm and expressiveness, which made our chat with him worth much more than just a free afternoon fix of caffeine. In this piece, you will see why.

We gleaned from our interview that the new man at the helm of our School of Oral and Dental Sciences was born in Yorkshire, but grew up in a place with much better current footballing fortunes, that being Leicester. (I write this at a time when Leicester City are firmly at the top of the Premier League; a genuine fairy tale of a footballing story. And yes, Professor Robinson does take an interest in Leicester City’s success.) Prof. Robinson attended dental school at King’s College London in 1975, although then it was known as Guy’s Hospital Dental School.

We began with an account of Prof. Robinson’s early years in dental practice, when he worked in oral surgery and restorative dentistry, which eventually led to his opus vitae, his life’s work.

“I did a number of (junior hospital) jobs…not really knowing what I wanted to do, if truth be known,” admits Prof. Robinson. “I had a good set of hands, I was told…but I knew that wouldn’t sustain me. I realised there was a bigger picture.”

It was during a job on rotation at University College London circa 1983 that a young Prof. Robinson saw an opportunity. There were certain aspects of his timetable that he disliked (evidently to a sufficiently high degree), so he made a deal with the clinical superintendent: when he boss retired, Prof. Robinson would continue to treat some of his patients. The deal worked because nobody would treat these patients as they had Hepatitis B. Attitudes were much different then.

Given the routes of transmission, people with Hep B were likely to be the first patients to contract HIV. As a result, Prof. Robinson “ended up treating HIV patients by default.” As he describes, at the time there was no definitive literature on HIV. “We were treating the patients before the virus even had a name!” Prof. Robinson points out. Prof. Robinson and his colleagues did not know what health problems these patients would have, but noted that that they would present with particular oral health issues. Documenting these issues led to his Masters and PhD. More importantly, he realised that the problems faced in treating HIV patients were just a microcosm of those faced in maintaining the oral health of the general population. This led Prof. Robinson onto the distinct discipline of Dental Public Health.

“Dental Public Health is like a religion; it influences the way you look at the world, it gives you a lens through which to look at things,” Prof. Robinson tells us. “Something may be put into place now, but it may be years before you see the effects of what you do. The reward is deferred a long way, not just chronologically but also intellectually.” It was in fact his research in Dental Public Health that eventually led Prof. Robinson to his current leadership role in education; a deferred reward, one might say.

At the University of Sheffield, Prof. Robinson was entrusted to expand the research at their dental school and initially became their Director of Research. Teaching at Sheffield formed only a small part of his role. “Although I love teaching, I never see myself as a teacher but as an academic, of which teaching is part,” he told us. He then tells us very honestly, “The move into being Head of School is about leadership, which I really enjoy.”

We then asked some questions which we students could directly relate with, the first of which was: Has dental school changed much since you were at dental school? Prof. Robinson replied, “It was much easier to get into dental school back then. There are quite a lot of us who would say that we wouldn’t get in now.” In addition to this, he told us with a smile and a gleam in his eye that he had such a wonderful time at dental school, and that he was envious of what we had lying ahead of us as he would happily go through it all again. I couldn’t help but smile myself.

Another question we asked was if dental and medical students could have integrated lectures together. The answer was somewhat positive. “We are already looking into that – I think we should have it, but it’s not easy…so let’s do it carefully,” Prof. Robinson replied.

Next question by Maria: Would you recommend intercalation? Prof. Robinson: “Yes, a greater understanding of things is certainly key. Those considering a career with a more academic inclination will find intercalation useful.” He goes on to say that intercalation is also beneficial for those who as yet are unsure of their specific career paths as it gives them a wider perspective and allows them to “take stock and have a look around and see what they’d like to do.”

Prof. Robinson makes a point of emphasising that having competent clinical skills is no doubt an essential component of Dentistry, but they are only part of it. I suggested that communication and interpersonal skills must be equally important. Prof. Robinson agrees before adding, “Part of being a good dentist is also business management, leadership. Dental teams are getting larger…he or she is there to provide leadership, which involves taking responsibility of the quality of service provided not only by the clinic but also in integration with whatever else is going on in the community.”

Prof. Robinson’s answer led Pouya to ask this rather interesting question: With the current course structure, how do we students gain those business and leadership skills to effectively lead a practice? Prof. Robinson: “We are indeed not strong on it on our course, but we are also not in a position to do it. The placement at South Bristol Community Hospital could probably be enhanced (so students take on greater responsibility), and students were meant to work to a notional budget.  This has now slipped however, and as students you’d work so slowly that we would be bankrupt by lunchtime!” This is probably true. Prof. Robinson then roughly sketches out the future for us students with regards to Pouya’s question, which seems quite an exciting one. “We are about to start a new curriculum review with a target to introducing a new curriculum in 2018. We will look to be introducing more business and leadership learning in this curriculum; we were also thinking of introducing an intercalated BSc in Business Management.”

We then found out a bit more about Prof. Robinson’s responsibilities in his role as Head of School. As he has only been in the job for around two months, he does not yet have any specific daily routine. But he was clear about the primary functions of his role. “Ensuring that students are equipped with skills they require to practice and that we are doing world-class research. This means that we must have an excellent standard of teaching and international standard research. My role is to ensure everything is in place for that to happen,” says Prof. Robinson. An example of this is a fortnightly meeting with the Director of Research at Bristol Dental School to “determine our research strategy and what we need to ensure that this is being carried out”. What is most intriguing however is his approach to getting to know the dental school, and most importantly the people who are part of it. “I spend a lot of time listening to people (at the dental school). Since I don’t yet have a full sense of the place, I can get to know Bristol by communicating with people. Everyone who wants to has been invited to have an hour with me. My preferred style is to be open and to listen. I want people to be excited about coming to work.”

We then asked: What are the highlights of your career so far? Without hesitation, Prof. Robinson answered, “The service for HIV patients set up in London which formally opened in 1986 as a dedicated clinic. We felt a great sense of achievement because of the strong team spirit we forged. I mentioned the stigmatism back then; nothing makes you feel more like a team than the feeling of everyone being against you.” He also praises the patients he treated back then as they seemed to inspire him. “They were young, empowered, socially cohesive, and they kept us on our toes in a really nice way…which was brilliant.” Ironically, Prof. Robinson points out, the clinic is now closed as the need for it has completely disappeared due to the change in attitudes in the present day. “Which is entirely right,” he says. He also mentions getting into dental school as a personal achievement as nobody in the family had gone to university before. However, one thing which made his eyes light up was speaking about what he had left behind at Sheffield University.

“At Sheffield, we built a very big team – by the time I left, there were nine of us. There was only me when I arrived. They didn’t need to replace me; there was already a succession plan. By the time I left, we had two other professors, a reader, a senior lecturer, several lecturers and fourteen PhD students.

“There’s also the Dental Outreach program we started in Sheffield which is unique in the UK and possibly even the world. This program puts students in primary dental care and they would have three placements in six months. They would work in a team of four students and were supervised by one dentist, with patients seeing them as if they were proper dentists.” He mentions that very recently he met an old student of his who said that she now understood how important all that was, and that she felt better prepared for her career because of this outreach program. Prof. Robinson finishes answering our question with this, “Your point in life is not just to have a good time. You should think of what’s your legacy; you should leave behind something that’s better. With the resources at your disposal, the time, the intellect and the energy that you have you should think about what you can do to leave the world a better place.”

Finally, we ask Prof. Robinson two questions that dovetail conveniently: What have you enjoyed most about Bristol so far and what is your vision for the Dental School? Again he answers with much honesty, “Firstly the dental school – it has been incredibly warm and welcoming, and there are some remarkably able people here. We truly have world class teachers, world class researchers – that’s why I came.” He also mentions that it’s great to be part of such a “busy, lively, world-renowned university” and that he loves how Bristol is very cosmopolitan, with the dental school right next to the city centre. “I love just being able to come here (the artisanal coffee shop we were in) just on the doorstep, or being able to head to the shops, walk down to the floating harbour and things like that.”

As to his vision for the future: “There are some big things we have to do, like the curriculum review. That is a huge task – we will only finish it the year I retire. Is that a challenge?” he pauses thoughtfully before replying with certainty, “No, it’s the job.” He goes on to say that to stay world-leading as a dental school, we must continue to move ahead as the competition is getting stronger. The challenge, Prof. Robinson says, is to do the aforementioned in a more financially constrained environment, as the money entering higher education has decreased and the funding for the health service is always constrained. “What we want is to continue to have outstanding teaching and world class research. Our vision should be how we get there, and I have to work with the staff. Clearly I’m new in, and I have my own ideas. But they will have ideas that come borne of experience, so we will work together on that.”

At this point, the lady at the counter comes over to tell us that it is closing time. Coffees are downed in a gulp, and we make ready to leave.  But among all the thoughts and insight Professor Peter Robinson shared with us that afternoon, he left us with just one more, “Over the next five years you will see me more old and grumpy, but it is really a privilege to be able to work with young people. If you have people who are challenging you, if it’s done politely, it’s brilliant.” We pose for a photo, and leave.

By Leland S. Chong

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