Imran Khan, head of Public Engagement
Read about Imran, head of Public Engagement at Wellcome
What do you do?
I work at Wellcome, one of the world’s biggest charities – we spend about a billion pounds a year, and most of that supports biomedical scientists and innovators who want to improve the health of people around the world.
I look after Wellcome’s Public Engagement department, which is where we try and find new and better ways of involving the public in Wellcome’s work. So this might involve supporting creative people (like film-makers and artists) or organisations (like museums) to make research more accessible, or it might be finding new ways for people who aren’t scientists to actually contribute to the research process. It might even be giving people the power to share their own experiences of what health research means to them.
What does a typical day at work involve?
I started yesterday by attending the launch of a new computer game called ‘Hellblade’, which we helped fund because the developers wanted to get the help of psychiatrists in making sure the portrayal of the main character – who suffers from mental health issues and psychosis – was accurate and meaningful.
Today I’m spending most of my time working with my team to figure out what our priorities for the next year are going to be, both in terms of funding other people and our own activities.
Next week I’ll be working with some other people across Wellcome to help figure out what we as an organisation should do to help people prepare for a future where we’ve got access to so much more medical, genetic and health data about ourselves.
So although it’s a nine-to-five job, it’s really diverse – there’s lots of variety.
What did you do before you started your current job?
I have a degree in biology – but although I love science, I didn’t want to become a scientist. So I decided to try communicating science instead – initially by being a science writer, but then I ended up in politics, trying to be a link between the world of research and the world of policy making.
Eventually I ran a charity called the British Science Association, which focuses on running events and projects in schools that make it easier for people who aren’t scientists to feel like science is for them. And then I joined Wellcome.
What skills from your biology education do you use in your work?
Understanding how to analyse evidence is something that I use almost every day. You hear all sorts of claims about how the world works, how people want to change things, etc – and having that reflex of asking yourself, “Is this true? How could I test it?” is invaluable.
Biology also gave me a love of finding out more and more about the world – which isn’t a ‘hard’ skill, but you’d be surprised how far just being curious and interested in things can take you.
I probably don’t use as many of the hard or technical skills from biology these days, but I know plenty of people who went into research and still do.
What are the most satisfying and the most challenging things about your work?
The most satisfying thing is probably working with people – working with a team to set some big ambitions about how you want the world to change, and working together to go and do that.
The challenging thing can be when you know the work you’re doing might not make a difference for months or years – compared to when I was a science writer, when you can write a story one day and see it up and being read the very next!
What advice would you give to somebody who’s interested in pursuing a similar career?
I never really knew what it was I wanted to do – and I still don’t! Every new job I’ve ever had has been a complete surprise, and it was never really planned. So don’t worry if you don’t know what you want to do – stay open-minded, say yes to opportunities that might be interesting, even if you don’t know they’re definitely the right one, and do things you enjoy.
A levels: biology, chemistry, religion and philosophy, and geography (2003).
BA, biology, University of Oxford (2003–06).
MSc, science communication, Imperial College London (2007–08).
Executive (part-time) MBA, Cass Business School (2014–16).
Freelance science communicator (writing, broadcast) (2007).
Parliamentary researcher, House of Commons (2008–10).
Director, Campaign for Science and Engineering (2010–13).
Chief executive, British Science Association (2013–16).
Head of Public Engagement, Wellcome (2016–).