Professor Clare Williams

How I got into medical sociology

After a childhood spent moving around the world, Clare Williams found herself in the UK at the age of 17 without any academic qualifications. Now a professor of medical sociology at Brunel University, she looks at the social forces that shape the use of medical technologies and how they might affect clinicians, scientists and patients. She talks to Emma James.

My father was in the Air Force, so as a child I was always moving from place to place. I went to about 12 different schools altogether, and ended up back in the UK at the age of 17 without any O levels. Having decided that I wanted to leave school, I was quite keen to go into nursing.

I trained as a nurse in the 1970s at Hammersmith Hospital. It was a very important place for introducing new technologies – including some of the first kidney transplants in the UK – so I saw all sorts of exciting medical innovations there. I worked as a nurse and health visitor for 20 years, but during that time started to question the evidence behind various practices and procedures. That’s what got me thinking about research.

After taking part in a six-week research course for nurses, I decided to do a part-time Master’s degree in medical sociology, which I really loved. Looking back, I think I had been a bit of a frustrated academic – so I just took to it and became one of those very boring students who does everything they’re supposed to! It was a complete revelation at the time, like a door opening, and it’s led me to this completely different way of life.

During my Master’s, I noticed that there was a lot of criticism of the medical profession – quite rightly in many ways – but I always felt that there was another side that could be explored. It was also noticeable that there was a lot of research being carried out on patient perspectives but far less on those of practitioners and clinicians. Coming from a nursing background, I always had at the back of my mind what I might do in particular situations. I think that’s why a lot of my research has focused on the difficulties that practitioners and scientists can encounter in their work.

It seems crazy now, but I don’t think I’d ever thought much about the social issues around medicine before then. The Master’s really opened my eyes. After, I gained Department of Health funding to do a full-time PhD on managing chronic illness in teenagers.

In 1999, I became the junior researcher on a two-year Wellcome biomedical ethics project. We were exploring innovative early-stage antenatal screening techniques – looking at what sorts of children might be born and who should make decisions around these techniques. The people I worked with helped me develop hugely and opened my mind to a lot of different areas. From then I really developed an interest in reproduction, and was awarded a three-year postdoctoral Wellcome fellowship looking at fetal surgery.

Next, I got funding for three related projects on human embryonic stem cell research, embryo donation for research and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). PGD is for couples with a family history of a particular condition – such as muscular dystrophy – who want to have a child free from the condition. They go through IVF and only embryos without the condition are implanted. When PGD first came about it was only really used for life-threatening diseases that often caused terrible pain or death in childhood, yet now we’re seeing the uses expanding. That’s what I’m really interested in – how and why the initially strict boundaries for new technologies shift, and how the regulation and use of these often ethically contentious technologies manifests itself in the clinic or lab.

I’ve done a lot of work on reproductive technologies, but have recently moved on to study translational – sometimes referred to as ‘bench-to-bedside’ – research in neuroscience. There are some really fascinating areas there too. I consider myself very fortunate – what other job do you get where you can travel, develop junior researchers, and teach and work on areas that you’re really interested in with people passionate about what they do? I’ve spent some 12 years working on brilliant projects, and that’s what I’d like to carry on doing.

Reproduced from ‘Wellcome News 69’.

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Careers From Biology’ in June 2012 and reviewed and updated in November 2017.

Careers From Biology
Education levels:
16–19, Undergraduate, Continuing professional development