Hi, I’m Rob, the Chief Scientific Officer at Eolas Medical.
Five years ago, I would have described myself as a medical doctor with a sideline in computer science. These days, it’s largely the other way around.
If had to sum up my professional journey using a single word, it would be “serendipitous”. For one thing, I couldn’t have picked a better time to get serious about computing. Back in the early days of my medical career, any colleagues that discovered I was a secret programmer would say something like, “Oh, that’s… nice.” Only, with a definite undertone of, “I’m sorry you’ll never find love.” These days, it’s more often, “Great! How do I get into tech too?”
Even the decision to study medicine was a last-minute stroke of luck. I was all set for a BA in modern languages when I got involved with someone who was in their first year of med school. I thought, “Hey, this seems different.” I didn’t have any science A-levels or relevant experience. But I’d already planned a year out, so I got a job as a ward receptionist, did some work on my CV, and managed to swing a place on the pre-med course at Cardiff. Looking back, I probably made that decision for all the wrong reasons. But luckily enough, I've loved every minute of my clinical career since.
Come to think of it, I’ve been interested in computers a lot longer than medicine. I grew up in what I would describe as the golden age of video games. We’re talking 1990s, pre-internet, when you would squeeze onto a sofa with a few of your friends to play the SNES while you waited for good footballing weather. Whereas many people’s first impressions of computers involve bad days in the office and endless phone calls with IT, mine were a bit magical.
As a teenager, I played around upgrading the components of my family’s desktop PC and even dabbled a little in programming. But it wasn’t until the very end of medical school that I started to get serious about software development. In our final year we were sent to far-flung corners of Wales for clinical placement. During the lighter months, it was a great opportunity to explore some of the UK's most beautiful scenery. As the winter closed in, it could get a bit dull. It was during one of those long evenings that I stumbled across the newly-released MIT App Inventor.
The App Inventor, which is very similar to the now-popular kids’ programming app Scratch, proved a great way to get back on the coding bike. I would definitely recommend it for anyone wanting to try programming for the first time. Before long, I was hooked. Alongside my early clinical years, I graduated from the App Inventor to web development, then on to building my own multi-platform medical training app (“Virtu-ALS”). By mid-2016, when AlphaGo story got the tech world in a tizz about the latest resurgence of artificial intelligence, I was able to follow the basic technical details of how it worked. It didn’t take long to realise that AI was going to be game-changing and that I needed to get involved ASAP.
At that point in my medical career, I was a registrar in thoracic medicine. We had three children under the age of four and my perspective on the clinical world was starting to change. In the early years after qualifying, I could have happily spent every waking hour in the hospital. With kids in the mix, I didn’t necessarily love the clinical work any less. But the long hours, antisocial rotas and constant relocation were beginning to get in the way of home life. Between that, and a realisation that I wanted tech to be more than just a hobby, I decided to resign my training number.
I switched instead to a non-training-grade post in cardiology. Thanks in no small part to a very supportive clinical director, I managed to get a funded place on a PhD programme in computer science. My main focus was AI-enabled ECG analysis, but it was an opportunity to explore lots of aspects of the world of artificial intelligence in healthcare and build a network in that space.
When COVID hit, I was asked to work with the Department of Health on modelling the demand for essential resources like PPE, CPAP machines, etc. It was an incredible experience, having everyone pull together and quickly embrace a new way of doing things. But it also highlighted how badly we needed innovation for lasting change in the NHS, not just as a sticking plaster during the pandemic. When I got a call from NVIDIA, a company that done more than its fair share to disrupt many industries in recent years, it was the right opportunity at the right time.
I had an incredible experience at NVIDIA, working with world leaders in AI for healthcare and life sciences and discovering the world of big tech. It's an amazing company doing transformative work. But one of the things I’ve learned about myself in recent years is that I’m happiest tackling applied problems at the point of care.
The most pressing problem I believe we need to address in health tech right now is simply connecting healthcare professionals with the right information when they need it. You only need to look at the impact Google has had on how we live our lives to see how transformative this technology can be. Yet we’re lagging way behind in healthcare. So when the opportunity came up to join Eolas and use my skillset to do exactly that, I couldn’t turn it down.
And that’s pretty much my journey. Outside of clinical work and nerding out with computers, I coach my daughter’s football team, take the kids hiking in the Mourne Mountains, and lament the fact that there aren’t twice as many hours in the day.