Suzie Armstrong, University of Surrey

Susan Armstrong, Senior Lecturer in Veterinary Clinical Research at the University of Surrey has drawn experience from a diverse career path in clinical and research fields to demonstrate that there is more than one way of getting to where you want to be.

Please summarise your journey:

I have had a (mostly) brilliant time getting to where I now am, and all the parts have come together, but the adversity is what has driven me most.

I grew up in Scotland, and despite being surrounded by animals all of my childhood and wanting to be a vet when younger, I had a silly moment picking my Highers when I thought I wanted to be a lawyer… six months in I walked out of law lectures and took myself to Glasgow Vet School to ask what I should do to get in.

A different route to vet med

I had no science Highers so I went to Glasgow Uni and qualified with a first class M.Sci in Parasitology as an access course to vet med. I was only supposed to do three years then transfer to vet school, but loved it so much I went to Australia to do my Masters where I flew solo to a veterinary pharma contract research company I had identified online (back when you had to wind up your modem). Dr Bruce Chick was my boss and my first experience of what a proper boss is. I realised then that I work best with people who trust me to do the job and let me do it. I believe misplaced micro-management is the death knell of productivity and workplace happiness.

I then went into the pharma industry, under the auspices of earning money to pay for my vet school fees (medicine would have been free). I learned so much about people, corporate management, presentation skills and so much more, including what kind of personality type I was… Skills that set me up for life.

Then I finally gave up the company car and went to vet school where I was a direct entrant into the second year at Glasgow. 

International experience

From there I went straight to an equine internship at the wonderful Fethard Equine Hospital, Coolmore, Ireland and then went to join the Charles Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, Australia team as a resident in Equine Internal Medicine.

Becoming pregnant meant I had to move to Sydney to join my then husband, and in order to rebuild myself with a small baby in the city, I took a position as a branch manager at a small animal practice in Sydney – all veterinary skills are transferrable!

I had done some form of clinical research all through my higher education, so spoke with the then Head of School at the R(D)SVS Edinburgh, who said: “Get on a plane and come and see me and we will get you a PhD,” which was something I had always wanted to do. I will always be grateful to him for that, as he was true to his word. This coincided with a need to leave a bad marriage, so I took my then 23 month old son, and I jumped on a plane and didn’t look back!

Making connections

During my PhD I locumed for the Dick Vet Equine Practice including working with an excellent clinician in Eugenio Cillan Garcia at Lucinda Russell’s race yard and the Ministry of Defence Household Cavalry and Kings Troop to support my son and help finance a house for him and I.

As a result of my PhD and connections made, my brilliant bosses Richard Mellanby and John Keen invited me to apply for a full-time position at Edinburgh 50% clinical: 50% research. We created a diagnostic company called which was an umbrella for our clinical diagnostics research with Prof James Dear. I learnt so much from Richard and James. I worked with brilliant clients and patients, drove clinical research and for the absolute most part, loved my job.

My time at Edinburgh working with some truly great people put me in a position to be approached by the University of Surrey and I was so inspired by the strong female leadership who would be my immediate management, it became an easy decision to make the leap. Eight weeks in, I know for many reasons it was a great move.

Describe your typical day from waking to sleeping:

Spinning plates from the get go, most days, but not every day is very madly busy.  First making sure my wee son is sorted wherever we are, and then some type of exercise. At Edinburgh for eight years it was either the lab 2.5 days a week or the clinic 2.5 days a week, now I am at Surrey it’s brilliant to be able to focus on clinical research. I do clinical work whenever I can, which is supported and encouraged and really complements my current role keeping abreast of unmet clinical needs. I always make sure my son and I eat together and walk the daschunds, or have some form of carry on and then start all over again the next day.

What has been your top success and what have you learned from this?

I don’t think I have had one top success, but many small successes along the way that have brought me to this point: unashamedly being a mum and seeing my son grow into a great little human, full of kindness and empathy in a world that doesn’t have much.

Achieving my M.Sci first class and BMVS Hons, and thereafter achieving my PhD and a clinical academic post. Every time I publish a research paper or case report, I feel proud I am contributing to my profession and potentially helping animals I will never meet.

Publishing a protocol for the treatment of evaporative dry eye in horses and raising awareness of this as an issue to the general veterinary profession, but even better helping a horse keep his eye, was another defining moment along the way. Every time I have helped an animal or ended suffering – I consider that a top success. 

Achieving my PhD was a game changer though; it gave me belief and confidence back in myself that I had lost and made taking the brilliant jump I have recently made to join the University of Surrey team as Senior Lecturer in Veterinary Clinical Research an easy one.

What has been your biggest challenge, setback or failure and how have you overcome it? How did you grow or change as a result?

Leaving a toxic marriage from the other side of the world (Australia) with a 23 month old child was a challenge and a setback. I would happily share my personal experience with any women or men struggling the way I did to break free. Yet traumatic as it was at the time and despite the difficulties I have had since, it has made me a better person. I had never faced any adversity before, but it has made me softer, with more humility and that was reflected in a nomination for Edinburgh University supervisor of the year award in 2020 for helping my final year research project student with mental health issues, which I am very proud of.

Many of us have also been in positions where the wrong people have been promoted, but with age comes wisdom and instead of pushing back on poor decisions I couldn’t control, I just focused on my career progression and my path and it has truly paid off. I support anyone irrespective of their gender to be their best and achieve as much as they are able to without fear of being overshadowed. I want people who work for me to go and succeed and credit me with facilitating them.

“It’s OK to change and refocus. Change is, very often, good.”

What compromises have you had to make and what, if anything, could have helped?

I have been so fortunate throughout my life because of the strength of my parental support – I have been able to forge my path even as single parent.  I have however compromised on financial security for many years through my career choices and marital adversity – moving across the world and back and up and down the UK and Éire multiple times costs financially, but I have gained so much more as a person personally and professionally I wouldn’t change that. I think if I had accessed financial advice earlier in my career it would have helped with future security, but I am doubling-down on that now and for the first time in a decade feel like I can breathe when I think about my future financial security as a single mum. 

I also wasn’t able to sit the ECEIM exams, but instead of dwelling on that I focused on my PhD path as the currency of academia and that has paid dividends. My dad always says life is about choices and I made a choice to take a different fork in the road – it’s OK to change and refocus. Change is, very often, good.

What advice would you have given to your younger self, that you would now give to others wanting to follow your path?

“Stop and look around once in a while,” as Ferris Bueller said, so celebrate your successes (and your birthdays!), be accountable ALWAYS, don’t ever make yourself small to conform to others, believe someone the first time they show you who they really are and don’t listen to the teacher who told you if you spent as much time working on your biology as you did putting on your make-up you might get somewhere. Above all else, believe in yourself irrespective of those who try to derail you. Also consider all specialties – I would have been an ophthalmologist if I had known then how much I love eyes and how much they can tell us about systemic disease.  

How would you describe yourself in a sentence?

Honest, with integrity, ambitious, hard-working, resilient, with a very loud laugh…

How would others describe you in a sentence?

I am told I am unstoppable force of nature, which can be a pro and a con! Two women I highly respect; one is a leading racehorse trainer and one has very high position in the NHS, tell me I have “a brain the size of a planet” and “am the most intelligent person they know”. I don’t take compliments well, but I respect these women so much I take these. 

What are your top likes?

Other than the obvious loved ones; horses, dogs, gin, the ocean, mountains, science and being amongst intellectual greatness in whatever form that may be.

What are your top dislikes?

The current narcissism epidemic, jealousy, misplaced micro-management/ bad management, Shepherd’s pie…

I couldn’t have got where I am today without…

My parents and the work ethic they instilled in me. They are the true definition of self-made people and the ultimate team and I am so proud to be their daughter.

Many thanks to Suzie for sharing her story to inspire veterinary women to aspire and grow into their full
career potential.

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