It's parliamentary: Alumnus career at the intersection of medicine and politics

Grant Hill-Cawthorne, director of research at the House of Commons, UK Parliament, presents a lecture on global health. Photo courtesy Grant Hill-Cawthorne

Grant Hill-Cawthorne's dedication to global health has been limited by neither job descriptions nor country borders. Trained as a medical doctor in the UK, and holding a Ph.D. in pathogen genomics from KAUST (2013), Hill-Cawthorne's knowledge and experience in medical science comes from years working internationally with both patients and research. In 2018, he transitioned into science policy in his current role as the director of research in the UK Parliament, rounding out the trifecta of health, research and politics that is his career.

Hill-Cawthorne attended the University of Cambridge, where he received his bachelor's degree in medical science and neuroscience, together with a Bachelor of Surgery degree. As a medical doctor, Hill-Cawthorne started his career as a virologist in the UK, where he met a KAUST faculty member with a connection to Cambridge.

"While I was working at the hospital in Norwich, I met KAUST professor Arnab Pain, who had been a leader in the Bioscience program at Cambridge," said Hill-Cawthorne. "He wanted to start a pathogen research group at KAUST, and I was looking for the opportunity to do a Ph.D., so it seemed like a great way to help set up his lab while conducting research."

Getting started at KAUST: Pathogen Genomics Lab

Hill-Cawthorne's medical and research experiences were put to use in the creation of the KAUST Pathogen Genomics Laboratory.

"In 2010, Arnab and I started the Pathogen Genomics Lab while the buildings at KAUST were still empty shells," said Hill-Cawthorne. "I had the opportunity to help design the lab from scratch and went through the learning curve of lab design, equipment procurement, hiring staff, and starting our first research projects. Looking back, it was an experience similar to a startup."

One of the focus areas in the Pathogen Genomics Laboratory is the influence of mass gatherings on disease spread and severity. As Saudi Arabia is host to one of the world's largest gatherings, Hajj, the location of the lab and access to patient samples significantly shaped the group's expertise.

"Arnab and I quickly created close connections with the Deputy Minister of Health in Saudi Arabia, and then gained access to respiratory samples from patients after Hajj," said Hill-Cawthorne. "We then teamed up with the Ministry of Health to expand the project. I currently still work on mass gathering disease, which informs my research and understanding of our current pandemic."

From Ph.D. student to health policy adviser

In the middle of his Ph.D., Hill-Cawthorne was offered an opportunity as a clinical advisor in the UK, which had him working a full-time job while doing research for his Ph.D. part-time, traveling between London and KAUST for a year.

Grant Hill-Cawthorne, director of research at the House of Commons, UK Parliament. Photo courtesy Grant Hill-Cawthorne

"This position in the UK was where I was first introduced to health policy," said Hill-Cawthorne. "I helped to design pathways and guidelines with the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. The job was a combination of microbiology and policy development, fields that I truly enjoy."

Not long after he returned to KAUST as a full-time Ph.D. student, Hill-Cawthorne was offered another position post-graduation: teaching on the subject of communicable disease epidemiology at The University of Sydney.

"After graduating from KAUST, I actually started teaching Australians how to deal with pandemics at The University of Sydney many years before COVID hit," said Hill-Cawthorne. "In this role I even taught many of the up-and-coming New South Wales health officers. When my wife and I had our son, we decided to return to the UK."

When an opportunity opened in UK Parliament to head the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, it was a perfect fit for Hill-Cawthorne's expertise and interest. Last year he made the physical move back to the UK to be the director of research for the House of Commons at an integral time of global health.

Hill-Cawthorne said, "My positions in Parliament allowed me to investigate the science that informs policy decisions, which can be quite opaque. But Parliament is where government decisions are scrutinized to ensure we are creating policies in the people's best interest, and that became very important during the pandemic. I actually found it both fun and challenging to translate science decisions into policy decisions during COVID."

Working in Parliament during a pandemic

Undoubtedly, the pandemic created new problems for the House of Commons and the House of Lords. When debating on new policies and bills to enact, politicians would normally be packed into rooms at full capacity. In COVID times this was a prohibited situation.

Hill-Cawthorne said that the whole work environment changed during the pandemic: "Politicians could no longer meet in cramped spaces and discuss whether or not a bill should be passed. Of course, we needed to look out for our own health, but much of our time was spent advising Members of Parliament and Lords in the age range most vulnerable to COVID-19, so we had to be even more careful."

In April 2020, the UK Parliament was the first in the world to go fully remote. As a result, Hill-Cawthorne said, "We lost a lot of the spontaneity that would normally occur when debating bills in person. Fortunately, now, things are going back to normal and I was able to attend my first in-person meeting with my leadership team in the Commons Library."

These patterns of mass gathering diseases and immunity are areas of research that connect Hill-Cawthorne's current role with his previous research at KAUST, a place which he credits as having given him more than just a degree.

Reflections on his time at KAUST

"One of the most valuable aspects of my time spent at KAUST and in Saudi Arabia in general was the opportunity to live and work in a foreign country, and truly get to know the people you are serving, whether they be patients in the hospital or people benefiting from your research," said Hill-Cawthorne. "Through those connections, I was able to genuinely experience a largely misunderstood country, which has widened my perspective and community of both health professionals and friends."

With that reflection, Hill-Cawthorne gave advice to prospective and current students:

"Take advantage of the horizon-scanning research that can be conducted at KAUST, and allow the multicultural community to bring you out of your comfort zone to grow both professionally and personally."

Grant is a guest speaker at KAUST Reunion on November 13. Click here to register for the reunion.