December 2014 | ISSUE 15
Prof Jenny Higham: clinician, researcher, leader, mentor

By Nicole Lim
Assistant Director, Communications & External Relations

She may have developed it some 25 years ago, but Professor Jenny Higham still receives requests for permission to reproduce her menstrual blood loss assessment chart from all around the world.

This original and accessible work, which allows women to easily track their menstrual blood loss, was a by-product of her Doctor of Medicine (MD). But it has had a bigger impact on her reputation than the actual MD thesis, which examined the efficacy of different treatments in reducing excessive menstrual bleeding.

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Pictorial blood loss assessment chart (courtesy of Jenny Higham)

“It became one of the largest and most quoted papers in the field,” said Prof Higham, who is now an international leader in abnormal uterine bleeding, advising both national and international bodies on the definition and management of the condition.

On top of her research achievements, Prof Higham also holds several leadership positions at LKCMedicine and Imperial, serves as a member on a number of hospital boards, universities and professional bodies, and is an accomplished clinician. But getting there took a lot of hard work and determination.

Prof Higham’s first inspiration to read medicine came from the general practitioner who cared for her when she was bedbound for about a month with severe kidney inflammation as a young girl.

But after going through a tumultuous spell during her teenage years, her teachers suggested that she lower her ambitions, which meant that Prof Higham left school with the wrong A levels for medicine. Determined to prove herself, she did her Physics A level while working part-time as a cashier and was promptly offered a place at one of London’s top medical schools.

“Having fought quite hard to get into medical school, I was a bit disappointed with the first couple of years because it was a very traditional course where we did all the dry science to begin with. But the minute I moved into the clinical environment, I was like a duck to water, and much to my surprise,  graduated with the year’s top scholarship” said Prof Higham, who is Senior-Vice Dean at LKCMedicine and Vice-Dean for Education & Institutional Affairs at Imperial’s Faculty of Medicine.

Towards the end of her clinical years at medical school, Prof Higham had her mind set on becoming a surgeon because she enjoyed the practical and hands-on aspects of the specialty. But after spending time in the male-dominated environment and experiencing blatant discrimination, she decided against it.

Fortunately, her last attachment was in obstetrics and gynaecology. She immediately fell in love with the specialty because it combined surgery with a fast-paced high-stake environment that attracted decisive and down-to-earth people, whom she felt at home with.

“It’s the same balance of pragmatism and organisation you need if you’re going to run a relatively large family by yourself,” said Prof Higham, whose husband works 200 miles out of London. She has three children, Emma (20), Vicky (18) and Adam (14), and a dog.

After completing her specialist training, Prof Higham was ready to join a top London hospital as a consultant. But then she was invited to apply for a senior lectureship position, something she hadn’t considered before. It was around the same time that St Mary’s Hospital Medical School was joined first by the National Heart & Lung Institute, and then by Charing Cross and Westminster Medical School and the Royal Postgraduate Medical School to become one medical school under Imperial.

“I got involved in setting up this new medical school at Imperial and absolutely loved it,” said Prof Higham, who grew her academic involvement over the years, which led to her being appointed head of undergraduate medicine in 2006. The appointment came as a surprise to Prof Higham, who served as head until 2009 when she was appointed Director of Education.

Being involved in the establishment of a new school is a once-in-a-lifetime event for most people. But a few years into the job, Prof Higham once again had the opportunity to shape medical education, this time in faraway Singapore. For her instrumental role in bringing the negotiations to a successful close, Prof Higham received the Imperial College Medal from Imperial President Professor Alice Gast at this year’s Commemoration Day.

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Prof Higham receiving the Imperial College Medal for her contributions to the setting up of LKCMedicine from Imperial President Prof Alice Gast

“I am enormously proud of what we have jointly achieved in the founding of LKCMedicine. The close collaboration with so many colleagues over the past five years has been an immense privilege and a highlight of my career. Our key achievement has been delivering what we promised and more – a fantastic new school, with a new innovative educational programme, rather than a ‘lift and shift’ from London. It is an entirely bespoke curriculum tailored for Singapore.

“Additionally, Imperial has helped create a successful medical research environment which already sees collaborations across Singapore and beyond. It’s fantastic that all that work is now recognised, but I really share this award with many people.”

Another highlight for Prof Higham came in 2011, when she received the Mentor of the Year Award at the Women of the Future Awards. She was nominated by four women whom she’d inspired and mentored. “Even if I hadn’t won, it was an extraordinary compliment that they bothered to put me up for this award, so I invited all four of them as my guests to the dinner, which was a very glitzy affair,” said Prof Higham.

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From left: Her secretary Emma Gibson, Dr Nicola Rogers whom she helped find the right career fit, Prof Higham, Sue English whom Prof Higham spotted for a bigger role in the Faculty of Medical Education at Imperial, and her then secretary Nosheen Tariq

Mentoring and spotting others’ potential is one of the great satisfactions Prof Higham draws from her leadership roles. Since assuming her current role at Imperial, she’s also changed the recruitment policy so that positions are advertised openly rather than filled by “a tap on the shoulder”.

She’s an active ambassador for gender equality and regularly gives inspirational talks to attract more women to careers in science, technology engineering, mathematics and medicine, something she feels is her duty.

Her advice to women: don’t bother if you’re not prepared to work hard. “Interpersonal skills and looking out for the people who are around you are also really important,” she added.