Oxford’s new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Irene Tracey, CBE, FMedSci, says that three months into the extraordinary role of leading the University, she is enjoying her new job ‘a lot’.
She is candid about that being a relief, ‘because it was obviously a big gamble to leave a job I loved, and to accept not being a front-line scientist, which is a huge identity shift. By week three, I knew this was the right decision. I genuinely go home buzzing.’
She says, ‘I’m not pie-eyed but I am really enjoying the enormity of the job and the breadth of what we do here at Oxford. I have been meeting a great many people and getting to know the leadership team. The danger for me is that because I have been at Oxford for a long time, people assume I know everything but of course I don’t! So, I have been saying to people, ‘assume I know nothing and tell me as much as possible. My style is very consultative and organic, quite bottom up, and I know that I can effect change. I feel really supported across the collegiate university and for that I’m very grateful.’
On the subject of Oxford alumni she laughs and says, ‘Well remember, I am one myself’ (Merton, 1985, Biochemistry). Until 1 January 2023 as Warden of her alma mater, she is hugely enthusiastic about the alumni she interacted with during her tenure that included her own peer group.
‘Our alumni are just extraordinary and I felt honoured to have met such amazing people - from the big hitters in various professions through to alumni working in less high-profile roles but who had dedicated their lives to good citizenship and service or giving back. The talent pool we have been a part of generating is humbling and it makes one very proud to be an Oxford alum.’
‘My activities around alumni engagement will continue and I hope expand. I believe the Vice Chancellor should have a strong level of engagement with alumni. I am really looking forward to the gatherings we have planned – London, New York, Paris and Manchester. I’m open to ways that alumni can engage with us. Financial contribution is of course vitally important and necessary, but it’s not the only way that alumni can give back and help us as a collegiate university.’
Watch the Vice-Chancellor's message to alumni
Meeting QUAD in 8th Week of Hilary Term, she is already towards the end of her first term, almost unbelievably because it has whizzed by so fast. But what are her thoughts about Oxford, as if seen from Mars instead of from Wellington Square?
‘Obviously Oxford has a devolved model, and there’s nowhere quite like it in the world. It’s not just the colleges; it’s devolved also at the Divisional and Departmental level. I am very comfortable with this model as I believe it is one of our great strengths. But we must recognise there are costs to this model, literally, in financial terms and efficiency terms.’
Professor Tracey’s view about the challenges and opportunities in running a collegiate university are informed by her being a consummate insider.
‘I see no reason for tensions to exist between the various parts of this amazing but heterogenous ecosystem, unless you disagree with the devolved model itself, which I do not. Fortunately, we share a strong sense of common purpose: to provide world-class teaching and world-leading international research. Having clarity about your role within this ecosystem to achieve that common purpose is key. Yes, there are replications and some inefficiencies. Solutions? Well, I think we’re ready to co-create common platforms and frameworks for working. There is some low-hanging fruit that would make everyone’s lives easier (and less expensive), and I think I can be useful in communicating that, as someone who understands Oxford from the inside.’
I swerve towards her track record as a scientist specialising in pain (prominent in her office is a wonderful cartoon by a former student, monicker ‘Queen of Pain’, a leaving gift from her research team).
There are many alumni who want to know more about her achievement in this field of medical science, and it’s too easy to brush it aside now that she is the Vice-Chancellor.
Professor Tracey’s team has played a significant role in achieving a fundamental change in how we view the relationship between injury and pain. Jargon alert – how nociception leads to pain perception - I ask her to explain it.
‘Forget the word nociception…think injury. People naturally assume that it’s a very simple model - that the more you injure yourself the more pain you’ll feel. And this is often the case. If I burn you more it will hurt more. But when you take it into a more pathological state, actually the relationship between the extent of injury and the pain you feel can be quite non-linear (not simple or equal). Evolution has fine-tuned things so that there are multiple places between the site of injury and the brain where the signal can be altered – turned up or down, so what enters the brain can be very different from the starting position. There is also fine tuning in terms of what parts of the brain the signals activate and by how much – whether you are happy or sad, distracted or focussed, and so on will change the pain you experience. In short, emotional, cognitive, contextual factors profoundly change the brain processing of incoming signals and as a consequence will change the experience of pain you feel or perceive. So, your perception of pain may be very different from what you might judge it to be based on seeing (or not seeing) the initiating injury or disease. Knowing this is how pain arises helps then understand why someone with extensive injury might not feel any pain, whereas others with no injury or a small amount might feel enormous pain. What we’ve done is to prove this point through science. I have worked on this gap between ‘injury and perception’. We have sought to understand the physiology and neurophysiology, how the signal from the injury may get altered, to explain why the perception can be quite radically different to what you might expect from the injury.
At the heart of Professor Tracey’s research achievement has been the evolution of brain imaging, and she was a founding member in 1997 of the Oxford Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain (FMRIB – now the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging) and then its Director for ten years from 2005 until 2015.
She will soon attend a 25-year anniversary of the Centre and reflect on what’s happened in that quarter century.
‘I remember standing there with my first child whilst on maternity leave as the first magnet arrived on a lorry with a crane. That truly feels like yesterday. Now my daughter is 25!’
Professor Tracey also held the Nuffield Chair in Anaesthetic Sciences with Fellowship at Pembroke College for twelve years and was also Head of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences, a powerhouse department comprising scientists and clinicians drawn from neurology, ophthalmology and anaesthetics.
The morning we talk, she had already given a lecture to the second year undergraduate medical students, and Professor Tracey hopes to continue to have engagement in her field as President of the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS), and as a passionate advocate for women in science.
Some of her numerous, extremely prestigious awards and recognitions are evident in her office, but their exact weight and meaning within Professor Tracey’s field are not obvious to the uninformed. Asked which one meant the most, she reminds me that whatever the wording she thinks of these as team awards in recognition of the fantastic people she’s had the good fortune to work alongside these many years, but that ‘It was very nice that they all came out of the blue and without knowing that someone had put me up for them…’
She then adds, ‘I suppose I would say that my husband and I both received our CBEs together, from the King’s first investiture, last November. That was very special because they lined us up back-to-back, with family present. It was a lovely occasion for the entire family.’
There’s room to touch on the still ongoing puzzle as to why Cambridge is still seen as a science centre, Oxford as arts, a question that Professor Tracey says was posed to her repeatedly in her first two weeks in office as she communicated with the global media.
As she said to the media: ‘You don’t produce the COVID vaccine from nothing, and so that evidently points to the fact that we have huge depth, strength and breadth in our sciences and our medical sciences. We all knew that but we just didn’t talk about it. The public-facing side of Oxford is that we produce a lot of public servants who work in government, some become Prime Minister – that generates its own impression mostly linked to the humanities and PPE. But the scientific strength was always there and we should talk about it more – just like we should talk more about our teaching and its importance. These are areas we need to make more visible.’
On the subject of international students at Oxford, which during her first term became a political hot potato in the UK, she merely says that ‘If you want to be the best institution in the world, you need the attract the best talent. Academic research is global these days, so the talent base is also global. This is critical for us. We will not stay the best if our doors are not open to the best talent, and that also includes visa availability for other post holders and staff who may work for us. There is also a lot of soft power in students coming here, living here, studying here, and then going back to their home countries. That has to be good, right? We must not become isolationists. No one wins in that scenario.’
Born and bred locally in Oxford, attending a local comprehensive school, Professor Tracey has also said that she would like the University to play a stronger role in the county and city.
She explains that she is close to appointing a ‘Local/Global officer who will report directly to me and help to provide a focal point for our local and global engagement efforts. Within our devolved structure there are lots of people doing similar things, but if we could galvanize and manage those efforts collectively we could be so much more impactful – especially in terms of local engagement. We want to be more involved at the city and county levels to help shape how we take this region forward. I have great ambitions for how we can be great locally but at the same time secure our position as the most attractive place in the world to come and study and do research or work.’
I’m looking for a further comment about pain and whether Oxford needs more or less of it.
Can the ‘Queen of Pain’ pronounce? She laughs. ‘Well, I have made pain pleasant in some of our experiments, so maybe that’s a helpful skill…..’