‘I have multiple examples where gut instincts saved lives’

20 Jun 2019

Dr Mark White. Image: WIT

WIT’s Dr Mark White tells us how his wealth of experience in the nursing sector complements his career in research.

Dr Mark White is vice-president of research, innovation and graduate studies at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT).

He has three decades of experience in the health services sector, with previous roles including senior lecturer in the School of Nursing and Midwifery in NUI Galway, and area director for nursing and midwifery planning and development with the HSE.

White sits on the board of the faculty of Nursing and Midwifery at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and is also an editorial board member on a number of nursing research journals. He has been an NHS Improvement Fellow since 2009 and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development since 2011.

‘Being a nurse requires an inquisitive mind and one to be solution-focused’

Describe your role and what you do.

The role of VP of research, innovation and graduate studies is a complex one. It has responsibility for developing and implementing the institute’s research strategy, and overseeing the direction and ongoing development of the research. It has responsibility for developing research and knowledge transfer within the institute; managing and growing the research innovation, postgraduate capacity and support services at the institute. It has responsibility for creating and strengthening strategic partnerships with national and international academic institutions, national and EU research sponsors, and government agencies.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I just love this question! Organising and prioritising my working life is undoubtedly the biggest challenge that I have in my current role. Being accessible and relevant to my team and the research community in WIT means a lot to me. Balancing this with my role as a member of the executive team in WIT can be challenging and certainly increases the number and types of communications required. This inevitably seeps into how I balance my work-home life. My wife is also a busy executive and, with three of our four kids still at school and living at home, it makes for some very interesting Sunday evening work diary discussions and priorities.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

The biggest challenge facing research in the IT [institute of technology] sector is the application for and transition into the new technological university (TU) space and the improved research performance that this requires.

In order to meet the criteria set out to establish a TU, ITs have to demonstrate that they can highly perform in all aspects of their operations and offerings, including research. Luckily for WIT, this is a relatively easy task as we have been creating and developing research centres for a good number of years now, competing with the other universities and ITs for research projects, grants and funding, whilst growing their research community, especially their PhD numbers.

What are the key sector opportunities youre capitalising on?

Many of the opportunities that present themselves to WIT and which we wholly exploit come through our Enterprise Ireland (EI) Technology Gateways that were established in 2014. A large number of regional industries use our technology gateways to develop their R&D capacity and capabilities, by scoping and testing their technology ideas and solutions through collaborative projects with the research teams in WIT.

The technology sector has developed a longstanding relationship with WIT’s research and innovation community through the nationally acclaimed research centre TSSG, carrying out a wide range of industry-informed research in information and communications technologies (ICT), particularly technologies enabling communications and information services. Having a high-performing technology research centre in Waterford and the south-east has certainly been the catalyst for developing the industry and its footprint in the region.

The institute is also heavily invested in the growing pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries in Waterford and the south-east, and the opportunities that this presents. Our Pharmaceutical and Molecular Biotechnology Research Centre, an EI technology gateway, is actively engaged on multiple collaborative research and development projects.

The region also supports a growing materials engineering sector, and WIT has capitalised on this opportunity by developing an industry-focused applied EI technology gateway research centre, South Eastern Applied Materials. This centre provides innovative materials engineering solutions for companies from a wide range of sectors in the region, including biomedical devices, pharmaceuticals, microelectronics, precision engineering and industrial technologies.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

I am a nurse and a midwife; I did my nurse training in London in the late 1980s. This started my engagement with lifelong learning, research and the quest to be involved in providing ‘best evidence’. Being a nurse requires an inquisitive mind and one to be solution-focused. This has influenced me throughout my health service career and into the research and innovation space I now work in. Healthcare teams are amongst the most complex and stressful to work within. I would like to think that that I have brought my people skills and team focus with me into the higher education research sector.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

My biggest mistake was not following my gut instinct. Intuition is sometimes overlooked as a key quality or skill. Gut instincts should never be ignored and I have multiple examples from clinical situations that have saved lives. What I have learned is that this quality and skill can be developed in all aspects of work life, especially when dealing with people.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I get the best out of my team by being wholly honest in all of my communications and by giving people the support, authority, autonomy, tools and resources to do their job. The majority of people want to do a good job and an honest day’s work, and just need to be enabled to do so.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to be more inclusive?

Since I joined WIT in late 2018, I have been really struck by just how diverse the research community is. I do believe that gender is a particular issue in the STEM sector but I am also impressed at the spotlight that it is currently receiving and some of interventions aimed at attracting much more diversity.

‘Balancing work and life outside work has never been more important and I believe that it is incumbent on us as managers of people to lead by example’

WIT has engaged with the Athena SWAN charter that recognises and celebrates good practice in recruiting, retaining and promoting women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) in higher education. There are many activities and interventions involved in achieving charter status that will enable the diversity agenda in WIT. I believe that this initiative will transform the sector.

The programmes developed by WIT’s STEM outreach service, Calmast, are a great example of how we engage all demographics with all things STEM at the earliest ages in primary school. Normalising STEM activities into the primary and secondary school curriculum will make huge inroads in this regard.

Who is your role model and why?

My role model is the great statistician, engineer, author and business consultant William Edwards Deming. He developed a philosophy and method that allowed individuals and organisations to plan and continually improve themselves, their relationships, processes, products and services. His philosophy is one of cooperation and continual improvement; it avoids blame and redefines mistakes as opportunities for improvement.

He is attributed for the famous quote: “In God we trust; all others bring data.” Moreover, I use this quote so regularly in my own work. We can do nothing with anecdotes, just data.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I am currently reading Leadership: Plain and Simple by Steve Radcliffe. What I love most about this book (compared to other leadership texts) is that it is based around three broad principles: the future, engaging and delivering. Being able to see what tomorrow might look like, articulating that clearly to others and engaging them on the journey can be applied to most aspects of one’s work. One key message for me in this book (and it builds on the work of Peter Drucker) is that my first and foremost job as a leader is to manage my own energy, and help manage the energy of those around me – simple!

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

I was very tempted to satirically answer ‘wine’ to this question. On reflection, whilst wine itself isn’t a tool or resource, many of the social aspects associated with having a glass of wine – the meeting with partners, family and friends; the downtime and the relaxation – are all important elements (tools and resources) that help prepare me to get through my week. Balancing work and life outside work has never been more important and I believe that it is incumbent on us as managers of people to lead by example.

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