Impact & Opinions | Tionchar & Tuairimí

In Conversation With: Professor Tim O’Brien

In Conversation With: Professor Tim O’Brien

29 July 21
 | 18 MINS

The Dean of the College of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences – a father of five, a dual US-Irish citizen and an endochrinologist – sat down with Cois Coiribe to share his views on internationalisation and how it influenced his career and how he values its place in the University.

As well as being Dean of College of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences in NUI Galway, Professor O’Brien is also the director of the Centre for Cell Manufacturing Ireland and the Regenerative Medicine Institute REMEDI.

Q: To what extent have you been affected by international relationships and how did they impact you?

International relationships have been fundamental to my own personal and professional formation and development.

I graduated from medical school in UCC in 1984 and worked for four years in Cork University Hospital. I left in 1988 and spent 13 years in the US between Milwaukee, San Francisco and nine years at Mayo clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

I really appreciated my American hosts and all the friends, colleagues and employers who engaged me during my 13 years and gave me huge opportunities.

My own personal and professional development was really immersed in an international environment, as 13 years of it, physically, was in the US, during which time I had four children who were born in the US, and I took out US citizenship, so I’m a dual citizen of Ireland and the US.

Q: How is internationalisation relevant to the College of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences?

One of the biggest and earliest changes that happened was we increased the numbers of non-EU students, from all parts of the world. That really allowed us provide a culture and an environment where students could train and learn in a diverse environment where diversity was viewed as a very positive thing.

I think it prepared them better for becoming ultimately global citizens.

It also generated revenue which allowed many other developments to happen down through the years that I would consider as a secondary benefit.

The importance of this internationalisation of our student body to me was when these students graduate, they go home, and they carry with them the values that we espouse here in Galway. We then have a footprint around the globe.

Our student body return to their homes have a major impact in their homes, many of them in leadership.

Our students and our faculty have also gone out and then gained a lot of new experiences and technology development, which they’ve brought back to Galway. So I believe the bi-directional movement of international students and researchers in, and our students and researchers out, has created mutual benefit.

The issue of creating a healthcare workforce is obviously very, very central to our activities.

As a College of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, our goal, or one of our goals, is to create a workforce. I would say, primarily, we want to ensure our region is well staffed across the multi-disciplines of healthcare, and that has its own challenges.

But we have a broader goal, which is providing a healthcare staff for the world and we have substantial numbers of international students across our three schools in both undergraduate and postgraduate domains.

All of them leave Galway at the end of their education to return home and they have a local impact on healthcare.

I think that’s equally important to developing our regional workforce, to contribute to the global workforce and healthcare.

I believe that one of the most formative and valuable experiences in an educational lifetime is international experience.

Q: And how do you see internationalisation shaping the College in the future?

I think our efforts in the internationalisation space will expand. I believe, as many of my colleagues do, that that our University is locally relevant, firmly embedded in its region but globally impactful.

The local relevance I think is particularly important in the College of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, because one of our main missions is to generate the healthcare staff for our region, so everyday graduates of our programmes are providing care to our population in the region. And of course our researchers and entrepreneurs are actively involved in creating jobs in our region so we would be firmly embedded in our region but with global relevance.

Q: In terms of students – those coming here from overseas and those leaving here for overseas – what is internationalisation? 

I believe that one of the most formative and valuable experiences in an educational lifetime is international experience.

I appreciate the challenges that that presents and the experience gained, the opportunities and adapting to a new culture, and learning from it while remaining firmly attached to your own culture.

It’s just an incredibly valuable formative experience to take yourself out of your comfort zone into a new environment.

Q: And what does internationalisation mean for researchers?

I think it is important to really appreciate that research is a team activity. It’s collaborative.

The day of individual researchers making major discoveries on their own may not be completely a thing of the past but certainly it’s not very prevalent.

In our own college, I give one example, where Michael Kerins who runs our breast cancer program is a part of many international consortia. They’ve had many high impact factor publications in international journals but also significant impact on the clinical practice and care for women with breast cancer.

When I left Ireland in 1988 it was five days after the birth of my first child. I had to leave to get the structured training and education that didn't exist in Ireland at the time. But now it does.

Q: How would you characterise the value of a more international NUI Galway? 

I think it’s very substantial. As far back as 1995, the President of the University at the time, President Patrick Fottrell prioritised the space of research between science, medicine and engineering, resulting ultimately in the creation of national centre for biomedical engineering and science.

That interaction between the three areas was very relevant to the local industrial ecosystem. Galway is now a global hub with expertise in medical device technology across its whole lifecycle, from discovery through translation.

I believe the partnership with the industry, academia and clinical programs globally, is a key part of that development.

Q: Do you see any conflict between the University’s internationalisation and it striving to be distinctive? 

I think in some senses on the contrary – the distinctiveness and internationalisation can be complementary.

If I look at distinctiveness in one area that I’m personally involved in, which is advanced therapy manufacture, cell therapy, gene therapy, bio-materials – we have the only licenced cell manufacturing production facility in Ireland (the Centre for Cell Manufacturing Ireland).

That’s a distinctiveness certainly.

Q: How would you address concerns about educating and training young people who leave Ireland and vice versa less developed countries where the education and training ultimately benefits wealthier countries?

I am quite emotionally attached to the issue, having lived what I lived through. When I left Ireland in 1988 it was five days after the birth of my first child.

I was leaving in many respects with a heavy heart – I had to leave to get the structured training and education that didn’t exist in Ireland at the time. But now it does.

The graduates here in the medical school don’t necessarily have to go overseas to get the opportunities and training. I think their overall formation is enhanced but it’s a different context to say you have to go.

In my day, we left with the hope that we would return, but relatively low expectation.

That also has changed substantially because the opportunities that exist now are manifold.

To avoid brain drain I think one needs to set up an environment here in Ireland, which is attractive. I remember a colleague in the US saying they couldn’t quite understand Irish people – that they came to America and they always wanted to go home. We talked about a homing gene and the potential for a homing gene. I think we need more than a homing gene, we need to create an environment here in Ireland that’s attractive to our graduates who’ve gone overseas to develop themselves further. I think we are doing that and I think we need to be very conscious of it.

I also feel quite strongly that we haven’t lost by people staying overseas. It allows us to set up a network of international connections with people who are very tied and loyal to our country.

I don’t think we have to consider every person leaves this country and doesn’t come back as lost. They remain part of a Global Ireland and are very, very influential in supporting Irish activities overseas. 

I think the issue of Ireland taking from the less developed parts of the world is a more challenging one.

In our people going out for further development then we fill gaps by bringing people in. You’d hope there’s also bi-directionality in that movement and that we’re offering experiences and training and values that can be brought back to their home countries.

Our partnerships are focused on making lives better for people, through healthcare, preventive and interactive, across the globe.

Q: If the university exists for the public good, is there a case for seeking international relationships which prioritise human need and development?

I think within the College of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences we’ve actively pursued international partnerships with less developed and developing countries.

We would like the totality of our activities to focus not just on benefit to us but benefit that we can distribute in a global sense.

We’ve set up partnerships with African countries, one in particular with Kenya, which we’ve done actually with our hospital colleagues in Mayo General Hospital, Castlebar who’ve had a long partnership with this and our faculty essentially helping educate healthcare providers in that region.

Q: Do you have any concerns about partnerships in countries with poor human rights and standards of equality, diversity and inclusion?

I believe in engagement, rather than non-engagement, just as a general principle. I think the partnerships should be mutually beneficial and we should explore partnerships in that context.

The values, as outlined in the university strategic plan, led by President Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, of respect, openness, sustainability, excellence – no partnership should interfere with that.

I would also take into consideration the Irish Government position on engagement with countries – if the Irish Government is supporting and promoting engagement, while adhering to the values we live by, that’s also an important consideration.

As a College of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences we aim to enhance people’s lives through better health care. That involves discovery, research and new treatments and our partnerships are predominantly focused on those areas.

Our partnerships are focused on making lives better for people, through healthcare, preventive and interactive, across the globe.

We’ve partnered with institutions with industry partners, with clinical centres, throughout the world in order to enhance our opportunities to drive discovery to advance healthcare.


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