In touch with… Lambert Schuwirth

Following The Australian’s recent celebration of Australia’s top reseachers in their fields, FiT sat down with Professor Lambert Schuwirth, lauded as best for education research. 

What area does your research focus on?

My research is in health professions education, understanding how future doctors, paramedics and other health professionals learn and are best assessed. I am interested in how students develop and how we, as a university, need to teach and coach them in this process.

Unfortunately, much of what we do in education is based on tradition and intuition. Often, convincing evidence from the literature is not used or even wilfully ignored. That is a risk, because if we educate the way we have been educated, which in my case is 35 years ago, we are likely to do things that are outdated. As we don’t seek to practice medicine the way we did 35 years ago, we should not seek to practice education like we did 35 years ago. We know so much more about effective and efficient human learning than we did then.

What does your current work involve?

I am a scientific omnivore. On the one hand I’m involved in projects in which we use Holter ECGs and functional MRIs to look at physical parameters and brain activation in relation to expert medical problem-solving, and at the other end of the spectrum I’m involved in deeply qualitative, interpretative research. So that probably makes me a jack of all trades, and master of none!

On top of that, I try to lead and further develop a research and development centre in health professions education (the Prideaux Centre). That is not always easy, because health professions education is still finding its feet as a recognised scientific discipline. However, there are several countries in the world where there is no doubt anymore with respect to the need and value of health professions education research and development centres.

After all, we would not buy a car from a company that does not invest in research and development, and increasingly people are wondering why they should buy education from an organisation that doesn’t invest in research and development of educational quality.

Can you describe one of the most influential developments you have been involved with?

I think the most interesting finding come from the studies using functional MRIs. There have been theories about how people make decisions or form judgements for several decades, but it was exciting to find out that brain activation patterns in functional MRI studies confirm the theories, and so did our Holter ECGs studies.

I think the most influential development in medical education I have been part of is programmatic assessment/assessment for learning. This is quite a radically new approach to assessment which is very similar to the way a doctor diagnoses a patient. Rather than just using numerical outcomes – like in lab tests – a doctor combines the patient’s story, their own physical examination findings and other experts’ reports, with the numbers of lab tests.

We have developed a system in which assessment of competence uses a similar approach. A lot of research has gone into it and is still being conducted, but in other countries there are clear indications that it makes a huge difference in the competence of medical graduates.

What has been one of your greatest challenges?

My greatest, self-chosen challenge has been to move from the Netherlands to Australia with my family. That has been a big adventure. It can seem odd, because I was a tenured full professor at one of the leading institutes in medical education and on my way to become chair of the Department. So, there was a lot of certainty and security in my position.

Still, my wife and I had very little doubts and wanted to take the plunge and see what it would be like to emigrate to a different country with a different language and a different culture. Although I spent many a night awake wondering what on earth I had done, there has never been a moment of regret.

What has been one of your proudest moments?

This is very difficult to answer. I don’t do pride well because I don’t believe in it – anything that has been achieved, has been achieved in collaboration with others. I may have played a role in those achievements, but it was never a solo endeavour. I was incredibly happy though to be named the world leading Australian researcher in my field. Again, not because I consider that my achievement alone, but because it is so important for the recognition of the work we do.

Does your work involve much external engagement?

Yes it does, and that is certainly part of what I like so much about my work – with Royal Australian colleges, other universities and international medical education organisations. It is always an amazing opportunity to be able to ‘take a peek into somebody else’s kitchen’ and learn from it. We are currently in negotiation with one of Australia’s peak bodies in medical education to become their preferred research Centre. I find that hugely exciting.

What does a normal day look like for you? 

If I describe my workday it may seem incredibly dull; I read and comment on manuscripts, I go to committee meetings, I converse with colleagues, fellow researchers, HDR students etc.

I am lucky in having a group of extremely bright HDR students who challenge my thinking all the time and never allow me to draw on routine. I think routine is the most boring thing that could happen professionally. After work, my wife and I drink an aperitif (non-alcoholic during the week) and discuss our day, we prepare dinner together and have a family dinner. That, to me, is of extreme importance and rarely will I sacrifice that for meetings. After the family time, I’m usually available again.

Although I love my work, I’m firmly convinced that I will not be twiddling my thumbs after retirement; there are zillions of books I don’t get time to read, my golf handicap needs to come down, I’m passionate about playing and writing music and I am sure that I will enjoy the odd ‘bumming around’.


Posted in