Ask The Staff – Dr Lesley Nolan

First of all Dr Nolan, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us. We’re sure that many students will really welcome the chance to get to know you a bit more.

1. Most of us know you as an oral biology lecturer! Could you give us a run-through of everything you do here at the moment at Bristol uni?

I’m actually part time, so I work three days a week. The biggest part of my job is being an oral biology lecturer, but I also lecture anatomy, and do all the preparation that goes with teaching. I also help on a training course for lecturers called ‘Create’, which is cultivating research and excellence in teaching.

Dr Nolan with Lu Khoo and Christina Tran

2. But in a previous life you were a dentist! Where did you practice and what did you specialise in?

I qualified here in Bristol in 1979, and started working in January 1980 in a health centre in Bristol called the William Budd Health Centre, (it’s actually been demolished now!) I mainly treated children. I had a lot of difficult cases to manage, both medically and psychologically, and that was what I liked doing best.

3. What inspired you to pursue dentistry in the first place?

Actually from age 6-16 or so I wanted to be a vet! But the reason that I didn’t apply to veterinary sciences was because I had a so-called ‘careers teacher’ in school, who said I wouldn’t get in because I wouldn’t get good-enough A level grades, and because I was a girl. She told my father that at one of the parents evenings, so I fell for it and changed tack.

I didn’t want to do medicine because I didn’t like the idea of dealing with sick people, so I chose dentistry instead – which isn’t terribly inspiring, but that’s the truth of it! I didn’t know what I was letting myself into, but that was fairly normal in those days.

4. Do you have any embarrassing moments from dental school you would like to share?

I was unfortunately really boring, really well behaved, just got on with my stuff in dental school! The only really embarrassing thing I can remember is getting a real full perm – so I came in with my hair really curly and sticking out all over – so I had to deal with not only staff but all my patients, and my friends, constantly ribbing me about that! If I had my time again I wouldn’t do it again!

5. Do you have a patient you think you’ll remember for the rest of your life?

I had a prosthetics patient – I was making a full set of dentures for him, and he absolutely insisted on a shade of teeth that was nigh-on white, instead of a shade that would look good for him. And to make matters worse he was jaundiced as well. He was really happy with it and so I wouldn’t have minded, except he was my finals patient, so I had to somehow try to explain to my examiners how I wouldn’t have chosen that shade without offending him!

6. What was the thing you enjoyed most about dentistry?

Well my favourite specialty was definitely paediatrics. I loved to treat children – from a management point of view – because I relate to them. I found I could persuade most children to have any kind of dental treatment done, and I had the luxury of having the time to be able to do that.

7. So what made you decide to change your mind and go into academia?

I got to about age 30 or so and… I was getting very bored. I was still doing the same job I was doing when I first qualified, and I wasn’t doing a huge variety of treatments so it became a bit boring – I didn’t have to think about what I was doing.

So I went back to full-time study, in order to use my brain a bit more. When I started looking into additional qualifications I decided I’d like mine to be in basic science. My plan had been to do a BSc in Cellular and Molecular Pathology, and come back and go into academic dentistry.

I carried on my final year project by doing a PhD on Epstein Barr Virus, but when the money for my research ran out, I realised I had really been enjoying what I was doing. So I looked for a job in research rather than going back to the dental school.

8. Did you originally intend to teach dental students? How did you get to where you are today?

Never. Never ever ever. I got into teaching by accident! We again ran out of research money in 2008, and I was made redundant by the university. I persuaded anatomy to allow me to go in as a lab technician instead. But before I got there I got an email saying ‘Do you want to teach the dental students?’, to which I replied ‘No’ to the first three times of asking… but when I got there, the head of department showed me how the oral biology course was being developed. That really impressed me, and it fulfilled my desire to think a little bit. As soon as I started, well apart from the first few lectures which actually terrified me – standing up in front of you lot and talking to you! – then I found that it was something I really liked. So that’s been a really nice surprise for me.

9. Being a member of the dental teaching staff, would you recommend dentistry to a younger relative now?

I would! Provided they had done their research, and they weren’t going into it for the reasons I did. These days motivations have to be quite high to do dentistry as it’s quite competitive to get in – you have more of an idea of what’s involved before you go in! But absolutely I would recommend it as a profession.

10. What advice do you have for us young dentists at the beginning of our careers?

What I would say is – you’ve all spent these five years working really really hard to get yourself into a position where it seems like the most natural thing to do is to go and get yourself a dental clinical job. I would recommend that most of you do that as it’s good to get your clinical training first. But what I would say is after that if you have any reservations, or if you have other pathways you’d like to follow, have the courage of your convictions to do so. There are many interesting career paths you can go down with dentistry.

11. Would you would have done anything differently, looking back?

Looking back, I think I probably should’ve kept my clinical skills going. But having said that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of the jobs I’ve had – so I can’t be sure if I could’ve kept them going and done the same things I did. And knowing now what I feel about basic science and research, I would’ve done an intercalated degree.

12. What do you do outside of the university?

I’ve run a Brownie pack for 28 years – that’s working with children 7-10 years old, and now help out with a guide company – 40 girls aged 10-15. I do a lot of walking and cycling – used to do mountain biking but now I ride my bike on the road rather than off-road! I have done a lot of scuba diving and have been lucky enough to go diving all around the world. I do a lot of travelling all over the world to see wildlife too. I go around this country a lot to see my parents and three sisters.

13. Where’s your favourite place in Bristol?

That’s quite a difficult one! But I’d probably say Colston Hall – I love to go and watch music – it’s somewhere I go quite frequently. Popular music on the whole, some folk music, all sorts really. All ones from quite a few years ago.

14. What are the top 3 things on your bucket list right now?

Well, firstly I want to own a dog, that’s what I’m going to do after I retire. Secondly I want to photograph a leopard in the wild – that is, I want to at least see a leopard in the wild – it’s not for want of trying, but I’ve only seen a dead one! And this year I’d like to cycle around southern Spain – Andalucia – up in the mountains. So I need to get fit enough to do that!

15. Apparently Dr Glen Wakely has run away to the Caribbean? If you could move away to anywhere in the world, where would it be?

Yes he has! He’s managing a vet school there, having a whale of a time. The honest answer is if it’s for work, I really wouldn’t want to work anywhere else other than the UK. But if I could choose a place out of interest to me, then I would choose the Galapagos Islands. I have been there before, but because I’m interested in wildlife, it would be one of the best places to go to do my hobbies more – diving with the wildlife around the island too.

16. Now let’s add time travel into the mix… if you could move forward or backward in time, when would you go?

Definitely forwards! But not too far, maybe 100 years, just to see if anything that’s going on now has come to fruition, and to see how different life would be in a relatively small amount of time – just think how different things were 100 years ago! I think AI will be a big feature – will be interesting to see what jobs are left…

17. If you had to compete on a reality television show, which would it be?

The ones I watch I wouldn’t want to go on – like Strictly – I’d never want to go on that! I’d probably go on one of the outdoorsy ones, like the Bear Grylls ones – The Island or something like that.

18. Imagine you went back to being a dentist: if you could treat any celebrity, which celebrity would it be? (includes ones from the past!)/

At first I thought it would be Gordon Buchanan, he’s a wildlife cameraman. It’d be nice to see if I could wangle my way onto some of his trips! But no I’d probably want Eric Morecambe. [upon seeing our blank faces] He was part of a comedy duo called Morecambe and Wise, and they were really popular back when I was growing up – to my mind Eric Morecambe is the funniest guy that I have ever seen. That didn’t interest you much, did it? You’ll have to google him!

19. And finally: if you were a dental instrument, which dental instrument would you be?

Probably an intra-oral camera! Because I’m quite nosey, I like to know what’s going on around me! And I like photography.

It’s the Ask the Staff tradition to leave two questions for the next interviewee to answer! We have two questions from Dr Puryer:

20. If you could have lived and worked anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

If I was forced to, I’d go to France or maybe Italy, because then I’d need to learn another language and I’d really love to do that! But I’m a bit lazy about it when I don’t have to.

21. If Hollywood was to make a film about your life, who would you want to play you and why?

I’d probably say Julie Walters. Google her as well! She’s known for working with Victoria Wood as part of a comedy duo as well as for her film work, and she’s older – I wouldn’t choose somebody young! She seems very straightforward, honest, funny, so that’s who I’d like it to be.

What two questions would you like to put forward to the next lucky interviewee?

Which superpower would you like to have, and why?
If you could, which event from the past would you like to have witnessed or reported on?

Thank you once again for your time – We’ve definitely learnt a lot about you!  As you’re retiring at the end of this year, we’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for all the work you’ve done here, and wish you the very best of luck for the future.

By Christina Tran and Lu Khoo

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