Associate Surgical Specialty Leads – championing a new generation of colorectal researchers

Since 2013, BDRF has joint-funded a Royal College of Surgeons surgical specialty lead (SSL) in bowel disease. Like our joint work with NIHR to fund recruiters to surgical trials, it’s part of our mission to see more research done around the UK.

Two Associate Surgical Specialty Leads (ASSLs) have now been appointed to help them champion colorectal research among Trainee surgeons. The benefits of this revolution in research culture to patient care will be enormous.

Nick Heywood & Abigail Vallance have been leading figures in important, groundbreaking studies. Nick has chaired the North West Research Collaborative, one of the Trainee-led groups who have delivered incredible research successes and continue to go from strength to strength.

Abi has been key to some of the most important bowel cancer research in the country, leading the National Bowel Cancer Audit as RCS Clinical Research Fellow, and is now joint lead investigator for the IMPACT audit, a major BDRF-funded project that aims to improve access to specialist cancer services for people with advanced rectal cancer.

Speaking about the new role, Nick said “I was Chair of the Northwest research collaborative (NWRC) between 2014 and 2017 and have been actively involved in collaborative research ever since. I’ve had the privilege of working with many of the leading research active colorectal consultants from around the country, whose leadership and advice has been invaluable and which I’m keen to share with others. My time as chair of the NWRC allowed me to encourage colleagues to pursue surgical research projects and to provide opportunities and mentorship for junior trainees who are just starting out. It can be tempting to try to be involved in every research project coming through, however through experience I’ve realised that in addition to leading research studies, there are many opportunities to promote and support research, and facilitate opportunities for others to successfully deliver their projects.

I see the future of trainee led surgical research as a ladder, with each trainee climbing upwards, being helped by the trainee above them, whilst ensuring they are themselves supporting the trainee below to progress. For continuing success, the chain needs to continue and I see the role of the aSSL as an important part of that process at regional, national and international levels.”

Abi said: “I’ve always had a keen interest in research and took an MD studying advanced colorectal cancer while I was clinical fellow for the National Bowel Cancer Audit, based at the Royal College of Surgeons of England. I’ve been an executive committee member of the trainee colorectal society, the Dukes’ Club, for three years now. Through this I’ve had the chance to become involved with the Dukes’ Club Research Collaborative. 

 I am absolutely delighted to be appointed with Nick as one of the colorectal aSSLs. I look forward to supporting Dale and Susan with the upcoming research sandpit event, where we have the opportunity to develop and collaborate on promising research ideas. Alongside this we will be formally assessing the wider impact of the ACPGBI/BDRF Delphi programme. I hope the aSSL role will evolve naturally during my tenure and I can continue to work as both an independent and collaborative researcher to improve the outcomes for patient with colorectal diseases.  



We’re excited to support Abi & Nick’s work going forward, and really looking forward to being part of the explosion in much-needed research to help people suffering from bowel disease. If you’re a Trainee surgeon or Medical Student – you can get involved in your nearest collaborative here.

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