Dr Craig Donaldson
Dr Craig Donaldson

Dr Craig Donaldson joined Plymouth University in February 2013 as Deputy Head of School. Promoted to Head in January 2016, he now oversees a vibrant multidisciplinary community that covers subject areas including biomedicine, human bioscience, clinical physiology, cardiology, and nutrition and fitness. In this interview, he provides an insight into his journey to higher education and how a road traffic accident as a teenager set him on the path to biomedical science.

Q: How has the move to the Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry changed your school?

I’d say it was a very good synergy for both our research and teaching. We are the science behind the medicine; biomedical science underpins the understanding of diagnoses and treatments, and provides a very good link to that translation from the bench to the bedside in developing new methodologies and techniques. Being aligned to a medical school has also helped with our recruitment of students, because not only do our students benefit from being part of that interdisciplinary community, but from a recruitment perspective we can offer several incentives that reduce the risk of losing people through adjustment. For example, we now have five places reserved each year where high-performing biomed students can apply to enter either medicine or dentistry at the end of their first year. And our graduates are eligible to apply for entry to the programmes in medicine and dentistry here without doing the UK GAMSAT tests for at least two years post-graduation. This year we had nine students enrol on medicine who had either moved across or had re-applied post-graduation.

Q: What is the attraction of biomedical degrees?

With biomedical sciences, it’s a great way to keep your career options open. You are looking at the science behind the disease and the treatment and diagnosis, so careers in this field are going to be with companies that are developing research, or new treatments and diagnostics, or equipment for the NHS. If students are thinking of becoming a biomedical scientist in the NHS, then the healthcare science is the course we advise them to take because that is the one that has NHS placements. Healthcare science is still a new term and there are some problems nationally recruiting to these courses because people associate it more with nursing rather than with biomedicine or clinical physiology. So we work hard to make that distinction clear at our open and offer holder days, and again when our students start their course.

Q: How do you assess the research standing of the school?

Being part of the medical school, and having those close ties with Derriford and the other hospitals, gives us a much stronger research link. And we have some very exciting projects under way. Dr Michael Jarvis’ work with ebolavirus is an area of strong interest; and in infection and immunity, Professor Simon Jackson and Dr Mat Upton are doing some fantastic work on antibiotic resistances and new methodologies. We are very keen on supporting the translation of research into real impact in our hospitals and surgeries, and Professor Neil Avent’s work on non-invasive diagnoses is a great example of that.

Dr Craig Donaldson says:

We are the science behind the medicine; biomedical science underpins the understanding of diagnoses and treatments, and provides a very good link to that translation from the bench to the bedside in developing new methodologies and techniques

Dr Craig Donaldson

Q: Was there a particular reason that you became interested in biomedicine?

I was interested in science at school, taking biology, chemistry and physics A levels. In the Lower 6th, I was thinking of applying for a biochemistry degree, but without any great thought about where that would lead career-wise. I was then in a road traffic accident, where I was knocked down by a bus, and I was in hospital with collapsed lungs for several weeks. While I was there, I had a couple of blood transfusions and had numerous blood samples taken, and I was intrigued as to what tests were done on them. It was through this experience that I became aware of the role of biomedical scientists in the NHS and decided that was what I wanted to do as a career.

Q: What are you most proud of in your career?

You could say I have had three separate careers over the years. I was a biomedical scientist in the NHS for 16 years, first in the National Blood Transfusion Service and then as Head of the Immunology Section within the Department of Haematology at Southmead Hospital, Bristol. I then moved into research and development, joining the University of Bristol, Department of Transplantation Sciences, where I set up and developed the Bristol Cord Blood Bank, a three-year initiative jointly funded by the Leukaemia Research Fund and the National Blood Service, to determine the feasibility of setting up a cord blood bank within the NHS. Subsequently I undertook research into expansion of haematopoietic stem cells to increase the transplanted cell dose while also undertaking a part-time PhD investigating immune-reconstitution post stem-cell transplants. When the grant funding came to an end with one year of my PhD to go, I was fortunate enough to gain a post as a Lecturer in Biomedical Science (Haematology & Immunology) at UWE Bristol. So my first year lecturing was spent juggling final year PhD commitments and a young family – which was interesting, and one of my proudest achievements. Looking back, while there have been many highlights in my university career, I think that time establishing the Cord Blood Bank ranks as the top.

Q: Is there anything on the horizon that the school needs to be prepared for?

We have a large number of accrediting bodies in our field, such as the Health and Care Professions Council and the Institute of Biomedical Science, so we need to be constantly in touch with them and our placement providers to ensure that our courses are producing the research-informed graduates that they need. We have an employer liaison group that meets twice per year so that we can gain that insight into those workforce requirements. We are also developing a masters degree in cardiac physiology and looking at CPD opportunities as there is a training shortfall in the NHS at the moment. I believe we can play an important role in improving that situation in the region.

School of Biomedical Sciences

The School of Biomedical Sciences is committed to three core aims: outstanding clinical education; strong social engagement; and world class research which will all feature strongly in your learning experience.

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School of Biomedical and Healthcare Sciences


Learn about our varied research topics within the Biomedical Research Group, which include:

Non-invasive pre-natal testing, new targets for cancer treatment, understanding macrophages, combating sepsis and self-disseminating vaccines.

Discover more about the Biomedical Research Group
Researcher looking down a microscope in a laboratory