Published on 08 February 2019
Professor Debs Patten has come full circle.
After years honing her unique skills in different parts of the country, she has finally returned to her Wearside roots.
And what’s more, she is taking up her dream role as Professor of Anatomy at the University of Sunderland’s new School of Medicine.
It’s an opportunity she has dreamed of; the chance to be part of a pioneering new School that aims to educate, support and change the lives of students.
But, more than that, it also offers Debs the chance to give something back. Like her, many of the incoming new medics will come from diverse, non-traditional backgrounds.
In fact, Debs knows the hurdles students, who perhaps do not fit the ‘classic’ medical school criteria, face. Growing up in Ryhope, she attended St Patrick’s Primary School in the village before heading to St Anthony’s Girls’ School in the heart of the city.
It was there, she developed a taste for science, and while many of her friends opted for the creative subjects, Debs’ passion was with chemistry and biology.
Today, sitting in a University of Sunderland café, Debs smiles as she recalls just how she ended up back where she started.
Step back a generation.
Building worker Joe Patten arrives in Sunderland from the island of Achill, which lies off County Mayo on the west coast of the Republic of Ireland.
A long way from home, Joe found work as a joiner and settled in Ryhope where he would commute via bus into work. Right beside his bus stop was a paper shop that he would call into every morning. And behind the counter of that shop was a young worker called Doreen.
The pair would chat as Joe waited for his bus and, over time, love blossomed. They would go on to marry and have three children, twin daughters Joanne and Debra, and later Martin.
All three would excel at school but, for Debs, it was within the sciences, and more specifically, biology, where she felt most at home.
Debs said: “I was always a fairly practical child, I think. I loved discovering things and was always fascinated with how anything worked, especially the human body. I guess, like any pupil, the subjects I enjoyed the most were the ones I did best at.”
So, University life took Debs to Sheffield, where she took up a degree in Anatomy and Cell Biology.
“It gave me the chance to get involved in dissection,” recalls Debs. “Now that might sound odd, but I was simply fascinated by the human body and the chance to explore it more was so exciting to me.”
In between graduating and taking up a PhD, Debs took a year out where she had fun and supported herself working at the Abbey National Building Society and as a microbiology technician, amongst other jobs.
Returning back to study in Sunderland, Deb’s PhD was is neuropharmacology, but her passion remained with anatomy.
“A one-year post became available at St George’s Hospital in London,” adds Debs. “That was my chance to really get involved in the anatomy again and I loved it.”
A one-and-a-half year lectureship in Southampton followed, before she headed back north to Durham University’s Stockton Campus.
“It was good to be back in the region,” adds Debs. “Even though I enjoyed living in the south, I always knew I would eventually start making my way back home. I missed the sea, I missed the coastline; the place, the people.
After seven years with Durham, Debs moved to Newcastle University until the chance to return to Sunderland – and the job of her dreams – came up.
The opportunity to be part of something new, something unique was too good a chance to turn down.
“For me, that’s what it’s all about,” says Debs. “Here I get the chance to be involved from the beginning, to help shape and create; to give something back to the area where I came from.
“It’s exciting. I know where these students are coming from.
“My dad was a construction worker in the North East during the 80’s – he was in and out of work and so there were lean times for sure. As a university student I was from a non-traditional background.
“While I don’t think that held me back academically in any way, I suppose – now I look back – it maybe did mean that I wasn’t quite as self-assured as some of my peers, and for me, the encouragement of good teachers was so important.”
Today, living in Ryhope, Debs is married to husband Liam and the couple have a six-and-a-half year old son, Adam.
For the next six months, in the run-up the opening of the School of Medicine, Debs has her work cut out, if you’ll excuse the pun.
She is overseeing the setting up of the Anatomy laboratory in the University’s Sciences’ Complex and she is making sure the teaching and learning resources for the first cohort of students are in place.
Debs said: “Seeing a vision become reality is such an exciting opportunity, and what’s even better is I’m seeing that happen in my own home city.”
So what does this mum enjoy doing when she is not exercising her passion for anatomy?
“Well, I used to do a lot of running, mostly half-marathons and a bit of fell running,” she says. “Although these days I love my yoga and still have a passion for live music and theatre.”
At the end of the day, Debs knows why she took up this role.
“To be part of something that could, for generations to come, really benefit the region and the people who live here is a once-in-a-lifetime chance – what more could you ask for?”