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University of Sunderland Graduations: Dr Nicola Hutchinson receives Alumni award

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Published on 14 July 2022

Dr Nichola Hutchinson
Dr Nichola Hutchinson

Dr Nicola Hutchinson received the Alumni Achiever Award at the Stadium of Light yesterday (Wednesday, 13 July). The award is given to a graduate of the University of Sunderland who has exhibited outstanding, noteworthy achievement in their field.

Nicola graduated from BSc Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences in 2001 and is now Chief Executive Officer of the North East and North Cumbria Academic Health Sciences Network.

Her BSc Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences degree was the starting point for a highly successful career in life sciences and business. It was also the culmination of an ambition that started in a mining village in County Durham.

Nicola originally wanted to train as a pharmacist. Her brother, Steven, was born with severe cerebral palsy and had to take what Nicola calls “a cocktail of drugs” to keep him alive. As a young child growing up, she unfortunately knew all about the threat of antibiotic resistance. Nicola knew that one day, due to his poor health, Steven would be affected.  Sadly, he died while Nicola was studying for her A-levels.

She said: “I came from a small village, so everyone knew about my brother. I really wanted to fly the nest, and my brother’s illness convinced me I wanted to study Pharmacy in order to help others like him. But I hadn’t quite got the A-levels I needed to study for a Pharmacy degree.”

Nicola came to Sunderland to study BSc Chemical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, planning to transfer to Pharmacy in her second year. But while studying she discovered a real love of chemistry.

She said: “It was such a great experience. I worked hard, but it was my first time living away from home and I loved it. At Sunderland I started making the connections that ultimately would carve out my career.”

Nicola’s talent shone through and in her third year she was offered a placement at Astra Zeneca based in Loughborough. Though she says she was initially “horrified” at the thought of moving away from the north-east for a year, it was ultimately the making of her. She was one step closer to her dream of being able to help others through a career in drug discovery.

In order to support this ambition, Nicola studied for a PhD in Organic Chemistry in Durham, and planned to study for a Post Doc. But to her surprise her PhD supervisor turned her application down.

Nicola says: “He believed it was important to go out and spread your wings. I was shocked by that at the time, but looking back now I completely understand.”

Nicola spent a year working as an industrial chemist for Filtrona Filters. She ultimately decided that wasn’t the right path for her. But through that role she made connections with RTC North based in Sunderland, where she was offered a role as Intellectual Property Manager. Eventually Nicola headed up a project called the NHS Innovations North Hub. The Hub was responsible for identifying, developing and commercialising new ideas emerging from NHS front line staff with the aim of improving the lives of patients.  

In 2011, Nicola was part of a regional team that bid to the Department of Health and Social Care to create the Academic Health Science Network for the North East and North Cumbria. For the next couple of years, she spent half of her time working for RTC North, and half of her time setting up the Network.

Today, Nicola is Chief Executive of the Academic Health Science Network for the North East and North Cumbria. The Network is a membership organisation that brings together the NHS, academia and industry with a remit to improve patient outcomes. They also stimulate economic growth by supporting the development and adoption of new, and improved innovations. The Network is one of fifteen regional Academic Health Science Networks covering England.

She says: “Sunderland really is a key player in the Network and is involved in a number of our programmes of work. For a long time I worked  closely with Professor Roz Anderson. She was my former tutor all those years ago, and we kept in touch. Before she died, I was trying to support her to secure private investment funding for her research into the rare genetic illness, Cystinosis.” 

More recently, Nicola played a key role in creating the North East Futures University Technical College, sponsored by the University of Sunderland. 

Now in its fourth year, based in the Stephenson Quarter in Newcastle, the college specialises in health care, life sciences and digital studies.

Nicola added: “Sunderland has such a special place in my heart. It is such an agile university to work with, and it’s a place that never forgets people. I’ve had multiple opportunities to reconnect with people I knew at Sunderland who have helped in my career. As part of that relationship I’ve also brought opportunities to the University.

“I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve thought: “Sunderland can do that.”