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An Interview with Distinguished University Professor Gordon Guyatt, OC, FRSC (Part Two)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2017/05/08


An Interview with Distinguished University Professor Gordon Guyatt, OC, FRSC. He discusses: personal research style; good and bad educators, and good and bad students; earning professional recognitions; responsibilities associated with exposure in the media; and what makes a good speaker and presentation on medicine and public policy.

Keywords: biostatistics, epidemiology, Gordon Guyatt, McMaster University, research.

An Interview with Distinguished University Professor Gordon Guyatt, OC, FRSC (Part Two)[1],[2],[3],[4]

*Footnotes in & after the interview, & citation style listing after the interview.*

*This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What defines personal research style to you?

Professor Gordon Guyatt: A couple of things. One style may be a little obsessive-compulsive, which is required to some extent. I contrast myself with an extremely successful researcher who has everything planned for the future. He knows. For this guy, with his 5-year plan, he can go right up to 4 years and 11 months. He knows. He has a direction. I am at the other extreme. Where you ask me what I am going to be doing 3 months from now, I couldn’t tell you.

It suits me, especially with the different graduate students. Each doing something different. I can’t even track them. I follow along. So the contrasting strategies are a careful plan versus whatever idea occurs to you today and follow it along. Those are extreme differences.

Another style issue is collaboration. I’m in this extremely collaborative environment, but there are gradients. There are people who like to collaborate, but they prefer more to do their own thing. They like to lead projects. The contrast is between enjoying the collaborative working environment whatever one’s roles as opposed to being the boss.

Some investigators like to be a boss and equality in collaboration with younger or junior folks is less their style. I see myself at the other extreme of someone who loves collaboration and loves creating teams of people. Others may not be ready to treat juniors as equals, not ready to tell them explicitly, “It’s your project. You make decisions. I’ll make suggestions. I’ll make a case. I’ll tell you if I think you’re going wrong. I’ll tell you how I think it could be made better, but it’s your project and your decision.” Those are different approaches.

Each approach has its merits. There are many successful people who are disciplined, have a plan, like to be the boss, and still manage mentorship. It is not one is better than the other, or right or wrong, but I see myself more in the collaboration and team creation side of the spectrum.

2. Jacobsen: I will dig a little deeper, but connect this to mentors and students. What differentiates a good teacher or educator from the bad one, and the good student from the bad one?

Guyatt: There are different styles. A good teacher has to be enthusiastic, love what they’re doing, deeply care about what they’re doing, place a high value on sparking the excitement, response, interest, and engagement of the learner. Ideally, or to some extent a necessity, being a good at explaining, clarifying, simplifying, finding ways to communicate concepts so the light goes on in the learner. The bad teacher will be the opposite. Not terribly excited, not a high level of enthusiasm.

Also, not caring about whether the message gets through or not, and simply wants to teach the course and move on, not very good at communicating concepts, and so on, it would be the absence of the positive characteristics. Good students, it is nice if they are smart. It is nice if they are well organized. I have students who are limited in those ways. Fortunately, even those folks are committed, hardworking, most are good listeners, they take direction well.

If lucky, the best learners are imaginative, pick up ideas fast, start using the concepts themselves, start coming up with great ideas I would never have thought, which is the imagination, energetic, and enthusiastic. Occasionally, somebody comes along. A few people come along who have everything. I have had the opportunity to mentor them. It is wonderful. Most of the people in this huge slew of these PhD students only have one or more of the characteristics. Most care, are committed and hardworking, but there is tremendous variability.

3. Jacobsen: You earned the McMaster University “President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching” (Course or Resource Design), short-list for the “British Medical Journal Lifetime Achievement Award,” as well as the positions of Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences, Distinguished University Professor at McMaster University, Officer of the Order of Canada, Fellow of the Ryan Society of Canada, and a member of the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame.[5] These mean weight to professional work, lifetime achievement, and expressed opinions by you. What do these recognitions mean to you?

Guyatt: Two mean the most to me. One is the Order of Canada or Officer of the Order of Canada because of the recognition outside of science and medicine. It is a recognition of contribution to the wider society. The other called the – the Canadian Institutes of Health is the leading academic granting body in the country, the premier, the most prestigious grants, and they have an award called – Canada’s Health Researcher of the Year (CHR), which doesn’t mean great job for the year. It is a career award. It is saying, “Who is the top researcher in the country to whom we haven’t already given an award?” There is a competition for research dollars among basic scientists, test-tube physiology-oriented scientists, and folks like me who are clinical researchers.

The basic researchers dominate the CHR. That is, the clinical epidemiology researchers see those guys get more of the money than us. There is a competition between groups. Most people would agree that the senior leadership in CHR is basic science. Anyway, several years ago, they gave me Canada’s Health Researcher of the Year award. It was nice. They were saying, “You’re the best researcher in the country, leaving aside all of those that have already won the award.” I earned the award as a clinical research, not as a basic researcher.

That was the recognition. On the one hand, with the Order of Canada, I was recognized for making a social contribution important to the society as a whole beyond my field; on the other hand, they chose me as the top researcher in the country. That was nice in terms of recognition.

4. Jacobsen: Associated with this. You have numerous representations in the media. What responsibilities to the public, and the medical, public policy, and scientific community?

Guyatt: To behave with integrity, the main responsibility when you disseminate is accuracy. Another specific concern is conflict of interest. Many people within the medical community who take public stances are conflicted. They get lots of money from industry. It is hard for that not to influence you. We have intellectual conflicts of interest. Every researcher prefers their research. If their findings contradict somebody else’s, then they are right. The other person’s findings must be wrong. This is a universal phenomenon.

There is a responsibility to be aware of one’s conflict of interest. When there are conflicts of interest, it is crucial to make the conflicts clear. Also, there is responsibility to attempt to minimize the conflicts of interest, and the presentation and interpretation of things. There is a responsibility to listen and be open to other perspectives. Other people’s points of views.

5. Jacobsen: You spoke in many, many venues and gave many, many other lectures. What makes a good speaker, and a great presentation on medicine and public policy?

Guyatt: There are the same pieces if you’re talking about medicine and public policy, or whether you’re talking about basic clin-epi. We will talk about large group presentations. [Laughing] I run a course on how to teach evidence-based healthcare. One of the things is the students often see what we hope is the best lectures. These group are small groups, but lectures are done well. They see a few lectures. Then we say, “What’s made this lecture good?” As much as we’d like to think we put on good lectures, there are issues.

First, the person must be enthusiastic. They must give the impression that they believe that what they’re talking about is interesting, energetic, and that manifests itself in various ways. I never speak from behind a podium. I give a roving mic. I come out in front of the audience getting or becoming immediate with the audience. As one of my colleagues has said, “Just talk to them.” Which means, be calm, relaxed, and conversational, and look around, and talk to the people in front of you, you should make eye contact.

With a 1,000 people, you can make eye contact all over the place. Well-organized, very knowledgeable about what you’re talking about, we have a rule: “Tell’em what you’re going to say, say it, and then tell’em what you’ve said.” An organization includes, “Okay, folks, here are the major points I’m going to make.” You do it. At the end, you say, “Okay, folks, what might you want to take away from this, what major points have we made.” That structure is a crucial thing.

Humor if you can manage it. Oh! Examples, tell stories, the way to communicate things if you’re speaking in public, my talks are mostly story after story after story of illustrating things. You need to engage people by telling stories. One thing, I have done this stuff for so long. It comes naturally. I have to be careful. If I am not careful, I will be talking at the same time in – not quite a monotone, but a very even tone.

“Point one. Now, point two. Now, point three,” as opposed to, “Point one. Now, point three, which is much more important! Point three. Point four!” The modulation of tone and affect rather than an even tone and affect. That’s one thing. That’s a bunch of stuff. I could probably think of some more.


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Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Distinguished University Professor, Health Research Methods, Evidence and Impact, McMaster University.

[2] Individual Publication Date: May 8, 2017 at; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2017 at

[3] B.Sc., University of Toronto; M.D., General Internist, McMaster University Medical School; M.Sc., Design, Management, and Evaluation, McMaster University.

[4] Credit: McMaster University.

[5] Clarity Research. (2016). Clinical Advances Through Research and Information Translation. Retrieved from


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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