A Trip to Galway, Ireland – November 2017

This week I was invited to the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUI Galway) by colleagues at the Irish Health Research Board Trials Methodology Research Network (HRB-TMRN). It was a flying visit – I flew into Dublin and then got the bus to Galway on Wednesday evening, and as I write this I’m in Dublin airport waiting for my flight home.

On Thursday I presented a big chunk of my thesis work in a HRB-TMRN workshop, advertised below:

This wasn’t the first time I’ve presented to an outside audience, so I didn’t think I’d be nervous at all – but for some reason I was.

The HRB-TMRN is a group made up of brilliant people, and the research group that I am part of has built fantastic links with them, so honestly, I just didn’t want to screw up and make the Aberdeen team look bad! All was well though, the 3 hour workshop went really fast, and (I think!) I managed to create a pretty relaxed atmosphere where people could ask questions and discuss issues. We just about stuck to time, even with all the fantastic discussion points that were raised throughout – and everyone seemed to have gained some knowledge from the workshop at the end.

I’m not going to put slides for the sessions up on here, but I will turn each of the sessions into a blog post at some point – I really need to focus on getting this work into papers and thesis chapters over the next few months and the cynic in me is cautious about sharing slides on this before publication!

Group work the Irish way – facilitated by Taytos.

After the workshop ended I went for a coffee with a few members of the team, which gave my brain a chance to decompress after listening to the sound of my own voice for 3 hours. We also used this as an opportunity to discuss pieces of work that we’re collaborating on at the moment, which was really helpful. This was the first time I’ve met lots of members of the team in person (Skype and emails drive the world of research), and it was so lovely to put personalities to names. Such a fab group of people with real enthusiasm for what they’re doing.

My whirlwind day ended with dinner out with the team – a brilliant and hilarious evening filled with laughter and the best seafood I’ve had in a long time. Looking forward to the Irish contingent’s trip to Aberdeen in January!

(R-L) Dr Sandra Galvin, me, Dr Catherine Houghton, Dr Patricia Healy, Prof Declan Devane, Dr Linda Biesty.

Breaking Down The Silos – Global Evidence Summit 2017

I’m currently in Cape Town for the Global Evidence Summit; no doubt there will be a few blog posts over the coming days/weeks about what I’m up to over here, what I’m learning, and what it’s like to travel so far from home as part of my PhD. I wanted to write this post whilst it’s fresh in my mind – so it’s a little more research focussed than the exciting travel pictures I hope to bring you soon!

One of the main reasons I wanted to come to the Global Evidence Summit was for one of the themed days. Each of the conference days starts with a plenary, and then there are threaded sessions that allow you to explore a subject in more depth throughout the rest of the day. After a bit of a nightmare with flight delays and missed connections, I missed the first day of the conference. The second day was always going to be my highlight though; day 2 focussed on the ‘Evidence Ecosystem’ and ensuring that we improve the way the entire ecosystem of evidence generation works together, to ensure that evidence can lead to improved patient care.

The plenary session was absolutely brilliant, and certainly did not disappoint.

BREAKING DOWN THE SILOS: Digital and trustworthy evidence ecosystem

This plenary will set out to understand how explicit links between actors are needed – and now possible – to close the loop between new evidence and improved care, through a culture for sharing evidence combined with advances in methods and technology/platforms for digitally structured data.

The session featured talks from Chris Mavergames, Karen Barnes, Greg Ogrinc and Jonathan Sharples, and gave a really brilliant overview of what the evidence ecosystem is, the actors within it, and how it all links together. The cycle below gives you an idea of what I’m talking about (image taken from the MAGIC Project website).

My work, which focusses on improving the efficiency of clinical trials, fits into the ‘Produce evidence’ section at 9 o’clock on the cycle above. As passionate as I am about improving the production of primary research evidence – it is of absolutely no use whatsoever if the rest of the ecosystem doesn’t function properly. So, we need to improve the way we generate primary research evidence, but then ensure that that evidence is synthesised and reviewed effectively and efficiently too. In turn, that information can then be disseminated to clinicians, then to patients, the evidence can be implemented, and then we evaluate it and use it to improve practice. The cycle then begins again.

This plenary session then led to threaded sessions throughout the rest of the day – the first of which I was given the opportunity to co-chair. This was my first experience of co-chairing anything, so I was a bit nervous, but mainly really excited to listen to the speakers’ presentations and then be able to take part in the discussion that followed.

Threaded session 1 of Thursday was titled ‘The inefficiency of isolation: Why evidence providers and evidence synthesisers can break out of their silos’, and focussed on the journey from producing evidence to synthesising evidence.

The 4 talks in this session were:

  1. The problems of poor and siloed primary research – a funder’s view (Matt Westmore).
  2. New ways to access primary research data (Ida Sim).
  3. Data journeys from studies to accelerated evidence synthesis (Anna Noel-Storr).
  4. Connecting primary research and synthesis in education – experiences of operating in a linked system (Jonathan Sharples)

Honestly, these talked linked together really beautifully, and gave me lots to think about in terms of what I can be doing to try and make sure that my research is slotting into the wider evidence ecosystem in a more cohesive way.

Matt gave a funder’s perspective on the problem of disconnected research, and explained what the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) in the UK are doing to combat these problems. He also gave Trial Forge a shout out too which is always welcome!

Ida’s talk showcased Vivli and explained why it’s so important to share clinical trial meta-data to ensure that we’re not duplicating effort. I’d never heard of Vivli before I’d started doing research into the speakers on the panel, so this was a really interesting session.

Anna gave a fantastic talk on the journey that data takes from studies all the way through to evidence syntheses – the image below shows a slide that she used to explain what evidence sysnthesis is used for, I thought it was a really good way to communicate the concept so I’ve included it here.

Anna is also heavily involved with Cochrane Crowd – a platform that allows volunteers to help to categorise evidence to ensure that evidence syntheses are more efficient. It’s a brilliant platform and one that I’ve contributed to, and with continue to contribute to (probably when I have more time post-PhD though!).

Jonathan then impressed us all with his experience of doing research in the UK education sector. Education is clearly an entirely different beast than healthcare is, but the work that Jonathan and the rest of the team at the Education Endowment Foundation have done really is astounding. I think there’ll be lots of healthcare researchers dissecting the work they’ve done in an effort to try and translate some of their successes into the world of evidence-based healthcare.

I’m not going to go into detail about the rest of the threaded sessions because I’ll be here all day, but as expected they were great. The way that this conference has covered different topics and themes has been so useful, but also totally overwhelming – there is just so much going on! If you’d like to know more about the other threaded sessions, and the Global Evidence Summit as a whole, take a look here.

Using Your (Research) Superpowers for Good

Yesterday I spent the afternoon at a foodbank in Aberdeen conducting interviews as part of a project with the University of Aberdeen’s Enterprising Researchers Programme. Enterprising Researchers gets PhD students out of their usual environment and into local businesses. The aim of this is not only to empower researchers to think differently about their research through developing enterprising behaviours, but it allows local businesses to benefit from the skills of PhD students too.

I applied for the programme towards the end of last year; after passing the group interview stage I was then able to apply to a variety of projects advertised. These projects spanned every industry you could think of; oil & gas, food & drink, scientific research, third sector and beyond. I applied for one project based with Community Food Initiatives North East (CFINE). CFINE is a unique business in that it’s part enterprise (selling wholesale fruit and vegetables to businesses and within the community, and offering cookery classes through their ‘Cook at the ‘Nook’ facility), and part charity (offering foodbank services, financial capabilities help and support across Aberdeen City & Shire and Moray). I interviewed with CFINE’s Chief Executive and an Enterprising Researchers Project Officer from the University, and was offered the project.

CFINE’s Cook at the ‘Nook facility

The work itself took a while to properly get off the ground – getting admin sorted, protocols written and the project registered took around 2 months as I was fitting this around usual PhD work, and the freelance work I do as well. This month I’m starting data collection, and it’s going so well! With this project I’m speaking to a variety of people across CFINE’s business and charity sectors; volunteers, beneficiaries of the foodbank and people using the other support services they offer. The work aims to build on some work CFINE have done internally, and figure out what impact the organisation has on its volunteers and users, and how CFINE can improve going forward.

This isn’t a paid project. Every student that’s part of the Enterprising Researchers Programme (ERP) is juggling their own PhD projects, conference attendances, report writing, academic reading etc, with their ERP project.

I’m not writing this post to demonstrate that the people taking part in this programme are great (though we are pretty great!). I wanted to write this post to encourage other PhD students and established researchers to use their research skills to help others. CFINE runs largely on the work and generosity of volunteers; some people volunteer for an afternoon each week, others are there packing orders and manning the foodbank every day – for some it’s like a full time job.

Foodbanks in Aberdeen are reaching their limit; CFINE put out a call last week because they are low on food, a few months before another foodbank in the north of the city completely ran out of supplies. Initially I wanted to donate and volunteer at CFINE, but using my time to carry out research for them means they’re getting better value from the time I’m giving.

The CFINE foodbank

As PhD students we’re building lots of different skills; we’re figuring out how to design, conduct and report research. We’re also working to juggle multiple things at once, communicate complex information in oral and written forms, and get everything done before funding runs out. These skills are all transferable, and could be hugely valuable to the charities and local businesses around you. If you’re thinking of volunteering, I’d really recommend reaching out to charities to see if they could use your research skills. The services we can offer could save them the effort of finding research companies, and the financial costs involved.

My day at CFINE yesterday wasn’t just of benefit to them. I came back home after a jam-packed day feeling motivated and enthusiastic, and really excited to carry on with the project. Use your research superpowers for things other than your PhD; it’ll give you that warm fuzzy feeling and it’ll help your community too.

The First Year of My PhD: Advice For New Starts

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a short talk at one of the University of Aberdeen’s Postgraduate Research Student Induction sessions entitled ‘The First Year of My PhD’. It’s a short session for new postgraduate researcher students across all disciplines within the university, with the aim of demonstrating how varied PhD experiences are, as well as sharing a few helpful hints and tips on what new starts should expect over the course of their first year of study. It takes  place next Tuesday so I figured this was a good time to get my thoughts in order. Hopefully some of you will find this useful – if you have any burning questions please let me know so that I can add answers in to my talk too!

So, a few things I learned during my first year of the PhD:

Getting your head around the project takes time
PhD advertisements usually include a basic outline of what your Supervisors see you doing, but the project should be yours. You’ll be the one ranting to your best friend at 10pm because your approvals haven’t come back and you need to get started with data collection – so it’s useful if you feel a sense of ownership over the project. Spend the first few weeks, if not months, getting to grips with what the project looks like; where it fits in with the current literature, and what you need to do to get it going. At the beginning I wrote a PhD protocol. It wasn’t anything formal, but it forced me to look at the big picture.

Building brownie points is really important
A PhD is a big coordinated effort with you at the core doing the majority of the work. For example, for my systematic review (protocol here) I wanted to do abstract screening, full text assessment, data extraction and risk of bias assessment all in duplicate. That’s a huge amount of work for one person, so finding someone to be my second was sometimes tricky. Of course Supervisors always offer to help, but they’ve got enough going on and it’s a good idea to get other researchers involved too. In come the banked brownie points! Offer to help out on other projects, do some abstract screening for another student, or write up minutes of meetings – integrate yourself into your team and you’ll find it much easier to ask for help when you need it later down the line.

Don’t be intimidated by the phrase ‘you’re doing a PhD’
Just after I started the PhD I was in the pub with some friends, someone asked what I did and I told them I had just started a PhD. They acted like I’d just told them I’d won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry – ‘Woah, you must be so clever!’ – this was coming from a qualified paramedic, i.e. someone who regularly saves lives. In comparison to my office-based daily activities of reading, writing and interviewing that seems a bit crazy to me. I thought about it for too long and started to doubt whether I was good enough to do a PhD – maybe I wasn’t clever enough? A word of advice, a PhD is more about resilience than intelligence, so just keep going and don’t fall into the trap of being intimidated by the process. More about so-called Imposter Syndrome here.

Little victories will keep you motivated
Some parts of the PhD take a really long time – I’ve currently been working on my systematic review for 15 months and I’ve only just got to the interpretation bit (i.e. the fun bit). It’s important to set yourself realistic goals over the course of the PhD so that you stay motivated throughout. I’m someone who write lists for everything, so each morning I write a list of things I want to do that day, and as a rule I don’t leave the office until that list is complete. These daily lists keep me on track and feeling like I have a purpose, even when the projects are long and can sometimes feel never-ending.

phd-comics

Manage the expectations of the people around you
I have a few friends who are also doing PhDs, but the majority of the people around me have no idea what I do each day – sometimes my Mum genuinely asks me if I’m going to school that day (Yes, really. I’m 25 and she still calls it school.). Anyway, there will be times throughout your PhD where you have a bit of a meltdown – this undergraduate dissertation hand-in day multiplied by at least a hundred. Explain to your friends/family/partner/dog etc that you’ll probably be a bit of a nightmare to be around every now and again for the next 3 years or so – do this at the beginning of the process and they’re much less likely to want to smother you when you wake them up at 3am because you’ve lost your USB stick. (Disclaimer: They might still want to smother you, but at least you’ve warned them early on in the process and you can use the phrase ‘I told you I’d be a nightmare’).

What advice would you pass on to new PhD students? Leave a comment and share your experiences!

A Trip to Oslo, Norway – February 2017

Travelling is something that I’ve always loved; I get itchy when I don’t have a trip booked – whether that’s to a new city, country or continent. I enjoy exploring new places and new cultures, and I knew that I’d like to take as many opportunities to travel from the day I started my PhD. I’ve always been clear with my Supervisor that travel is on my agenda, so both he and I can keep an eye out for opportunities/conferences etc further afield.

So far the travel aspect of my PhD hasn’t been super exciting – I’ve spent a lot of time in various cities around the UK, but no where further. That’s been fine with me though, I’ve used my holidays to explore different places instead, so far travelling to: Denmark, Thailand, Iceland and Austria. PhD-wise though, at the beginning of this month I was given the opportunity to travel to Oslo, Norway for a few days – hoorah!

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If you’ve never been to Oslo, I would really recommend that you do. I was a bit nervous before I went because I have never travelled to a non-English speaking country alone before, it turns out Norway is not exactly non-English speaking! The country is essentially bilingual; every time I asked if someone spoke English I was greeted with the response, “of course I do, how can I help?”. Travelling around Oslo was also incredibly simple, the metro system, buses and trams all seemed to work seamlessly. They were always on time, super clean, and very easy to navigate.

Aside from the practicalities of getting around, Oslo is such a cool place to be. After 3 days of meetings and work-related activity, my boyfriend flew out so that we could spend some time exploring Oslo together. We had such a good time! Earlier in the week everyone had been saying how awful the weather was, it was -4 degrees C and snowing on and off, but compared to Aberdeen which is often grey and rainy, the snow was a welcome change.

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So, why did I go out to Oslo in the first place? The trip was part of a project funded by a grant we received from the Chief Scientist Office (CSO) of Scotland last year. The project is the core of my PhD work, and aims to find out how trial teams are currently doing trial recruitment, what sort of evidence researchers need to design effective trial recruitment strategies, and how that evidence should be presented to them.

I met with colleagues at the Regional Centre for Child and Adolescent Mental Health, Eastern and Southern Norway (RBUP), and the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for the Health Services (Kunnskapssenteret), to talk about trial recruitment experiences and issues, and tools and resources that might help. The individuals I spoke to were all hugely welcoming, helpful and enthusiastic about my work – I came home feeling excited to get back to my desk and get my teeth into this PhD again. Since I came back on February 6th I’ve Skyped with a few more members of the team out in Oslo, and again they’ve been brilliant! Over the next few weeks I hope to continue to collaborate and build relationships with the team, particularly at the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for the Health Services; my research and interests align with the team there most closely.

If you’re in the process of PhD study, I’d really recommend that you try to integrate some travel into your work. Personally I think it helps with motivation and enthusiasm for your own work, but more importantly it undoubtedly strengthens the work you’re doing. Speaking with new people gives new insights into the work you’re doing, can make you think differently about the way you conduct your research, and ultimately ensures that the results of the work you’re doing have a greater impact on the research community around you.

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