How we completed our BSc research projects remotely

Three medical students reflect on how they navigated and completed their intercalated BSc research projects remotely amid the pandemic.

Ioannis Panselinas, BSc Translational Respiratory Medicine

Had someone told me back at the start of 2020 what the year would have in store, I would have probably said that they had stolen ideas from an Orwellian dystopia. Yet the world is currently in the grips of one of the most terrible pandemics in living memory. And among all the global disruption were us 4th year Imperial medics having to face a transition to remote working in the middle of project period. Unsurprisingly, lab work cannot be done from the comfort of our homes. So, as COVID-19 hit the UK, we were forced to cut short our experiments and were ultimately left with a looming deadline and a project to complete.  In retrospect, I think I can sum up my experience with the 5 stages of COVID disruption:

Denial, Bargaining, Panic, Depression, Acceptance.

I was at first, like many others, in denial, believing that the problem was far away and would not have any impact on my work. The day came, though, when labs closed and along with that, came the bargaining of trying to gain an extra day to finish experiments that were still running. Then the panic took over. Did I have enough data? Would I be able to write remotely? Would I be able to find pasta? The consequence was a wave of (unjustified as it turned out) depression that my project was in tatters.

Finally comes a realization that one must make the most of the data they already have and acceptance sets in. It took lengthy discussions with my supervisor and taking a step back to look at what I had gathered to finally come to terms with my situation. I was fortunate enough to have sufficient data to write my project as intended. However, I had to be careful to address the caveats of the limited sample size of my research. In retrospect, this experience did teach me an important part of research; reflection. One must look back on their science, question it and then draw their conclusions.

As most people have realized these past few months, working from home has its pros and cons. Let us just say that it is not for everyone. Admittedly, finding the motivation to work with so many disruptions and a pandemic raging outside it not the easiest of tasks. But a bit of discipline, unsubscribing from Netflix and a bit of deadline panic does the trick.

One day we will be back in labs and universities will be bustling with life. For now, we are staying safe, for us and everyone around us. This experience has made one saying ring very true; Man plans and God laughs. Yet, at least for the BSc project, all’s well that ends well.

Ravi Amin, BSc Cardiovascular Sciences

In an introductory session, we were warned that in research, regardless of how well you prepare, something will go wrong, and probably in ways you would not expect. In typical student fashion, we all nodded our heads whilst quietly thinking it would never happen to us. Suffice it to say, we were all wrong.

I had chosen to do a clinical project assessing the diagnostic utility of certain tests in dilated cardiomyopathy, so the institution of the lockdown meant that I could no longer access the patient information necessary to set-up my project – certainly not the start I was hoping for. Luckily, I was able to establish remote access and continue. However, when it came to data collection, I ran into another obstacle. I needed clinicians to make the diagnoses, but with the pandemic in full force, my proposed in-person consensus panel had to be amended, with the clinician assessment done individually and data collected remotely instead. Even in this format, with such high workloads in the hospitals, clinicians had little time to complete the necessary work. In short, data collection was not going well. Thanks to tremendous efforts from my supervisor (on ICU night shifts himself), the clinicians involved in the study, and support from our course leads, we were eventually able to collect the data. Analysis of the results and the subsequent write-up process proved far less eventful.

In the end, I was able to submit on time and create a product that will hopefully contribute, in some small way to future clinical practice. Throughout this module, I have learned a lot about the research process, especially its challenges, but also its importance in shaping clinical practice, and had the privilege of working with a host of dedicated researchers and clinicians along the way.

Also, next time a lecturer warns us of unforeseeable challenges, I will definitely pay more attention to it.

Nimryta Sembi, BSc Cardiovascular Sciences

My project aimed to investigate outcomes of pregnancy in women attending a Pregnancy and Heart Disease clinic, focussing on women who have congenital heart disease. This was in conjunction with the Royal Brompton Hospital (RBH) and Chelsea & Westminster Hospital (CWH) which gave me the opportunity to observe high-risk cardiac obstetric clinics. Having patient contact and the possibility to be able to improve health outcomes is one of the reasons I chose a clinical research project over a laboratory project.

The first stage of the project involved a large amount of data collection from various hospital databases at RBH and CWH. However, due to COVID-19, all projects transitioned to remote working and while I had some data for my project, it was not to the extent and detail that my team and I had been anticipating. At this point, due to a lack of post-pregnancy data, my project aims changed to investigating predictors of maternal mortality by focussing on analysis of baseline characteristics of women such as age, current medication use and number of previous surgical interventions.

Although this was initially quite disappointing as we were unable to follow patients through the entirety of their pregnancy, it compelled me to delve into a more detailed analysis of the data I already had. The project required me to learn to code using R which was challenging but also an incredibly fun new skill to get to grips with! Overall, I really enjoyed the freedom and breadth that doing a research project gives you as well as the opportunity to develop skills, such as scientific techniques, research skills and critical evaluation.

Despite completing my write-up and finishing my BSc, my research team and I are very keen to continue working on the project and I am very excited to see where I can take my new-found research skills in the future!

Ioannis, Ravi and Nimryta have completed their 4th year of MBBS Medicine at Imperial College School of Medicine. They undertook intercalated BSc programmes at the National Heart and Lung Institute (NHLI). 

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