So, you might recognise today’s Scientist in the Spotlight as she has already featured before on Soph talks science as a guest blogger when I was away on holiday. So, let me re-introduce to you, Heidi G.
This Northern gal who is from a small town called Hexham near Newcastle is ambitious and creative with her science and her science communication, but has a tendency to be sarcastic – a girl after my own heart 😛 She told me that one of her old flatmates once described her as ‘adorable, but quick witted to the point of verbal ruin’ which probably paints the best picture of this kind female scientist! Obviously, living in the North of England was not cold enough for her, so she moved to Aberdeen in Scotland 7 years ago.
Heidi is not your traditional scientist and does not spend her days in the lab doing experiments, but instead works in clinical trials where her research is working to find evidence for how we can recruit people to clinical trials more effectively, as if we don’t recruit enough people, the results are not reliable and then a huge waste of time, money and resources.
So, let’s delve a little deeper into the life of Heidi – a scientist that doesn’t work in a lab!
Firstly, can you tell us more about clinical trials?
Heidi: Clinical trials are the thing that tells us whether a healthcare intervention (medicine, device – e.g. an inhaler, a type of surgery, a lifestyle change – e.g. diet or exercise) is safe and effective.
Lots of the trials I look at are looking at interventions that have already been approved and are already used within healthcare systems around the world, but we don’t know which is best – I’ll give you an example; if you have gallstones is it best to do surgery to remove the gallbladder, or to go ahead with medical management (e.g. painkillers)? At the moment the NHS can do both, but lots of doctors choose the surgery route because it’s seen as a relatively simple and routine surgery, others use medical management and their patients are often fine too. Which is better though? By better here we mean the thing that’s safer, more effective, and more cost-effective.
If it’s medical management then the results of that trial could mean thousands of people don’t have to have surgery each year – it would save the NHS millions, potentially billions of pounds. If the answer is that surgery is better, we could save lots of patients suffering for longer – they wouldn’t go on medical management, they’d be referred straight for surgery, so their health issues would be sorted sooner. That gallbladder example is a real trial that’s being done in my department at the moment – these results feed directly into the NHS so that we can make sure that the healthcare we are offering is as efficient as it can be.
Trials take a really long time, lots of people, and lots of money. My work is related to the methods that we use to do the trial itself, so my results can be widely applied across anything from cancer clinical trials to trials of flu vaccines or gallbladder surgery.
So, where does your research fit into this?
Heidi: At the moment the evidence-base for how to design clinical trials is very thin, which is weird considering that trials are the method we use to generate a reliable evidence-base for healthcare interventions. I’m looking at the process of recruiting participants into clinical trials. Currently the only strategy that we have solid evidence for, and that can be widely applied across trials, is telephone reminders – i.e. if you’ve sent a potential participant a letter, giving them a call to remind them about that letter helps… not rocket science. We need more strategies with an evidence-base to allow trialists to do recruitment more effectively. Almost half of clinical trials are estimated to recruit poorly; if trials don’t recruit to target, their results may be false.
What got you interested in clinical trials and science in the first place?
Heidi: When I was at school I knew I wanted to do something related to science, at first I thought that was medicine – but after speaking to people who had studied medicine I decided that it definitely wasn’t for me! I eventually decided on Pharmacology, and began my undergraduate degree at the University of Aberdeen in 2010. Degrees in Scotland are usually 4 years, but I extended mine to 5 by taking a year away from structured study on an industrial placement. Basically I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after graduation, so a placement year after 3rd year was a good route to give me some experience and extra time to decide what I wanted to do.
My placement year was based with a recruitment company that worked on finding staff for clinical trials – so I was office-based, not lab-based like lots of my friends were. I loved the flexibility that office-based working gave me, and really enjoyed being a part of the clinical trials process. The PhD was a bit of a fluke really! I had hired research nurses whilst on my placement year, and their shifts were getting cancelled because there weren’t enough participants on the trials they were working on. I started doing some research on how to attract participants to trials and couldn’t find much at all – which led me to finding my current PhD Supervisor. Luckily he was based in Aberdeen too, so when I’d come back to uni to finish my degree I met him for a coffee to talk about recruitment – he had a PhD advertised, so I applied, did the interview and then was offered the PhD that afternoon. I was so lucky with that process!
You are a scientist but don’t work in the traditional lab environment. Do people think you are ‘not a proper scientist’?
Heidi: Yes, totally! Lots of people don’t understand that you can be a scientist and not wear a lab coat! It’s so easy to fall into the trap of just playing up to the lab coat thing too; I’ve been involved with public engagement activities before I’ve worn a lab coat so that the public understand I am a scientist. I don’t really mind that though; I guess as long as you can engage people in some way it’s alright to play up to that stereotype. Recently I’ve been doing more stuff with Instagram and Twitter which I think is good too – people can then see what I’m up to each day, whether that’s working in different environments, doing interviews or just the huge pile of reading I tackle constantly.
What is a typical day as a scientist like for you then?
Heidi: A typical day doesn’t really exist to be honest, every day is different depending on what I’m doing! I usually start at about 9.30am and sort out my inbox, but after that every day changes. My favourite thing is probably doing qualitative interviews – usually they’re out of the office so I’ll walk or drive to see my interviewee(s). They’re always really interesting because you’re working to find out about someone’s experiences and it’s a license to be nosey! Sometimes they can be difficult though, I’ve been involved with a project looking at food bank use in Aberdeen so doing those interviews has been quite difficult because you’re often asking people very personal questions and they open up so much.
Other times I’ll be tackling that huge pile of reading I mentioned earlier. I’m working on my literature review at the moment, and I have over 4,000 abstracts to screen before I can start writing and piecing the text together so that is taking a lot of time. Whatever my day looks like, the only constant things are lots of cups of tea, my laptop and my headphones.
Mental health in postgrad students is not talked about enough. What is your take on it?
Heidi: As I said in a recent blog post, I have depression. I’ve been really open with my supervisors about this, because I think it would have been unfair on them if I hadn’t. Sometimes I work from home, or I work weird hours depending on how my motivation and focus is doing that day – they need to know that there’s a reason for this and I’m not being lazy! I think being so open with them has also allowed us to build a more trusting relationship – they know I’ll get the work done, and they don’t really mind where or when I do that work as long as it’s done. I know other PhD students that don’t have very good relationships with their supervisors and that’s much more difficult. I think that adds massive pressure and it can make things so much harder and more stressful to deal with.
I think a lot of the time mental health issues are blamed on the process of being a postgrad student – it can be a really stressful and highly pressured environment, so I get that some people have that experience. For me though, that’s not the case. I had depression for years before I started my PhD, but it was the PhD that made me ask for help. We need to try and create a more accepting and understanding environment for postgrads to talk about mental health, which is why I wrote that blog post. At the moment it feels like lots of postgrads are scared to mention mental health issues in case it has an impact on their later careers, if we make it a normal thing to talk about the stigma will then reduce and the environment that we all work in will be so much better.
Let’s move away from PhD chat and move onto freelance science writing – why do you do it?
Heidi: To be honest at first it started out because I needed the extra money – being a student in a city as expensive as Aberdeen is tough! It’s not really something I need to do financially now, but it’s definitely a big perk J Mostly though, I do it because it’s a challenge. I’m usually writing about science that I don’t have direct experience of, so it takes a bit of research before I can start writing anything. It means that I am constantly looking at science news, figuring out what might happen next and how the clients I work with can fit in with that – so it keeps me looking at the big picture.
Getting jobs was another fluke for me… I started out doing freelance writing about recruitment whilst I was away on the industrial placement I mentioned above. After I started doing that I updated my LinkedIn profile with ‘freelance copywriter’ and then people would get in touch with me. All of the clients I work with have come to me through LinkedIn, so if you’re in the market for freelance science writing I’d really recommend getting your profile set up!
It definitely has its ups and downs though like you said. I always work with clients on a content calendar so I plan about 3 months ahead – that means I can schedule holidays and sort out PhD work etc with some warning of what other deadlines I have. It’s hard though, I usually have between 3 and 5 deadlines a week that are freelance. Each task might take me half an hour, others are longer and might involve a whole evening’s work, basically it’s one big balancing act. Planning ahead is so useful though – I know I’ll be away for a few weeks in the middle of September so I’ll be writing lots in the run up to that so that I can schedule posts in advance.
Writing about science must be something you enjoy as you’ve started a blog now too.
Heidi: Yes! I only started my blog at the beginning of 2017, but it feels like much longer though because the rest of the blogging community has been so welcoming! Basically I was doing loads of writing for freelance clients, as well as some free stuff with places like Jobs.ac.uk, so I wanted somewhere for myself. I still do the freelance stuff, but I’ve stopped doing regular free posts on other websites unless I can also publish them on my blog too. I think that’s fair – as students we are often expected to do lots of things for free for experience or exposure, and that was one thing that was taking up too much of my time.
I really like writing about doing the PhD – the journey itself I guess, as cheesy as that sounds! It’s nice to get feedback from others doing PhDs too, it’s definitely reassurance that we’re all in the same boat. I also love writing about clinical trials and my research more widely. There’s only so many times I can explain trials to my friends and family, so it’s a nice way to get other people to think about what trials are and why they’re important.
But it is not just writing! As well as that I’m in the process of setting up my own little scicomm endeavour – Science On A Postcard. It’s still in the very early days at the moment but I’m hoping to incorporate my loves of doodling and science to create postcards that communicate science. I bought an iPad pro and apple pencil a few weeks ago so it’s been really cool using that to draw – I used to love art at school but stopped drawing etc when I moved to uni. Definitely a good little creative outlet!
You were involved with Soapbox Science recently. What is that all about?
Heidi: It was so much fun! I really, really enjoyed it. Basically, I stood on a soapbox in Edinburgh city centre and talked to anyone that was walking past – I explained what clinical trials are, why we do them, and what’s so important about people taking part. I wrote a post all about my Soapbox Science experience here. I’d really recommend it; it’s a lovely way to improve your communication skills, find out what people think of your research, and of course it gives you a chance to answer questions that the public has too which is cool.
Why is scicomm so important to you?
Heidi: On a basic level I think it’s really important to communicate science because lots of the work we do is publicly funded, so it’s almost a duty of scientists to tell people what their money is being spent on. Personally though, I think it’s important because scientific skills aren’t just useful for scientists. If we can communicate the work we do in a way that the public can understand, the public can then ask us questions and strengthen the way we do research too. This is particularly important with clinical trials because there’s a big push for patients to be involved in research – we need to make sure we’re doing research that is useful and helpful for patients to make decisions about their own health. Less seriously, the scicomm community is so lovely! It’s a really nice way to make links with people you wouldn’t have met otherwise, and it’s good fun too.
What other interests do you have?
Heidi: Recently I’ve been reading loads of fiction! I think it’s a nice way to switch off from PhD and freelance work and concentrate on something completely different. Live music is something I try to get to quite regularly too, I went to see the Killers in London a few weeks ago and it was so much fun that I ended up buying tickets to see them again in Aberdeen in November. I also love to travel – so earlier this summer my boyfriend and I went to Budapest for a weekend, and we’re off to Poland for a friend’s wedding in a few weeks too. I’ve been super lucky with PhD grants and stuff this year too so I’ve managed to wangle a conference in Cape Town, South Africa later in the year, and I’m so excited for it! Hopefully I’ll get a few days to explore after the conference because everyone’s been telling me how amazing it is and I’ve never been before.
What’s next for Heidi after the PhD?
Heidi: I honestly just want to keep doing what I’m doing! I’m planning on applying for fellowship funding that will hopefully mean I can stay in my department for another few years. I want to stay looking at clinical trials research, maybe something more linked to patients and communication – at the moment I’m thinking about how communication can impact on patients in trials. I want to keep up science communication too, so basically just an extension of the PhD but with a Dr title added in!
And finally, where should I be booking flights to for my next holiday?
Heidi: This is such a hard question! I love travelling so much that I’m going to give more than one answer because I can’t choose!
- New York – I’ve been three times now and every time it’s different! There is so much to do and do many places to visit that you can never ever get bored. I loved the Natural History Museum, seeing shows on Broadway and even just walking around – there is so much to see! The food is also unreal and again there is so muhc choice! My friend lives in New York and she took me to Momofuku Milk Bar last time I was there, the cake truffles and the cereal milk ice cream were so good I still think about them at least once a week!
2. Reykjavik – Otherwise known as the most beautiful place in the world ever! I went last year to Iceland and absolutely fell in love with it. It feels really calm and the landscape is so unlike anything I’d seen before. The best views were from a restaurant/cafe called Perlan – it is at the top of a hill and the roof is a huge glass dome so you can see for miles!
3. Goa – The most beautiful beaches, amazingly friendly people and proper Indian food, what more could you want? When I went it was over Christmas, and Goa celebrates Christmas like nowhere else in India. There was fairy lights everywhere and it was just so pretty!
Huge thanks to Heidi for coming back and getting involved in my blog again! I’m looking forward to seeing your pics of South Africa and of course where your Science on a Postcard project takes you! If you want to ask Heidi any questions or see more of what she is doing then head over and check out her blog here or follow here on Instagram here.
S P O T L I G H T S E P T E M B E R 2017 is nearly at an end! But still make sure to check back in next Monday and Friday for the final two posts. PLUS I am still sprinkling these blog posts with a few #waybackwednesday and #throwbackthursday posts on my social media pages (see links below) to show you what my previous Scientist in the Spotlight scientists are getting up to now! AND at the end of the month I have another announcement to make! So there is still LOTS to come across Soph talks science in September. Make sure you don’t miss out and subscribe to my mailing list at the top right of this page or follow me over on social media! Thank you all for your continued support. I am absolutely loving my science communication side hustle at the moment – especially as the last month has been the most successful EVER on my blog and I have so many new exciting collaborations and projects coming up! Not sure I’ve got time for this PhD malarky 😛