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Perspectives on dissertation projects in a global pandemic

BY Amber Elyse Corrigan

“Once COVID hit, everything stopped” says Jonathan Hewitt, a Clinical Senior Lecturer at Cardiff University and the clinical lead of my dissertation project, from the browser web page of Zoom. Ben Carter, a senior statistician based at King’s College London and my dissertation supervisor, nods in agreement. They weren’t wrong. As we sit in our Zoom meeting room, glimpsing at each-others living rooms, kitchens and offices, we muse about the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has on each of us, from clinician, statistician and student.  

The month of March brought a flurry of panic into the university sphere, certainly that of the biomedical sciences; labs cleared, research halted, libraries closed and a move to online exams. For the many third year students this meant a standstill in dissertation project work, with many students looking at projects without experimental results and a lack of further face to face supervisor for the foreseeable future. This was only the tip of the iceberg. For many supervisors the disruption of laboratories and research was pressurised by the rapid shift of focus and a nuanced dedication to research surrounding COVID-19. Over the course of lockdown, research in this domain has become the centre of attention and resources. My own supervisor, Ben, was entangled in the growing body of research of COVID-19 from the beginning. His recent paper, published in The Lancet Public Health, began rapid data collection, across both the UK and Italy in mid-March. This was arguably an incredible feat in the realm of research. Data was collected for whooping 1564 subjects and this ended on the 28th of April – the paper was submitted for peer review just 3 days later. The manner in which focus was shifted with rapid and streamlined attention was phenomenal. Unarguably the hard work of researchers and clinicians like Ben and Jonathan was essential for this. With Ben having 6 other projects currently under construction (with 2 accepted, 1 under review, 1 awaiting and 2 to submit), it is not hard to imagine the stress and workload that many researches have been put under. This is more so as the outbreak coincided with the final stages of dissertation work and writeup, meaning a unique situation was presented where ground-breaking COVID-19 work had to be balanced with the responsibility of third year students under their supervision.  

So, where did this leave us, the students?  While compared to critical research and attention on COVID-19, a dissertation project seemed trivial in comparison, months of dedication and work were still at the forefront of our minds. As March came and face to face supervision seized, I found myself writing the body of dissertation in response to unanswered emails, confusion and a rising wave of panic. As the deadline approached, the 23rd of April – just days before my first exam and a week before Ben’s Lancet submission to peer review, with no concrete feedback on the draft and many questions sent and unanswered, Ben suggested an extension. While happy to give time to Ben, certainly given his high stress and workload, the situation was far from how I imagined writing my dissertation when I had started in January. This was the same for countless students and for many the final project has meant the landmark of their university career has not met up with the expectations set. Outside of the impact of just graded results, we must consider if the impact of this will be more widespread. Will students feel more disillusioned to the current state of research and lose passion for future endeavours? Will there be a drop in those that return for postgraduate studies in the current climate?    

The impact of COVID-19 will not end when university reopens, it is seemingly unlikely that projects, research and student opportunity will normalise for some time. With research delayed across non-COVID and non-emergency medicine domains how this will translate to future publication is a question only time will answer. For students entering third year – how this will impact laboratory and research projects is uncertain. The feasibility of projects like mine, where clinical data collection was undertaken in the first semester, currently seems unfeasible. The question that lingers is will this mean less projects that are open for students and less research opportunity? While supervisors like Ben and Jonathan are sure that it will only be the manner of delivery that may change, rather than content and output by students coming into dissertation projects, I am dubious if this will truly be the case. Yet, it is important to remember the positives. COVID-19 has been a seismic event that has changed the way in which research has been conducted. Whilst this has arguably been disruptive, this has stirred a change in the efficacy that research has been conducted – potentially teaching needed lessons on how to modernise our practices and organise research in the future.  

Extra Reading:

Hewitt, J., Carter, B., Vilches, A., Quinn, T. J., Braude, P., Verduri, A., Pearce, L., Stechman, M. J., Short, R., Price, A., Collins, J., Bruce, E., Einarsson, A., Rickard, F., Mitchell, E., Holloway, M., Hesford, J., Barlow-Pay, F., Clini, E., Myint, P. & 2 others, Moug, S. J. & McCarthy, K., 30 Jun 2020, In : The Lancet Public Health.

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