Meet Virginia, Research Associate at the Mesothelioma UK Research Centre

Virginia went from teaching classics for 30 years to doing a PhD focused on the veteran experience of living with mesothelioma. Now working as a Research Associate at the Mesothelioma UK Research Centre, read on to find out about her current research projects and how gaining a greater understanding of people’s experiences can improve services..  

How did you start your career in research?
“I’ve had quite a strange journey to get where I am today. My first degree was in Latin and Ancient Greek, after that I worked in the City of London for a couple of years as an accountant, then I taught Classics in secondary schools for 30 years. I found the pastoral side of teaching very interesting, so whilst I was still teaching, I trained as a counsellor, specialising in trauma and bereavement. I went on to gain a Masters in Trauma Studies.

“In the end my son and I almost did our PhDs in parallel!”

“30 years is quite a long time in teaching, and as I hit that milestone, my son started a funded PhD and I thought wow, that’s a great idea – you can get paid to study. I started vaguely looking around and came across the advertisement for the PhD linked to the MiMES study. I live about a mile from the university building where the centre is, so it just seemed ideal. In the end my son and I almost did our PhDs in parallel!”

Your PhD deals with difficult topics, how do you find this?
“I have a fantastic research team who support me, it’s made a huge difference. My training and experience as a counsellor also prepared me, and I’m used to talking to people about very difficult personal stuff. Research isn’t the same though, because I am not their counsellor, I am just there to find out their perspective. But as part of the process, I am aways ready to signpost. If during the interview something does come up, I can guide people towards organisations who are there to listen in a more supportive way. We’re so grateful for all the people that want to take part in our research studies. We couldn’t do it without them, giving their time and being open with us about their experiences.”

“Qualitative research enable you to get a much deeper understanding, People can explain how they’ve felt about things…and you can use that information to improve services.” 

Why is qualitative research useful?
“Taking Covid as an example, numbers-based research can show us that particular groups of people are less likely to have the jab. But unless you go and talk to those people, you won’t be able to fully appreciate why. When you speak to them, people might say, well, all the appointments are during the day, but I have to go to work so I can’t get a jab. Qualitative research enables you to get a much deeper understanding. People can explain how they’ve felt about things, what’s been tricky, what’s been great. And you can use that information to improve services.”

How do you disseminate research findings?
“Wherever possible we try and incorporate our findings into policy. During my PhD there was a government enquiry into women in the armed forces. I submitted evidence which was accepted and mentioned in their final recommendations.  Clinical pathways are another area we seek to influence. We might have suggestions as to how they can be more effective, what might be getting in the way of people receiving the best treatment.  Often it’s to do with communication. So, if we discover ways to improve lines of communication with patients and carers, then that’s something we’ll share with our clinical networks.

“We also regularly publish articles. The hope is that healthcare professionals take the findings and apply them to practice. Perhaps, for example, reaching out to carers of veterans earlier because they’ve read an article that says that this group don’t tend to ask for help until they reach crisis point.  And sometimes we make resources. We’ve made some videos in collaboration with a fantastic media company who turn our findings into very short, very clear animations. We’ve recently done one on mesothelioma and palliative care which people have been very positive about. This format can help give people information they might have been wary of receiving otherwise.”

“…the needs of veterans and their families and carers can differ from those of civilians, and the more people that know that the better.” 

What would you say the main message from your PhD is?
“I’d say it was that the needs of veterans and their families and carers can differ from those of civilians, and the more people that know that the better, particularly doctors and nurses. Also, that sometimes patients and carers have quite different needs and reactions, something that isn’t always recognised I think.

“It’s really important for healthcare professionals HCPs to ask people if they’ve ever served in the armed forces. There’s a military covenant in this country that aims to make sure people get the good support that they deserve.”

What’s next for you?
“I was very lucky to get a scholarship from the University of Sheffield at the end of my PhD. It gave me three months additional funding to write my dissertation up into two articles. One of them has recently been published and the other is going through the process of peer review prior to publication. I’ve also started as a Research Associate on two new projects with the research centre. One is about mental health and wellbeing in mesothelioma, and the other is a study looking into the peritoneal pathway. Basically, a PhD is a training into how to carry out research, so it’s really nice to be able to utilise my training funded by Mesothelioma UK in their research centre.”

How do research topics get determined?
“In all our research we want to make sure it isn’t just the researchers deciding everything. We try and build in the opinions of people with mesothelioma and their families so that our studies make sense to them.

“As part of this we have our Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) panel. They help us decide what projects and topics we are going to focus on. About a year ago we ran a big research prioritisation exercise which was quite a big piece of work, and that helped determine what we are going to focus on over the next couple of years.

“Additionally, sometimes we do a research study and it is clear where there’s a gap in the evidence. For example, at the beginning of the mental health project we did a systematic review of the literature. Whilst we found lots of existing research on the subject, talking about mental health and wellbeing impacts of mesothelioma and how patients and carers try to cope with them, we couldn’t find any studies looking at how good these strategies actually were. So people are using and doing lots of things, such as acupuncture and meditation, but as of yet there’s no evidence showing whether they are effective or not. So that is something we can seek to address.”

Visit the Mesothelioma UK Research Centre website to find out more. You can also join its mailing list.