Lockdown Learning: A new course for OPTIMA PhD students locked out the lab

Original artwork by Estela Salas, Edinburgh College of art student

In this post, Layla Mathieson discusses her experience as a PhD student at the Centre for Doctoral Training in Optical Medical Imaging (OPTIMA) in developing a Student-Led Independently Created Course (or SLICC) with an industry partner back in April 2020, during lockdown. This was opportunity to progress in her studies in spite of the constaints imposed by the pandemic that kept her away the lab. This post is part of the Learning and Teaching Enhancement theme: Showcasing the Doctoral College.

Like many other PhD students my research suddenly came to a halt in March 2020 when the Covid-19 lockdown began. With no access to labs and my data all analysed as far as possible, I was looking for a way to progress my studies (and stay busy) during lockdown. As part of the OPTIMA Centre for Doctoral Training, I had already completed some taught courses in Healthcare Innovation and Entrepreneurship and I put it to the OPTIMA steering group whether it would be possible to complete more of these studies from home during lockdown. It turned out OPTIMA had been introduced to Canon Medical Edinburgh, via Edinburgh Innovations, and so a collaboration was already in development and this proved to be the perfect opportunity to gain experience, credits, and research skills in this limited situation.

Following the initial discussions between Canon Medical and OPTIMA, two proposals were put forward – the opportunity to do a ‘work from home’ industrial placement or a concept for a new course in collaboration with Canon. Discussions were held, and we agreed that although a placement may not be suitable at this time, we could still work with Canon and build upon our knowledge from our OPTIMA courses. We were able to develop a Student-Led Independently Created Course (or SLICC) which is a mechanism to gain credits for students’ learning experiences that do not fit within a traditional taught model. As a second-year student this seemed like a fantastic opportunity, although the national lockdown presented challenges.

After a couple of meetings between OPTIMA’s 2nd year students and Canon, four healthcare research topics were chosen as areas of common interests both to us students and Canon. The task for our four student groups was to present an analysis on where new technology could be introduced in each area of healthcare and demonstrate indicative economic and social impacts. Canon could further consider these findings for a business case that could be developed and implemented in the long term. This gave our cohort the opportunity to work in the area of healthcare of most interest to each of us, to build upon the skills learnt in the OPTIMA courses so far, and to experience working directly with industry. It also offered a chance to earn credits towards our OPTIMA programme, whilst working on it from home. This was a huge benefit to us during lockdown, when we couldn’t progress with other areas of our studies without access to university facilities.

The key research areas our groups chose to work on were in cancer and neurological imaging of degenerative diseases. Each group researched the current pathways and patient experiences, looking for areas where improvement could be made. Research was then carried out to look at how technology could be used to make improvements. We presented our findings to Canon in the early stages and a panel of staff from Canon provided detailed feedback on our presentations. This was incredibly valuable, as it allowed us to realise that our work was explicitly of interest to an industrial company and it let us discuss their interests in more detail. We had the following weeks to tune our presentations, to really focus on the specific areas of interest that were most useful to Canon while also developing research into the impact for our proposals.

We developed a number of skills throughout this project. It allowed us to further develop our knowledge in the medical technology field, but (perhaps more importantly) it also allowed us to develop ability in working with a partner company. The communication skills developed during this project are incredibly beneficial, and the experience of speaking to a company, and realising that we are useful, and people are interested in the work we do, has taught us a lot. It is often easy to forget when working on your own project in a PhD that there is a bigger picture, whereas this collaboration kept that in the forefront of our thinking at all times. It also improved our research capabilities, as during our PhD studies we are often looking for information in research journals and reading the work of highly regarded researchers. Whereas, in this project, the most important lessons on where things can be improved for patients was by reading the experiences of patients themselves. Charity websites supporting these patients were good sources of patient experience case studies.

Had this project happened outside the Covid-19 pandemic, we would have perhaps been able to speak to patient groups directly to find out more about their experiences. The limiting situation of the pandemic was itself a learning curve. This project helped to improve our student experience throughout this time as we were working collaboratively and it encouraged communication between us, although in an online format. Overall, this project helped us develop many important skills, despite being limited to what we could learn and research from our homes. It has provided a fantastic opportunity to cultivate such skills and learn about working collaboratively.

I’d like to thank Canon Medical, especially Ken Sutherland, OPTIMA alumni Adeel Shafi, and members of the OPTIMA Steering Group (Fumi Kitagawa, Kirsty Ross and Jean O’Donoghue) for their help in establishing this course.

To find out more about the SLICC, please check out our FigShare article about the project: https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.14135243.v1

Layla Mathieson

Layla Mathieson is currently a 3rd year student in the OPTIMA Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT). OPTIMA was the first CDT in the University of Edinburgh to introduce the PhD with Integrated Study, where students do taught courses alongside their research. In OPTIMA the theme of these courses is Healthcare Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Estela Salas

Estela Salas is a PG student of the Edinburgh’s College of Art. Born and raised in Mexico’s biggest city (Guadalajara), she left her hometown after graduating UG studies in Audiovisual Arts, and lived/ travelled in Canada, the US, and 9 years in Paris, France. Currently, as she’s working on her MA’s research, the critical thinking of “where do I come from” is portrayed through her illustrations. Heavily influenced by History and the surrealist movement; her personal works are tainted with myth, nostalgia and a touch of sensuality on monochromatic tones, fueled by her travels and imagination.

Blog: https://stellasalasc.blogspot.com/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/stellasalasx/

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