In this post, four Masters in Public Health alumni and one PhD student from the Usher Institute share their experience as student volunteers on the UNCOVER project, which is a network of researchers and information specialists from the University of Edinburgh dedicated to providing up to date evidence review on COVID-19. They discuss the impact of participating in this student and staff-run project on their academic and professional development…
UNCOVER (Usher Network for Covid-19 Evidence Reviews) is a research network run by University of Edinburgh staff, students and alumni across disciplines, producing up-to-date evidence on COVID-19 (https://www.ed.ac.uk/usher/uncover). It began in March 2020 as a response to urgent requests from UK and Scottish government policymakers to provide high-quality evidence reviews on COVID-19 in short timeframes and has continued and grown rapidly in size and purpose since then.
Student – Teacher Model
Student volunteers and staff work side-by-side throughout the whole review process, creating a dynamic and iterative learning experience as new skills are developed. Current topics are explored transparently together, in a dynamic response to emerging data on COVID-19, prior to engaging in research within UNCOVER’s model.
The indoor transmission review was an update on UNCOVER’s previous work done on indoor and outdoor transmission in response to a request made by the Scottish Government. The choice of doing this update was based on its relevance to the unfolding COVID-19 crisis, and students with interest in the subject within UNCOVER were asked to volunteer to be a part of the review team led by Dr Ruth McQuillan. Initially the team comprised of Masters of Public Health (MPH) student volunteers of UNCOVER but as a large number of fluid mechanics studies were involved, Dr Ignazio Maria Viola and his team from the School of Engineering joined the review team, thus, making the study more comprehensive and multidimensional.
Success of the Indoor Transmission review
We investigated different aspects of indoor transmission of SARS-COV-2 (transmission through aerosols, faeco-oral transmission, role of plumbing and ventilation systems, transmission via indoor surfaces, transmission in different indoor settings, activities associated with transmission and appropriate length of social distancing to prevent transmission) drawing on evidence from epidemiological, microbiological and fluid mechanics studies found in the literature.
Between us, we conducted database searches, title and abstract screening, full text screening, data extraction and quality assessment of all included articles, and the overall team coordination was led by Lara Goodwin.
Our tremendous team effort resulted in a successfully peer-reviewed article to be published in the Journal of Global Heath (http://www.jogh.org/).
We conducted this review during a transitional phase. As the UK moved out of its initial emergency phase, we found ourselves tasked with applying even greater methodological rigour within the longer timescale. Ultimately, this allowed us to ensure higher quality of evidence.
Aside from the usual challenges of conducting a review, presenting its own difficulties with ensuring transparency and rigour at all stages of the process, this review faced unique challenges presented by the context of the pandemic.
Conducted during the first lockdown within the UK, many of us were isolated within our separate homes, some even having to relocate globally. This meant we had to adapt to an online collaborative experience. To ensure the review remained current within emerging evidence, we committed to extensive hours at our desktops to be able to complete the project in a timely manner. Our permitted “once, daily exercise” in the UK certainly became rather surreal in 3-dimensional space!
Additionally, team members worked from different time zones and most volunteers were involved in more than one UNCOVER project with the majority still midway in their own Masters of Public Health (MPH) dissertations.
Learning and Reflection
The Indoor Transmission review taught us a great deal about conducting a goal-oriented, strategic and systematic review process. By structuring the review around ten main questions, we developed our ability to assess a vast amount of data in a targeted manner when facing time-pressures. This helped us beyond the review, in rethinking how we structured our own literature searches within our dissertations, at both Masters and PhD levels.
Our review involvement provided us with the ultimate learning experience, in what became a seamless transition from student to researcher, through the support of renowned yet familiar senior academics within the university. The student-teacher model gave us the opportunity to co-create our university learning experience and embed it directly within the politically pressed landscape of the pandemic. We quickly became aware of the multidimensionality required for effective problem solving in real-world scenarios within our own academically diverse team.
By maintaining a sense of pace and inclusion through regular team updates, we created space for the real-world impact that drove all our efforts. Working together on this review granted us all an ease of purpose from working together towards a common goal in a time of great instability. We all became very grateful for the true sense of community through collaboration we found at home in the team at UNCOVER.
Publication and Beyond
The vital questions explored and answered by our review shed light on key queries raised regarding the spread of the COVID-19 indoors . However, as new evidence continues to emerge at an exponential rate and as we experience changes in lockdown restrictions, updates of our work are already in progress – to offer more current and relevant insight. Often, it is the case that by the time robust evidence-based reviews reach publication, they can become outdated. We learned in the few condensed month of the pandemic a valuable lesson that would have taken years to learn in our separate public health careers.
For us, the student team, the success of this review making publication has added huge value to our CVs. It has aided us as a stepping-stone for continuing our academic careers in research and beyond, where we can still be responsible for delivering real-world outcomes, vetted by our second-to-none UNCOVER learning experience.
Lara Beth Goodwin
On-campus MPH graduate, research assistant & support worker.
MPH graduate, community health educator, researcher, health administrator.
MPH graduate, healthcare scientist.
PhD candidate in engineering, researcher and teaching assistant.
Physician, MPH graduate and public health researcher.