In this article, we speak to Cathy Dominic, the Head of Policy and Founder of SCERC to understand what inspired her to spearhead this initiative at Polygeia. We are also joined by project leads Marine Delgrange and Dr. Maddie Shrotri, who give us a glimpse into what their teams are doing right now.
What inspired you to start the Student Collaborative for Extempore Research on Covid-19 (SCERC)?
Cathy: In times of global crisis, such as COVID-19, it can be easy for students to feel rather useless and unable to use their skills effectively to help. For example, I myself am a third year medical student, but was unable to join the volunteer effort since I live with a vulnerable person who is shielding. This inspired me with the idea of setting up Polygeia’s first student-led COVID-19 focused research group; SCERC - the Student Collaborative for Extempore Research on COVID-19.
Many students possess amazing skills, such as statistical analysis, that they can use to contribute to the fast paced global research efforts during times such as this.
Although many students are unable to help clinically, we are affording them an opportunity to get involved in conducting systematic reviews that could be a useful tool for influencing policy and decisions. By doing this, we are contributing to the growing evidence base around COVID-19 so that we can build up lessons learnt at this time and facilitate pandemic preparedness in the future. We are hoping this will also empower people to go on to be leaders in global and public health, aligning with the aims of Polygeia.
We had over 90 people interested in joining the group, recruited a team of 15 students from over 4 different continents to partake in our research groups, and are working quickly to match the pace at which research is happening on COVID-19.
How did you first hear about SCERC? What were your motivations for joining?
Marine: As I am part of the Polygeia policy team with Cathy, I heard about her project while it still was in a brainstorming phase. As a non-medical student in public health, it is very frustrating to see a lot of friends and classmates working on the front line and not being able to help. Designing evidence-based policy responses and informing policy by gathering the scientific evidence out there are what I am passionate about and wish to utilise my skills and talents for later in my career. I therefore saw Cathy’s proposal to lead a team of students researchers as a great opportunity to make a meaningful contribution and look into what we can learn from the governmental measures that have been taken to flatten the curve of the epidemic.
Maddie: I heard about this project through an online community of students interested in global health. It was completely new to me but sounded like a great opportunity to meet and work with like-minded colleagues. As a medic interested in global public health, I was keen to both develop my academic skills at the same time as producing a piece of work that could be impactful in informing healthcare and policy-making at this time of crisis.
How has your experience been so far working with your teams? What is your team focusing on?
Marine: My team is looking at the effectiveness and impact of government-led responses to the epidemic, at a national or state level. Although it is still early to draw any definitive lessons from the various measures taken by countries and the extent of those interventions, it is very important to already look back at what was done and what preliminary impact it had. This is so that responses can be adjusted in the months to come; especially if the pandemic is here to stay before a vaccine can be manufactured and widely distributed. Such an analysis will also contribute to how we can learn from this pandemic to be better prepared next time. This is what is really interesting about public health - it is crucial to continually monitor, evaluate and learn from measures taken to be able to improve the state of health of populations.
Maddie: My team is looking at COVID-19 in cancer patients. We are conducting a systematic review on differences in risk, presentation and outcomes of COVID-19 in cancer patients across the world. We are working with a diverse range of study types and hoping to extract some valuable insights that could inform healthcare strategies for patients in this vulnerable group. This is a challenging project as there is still a paucity of evidence in this area and cancer patients form a small component of the included cohorts within most studies. It is important to be frank about the quality and validity of the evidence and we are being pushed to develop our critical appraisal skills.
Where do you see this work going? Why is it important to involve young people in global health research?
Cathy: Students and young people are the future of global and public health, so it is valuable for them to consistently be involved in research and in furthering the field.
Marine: Even if this work doesn’t get published, I think it shows really well how much students can contribute in the global health space. More generally, I’m a strong advocate for research teams to include young people in their work. First, they often bring a new perspective, fresh ideas and a critical mindset. But it is also extremely important to give young people the opportunity to learn from more senior figures, to ensure that knowledge is passed on so that the global health community can learn from its past mistakes and grow!
Maddie: I think that young medics and researchers should push themselves to engage with big, challenging questions in public health - not only can it be immensely valuable for developing the mindset and skills to conduct high impact research in the future, but they can also bring new insights and ideas to established fields of research. The broad perspective and open-minded approach of young people can be immensely beneficial to re-framing key questions and generating innovative answers, and for this reason students should not shy away from attempting such projects.
Our collaborative project is also featured on the COVID-19 Youth Initiatives Platform on the website for the UN Major Group for Children and Youth. Check it out using this link!