In March this year, the BSU was thrust into a new way of working due to the coronavirus outbreak. Alongside this, a team of statisticians at the Unit were working day and night, carrying out crucial data analysis on the rapidly developing pandemic. To help ensure there were enough staff resources to do the critically needed work, three of our PhD students; Joshua Blake, Peter Kirwan and Andrew Manderson, all pressed pause on their PhD studies, to provide much needed support and expertise to understand and mitigate the novel virus.
Joshua has been part of a team of statistical modellers at the BSU, working to provide regular now-casts and forecasts of COVID-19 infections and deaths in England. This information feeds directly to the SAGE sub-group, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza sub-group on Modelling (SPIM), and to regional Public Health England (PHE) teams. Joshua has also been helping with the regular running and improvement of the epidemiological model which generates the forecast, and is an author on the regular reports released by the Unit. More recently, he has been working to apply the model to the rest of the UK and incorporate data being generated by the ongoing testing programme.
When I started my PhD in October 2019, I never imagined I would be applying what I have learnt so soon and in such crucial circumstances. The fast-moving and time-critical nature of this work is not what I expected going into academia, but I hope that I have played a part in improving the response to the crisis.”
Peter has also been working with COVID-19 statistical modelling team at the BSU. Since March, he has been focusing on time-to-event and severity estimates which feed into the SAGE modelling sub-group, SPIM, as well as supporting the regular data cleaning and validation of COVID-19 data extracts. Peter has continued to work closely with PHE colleagues on an ongoing study of COVID-19 re-infection in healthcare workers, and is currently collaborating with consultants in Intensive Care Units at several UK hospitals to collect enhanced, retrospective information about complications relating to COVID-19; data which will also inform statistical modelling of severity.
Collaborating with modelling experts at the BSU on the response to COVID-19 has challenged me to apply techniques from the first few months of my PhD to evolving and real-time Public Health data. I’m glad I’ve been able to take part in this work which can hopefully help inform the ongoing response to the pandemic.”
Second year PhD student, Andrew, also took a secondment from his studies to be involved in a brand new COVID-19 project. Andrew joined a team of BSU researchers in setting up a bespoke, fast pace initiative relating to COVID-19. The unique research project had the broad goal of generating clinical insights from electronic health records, from multiple NHS trusts, to inform treatment decisions for patients with COVID-19. Andrew worked full-time for 5 months and was involved in the development of a series of clinically relevant research questions to help set-up the project. The clinical staff he interacted with were extraordinarily knowledgeable, and the research questions they brought gave Andrew the opportunity to learn so much about many different clinical areas, including blood clots. However, Andrew was also privy to the difficulties encountered when trying to set up a new multi-centre research project in the midst of a pandemic, and the communication, data governance, and legal issues that arose.
It was great to be part of a new project that could have such a positive impact on our understanding of COVID-19, and it was an eye-opening experience to the challenging world of health-data research, which I will take with me to all my future projects.”
We are extremely proud to have had three of our PhD students make such fundamental contributions to research on COVID-19, and to have been able to give them the opportunity to carry out these secondments. This flexibility was possible due to the unique way MRC Units are funded, which allows Unit Director’s discretion to reallocate resources to respond rapidly to new and emerging needs in health research.
All three students are now returning to their studies at the BSU. We are incredibly grateful for the tremendous work they have carried out under such challenging circumstances, and we can’t wait to see what amazing things they will do following their PhDs.