Student experience in Glasgow CRF - Natalie Elliott

“After all, the ultimate goal of all research is not objectivity, but truth” – Helene Deautsch.


When I heard that the Oxford Vaccine was being rolled out across the UK, I felt a twinge of pride and privilege. The reason for this during the first wave of the pandemic I was allocated a practice learning experience (PLE) with the Glasgow Clinical Research Facility (CRF), and we were one of the first sites to be involved in the initial trial stages.

Having a curious mind and a passion for improvement has led me to fall in love with research throughout my nursing journey. Never did I think I would be blessed, nor think it were possible, to be allocated a PLE within a CRF.

Clinical research provides the evidence base required to make meaningful improvements to the interventions and care provided by healthcare professionals. As professionals, nurses have a professional obligation to not only implement change but to substantiate changes with the best available evidence. Therefore, we need to be competent in appraising the evidence to ensure we provide the best quality, and safest, patient care so outcomes outcomes can be enhanced. The making of this evidence is where the role of the Clinical Research Nurse (CRN) comes to fruition.

As the PLE took part during the first wave of the pandemic, everything was processed with a sense of urgency. However, on my first day, you would have never known this was the case. I was welcomed with open arms and instantly felt part of the team. I had a well-planned timetable and was introduced to the whole team by my name and not “the student” (which student nurses will tell you is a simple, yet important, thing to do).

One of the first things that struck me, was the passion and enthusiasm of the staff that worked there. Normally on placements, there are one or two members of staff who have lost their appetite for the profession. This was not the case at the CRF. Each member of staff valued their work and the differences it made to the wider population. This zealous atmosphere was incredibly contagious.

When I first started, I wasn’t aware there was difference between a research nurse and a nurse researcher. However, through excellent guidance from my mentor, I was able to develop an awareness of the responsibility and the value the CRN role brings.

The most overwhelming experience for me was the power from participant narratives. In most nursing practices, the patients need the nurse to empower them and help them recover. However, within clinical research, this role is reversed. The participants want to help the nurse with the research so that they can make a difference for other people who have similar conditions to them. Realising this reaffirmed my faith in human kindness. Speaking to participants with life-limiting illnesses, it was easy to ascertain that they want to make the world a little brighter for others. To witness, and play a small part of, that was a true blessing.

Another benefit of the PLE was a new appreciation for ethics and the ethical dilemmas that transpire within healthcare. For example, should a participant in ICU be part of a research trial that they are unable to consent for? Does the benefit to the wider population outweigh the lack of informed consent? To help with this, I observed a research ethics committee meeting where I could comprehend the processes involved in approving a clinical trial to ensure its robustness and, whilst safeguarding the participants. Seeing the importance of ethical research has resulted in me volunteering, as a layperson, on the Research Ethics Committee for my local NHS Board.

Additionally, CRN’s show great integrity and respect for the research process during double-blinded trials. I saw excellent examples of teamwork to ensure that the ‘blinded’ nurse was never informed of whether the participant was receiving the trial drug or standard of care.

Strong leadership was particularly prevalent, both hierarchical and from the CRN’s themselves, clearly facilitative to the motivation of the team. Staff would routinely check on each other’s well-being making them aware of each other roles and helping where it was possible. Importantly staff’s concerns and ideas were always listened to, including mine- which was incredibly empowering as a student nurse.

Having ‘hands on’ experience of research has allowed me to hone a vast array of skills. I have been able to attune my communication skills through creating a therapeutic relationship with participants, assessing when people may be feeling scared or anxious, particularly when receiving the vaccine. I was able to gain a greater understanding of the connection between the theoretical knowledge and the practical side of research through developing my observational and assessment skills. I gained familiarity of the NHS computer systems, allowing me to follow the patients journey from their admission to hospital and the trajectory of their illness, whilst developing an understanding of blood tests and common medications. More importantly, my confidence and self-belief has increased (something mentors in previous placements have always suggested I work on).

One of the skills I learned about was lab work. It was great fun to don a lab coat and safety goggles for the day and spin blood!

It is no secret that research modules tend to be the least favourite of student nurses, mainly as they are unable to correlate the theory to the practice. If nursing students were given the opportunity for this kind of participatory learning within clinical research, it would aid their understanding of the research process. To build the future of research nursing, this needs to start with pre-registration students understanding the role of the CRN and the value it brings.

Having a PLE within the CRF was an honour and a seeing the human side of research was incredibly powerful. I am grateful to all the staff at the Glasgow CRF for giving me such a positive experience. I am also thankful to Gordon Hill, at Glasgow Caledonian University, who has been a strong advocate of the CRN role and igniting my passion for research. Before this placement, I always felts a little lost are to where I fitted within the plethora of nursing roles, now I am not so lost and look forward to the day I am lucky to work as a CRN.


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