Student Research Spotlight: Transforming Evidence Synthesis and Use in Decision-Making
Abigail Miloud, BHSc (Honours), Class of 2021 and Nandana Parakh, BHSc (Honours), Class of 2022
Interviewed By: Hargun Kaur, BHSc (Honours), Class of 2023
Q: Could you tell me a bit more about the project that you are working on and what first got you interested in it?
Nandana: [This Project] is built off of one of Dr. Khalid’s previous studies. We started the project in June, and Abigail joined the team in September. Currently, we are a team of five people. We have Dr. Khalid, Abigail, myself, one co-investigator in Lebanon, and another one in Oman. The essence of our project is that since we are currently in the middle of a pandemic (which we consider to be a crisis zone), we are examining how we can facilitate the use of accessible, relevant, and real-time evidence by decision-makers. Furthermore, we are asking, how do we facilitate the use of this high-quality evidence by decision-makers across sectors globally? We are specifically looking at a type of evidence synthesis called an evidence summary, and we are examining what elements of these evidence summaries are the most conducive for decision-makers.
Abigail: We have a mixed-method study. Part of it involves an extensive survey that asks our participants different questions about their work, what kind of knowledge needs they have, and where they’re going for their knowledge needs. At the end of the day, everything comes back to evidence summaries. Evidence summaries are accessible primarily online through different platforms, and they’re intended to be short, easy-to-understand summaries of high-quality research evidence. So, in our survey, we’re also interested to know what websites decision makers are going to. What sources are they using for your evidence? To what extent do they use evidence summaries in their decision-making? What features do they want to see in evidence summaries?
Then we build off of that with 30-minute interviews, which we’ve been conducting. As Nandana mentioned, our participants are decision-makers across many different sectors. We’ve spoken to a lot of people who are involved with health policy, research, and global health. As well, we’ve also been speaking to some other decision-makers that work in the humanitarian sector or the development sector. We’re really looking forward to speaking to people in a variety of leadership positions within healthcare or politics as well. Those 30-minute interviews are an extension of the survey, really getting to know the stakeholder and their needs. We’re interviewing both people who do and don’t use evidence summaries, because we really want to understand, in a very holistic sense, how we can better serve decision-makers and how we can better provide evidence summaries in order to support or advance evidence-informed decisions.
Q: It seems like you both have taken an active leadership role in this project. How has that experience been for you as a student?
Nandana: First, I’d just like to say that we have a wonderful supervisor. We have a supervisor who puts our learning first and foremost, and that has definitely impacted how we learn and what we’re getting out of this project. We are constantly engaged in tasks that are stimulating and that are really expanding our knowledge and building our skills. We’re never asked to do any busy work or anything. In terms of the work we’ve actually had to do, you’re right, we have really been involved with everything. In the very beginning, we helped with coming up with the actual project proposal, […] writing the application to the HiREB ethics board, participant recruitment, stakeholder analysis, and more. It’s been a tremendous learning experience. We’re currently conducting interviews with stakeholders. And that’s a skill that you can’t learn in a class. It’s something that you really need hands-on experience doing. I think we’re very fortunate to have this experience and to have really great guidance and mentorship while we’re doing this.
Abigail: We’ve been involved from the very beginning – from the ethics board application, to recruitment, identifying stakeholders, creating the back end of the survey, to now actually doing data collection, with the interviews and some analysis, as well as a literature review and some of the preparation for writing of the final manuscript. I think that’s been a really valuable learning experience for me to be able to see all the different pieces that fit together in a research project.
The fact that we’re working in quite a small research team means that we do have the opportunity to really be involved at quite a high level, because all of us on the team really need to step in and step up. But also, I can’t echo enough about having such a wonderful supervisor, and how helpful he has been in providing feedback and making himself available when we have questions or when we run into different challenges. And as well, just seeing the way that he also trusts us to be able to, for example, lead interviews, with some very high-level decision-makers from around the world, I think is an incredible privilege and a huge learning experience. I can even say from the first interview that I was responsible for leading compared to the most recent interview I’ve done, I’ve already seen a big growth in the way I speak to the stakeholders, the way I ask questions, and the way I guide the topics. And so already, I can say that I’ve learned a lot from this project, and we haven’t even wrapped up yet.
Q: Have there been any challenges for you throughout the course of your involvement in this project?
Nandana: This project is constantly evolving, just like any research. This project is novel. Abigail and I, it’s safe to say, have limited experience in research. We’re still in our third and fourth years, respectively, of undergrad. So definitely, it’s been a learning experience. I think that itself is not a negative challenge. It’s a good challenge. This project is teaching us really how to be on the ball and how to be innovative, how to fix problems, or how to fix issues when we come across them.
An incredible aspect of our project and working with a smaller team is that we can be flexible. When something is not going quite the way we planned, we ask how we can adjust it, or take a pause and re-focus our direction. I think that’s so valuable because it really just shows that the research is alive, and it’s happening. Sometimes that requires a little bit of juggling and making sure we’re really on the ball. But again, that’s just another really positive thing about learning.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like the BHSc community to know about your experience and/or project?
Abigail: Something that I would love to be able to share is the appreciation that we have for the opportunity to be involved in something so current and so relevant. Throughout this research project, I’ve always been able to realize: Wow, this is important. This is information that is actually going to have a real impact around the world, right now. That’s just so exciting for me, because I know research can often be a slow process and there’s a lot of small things that have to build before you can get somewhere that feels noteworthy or exciting. But I think what’s so incredible about this project is that the whole thing is focused on real-time: what is happening now and what needs to change now. It’s not theoretical or abstract; we are face to face talking with people who are making really important decisions, we’re learning from them, and we want to help them. I think that’s something that I’ve been incredibly grateful for and really excited about.
Nandana: I want to share something that our supervisor once told us: Don’t underplay your own accomplishments and what you’re hoping to get out of an opportunity. Be clear about what you’re hoping to get out of it. If you’re joining a research project and you want a recommendation letter at the end of it, be upfront about it because the worst thing would be to do a six-month or yearlong project, and then be turned down by the supervisor when asking for a recommendation letter. Along with the experience of the research project, you also want to make sure you’re getting something tangible.
This is something I’ve heard echoed from multiple supervisors. It’s important to make sure you’re getting course credit, a stipend, presenting at a conference, or a publication at the end of the research. Obviously, it’s important to also do volunteer research to get your foot in the door. But I think it’s really important that we don’t undermine our own self-worth, because I think this program has really given us this incredible opportunity to reach out to facilitators and professors and conduct research. And perhaps most importantly, it’s also given us the foundations to not only secure these research positions but engage in them successfully.