Blog by Tessa Stewart, final year medical student, University of Cambridge
It’s a common feeling amongst medical students that we cannot meaningfully contribute to patient care, due to our lack of knowledge and expertise. On 4 February, World Cancer Day, I felt that I contributed by publishing my first first-author paper in Cancer Epidemiology. This was not something I had envisaged when I started this project two years ago.
As Cambridge medical students, we complete a six-week student-selected component (SSC) during our first year of clinical medicine. This is an opportunity to undertake some research in a field, or in my case, with a supervisor of our choosing. From my first meeting with Dr Fiona Walter at the Primary Care Unit back in November 2015, I was struck by her enthusiasm and willingness to involve me in her work.
The project evolved through my reading and discussions with Fiona and her team, and ended up focusing on the epidemiology of cervical cancer, particularly why sub-Saharan African women present to healthcare providers with very late-stage cervical cancer.
I was keen to develop new skills during my SSC and so chose to learn introductory French and to teach myself to code. Not an obvious pairing of skills, but both proved very useful when data-collecting for Western African countries and for running the multitude of statistics using the software, R.
As the project developed, Fiona suggested bringing her collaborator on board as a co-supervisor and -author, Professor Jennifer Moodley of the University of Cape Town (UCT), for her expertise in cervical cancer and epidemiology. This fruitful collaboration then led to me undertaking my fifth year medical elective in Cape Town with Jennifer and her group at the UCT School of Public Health and Family Medicine in the Women’s Health Research Unit.
My time at UCT allowed me to gain some new insight into my work through involvement in a number of different projects, saw my first foray into qualitative research, and gave me the time to produce a first draft of my paper.
Through all the stages of researching and writing this paper, including encouraging me to present my work at an international conference, in sourcing funding, and even responding to reviewers, Fiona has struck the balance between whole-heartedly supporting me and letting me work things out independently. I am very grateful to her, the Cancer Group, and Prof Jennifer Moodley for all their input and advice.
This has been one of the best learning experiences of my medical studies and I encourage other students to fully engage with their SSC projects. The project has confirmed my love of research and given me the confidence to seek out new research opportunities, something I hope to continue alongside my future clinical work.
Read Tessa’s paper ‘Population risk factors for late-stage presentation of cervical cancer in sub-Saharan Africa‘ in Cancer Epidemiology
Learn more about student selected components (SSCs) for medical students at the Primary Care Unit, University of Cambridge