Paediatric Research as a Medical Student – Advice and Experiences from Dr Lydia Seed

Dr Lydia Seed (FY1) talks about her experiences of getting involved with paediatric research as a medical student, and gives useful advice on how to get involved and how to break down barriers to medical student involvement.

Dr Lydia Seed is starting her FY1 at Royal Berkshire as part of the Oxford Academic Specialised Foundation Programme. Having completed her preclinical medical training at St Andrews University, she did an MPhil in Genomic Medicine and completed her clinical medical training at the University of Cambridge. Lydia was involved in building the CHEERI network, talking with paediatric consultants and research nurses across East Anglia, and then was involved with writing a literature review for a future paper. In her free time at university, Lydia enjoyed taking part in theatre, music and plays.

When did you get interested in research and paediatrics?

I was always interested in research, and one of the main reasons why I chose to do medicine was that I found the ability to combine doing research with a clinical job appealing. My first research experience took part in the summer of my 2nd year at university, when I wanted to learn more about genetics and the current active research in the field. I was really lucky to undertake a wet lab research placement under Prof Euan Ashley, who runs a cardiogenomics lab at Stanford University. I also got to observe some clinical work, and I really loved how the patients inspired the research, and how the research was able to help the patients. I really loved learning during this time, and realised how much more I have to learn! This made me want to pursue a Masters in Genomic Medicine.

My interest in paediatrics also grew alongside my interest in genetics; I’ve really enjoyed my elective placements, as well as the interesting ethical questions that come with the specialties.

Can you tell me about some of your other research experiences and how you got involved?

  1. Bioinformatics and dry lab research experience: my undergraduate and Masters dissertations were based on dry lab research, and I returned to the Ashley lab in Stanford for my elective in my 5th year, where I worked on a bioinformatics project; the most impressive thing from the lab is that they now hold the world record for the fastest whole genome sequencing! I worked on scaling up to Phase II of their project, doing quantitative work with more patients, finding ways to make the bioinformatics pipeline more streamlined and quicker, looking at different sequencing tools and their reliability and speed in capturing different structural variants.
  2. As a medical student representative for GOSH, I was involved in setting up a nation-wide research study, looking into the experiences and the opinions of medical students on genomics. Part I of the study involved exploring the amount of genomics teaching in undergraduate medicine curricula, and the associated confidence levels of students on various genomics concepts. Part II of the study explored the opinions of medical students on the Newborn Screening Programme (using whole genome sequencing on newborns). The general findings are that not much genomic medicine is taught across the board, and confidence really drops for clinical use; this means that whilst the Genomics Education Programme is working to provide clinicians with genomics knowledge, the education really needs to occur earlier in medical education so it’s not a constant catch up.
  3. During my 4th year, my interest in paediatrics led me to do a QI Project, and through this I explored the doctors’ and nurses’ barriers to using clinical guidelines in acute paediatrics.
  4. Through volunteering with the Cambridge Rare Disease Network during the pandemic, I was involved with designing a hospital passport to assist healthcare professionals in understanding patients’ specific needs when caregivers, who would ordinarily have communicated these needs, were prevented from accompanying them. We recently ran a pilot study and asked a few rare disease patients and families to use the hospital passport over a few months and I gave a poster presentation of the results at the recent RCPCH Conference in Glasgow in May 2023. 

Do you have any words of advice to medical students who are interested in research? Is there anything that you wish you knew or you would’ve done differently?

I can’t emphasise enough how ok it is to email random researchers who you find online and found their work interesting; send your CV and say you’ve read about their research and that you’re interested and want to learn more. You don’t have to already have connections to gain research opportunities – don’t be afraid to email multiple people and to send follow up emails. 

One thing that I would’ve liked to know is the importance of choosing a supervisor carefully. I unfortunately had one supervisor who overpromised on what I was able to achieve; when you meet with a potential supervisor, you are also sort of interviewing them whilst they are interviewing you – you can ask them questions like how many students they’ve supervised before, what they previously did and their research outputs. 

What do you think are some of the barriers to students getting involved in research?

I think having the confidence to reach out to people; don’t worry early on when you feel like you don’t have a lot of skills. People are very encouraging, particularly in paediatrics, as they’ve all been in your shoes and they think it’s great when medical students approach them and want to get involved. Their expectations are also low, so don’t worry!

Another important thing is having the free time to do research – I sometimes stretched myself too thinly, but it’s important to remember that research is something that’s done on the side, and that when exams are looming, it’s important to prioritise that, even though research is more interesting!