In today’s COVID Impact blog, Fatene Abakar Ismail from the University of Glasgow is sharing her experiences of lockdown so far, how the pandemic has affected research and balancing working with being a mum.

Read more blogs in the series here.

My name is Fatene Abakar Ismail and I work as a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Glasgow, Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences. I am currently working with Dr Terry Quinn on the Rate, Risks and Routes to Reduction of Vascular Dementia (R4VaD) research study, which is a national collaborative study led by University of Edinburgh and funded by the Stroke Association, Alzheimer’s Society and British Heart Foundation. The main aim of the study is to improve our understanding of how stroke and vascular disease contribute to memory and thinking problems.

On a “normal” day, I recruit patients from the stroke wards at Glasgow Royal Infirmary and assess their cognition and mood. I perform assessments whilst they are on our stroke unit and then again at 6 weeks and one-year timepoints. This would usually involve face to face interaction, but this is no longer possible due to COVID-19.The week before the official lockdown, we were informed that research recruitment would be paused for the foreseeable future but we could carry on with telephone or postal follow up for participants who were already recruited.

I must admit that I was quite hesitant to contact participants during these “unprecedented times” and was not sure how they would respond. Will they be willing to talk to a researcher for nearly an hour over the phone? How are we going to manage to retain participants during these challenging times?  A lot of questions and uncertainties, but with my very first few calls I was pleasantly surprised that most of the patients appreciated the fact that study team have not abandoned them. They were pleased to hear a voice at the end of the telephone and to have someone ask about how they are feeling. The first few minutes of the calls are always a “chat” about how they are feeling and how they are coping with the lockdown. These few extra minutes not only allay their fears but can be really important for those who are living alone. Some of the conversations are quite overwhelming for me especially when the patient is feeling depressed and lonely, but these conversations allowed me to signpost patients to services that could help e.g. the Stroke Association helpline. The more I speak with our participants the more I feel that my job is not only to collect data but also to be the ear they need and a voice of hope.

Although telephone-based cognitive assessment has many advantages and its validity has been reported in the literature. My experience with the study has highlighted some limitations that are worth sharing. The range of data that can be collected over the phone is more limited compared to face-to-face assessment. For instance, non-verbal cognitive assessments (e.g. drawing a clock) can not be completed over the phone, subsequently impacting data richness. Also, participant can be easily distracted by their surrounding environment (e.g. noise or chatter) compared to the controlled environment of face-to-face assessments. Other environmental factors such as hearing difficulties, mis-hearing some words are also difficult to control for in telephone-based assessment However, one of the things that I have noticed personally is that participants are more opened to discuss their mood and mental health issues in the relative anonymity of a telephone assessment compared to in-person assessment.

The pandemic has had a significant impact on my work pattern, I usually work three days a week and spend the second half of the week being a full-time mum for my almost 3 years old daughter. Since the lockdown I had to split my hours throughout the week to share childcare responsibilities with my husband, who is also working from home due to the pandemic. I am not going to deny that this was challenging in terms of productivity, but I have learned to take it day by day and not to set the bar too high for myself. I also remind myself frequently to stay positive and strong as this too will pass.

 Stay safe. 

If you are an Early Career Researcher and COVID-19 has affected your work, please look at the dedicated ECR section on our site, which contains resources including our funding and mentorship schemes.