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Finding your way into nurse-led research: How the pathway might not always be traditional

Finding your way into nurse-led research: How the pathway might not always be traditional

An interview with Kay Mitchell, Senior Research Manager for NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre, NIHR 70@70 Nurse Leader. 

Heading back to intensive care to nurse on the wards full time for three months has reset my thinking and shaken up what I’m doing with all of my projects.

I began nursing at 18 years old at John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. As most nurses did at that time, I completed my three year training course on the job and then spent a year working on an open heart surgery ward. Unlike most nurses, however, I took a bit of a detour en route to where I am now.

I always had an itch to learn a bit more so I decided to go and study at University College London to do a Human Sciences degree. Not a million miles away from nursing, but following my degree I decided to stay at the university and was elected to run the student union for a year following my graduation.

I had made up my mind that nursing wasn’t for me and I didn’t want to return. Or so I thought. I began a fast-track scheme with Midland Bank to become a bank manager, picking up some great skills and learning a lot about management but, after three years and probably unsurprisingly, I was miserable and realised I really did miss nursing and wanted to go back.

I took up a post working in intensive care at University College Hospital in London which I did from 1997 until 2004, where I eventually became Sister in Practice Development. I then became a Teaching Sister at Homerton University Hospital in London.

My journey into research 

The itch to always do and learn a little more never went away, it’s just who I am. In the late 1990s I got involved with a study run by a medic, who was looking at the effects of oxygen on the body when patients are critically ill. The more oxygen you have in your body, the more likely you are to survive. We knew that many people who live at high altitude are great at coping with lower oxygen levels in their body, but some people who live at low altitude are also able to cope well with lower oxygen levels. We wanted to find out why there was a difference and what impact it could have on people.

It was fascinating work and in 2004 we launched the Xtreme Everest organisation to run expeditions to Mount Everest to advance our research into low oxygen and its impact on the body. In 2005 I took on a role to be project manager at the organisation, stepping sideways again from nursing but still very much in research. In 2007 we took 250 people to Everest Base Camp to run our research and experiments – and 15 made it right to the summit. It was clear that our research was going to provide invaluable insight into what happens to the body when oxygen is limited and why certain people seem to adapt well when others don’t.

It was an amazing opportunity to begin to put nurses and midwives on the map for research and be seen.

Our work is ongoing – there are so many potential variables in this research that we are still working hard to try and understand the changes a lack of oxygen has on people and the impact it has on all areas of their bodies.

Treading a new path for nurse-led research

From there on, I took all sorts of research opportunities available to me. I loved being involved in projects and making a real difference. At a research meeting in Lisbon, Portugal, I was chatting to the Research & Development Lead for University College Hospital London, Monty Mythen, and he told me he wanted to enable nurses to get into research but did not know how. So I told him!

As nurses, we often don’t realise our value. Too often we can think that we don’t have a space in research because our background doesn’t naturally lead into it. What we don’t realise is that we are constantly evaluating what’s best for our patients, day in, day out. That’s all research is. But we need other people to see that too.

A few weeks later he came back to me and said “Kay, I want you to go to the Chief Nurse and put together a proposal for what you want to do. We’ll support a grant application.” It showed me the power of conversation and going after what you believe in – in 2010 I was given £137,000 to set up the Centre for Nurse and Midwife Led Research in London.

I think the key for any nurse looking to get into research is that it doesn’t matter where you start, just start.

It was an amazing opportunity to begin to put nurses and midwives on the map for research and be seen. At the same time as running the centre in London, I also moved to Southampton to continue researching and was approached by Christine McGrath, Director of Research and Development for University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, to help set up the Southampton Academy of Research (SoAR).

I’m now the Associate Director of SoAR alongside my normal day job as Senior Research Manager while doing a PhD and working on the NIHR 70@70 programme. It always astounds me to think of the opportunities I’ve had and the pathways that have opened up to me.

Programmes like 70@70 give nurses an essential pathway that doesn’t yet exist. We know how important nurses are to research and the programme gives us protected time to support other nurses to start their research journeys, alongside connecting us to so many other nurses and midwives already doing the same thing. We can only make a difference if we’re given the opportunity to.

Showing our value 

I think the key for any nurse looking to get into research is that it doesn’t matter where you start, just start. Follow your interests and passions because there is so much room and opportunity for them within nursing, you will find research that you can really make a difference to.

Recently, the talented medics at University Hospital Southampton created a Point of Care Testing Device that gives swab results instantly, on the ward, to tell healthcare professionals if the patient has a viral or bacterial infection. It’s an incredible piece of equipment that could help us to reduce the use of antibiotics. But they hadn’t looked at the technique for swabbing being delivered by staff at the frontline and the impact that might have on results. We can help see challenges and potential solutions before others can.

I’m currently working on lots of research projects related to coronavirus as our attention has been drawn to providing answers quickly – I’m looking at tissue damage caused by face masks, virtual visiting and the development of a new ventilator.

We are constantly evaluating what’s best for our patients, day in, day out. That’s all research is.

Heading back to intensive care to nurse on the wards full time for three months has reset my thinking and shaken up what I’m doing with all of my projects.

It’s not easy as a nurse to pursue a career in research, you have to be resilient, comfortable with constant change and be prepared to fail. But it’s the most rewarding career you’ll have. Being part of the 70@70 programme has connected me to a lot of nurses and midwives who I wouldn’t have otherwise met and shown that we can broaden our horizons and challenge others in ways you wouldn’t expect.