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Your path in research: A radiographer's story

Lindsay Cunningham, is a research radiographer at Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Foundation Trust in Greater Manchester. As part of NIHR’s Your path in research campaign, Lindsay has shared how she came to follow a career in research and encourages other healthcare professionals to consider doing so, too.

I currently work as a research practitioner in Upper Limb Research which is part of the Clinical Trials Department at Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. Our Trust delivers research both for NIHR and home-grown studies. The Upper Limb Unit is based at Wrightington Hospital’s Orthopaedic Centre of Excellence, home of Professor Sir John Charnley and the Charnley Hip, so research and innovation run deep here.

My personal journey into research began when I decided to undertake a teaching certificate back in 2002. As part of the course, I did some teaching practice at the University of Salford and became involved in a government-funded research project as a research assistant, as well as using research skills in preparation for lectures and facilitation sessions for Undergraduate and Postgraduate radiography students.

However, it wasn’t until 2008, after a short career break when I worked in a primary school, that I finally found myself in a dedicated research role working at the Wolfson Molecular Imaging Centre; part of the University of Manchester. This was a very diverse role, using Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans to undertake research in brain disorders; including Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, pain studies as well as brain and full body PET/CT oncology studies. This job gave me a much greater understanding of the ethical principles and the amount of work involved into setting up the studies before they even begin.

One of the main things I found surprising was how accommodating the participants were; these were high radiation, lengthy and sometimes invasive procedures, and we rarely struggled with recruitment of either symptomatic patients or healthy volunteers for the studies. I put a lot of this down to the professionalism and dedication of the researchers and their passion for the research they were undertaking. Unfortunately, the journey to Manchester was becoming arduous and travelling up to two hours each way in stop, start traffic was taking its toll. I left the job in 2010 to return to general radiography at Wrightington Hospital which was cycling distance from home.

As a radiographer, I became involved in imaging patients on orthopaedic research studies and tried to get involved in audit projects in the department, and in 2017 I secured a job in the Upper Limb research unit at Wrightington Hospital where I continue to work now.

This research role had historically always been a physiotherapist’s domain, with goniometry measurements to be taken and a variety of patient-reported outcome measures (PROMS) with seemingly never-ending mnemonics to complete and score. Over the last four years, the role has evolved, and I am now involved not just in the delivery of studies, but from the start of every project, securing grants and ethical approval, and planning the studies with our upper limb surgeons and physiotherapists. Our unit is also recruiting to a number of national NIHR-funded studies as well as leading several industry-funded projects. 

It’s been quite a journey, and I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to work in the research world; a world which doesn’t seem to include that many radiographers. So, I would just like to share these experiences with a wider audience and say whatever your background, if you are considering a career in research, be prepared for never knowing what is round the next corner - ride the roller coaster and seize the opportunities in a demanding but fulfilling field.