“It’s important to continue the push for women to be empowered, to understand they can do it.”

Debbie Clapham-Riley

‘Inspiring, challenging, rewarding and life-changing’, these are the words Debbie Clapham-Riley, Governance and Ethics Study Coordinator, uses to describe working in research.

Debbie works for the NIHR BioResource, a unique organisation which brings patients and researchers together to speed up clinical trials for common and rare diseases. Like many of the people working in research in a non-clinical capacity, Debbie provides essential support to researchers so studies can take place.

With a wealth of NHS admin experience and recently starting her Masters in law, Debbie shows no barriers should stand in your way to achieving your goals. 

So, how does a Governance and Ethics Study Coordinator fit in the world of research, what challenges has she faced and what’s it been like to work in a pandemic from behind the scenes?

Hi Debbie, you’re a research Governance and Ethics Study Coordinator, a role some people may not be familiar with, can you explain what you do?

Before any research study can start, it has to be setup, which is where I come in. I have to prepare and review study documentation, submissions to the Research Ethics Committee, open recruitment sites (at hospitals) and ensure contracts and approvals are in place. My role is to ensure our research studies are undertaken in line with statutory and regulatory requirements, adhering to ethical guidelines. I have to resolve issues quickly, answer researcher enquiries promptly and efficiently as to not interrupt the vital work that researchers are carrying out.

A lot of my work is focusing on COVID-19 related research in adults. The studies I am working on are exploring the neurological (brain and central nervous system) and neuropsychiatric (behaviour of the brain) complications after COVID-19. I will soon be looking at making similar studies available for children to take part.

It sounds like it has its challenges, what does a typical day look like?

No two days are the same and that is what I love about the role! I’m always collaborating with colleagues or researchers to figure out a pragmatic approach to a problem or query. We recruit to a lot of different cohorts across the general population in common and rare diseases so no two queries are exactly the same.

One day you could be setting up a new NHS Trust to recruit people to a study, which involves contract negotiation, the next day you could be preparing an amendment for submission to the Ethics committee.

I recently started line managing in my job, so I’m also learning managerial responsibilities and the ways to be a good line manager for my staff.

Research is an evolving field and a constant learning curve; I learn something new every day.  Working at the NIHR BioResource, I consider myself really fortunate to work with a great team of people with great support.

How did you become a Governance and Ethics Study Coordinator?

I worked in administration in the NHS for nearly 20 years, then 8 years ago I started to study law (which I’m currently studying for my Masters). In 2019 I saw an advert for Governance and Ethics coordinator with the NIHR BioResource, it seemed perfect to allow me to combine my NHS experience with my legal studies. I learnt a lot in a short space of time, particularly when the pandemic started and significantly changed the way in which we do things.

Looking back, what was it like working in the pandemic during the first few months in an administration role compared to your colleagues in a clinical role?

Like everyone the move to home working was challenging particularly from an Information Governance perspective to ensure we maintained our regulatory compliance.

The COVID-19 Research cohort in the NIHR BioResource was set up in response to the pandemic, our focus changed quite rapidly to facilitate this emerging area of research. Setup for recruitment had to be done speedy but efficiently and we also had to think carefully about infection control for volunteers and staff when it came to participant facing documentation and making sure everyone was safe.

This was a big learning curve for us due to the change in our processes, we had to learn swiftly what was required and implement it. Although we are not front-line staff, by helping to facilitate good quality research, it does makes me feel like we are playing our part in some way.

International Women’s Day theme this year is Break the Bias. Have you ever experienced any bias/ challenges in your career, what were they and how did you overcome them?

On a personal level, confidence has been a massive challenge to overcome. For years I thought I had reached as far as I could go, it was a massive step to take myself out of my comfort zone and push myself to try for something different and challenging.

Then came the imposter syndrome, but when I look back at everything I have accomplished with my studies, whilst working, raising a family, then being given the opportunity with the NIHR BioResource and everything I have achieved in the past two years, including promotion and being a part of Covid research, I can see that that initial push outside of my comfort zone has really paid off.  The constructive feedback and strong female mentors that I work with have allowed me to change my thinking and to believe in myself.

What do you think are the misconceptions about working in science/ research and how do you overcome this?

I think traditionally it has been seen as a male orientated area, however, from my own experience I can say women are starting to make up a proportion of people in science and research. I also feel that women still believe that having, a family for example, can be a barrier to achieving a career particularly in science and research. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we can still deliver consistency high quality work and bring up a family. Having a supportive employer that recognises talent is also important.

Woman are incredible visionaries, the education of girls from a young age, to enable them to be empowered them is vital. Having women in research allows for an important platform for inspiring women to lead change.

It’s important to continue the push for women to be empowered, to understand they can do it. Woman can be incredibly hard on themselves and that shows in a lack of confidence. International Women’s Day is a great platform to show women that actually yes you can do it, we as women can achieve and inspire, life changing things.

As part of your role, do you work with many women and what kinds of jobs do they do?

Yes! Many! They vary from Principal Investigators (PIs), Managers, Scientists, Doctors, Nurses, Solicitors, Informatics and Clinical Data leads, Project managers, Laboratory staff, Study Coordinators, Administrators, Auditors, my fellow Governance and Ethics colleagues and of course our volunteers and research participants.

There is a huge contribution from women in and taking part in research and each and every one of them make wonderful, inspiring role models and mentors and a vital asset to science and research.   

Why do you think its important more women work in science/ research?

Women bring an important balance to science and research; it is vital to allow all to reach their full potential. Gender diversity and equality allows for progressive and creative ideas, problem solving and ingenuity. Women bring so much innovation to science and research that the possibilities are endless. Nurturing women to understand that they can have a career in science / research and make a really valuable contribution.

What advice would you give women who want to pursue a career in science/ research area?

Do it! It’s inspiring challenging, rewarding and life-changing. You work with amazing, talented people and you’ll make a valuable contribution to research.  That contribution, however small, can make a big difference to someone. You can find incredible mentors in science and research that can help you.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself when you were starting your career?

Have confidence, you can do it, you can make a difference. You will surprise yourself with the strength you have when you need it the most. 

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