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Virtual EASD Robert Turner Clinical Research Course 2021

11 - 14 May 2021

For the first time in its long history, the EASD Robert Turner Clinical Research Course (RTC) was going to be totally virtual in view of the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic. So, it was really a new experience for everyone taking part. There were 19 students from countries all over the world taking part in the course.

Let us share with you our virtual journey starting from the day of the introductory “dry run”.

The dry run was scheduled four days before the course itself, simply to get comfortable with the Zoom & Canvas platforms which would be used during the course, as well as allowing us to briefly introduce ourselves to each other. On that day, we met Mary Hata and John Miller for the first time, who would remain extremely helpful and accommodating throughout the week to come by answering our technical queries and making sure no one was left behind as a result of IT issues. From the first minute we were welcomed and made to feel comfortable as a group, which would prove to be essential for the smooth running of this virtual course. The concepts of Canvas, an online platform for sharing course materials, and the use of “breakout rooms” on Zoom, for our small group sessions, were explained. We became comfortable with these in a few minutes. We were all relieved that the platforms were quite user-friendly. This introductory session ended on a friendly note with us saying goodbye to each other, with a commitment to meet on the first full day of the RTC.

Day 1 - 11 May

We were eagerly awaiting the first day and as it began, we were filled with excitement to learn as well as some trepidation as we were quite unfamiliar with each other to begin with. Even so deep into pandemic and lockdowns, virtual courses are still something everyone is getting used to. We all logged into our Zoom meeting fifteen minutes before the scheduled time; a good sign of our enthusiasm for the course! For the first time that morning we met our mentors for the week – Anne Clark & Amanda Adler. They welcomed us with warm greetings. We gave a brief introduction to each other, describing our own professional backgrounds as well as a “non-medical” fact about ourselves. Throughout the week, Amanda and Anne did incredible jobs at making everyone feel welcome and engaged, as well as providing real inspiration as they spoke of their own experiences and careers. To begin Day 1, they gave us an introduction to Professor Robert Turner himself, who among many things established the Diabetes Research Laboratories which were the birthplace of the world-renowned UKPDS Study. It was inspiring to learn how Robert Turner worked as a statistician & what his vision for research was, from two eminent researchers who had worked closely with him.

The first session of the week was led by Amanda. She gave us an outline of different types of studies, which formed the basis for all the work we would go on to do during the course. She had many pearls of wisdom for how to approach a study, and how to critically analyze research.

This first session was followed by a short 15-minute break, which became a theme for the week. During this time, we were encouraged to talk among ourselves in smaller “break rooms”. The social aspect of the RTC was something we had all heard about from previous years, and the organizers went to great lengths to emphasize the importance of this, even in the virtual setting. With such a diverse group from so many countries, it made for some interesting discussions.

The second session of the day then started. This was a valuable session where Amanda addressed specific research questions which we had prepared in advance, and she had some brilliant advice for each of us individually. The third session of the day was a very enjoyable activity session. The idea here was unique where the aim was to extricate learning from activity. The concepts of “probability” and “confidence intervals” were explained in simple terms by games which we could take part in via Zoom. It was a light-hearted way to end the day, and we signed off looking forward to the days to come.

Day 2 - 12 May

Day 2 was again divided into three sessions.

The first session was given the name the “Smarties Trial”. In the weeks prior to the course, Mary had gone to great lengths to individually post packages containing tubes of different-coloured Smarties to course attendees – we were explicitly warned not to succumb to the temptation of eating them before the course started! This session was led by Aris & Apostolos – two enthusiastic and warmly welcoming faculty members. The “Smarties Trial” was devised to illustrate how to go about planning and executing a randomised control trial. The session used QR codes to scan in our answers to questions, as well as to take part in the trial itself. It ended with us getting to enjoy our Smarties (at last!) – an excellent educational and interactive session.

The day’s second session involved a critical analysis of a randomised control trial and a systematic review, led by Amanda and Apostolos. They emphasized that a critical approach to research, even at the highest level, is essential. After an opportunity to ask questions, the second day of the RTC came to an end.

Day 3 - 13 May

The third day of the RTC was dedicated to “detailed statistics”. We had a wonderful line up of speakers to talk us through varied statistical analyses.

The first session was led by Tim Morris – a senior statistician from the MRC clinical trial at UCL. The topic of this talk was survival analysis. Tim did an amazing job in simplifying what is a tricky area of statistics. Again, there was an interactive element to this talk as we had to interpret survival data in a small, illustrative sample.

The second session was from Leanne Hodson on “Presentation Skills” During the COVID pandemic, virtual presentations have been part of routine life, and if you want to be a good influencer then you need to have great presentation skills. Leanne explained to us how simple things like font style, font size, background color and slide content can affect a slideshow presentation. Two take home messages were that “Less is More” and “Practice is Key” – simple advice which will help all of us put together more engaging and clear presentations in the future.

The third session was from another guest speaker – Shane Donnelly. He covered the topic of “Selecting Variables in Regression Equations” – another complex area made much simpler by a clear and informative talk.

After another break, the last session of the penultimate day was chaired by Jonathan Levy. He gave an introduction to common statistical tests which we would use for our final day tasks (more on that later!).

At the end of the day, a thoroughly engaging introduction to statistical analysis, we had a question & answer session, before being advised to get some rest for the busy day ahead!

Day 4 - 14 May

And a busy (but very rewarding) day it was!

On the final morning, our mentors informed us that now it was our turn to do the work, using all the knowledge we had gained during the week.

Jonathan gave us an introductory talk and explained that we would be split into four subgroups to carry out specific statistical tasks. Our groups were named for the different colleges of Oxford (giving a flavour of the Oxford experience despite the fact none of us could travel this year) – Green Templeton College, Christ Church College, Exeter College and Oriel College. Each group would have two hours to complete a statistical task from a given data set, to write an abstract outlining the specific type of study that was assigned and to put together a slideshow presentation to be presented to the whole group. We were immediately divided into four breakout rooms to facilitate this, and the race was on. Each group was assigned a mentor who could guide us, but we were left to carry out the specific tasks as a
group. This two-hour period was a frenetic test of teamwork, statistical skills and presentation skills, but every group completed the task, guided by their ever-helpful mentors.

Final show time arrived and one candidate from each of the four subgroups (virtually) stepped forward to present their slideshow to the whole group. There was a time limit of 5 minutes and at the end of each presentation there was another 5 min Q & A session. Our presentation skills were evaluated by Leanne while statistical analyses were evaluated by Anne and Amanda.

After this session, we all enjoyed a well-earned “virtual pub” session where we remained on Zoom to talk about the course and more as a group, students and mentors alike. With that, the RTC was over! We said our goodbyes with the hope that someday, when at last this pandemic is over, we might make up for only having met each other virtually.

It was an extraordinary opportunity, and we would like to offer our sincere thanks to the team of mentors and course facilitators who made us feel so welcome. We would also like to offer thanks to EASD for facilitating the course and to Lilly Diabetes – we are all incredibly grateful for their generous support.

The participants

Tugce Apaydin, Stavros Athanasopoulos, Jessica Bak, Olga Flores, José Luis Flores-Guerrero, Atanas Gjorgjievski, Barbora Hagerf Voglova, Jean Claude Katte, Ana Kopaleishvili, Michael Lockhart, Maria Lytrivi, Tamar Maghradze, Shani A D Mathara Diddhenipothage, Alex Mesa, Christine Newman, Nocholas Ng, Anxious Jackson Niwaha and Meet Shah