Article 28.10.2021

Finding Your Path in Research with an ARC EoE Fellowship: Helen’s story

Paramedic Helen Hall shares how she gained research experience, skills and confidence with NIHR support and is now a NHS research grants advisor

Helen Hall

Helen Hall, Research Grants Advisor at James Paget University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

  • How did you start your research journey?

My path into research has been an interesting and winding one!  I trained as a paramedic working with the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust (EEAST) in Luton, and then Waveney in Suffolk. Gaining experience as a clinical trainer, clinical project manager, and also a clinical audit manager in the ambulance service, I was tempted to become regional lead research paramedic for the NIHR-funded national Airways-2 Randomised Controlled Trial.

I had previously taken part in research activity as a paramedic ‘on the road’, but this role now embedded me within the research team and I met some really experienced and inspiring people in clinical research.  I wanted to do what they were doing and make a difference!

  • Why did you apply for an ARC EoE fellowship?

The EEAST research team at the time was small but highly motivated, and I was always encouraged and supported to develop my research skills, think about writing bids and push out of my comfort zone. Dr Larissa Prothero - the only other research paramedic in the team, was completing an ARC (formerly CLAHRC) fellowship, and she urged me to apply. As I learned more about the programme, workshops, masterclasses and the project - I saw how it would help me gain practical research skills and build my research capability, and credibility.

I was unsure about applying, as my application for a NIHR funded MSc in clinical research had been unsuccessful and my confidence was low. However, the advice I received from Larissa was instrumental. She encouraged me to contact the ARC team to arrange a chat about my proposed project. I met with one of the theme leads and received really constructive advice to refine and focus it. I sent off my application and was absolutely thrilled when I was selected for interview and accepted on the programme! I ran a qualitative research project which investigated the experiences of mental health patients who call 999 and receive care from the ambulance service. 

  • How did the ARC fellowship programme support you?

During the programme I developed so many new skills which have been useful in my research career. I formed a small Patient and Public Involvement (PPI) group with people who had lived experience of using the ambulance service for a mental health emergency. They helped to inform the protocol and advised on the design of the patient facing literature. The ARC team put me in touch with Professor Kristy Sanderson who supervised my project. To work with NHS patients as participants, I had to seek approval for the project from the Health Research Authority (HRA) and Research Ethics Committee (REC) and Professor Sanderson accompanied me when I met them.

The fellowship programme offers practical sessions delivered by experts to train you in conducting literature reviews, statistics, and writing for publication.  Each one of these masterclasses is really valuable and gives you a specialist contact in each area. Through completing the fellowship I gained more confidence and credibility, and my research manager supported me to apply for the grants advisor role at James Paget. Moving from the ambulance service to an acute hospital was a great opportunity for me and the ARC fellowship gave me the confidence to do this. 

  • What does your current research role involve and how do you support staff?

As a research grants advisor at James Paget Hospital, I help Trust staff to apply for grants and fellowships to support their research projects, and work to increase our research capacity and capability. We have held clinics with the NIHR Research Design Service (RDS) for our staff to discuss potential projects with RDS experts, and research skills training workshops. I am always looking for ways to engage Trust staff with research and our clinical academic showcase day led to our first two successful applications for HEE/NIHR bridging fellowships. I have also supported an ARC fellowship application, and we recently submitted our first successful Research for Public Benefit application as a sponsoring Trust.

I have a special interest in supporting Allied Health Professionals (AHP) research and I supervised our first student occupational therapist research placement earlier this year and currently have a student physiotherapist on a research placement. This is really embedding research into everyday practice and gives students a working knowledge of research.  As a member of the Council for Allied Health Professions Research East of England hub, I help to host regional AHP research evenings and the annual conference.  I’m also a member of the Cambridge East HRA Research Ethics Committee, where I’m always learning!

  • What are your next steps in research?

I’m currently completing my MSc dissertation in clinical research.  This continues my research work and builds on a report I wrote on head injury care provision in the East of England. I am exploring the help seeking and self-appraisal factors for people recovering from a head injury.   

I recently received an honorary fellowship from the University of East Anglia for my contribution to the School of Health Sciences, a very proud milestone in my research journey!

  • Helen’s research career advice:
  1. Accept that you will have knock backs and rejections along a research career. I am constantly impressed and inspired by the people I meet and their resilience in dealing with obstacles and challenges. Persistence and tenacity are essential! The ARC fellowship will give you the skills and strategies to overcome these challenges, with action workshops and helpful contacts. 
  2. Find a supporter.  At every stage of my career I have been supported by NHS managers, peers and academics, which I am very grateful for. I aim to offer the same support and encouragement back to people I meet at every stage of their research career.
  3. The ARC fellowship definitely gave me the confidence and self-belief to develop my career and I would encourage anyone from any background to consider applying!