Usher Institute

BLOG: Trials, Tribulations and the Joy of Learning – The journey through MSc Clinical Trials and beyond

Mariam Hassan reflects on her time studying the MSc Clinical Trials at the University of Edinburgh, and how this positively impacted her career.

By Mariam Hassan | MSc Clinical Trials alumna at The University of Edinburgh

Photo of Mariam Hassan

I am a clinical researcher and had been working at a cancer treatment and research facility for around six years when I enrolled in the MSc Clinical Trials (MScCT) programme at the University of Edinburgh in the year 2014.

Starting an educational endeavor after a study gap of almost 5 years seemed really daunting at first but my main motivation was to equip myself with the knowledge and skills to develop and conduct ethical high quality clinical trials. Working in health research in a developing country has its challenges and a core hurdle is lack of training opportunities both at undergraduate and post graduate levels leading to uncertain career progression opportunities for those who choose to work in health research. Travelling to another country in pursuit of learning and development opportunities isn’t always possible especially for women researchers. A distance learning programme, like the MScCT, addresses this gap effectively providing world class instruction, by experts in the field, which the students can pursue from their respective home countries.

Year 1 of the MScCT started with learning to navigate unchartered waters of online learning via the foundation module which lasts for around 2 weeks. The virtual learning environment seems daunting at first but the systematic induction lessons for the technology tool kits, library skills and the (not just for problems) discussion boards with the tutors and peers ensure a lively, robust learning environment. The most interesting aspect of the programme is that it attracts students from all over the world and with various professional backgrounds making this a truly global community.  

As we progressed through the first and second year, we not only formed friendships but also learned from each other’s experiences. The group and pair assignments ensured that we learned some invaluable lessons about teamwork, communication, leadership and professionalism. Often when I was struggling to balance studies with full time work and a family life, the infectious zeal and spirit of other classmates was a source of motivation.

The course outline for each module and the superb faculty provided in-depth understanding of the core concepts needed for ethical conduct of high-quality research. The programme structure provided an invaluable opportunity to developing a deeper understanding of the clinical trials life cycle from its conception and design to its conduct, analysis and reporting. The resources shared with us as part of the curriculum have remained a source for guidance for me in my later work as well.

Around the time when I was done with year 2 of my MScCT studies, I was promoted to lead the clinical research unit at my organization. At around the same time our organization started working towards an international accreditation in quality and patient safety in clinical care and research. Using the MSc knowledge base, and with the help of our team, we successfully implemented reforms in the research review and management process after a detailed gap analysis of existing policies and standard operating procedures, setting up new procedures and updated policies in place to ensure high quality robust ethical research. During this time, we were also able to secure the regulatory license for the hospital as a clinical trial site and established collaborations with local and international research groups as well.

The last year of the MSc involved completion of a dissertation project. Data analysis had always been a deficient area for me and so for the dissertation I was fortunate enough to be supervised by Prof Stuart Ralston who kindly shared data sets from two recently completed trials for analysis. Sadly, my father passed away suddenly around that same time. Life suddenly lost all meaning for me and I could not even work on an outline. I was completely bowled over by my supervisor’s kindness during that time. It helped me tremendously to pick myself back up and to start working on the project again. I was finally able to submit my thesis in October 2017 and visited the beautiful city of Edinburgh later that year for the graduation ceremony.

I continued to lead the Clinical Research Unit for next 5 years and was later appointed as the Research Administrator for the hospitals network where I continue to work to this day. The professional development offered through this programme led me to participate in the landmark COVID-19 SOLIDARITY treatment trial led by the World Health Organization (WHO). I participated as a member of the international steering committee for this mega trial and managed as the national coordinator from my home country, Pakistan as well.

Earlier this year, I was invited to the DSMB of a COVID-19 vaccine study being coordinated through the Department of Medicine, Stanford University, which has been a rich learning experience indeed. I have been able to also work towards a long-standing passion of capacity building for health research in Pakistan in collaboration with The Global Health Network (TGHN) at the University of Oxford and will soon be setting up a virtual knowledge hub that aims to empower health researchers from lower middle income countries to generate more and better evidence.