Usher Institute

INSIGHT: Reflections on UNCOVER

Author: MPH alumna Emilie McSwiggan - reflecting on being part of the UNCOVER team.

For the last nine months, as the pandemic has reshaped the ways we live, study and work, staff and students across the University have reacted with creative, impactful and community-spirited responses.

UNCOVER – the Usher Network for COVID-19 Evidence Reviews – is one of those responses. Started by a team of volunteers in March, just as the country was going into lockdown, it is now becoming established as a new and exciting element of the University’s teaching and learning experience.

Back in March, we were all thinking -- this is really hard, really stressful, we don’t know what’s going to happen ... but actually, we have a lot of skills that might be useful

Dr Ruth McQuillanOne of the co-founders of UNCOVER

Dr Ruth McQuillan got in touch with several colleagues, who were all thinking along the same lines, and within days a group came together to explore how staff and students could use their research skills to provide the best-available information on COVID-19, to help inform policy-makers as they grappled with the pandemic.

A core team formed, led by Professor Harry Campbell and Dr McQuillan, together with Professor Evropi Theodoratou, Professor Harish Nair, and Marshall Dozier, the group’s Information Specialist. They were quickly joined by Dr Neneh Rowa-Dewar and Dr Gwenetta Curry, with administrative and project management support from Florance Kennedy, Simon Finnigan and me (MPH alumna Emilie McSwiggan).

UNCOVER initially set out to do two things: to provide reliable evidence summaries for decision-makers in the Scottish Government and elsewhere, and to establish a public Register of COVID-19 Evidence Reviews, to help minimise duplication and support the international research effort.

Thanks to an enthusiastic response to its call for volunteers – from MPH and PhD students, postdocs, professional services staff and emeritus professors alike – UNCOVER was able to hit the ground running: often responding to requests for evidence reviews, that would take weeks in normal circumstances, to be turned around in 48 hours or less. In the early days of the pandemic, UNCOVER produced reviews on everything from transmission in indoor and outdoor settings, to the risks associated with transmission in schools, to ethnic and racial disparities in COVID-19 outcomes, in response to questions received from policy-makers.

UNCOVER review teams were collaborative and non-hierarchical, with students and staff working alongside each other to tackle questions that, as yet, nobody knew the answer to. This working model was not planned at the outset, but has turned out to be one of the defining features of UNCOVER. Staff and students both valued the collaboration, and students rapidly gained real-world experience of systematic reviews, putting their learning into practice in ways that contributed positively to important policy discussions.

As students gained experience within UNCOVER, they began to take on leadership roles – helping to coordinate reviews, contributing to write-ups, and mentoring and supporting newer members of the team. This was reflected in a student-led conference held in September 2020, to showcase UNCOVER’s recent work, which attracted an audience from across the University and beyond.

As we have moved out of the first phase of the pandemic and are now getting to grips with its longer-term consequences, the focus of UNCOVER’s work has also changed. Rapid evidence reviews with 48-hour turnaround times are no longer the norm, but there remains a need for good quality, interdisciplinary public health evidence to inform the countless decisions that still need to be made about the management of coronavirus, and its consequences. UNCOVER is producing reviews with the latest evidence, and using new approaches, including living systematic reviews and umbrella reviews, to strengthen its work.

The staff-student working model, and the sense of collaborative community that is a hallmark of UNCOVER, also continues to develop. In addition to MPH dissertations, the team are supporting a number of SSC5 and BioMedSci projects, and experienced students are stepping up into roles as mentors and co-supervisors. The UNCOVER team is now looking towards the longer-term future, and considering how best to integrate its work with University programmes, in order to continue providing exciting opportunities for students; as well as continuing to participate in international partnerships and to support decision-makers with reliable, trustworthy evidence synthesis on many different aspects of COVID-19.


Read more on the UNCOVER website