Life as a Research Student with BAIL

The prospect of spending your 3-month holiday doing research may not seem particularly inviting to some: is this actually the way you want to while away those hot summer days? Being a university student and flatting this year to boot meant that either way I had to spend those summer days doing something (paid of course!) And ultimately this time round I got lucky – as not only has the summer weather been atrocious (with snow up to 30cm in Cardrona on Sunday), I managed to land myself a summer studentship, through the University of Otago, with the wonderful team at the Burwood Academy of Independent Living (BAIL). BAIL is a hub of research and learning, located on the Burwood hospital campus, a charitable organisation that aims to assist and work with individuals with a spinal cord injury (SCI). As I’ve learnt, the work they do, along with the fellow charitable trust, the New Zealand Spinal Trust, is incredibly rewarding and life-changing for everyone; SCI individuals and the organisation members alike.

I’ve spent the last 3 months, November through to end of January, conducting a clinical notes audit of SCI patients from the Burwood Spinal Unit that have accessed a Transitional Rehabilitation (TR) service in the Spinal Unit in 2009. This programme has been designed with the intention of improving a patient’s rehabilitation and community re-integration after sustaining their SCI. The wider study conducted by BAIL is aiming to assess and evaluate the programme, so my job was to provide a demographic and clinical picture of the TR population.

And what an eventful task this was. I spent at least 2 weeks (or was it 3?!) in the Spinal unit reception, poring over patient files, entering the necessary information into the TR database. But of course there was many a file that couldn’t be located in the filing cabinets so I went from receptionist to secretary, to doctor’s offices, to the physio department but always managing to find my way back to the Spinal Unit (!), in order to track down the missing details. The staff I encountered, admin, doctors, physios, were all so incredibly helpful and accommodating. When the mammoth task of completing the database was done, it had to be cleaned and coded and checked to make sure everything was in order (which involved a couple more trips back to those filing cabinets in the Spinal Unit!) Then it was ready for data analysis, a painstaking process which took almost as long as the data collection (!!) but was interesting all the same!

I’m in my last week of my project as I write this, and this Friday coming is my final presentation where I have a mere five minutes to present my project and results to my fellow summer students, my sponsors, supervisors and family. Five minutes is in no way enough time to present my studentship, to divulge about the truly great time I’ve had (knowing of course, that the project is simply meant to encapsulate the research side of things, but it’s not even enough to cover all of that!)

But I want the opportunity to give this studentship justice. Because, as cliché as it sounds, it’s truly like no other summer job I’ve ever had. Since year 12 I’ve worked a motley of positions; checkout operator, ice-cream maker, waitress… and while they’ve been jobs I’ve enjoyed, and have given me oodles of customer-service experience, this position has been at a whole new level; fascinating, rich and diverse and little bit of an insight into the goings on of an office and organisation. My team of supervisors, Dr Deborah Snell, Dr Jo Nunnerley, and Johnny Bourke have been so wonderfully friendly, accommodating and just all round great and interesting people. The amount I have learned, not just from the research but from this group of fantastic people is immense. Their dedication to helping people and their drive and passion for not just their work but life in general is so inspiring and something I hope to channel in my own life. The atmosphere in the office, with the other members of the BAIL team, and the other members of the other organisations in our homely little portacom is so welcoming and the energy that everyone generates just by being together is incredible. This is an office where you are happy to wake up and go to work, everyone chats, there’s little meets up for morning tea on a Friday morning, at Christmas time there were Christmas carols blaring, and shared lunches. Some days, it was so enjoyable it didn’t feel like I was working at all.

I loved the experience of being a part of this team, and also that I was a part of something meaningful, something where I could and was making a difference. The fact was, I was finally emerging into that often terrifying role of an adult, out of my little world of a uni student and into the big wide real world. I wasn’t just a worker, I was a team member, where my opinions and thoughts mattered, where the things I did mattered and even though I was still a student, I wasn’t treated like one.

All in all, an intensely rewarding experience. I’ve learnt a lot about SCI, some of the issues that people with SCI face, as well as what is being done to rectify those issues. Also, I learnt about all of the prospects and opportunities that are out there for all people with a disability. And it’s so inspiring. The work these organisations do and the feeling that you get just to be a part of one, even for only three months (!) – It’s incomparable. As an added bonus, I got to enjoy lunch breaks, tea breaks and any other sort of break with my mother, the library manager of the Allan Bean Centre Library, a project run by the NZST. This made my job even better – anyone who gets the chance to work with an awesome bunch of people and gets to hang out with their mum into the bargain is incredibly lucky. Especially if their mum is as cool as mine!

If you have the opportunity to do a summer studentship or any type of research – particularly with BAIL! I implore you, seize it with both hands. I’m incredibly sad that mine has already come to an end, but there’s always next year!

See you again BAIL, sooner rather than later I hope 🙂 by Zahra Shahtahmasebi