In this series we talk to past PhD students about why they got into research, what an ARC PhD meant to them, and what happened next in their research careers.
We believe in creating opportunities for research training as an investment in the future of the research community and in our capacity to positively impact on health outcomes for patients and the public. Our studentships are linked to our research themes and priority areas and students receive expert supervision and guidance from our academic colleagues.
Here we meet Dr Sonam Zamir currently working in the research department at Alzheimer’s Society.
Can you tell us about your PhD project? What led you to undertake it?
My PhD project ‘Exploring the use of video calls to help prevent loneliness and reduce the risk or impact of dementia’, explored the use of telepresence technology in reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation for older people, with and without dementia, living in care homes. It aimed to test the feasibility and acceptability of an off-the-shelf, low cost, ‘Skype on Wheels’ device that enabled video calls via an iPad or tablet on a wheeled chassis. This adaptation made it easy for care staff to transport in the care home, but also for older frail people to speak to their loved ones. Later, an alternative device of video call via television was introduced to be tested alongside ‘Skype on Wheels’.
I was interested in undertaking a PhD that linked technology and health, specifically mental health. I had a BSc in Psychology and an MSc in Health Psychology in which I’d developed and linked video technology to health behaviours like hand washing in public places. I’d also worked in care homes with adults who had cognitive decline, so a PhD was an exciting opportunity to step out of the role as a ‘staff carer’ and into the role of ‘researcher’.
What are you doing now? Can you tell us about your current research?
I am currently working for Alzheimer’s Society in the research department, focusing on evaluation. I work on a mix of small and large dementia projects, but mainly the evaluation of key services, including to those with dementia and carers. Other projects include evaluating the impact of dementia friendly communities and helping to redesign and shift some services to be video-based due to the pandemic, and providing overall evaluation support to other teams.
What sort of impact did, or would you like to see, your research have?
My project saw a real world impact through residents’ families promoting the research to help recruit other care homes for future studies. One care home won an award from their local council as a result of participating while another decided to adopt a video call activity as part of a long term initiative and encouraged other sister homes to get on board.
The video call activities were published in academic journals and since the pandemic the research has become much more known (increased in citations). The pandemic left many older people, especially those with dementia, living in care and cut off from society, inevitably impacting on levels of loneliness and isolation. Care staff had to think outside of the box and some turned to video calls to help older people reconnect to loved ones. I believe my research, which has been published and made publicly available, could help care staff to understand how to adopt and embed video calls into their care homes to improve socialisation among residents unable to leave or have visitors. I’m hopeful that the pandemic has shown the necessity of embedding these technologies.
How did your PhD project affect your current research? Will your current research impact your project?
It enabled me to gain the skills and expertise I needed to work for Alzheimer’s Society where, luckily, I am able to focus all of my current research activities on dementia and gerontology. My PhD had a number of elements, such as loneliness and isolation, which I’m able to apply to other projects, such as measurement tools, developing theory of change and impact, quantitative and qualitative research and collaborative working and evaluation. I always look back to my PhD research for inspiration.
How important was the participation of patients in your research?
The most exciting part of the project was when it evolved to include non-familial social contacts such as school pupils and other care home residents, to improve socialisation. I relied on their input to develop the research activities and tools, so without them the research would have been impossible and not nearly exciting as it was.
Did your study involve any links with industry?
Due to the continuously fast pace of technology design and development there will always be a need to link with industry to make use of the newest, up-to-date devices.
The ‘Skype on Wheels’ device was developed by design students specifically for this PhD project, linking with industry. I also made contact with a number of new manufacturers that were developing devices suitable for older people when exploring the use of video calls via television.
What happens next? How would you like your research career to develop? Perhaps you already know – tell us about it.
During my PhD I gained experience of lecturing, attended a number of research events, and was invited to speak at conferences. This was the highlight of my PhD. I’m enjoying working in Alzheimer’s Society, focussing on my passion, dementia research, and envision doing this for a while, but going forward I’d like to maybe embark on a lectureship, ideally involving modules related to dementia, gerontology and health technologies and continue to develop aspects of my PhD research.
Would you recommend a research career? What piece of advice would you give to yourself if you were starting again or to anyone else considering a career in research?
I’m always recommending a research career. Doing a PhD didn’t simply allow me to develop skills and a career in research but also shaped the person that I am today. Looking back I wouldn’t change a thing. I feel I was very lucky to have had a supportive supervisory team and was encouraged to do all the things I wanted. In fact I’m surprised by how much I was able to accomplish. For anyone considering a career in research I would say go forward with confidence, sign up to as many skills and training programmes as possible and don’t give up, even if people discourage you. A PhD is no walk in the park, but once you’ve reached the end (it really does come) the benefits and rewards are overwhelming.
Learn more about Alzheimer’s Society
Learn more about Sonam’s research here: