Meet the MIC: Cameron Williams
Cameron joined the NIHR Newcastle In Vitro Diagnostics Co-operative (NIHR Newcastle MIC) as a methodologist in June 2021. Cameron’s role at the MIC focuses on statistics and examining the accuracy of new diagnostics.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and why you joined the MIC?
During my honours degree, when I was in Australia, my research project was focused on expert elicitation and subjective Bayesian statistics. This involves capturing opinions and judgements from experts to use within statistical designs and analyses. As I found the area interesting, I decided to look for further projects using these methods and one of my supervisors suggested I look for opportunities internationally. I found a really good PhD project at Newcastle University’s Maths department which matched my interests really well. I had previously worked in education, ecology, sociology and psychology, but not medical research so it was a good chance to move into that area. Then, when I was coming to the end of my PhD, my supervisor shared the job advert at the MIC with me. I thought it sounded interesting so then I applied!
What does your work at the MIC involve and why is it important?
A lot of my work at the MIC focuses on working out how accurate a medical test is. Sometimes we are examining the performance of the test for the first time on patient samples. So it’s the first opportunity we have to work out whether the test is going to work in practice or not. Other times there is already evidence that a test works well and we want to examine how best to use the test in practice.
In a recent study, we examined whether patients who have had a kidney transplant could use a handheld device for monitoring their kidney function. This would mean that instead of going to a hospital to have regular tests, these patients could test themselves in their own home. This could potentially help to relieve the burden on the NHS and save clinicians’ time, and would also save the patients time and money.
In the study, we compared patients testing themselves at home with a handheld device with nurses testing patients with the same device. We also compared both sets of results with findings from a hospital laboratory test that is usually used for monitoring the chemicals in blood. The handheld device uses a sample taken from a fingerprick while the laboratory test uses a blood sample drawn from a vein, so we also had to keep an eye out for any differences due to the different types of measurements. Overall, we showed that it is perfectly feasible for patients to use the device themselves. We hope that future studies can investigate which tests might work best for this.
What do you enjoy the most about this work?
I enjoy the opportunity to work on all sorts of different projects. There is always a new project to get involved in and learn from, whether that is a new methodology or a new medical application, and it is always really interesting. I also enjoy the opportunity to develop new methods as well. It’s great to be involved in both the applied and the methodology side.
What have been the challenges with the work?
I come from quite a strong statistics background, but less of a strong medical background. So sometimes it takes a while to brush up on the medical side of the projects. Luckily we have great collaborators so there are usually plenty of people who can help explain the project in good detail!
What do you think are the key skills of a methodologist?
It is really important to be adaptable so you can work on different projects and take on different roles within those projects. It is also important to be able to communicate effectively with a wide variety of people. We talk to lots of different medical professionals from clinicians to paramedics to nurses, as well as patients and other researchers. The researchers we work with could be people who have never been involved in diagnostics before, or people who have been working in this area for tens of years!
Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for researchers who are interested in becoming methodologists and working for organisations like the MIC?
If anyone sees a job advert for this type of role, and they are interested in the diagnostics aspect, then it is a really great opportunity. Especially if you are also interested in developing and being involved in methodological research while still working on something that is applied, as you see the impact of your work. You don’t need to have a lot of expertise in medical diagnostics as we have people with all sorts of different backgrounds. In fact, it is often a benefit to come from a different background and have a different perspective on things, so don’t let that put you off!
What are the three take home messages you would like the public to know from this piece of work?
It’s important for people to know that no tests can be perfectly accurate. However, a lot of work goes into making sure that the tests are accurate enough so they are useful in practice. If they aren’t useful then they won’t be used.
Tests can be used in different ways. A rule-in (or high specificity) test is used to confirm which patients almost certainly have a disease. While a rule-out (or high sensitivity) test is used to confirm which patients almost certainly don’t have a disease. Both uses are helpful in different scenarios.
The process of ensuring a test is both accurate and safe is a long one, and often it takes many years and many studies.
Why do you think patient and public involvement and engagement (PPIE) is important in research?
At the end of the day, it is patients and the public who are actually going to be tested or relying on the results from the test. So it’s important they get a say in the process to ensure that the test is actually right for them. It is also good to have an extra outside opinion, someone checking through the work, to make sure with their fresh perspective that what we are doing makes sense and we share it with a wide audience in a sensible way.
Outside of work, what are you looking forward to during the next few months?
I am hoping that at some time around the second half of this year I can go back to Brisbane, Australia and catch up with some friends and family as it has been a bit of a while since I have been back home. I have just been on holiday to America for the first time and visited Washington and New York, which was amazing.
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