Meet the MIC: Clare Lendrem
Dr Clare Lendrem started working with the NIHR Newcastle In Vitro Diagnostics Co-operative (NIHR Newcastle MIC) five years ago as a statistical methodologist. Clare is now a senior methodologist and co-leads our core team.
Can you tell us a bit about your background and why you joined the MIC?
Sure – I have a PhD in Statistics and started my career working in preclinical pharmaceuticals. I looked at toxicology and formulation of pills and how medical treatments are made. While my son was young, I also worked as a copy editor. After a battle with cancer, I decided I wanted to get back into medical research in the NHS and university. I joined the Academic Haematology department at Newcastle University as a database manager and provided statistical support.
In 2017 the NIHR Newcastle MIC contacted me as they needed some help with statistics for a particular project. It was very interesting and very different from my previous work. Once I started working at the MIC, I realised how important the work is and felt like we were making a difference. The COVID-19 pandemic really brought that home. Working on diagnostics which are going out there, being used, changing how people behaved and keeping them safe felt like a really important job to do. So, interesting and important – you can’t beat that really, can you!
What does your work at the MIC involve and why is it important?
When I was working as a statistical methodologist, I helped people design diagnostic accuracy studies. This is when you go from developing a test in a lab to seeing if it really works in practice in the real world. This involves, for instance, working out how accurate the test is and whether it’s correctly diagnosing people. There’s quite a lot of statistics involved around that, including working out the most appropriate sample size and analysing the data at the end of the study.
Now as a senior methodologist I’m in more of a management role and I don’t get to play with big data sets anymore! My work includes helping to decide which projects we are going to work on. This involves having an awareness of what is happening at a national level and deciding which diagnostics we think we can help with, and which will be the most use to the NHS, patients and people that need them. I also help the methodologists in their day-to-day work, and progress in their careers.
What do you enjoy the most about this work?
The technical and problem-solving side of it. I enjoy helping these very varied groups of people including companies, people who are developing diagnostics, clinicians, patients, the public and our methodologists, to work out how to develop the evidence that is needed for a diagnostic. And making sure that at the end of it, we have something that’s useful!
What have been the challenges with the work?
The COVID-19 pandemic was one because we were suddenly swamped with work and had to focus on that. But it has made some things easier because people seem to understand now, much more how diagnostics work and that they’re not perfect. Working with multidisciplinary teams is also a bit of a challenge because, for instance, we must make sure that everything we write is understandable by a very broad audience. The variety of work and keeping up with the different fields that we work in is also an interesting challenge!
Can you explain what a methodologist is and how the work differs from other types of research?
A methodologist is focused on applying methods to solve real problems. We also develop new methods if they are needed. Every day, we’re working on projects where we are trying to solve real problems and applying methods that other people have developed to do that.
What do you think are the key skills of a methodologist?
I think you must be a generalist, adaptable and have an inquiring mind. You must be able to adapt so that you can work in different clinical areas and use different methodologies. You also need to read quite a lot to learn very quickly about the current practice for diagnosing different medical conditions. A general background usually helps as we work on such diverse projects with a wide variety of people. For statisticians this is quite unusual, as medical statisticians usually specialise in a clinical area. It is interesting and challenging because you must keep learning stuff!
Do you have any advice for researchers who are interested in becoming methodologists and working for organisations like the MIC?
Give it a go! We have people with all sorts of backgrounds including health economists, statisticians, qualitative researchers, engineers and biologists so there is no particular skill that you need. You just need to have an interest in learning new things and applying methods rather than pure research. Experience and willingness to work in multidisciplinary teams is also important. So, if you have an opportunity to bring people with different backgrounds and different viewpoints into your research, I encourage you to do that. It is very beneficial and, in my experience, always improves any project. If you want to find out more about this type of career the Newcastle MIC and Newcastle Health Innovation Partners websites are a good place to go.
What are the three take home messages you would like the public to know from the work of the MIC?
We are working hard to try and make life better for people, patients and the NHS that need diagnostics. Every day, we’re working on projects to try and get better diagnostics out there.
Diagnostics are never 100% perfect, but they should be useful. And that’s what we focus on. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been a lot of diagnostics around that are not perfect, but they have helped. And that’s what we aim for, to improve things.
It’s not just us. We work with this huge network of people including clinicians, patient groups, the public, other methodologists, specialists in universities including health economists – to make sure that we have all the expertise that we need to take on these projects and develop the evidence that’s needed.
Why do you think patient and public involvement and engagement (PPIE) is important in research?
Often, we need help with how a diagnostic should be used and it is important to speak to patients about their experiences. If a patient is more aware about how diagnostics work this can also ensure that they give the most appropriate information to clinicians. When it comes to patient and public involvement I also think about the tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. If you’ve got a researcher that has an idea, and they are regarded as an expert, their team may go along with it, without challenging the person. But if you bring in someone that doesn’t know much about the research, they will question and observe what is being done. And they’re going to point and say, “You’ve got no clothes on”. As a statistician, I’m often going into an area where I know nothing about the science and the clinical side of it. So sometimes I have the role of asking the questions that nobody has thought about and this has been very useful for the project. Once you’ve worked in an area for a while you can become a bit blinkered. So, we need people from the outside to come in and question what we are doing and see our work with a fresh pair of eyes!
Outside of work, what are you looking forward to during the next few months?
I am hoping to take a holiday to hike up some mountains, do some gardening and visit my son who has just got a job down in Bournemouth.