Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash
Interview with PhD student, Ilona van der Giessen and PERFORM researcher, Dr Marieke Emonts
The Erasmus Programme (EuRopean Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students) is a European Union (EU) student exchange programme. As of 2014, this was redeveloped to Erasmus+ (opens in a new window); combining all the EU's current schemes for education, training, youth and sport.
Ilona van der Giessen is in her 5th year as a medical student at PERFORM partner institute, Erasmus University, Rotterdam Netherlands. Ilona joined the Erasmus+ programme and during her time at the Great North Children’s Hospital and Newcastle University, in the UK, has been involved in PERFORM’s data collection and analysis. We chat to Ilona and her supervisor, Dr Marieke Emonts about student exchange and the PERFORM study.
First of all, how did you get involved with the Erasmus Programme and by extension, PERFORM?
I had almost finished my third year of medical school when I started searching for a research project. It is part of the Master’s degree to do (at least) 20 weeks of research at a place of your choice. Going abroad is also a possibility and I considered this as a great opportunity to see more of the (medical) world than the hospitals in Rotterdam; hence, when I started researching projects abroad, I came across PERFORM.
PERFORM is special in regards to its level of cooperation between many European countries, including the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Thanks to Dr Emonts (PERFORM researcher), consultant paediatric infectious diseases and immunology, there is a direct contact between the Great North Children’s Hospital in Newcastle upon Tyne and the Erasmus Medical Centre. I had heard some very positive stories from medical students who had been to Newcastle to work on PERFORM in previous years, and I was so lucky to be awarded the same opportunity when I applied for this placement. Furthermore, the Erasmus Programme encourages and supports internships like this and the financial assistance I received from the Erasmus Programme made it possible for me to have this experience.
What did you bring to or rather, how were you involved in the study?
Even though PERFORM is a European-wide study which has been going on for many years, I got my own ‘little’ project to work on. As a part of the PERFORM data collection programme, I focussed on the collection and analysis of data to characterise the management and resource use of febrile immunocompromised children, and investigated the costs this entailed at the Great North Children’s Hospital. A part of this work consisted of going through the medical notes for my data collection. I also got involved in other projects, including a time and motion study and a survey for parents. To discover everything that was going on around this study, I also went to NECTAR (North East Children's Transport And Retrieval - the region's specialist Paediatric Intensive Care transport service), PICU (Paediatric Intensive Care Unit), teaching sessions and wards relevant for my research project, and I contributed to other aspects of PERFORM, such as sample collection and informed consent.
Tell us a bit more about a day in the life of a student in the Erasmus Programme?
I lived in a student accommodation with three other international students. A typical day for me during the Erasmus Programme was to go to the Great North Children’s Hospital in the morning, to work on my research project or one of the other projects named above. Once every one or two weeks I had a meeting with Dr Emonts or Dr Lim, who helped me taking the next steps and supported me when I felt a bit lost.
Then after a day of work, I quickly cycled home and went straight to the athletics track where I trained with NUAXC, the Newcastle University Athletics and Cross-Country team. Since I am (only a little bit) addicted to running, I really wanted to train with the local student group, which turned out to be a great decision. I met so many lovely people (including my current boyfriend), really enjoyed the training sessions and went on fantastic race weekends all over the country (from Edinburgh to Exeter). During my free weekends I liked to explore Newcastle, some places around Newcastle like Durham and Tynemouth, and the beautiful parks and coastline.
In thinking about the impact of PERFORM and Erasmus, what are some positive outcomes from your experience? Have there been any challenging moments that turned out to be turning points?
I did not go to a foreign country to make it easy for myself. Building up a new life in a new country where you do not know anyone, never goes without challenging moments. One example was the language. I thought I had made it easy for myself by choosing a country where people speak ‘proper’ English. I thought: it is the native language, so what could go wrong? It did not take me long until I realised that the Geordie accent was not particularly the same as what I supposed to be ‘proper’ English. Luckily, some people in the hospital were so kind to give me a crash course in Geordie. Furthermore, basically all the local people I met were super friendly, so they did not mind repeating what they said when they realised I had no clue what they were saying. Looking back now, I remember how much I struggled the first few weeks to communicate in English all the time. I had never been very good at English, but spending 20 weeks in England has improved my English a lot and now I am much more confident to speak English (and Geordie) in daily life.
What would you say to other people wanting to get involved in the Erasmus Programme and a research project like PERFORM?
It might seem easier to study exclusively in the country where you already live. Also, my research project would not have been so different if I had done it in the Netherlands. However, going abroad is much more than merely continuing your study there; it is a new way of living, it is meeting new people with different cultures and having to face the challenges you can only face yourself.
It is great that the Erasmus Programme is available for students, because I think everyone deserves to get the opportunity to study in another country. Not only to put this on your CV, but to get a lifetime experience and make new friends, some of whom may potentially stay with you for the rest of your life.
Where to now?
From now it is less than two years before I graduate and become a junior doctor. This last period is filled with internships in the Netherlands, but I am thinking of doing one of my last internships in another country again. I am not sure yet what I would like to do after I graduate, but this research project has definitely increased my interest in paediatrics, so I am really looking forward to seeing more of this specialty during my next internship.
And about PERFORM: this continues. I have met the Dutch student who went to Newcastle to work on PERFORM after me, and I hope that in the future there are many more students going to this lovely city and have this amazing experience as well.
A supervisor’s perspective
Dr Marieke Emonts
It is always a delight to have young people joining our team, to share knowledge, and see them grow in their research projects.
We have been very fortunate to have hosted 11 ERASMUS students in the last 7 years, working on local projects, but also on EUCLIDS (FP7), PERFORM (H2020) and now DIAMONDS (H2020). Their contribution is invaluable. The vast majority of these students have been able to present their work at national and or international conferences, and some have even published a paper. Introducing clinicians to the principles of clinical research, GCP, and collaborative work in a country different to their own, is very rewarding. Although usually not immediately obvious, when they join for wider consortium meetings and see how their work contributes to a larger picture, informing the development of a new diagnostic, this is very stimulating. This includes making them aware of the views of the Young people for who we do this work. Whenever possible we invite students to take part in engagement work and there is always an opportunity to join ward rounds and clinics. To see the patients for who we perform the research, and the dilemmas doctors are faced with on a daily basis.
Our unit enjoys hosting multiple junior and senior doctors and researchers from all over the world. We believe in the power of shared knowledge. Each individual can provide input, and that is how we learn from each other.
One of the ERASMUS students will now even return to Newcastle to start his PhD working on PERFORM and DIAMONDS. This makes me immensely proud. We sincerely hope that despite the current political climate, the ERASMUS program continues to exist also for the UK.
More about Erasmus+
The Erasmus+ Programme is designed to support Programme Countries' efforts to efficiently use the potential of Europe’s talent and social assets in a lifelong learning perspective, linking support to formal, non-formal and informal learning throughout the education, training and youth fields. The Programme also enhances the opportunities for cooperation and mobility with Partner Countries, notably in the fields of higher education and youth. More detail and how students can apply can be found at the European Commission website (opens in a new window).