Clinical Research in Sexual and Reproductive Health: what does it take?

Posted 21 Jul 2022

Date: 21 Jul 2022

Author: Dr Annette Thwaites

Fresh from her MD viva into “Contraception after Successful In Vitro Fertilisation”, Dr Annette Thwaites reflects on her experience and the challenges and opportunities of conducting research during the pandemic.

Dr Annette Thwaites headshotHaving registered for my MD at the beginning of 2020, my ‘best-laid plans’, along with many others, were almost immediately derailed due to the pandemic. After a brief period of freefall, I began to rework and adapt my research questions and chosen mixed methods approach to be answerable and achievable in the emerging new world. During the last couple of years, with multiple covid-curveballs along the way, I have often reflected on the need to be flexible while remaining rigidly committed to the aims of my research. Other requirements appeared similarly necessary, challenging and paradoxical: tenacious yet timebound, rigorous yet pragmatic, creative yet structured, independent yet collaborative, deep in the detail whilst maintaining a bird’s eye view at all times and being able to project manage with no real resource nor budget. Perhaps the most important requirement of all is the ability to communicate and engage people effectively in what you’re doing and why it matters, be that in a 3-minute thesis competition or a 4-hour viva!

Whilst this may seem at times like a tall order, the rewards have been similarly high: working with new, bright and brilliant people from diverse backgrounds and acquiring new and transferrable skills. My research group and supervisors have been a great source of inspiration, guidance and encouragement during the inevitable highs and lows. Via the FSRH Clinical Studies Group (soon to be renamed the FSRH Research Group) I also gained access to others active in SRH research in the UK which provided external, expert perspective and mentorship. It was also an excellent environment to contextualize current and potential research ideas and opportunities and learn how the research agenda is set and shaped to inform and influence policy and effect change. I also collaborated widely with research and public health scientists, epidemiologists, knowledge management specialists, statisticians, clinicians (across fertility, maternity care, community SRH and general practice), and charities, journalists, social media marketing experts and fertility bloggers.

As a NIHR Academic Clinical Fellow, I have also been able to access a wide range of resources and to gain experience and skills in different research methodologies, topics, tools and techniques. I have taken courses from statistics, STATA and survey design to qualitative interviewing, writing and presenting. I have also had the opportunity to experience other academic roles such as presenting at national and international conferences (RCOG world congress, ESHRE annual meeting, FSRH virtual and most recently The European Society of Contraception and Reproductive Health (ESC) Congress in Ghent); lecturing, developing teaching resources and marking on the UCL reproductive science and women’s health MSc and a host of other projects of interest related to postnatal contraception (e.g. working with the Institute for Health Visitors on a webinar and training resources and the Global Library of Women's Medicine to develop an animation script to be used in low resource settings). The intellectual stimulation, satisfaction and autonomy have been incredible.

So whilst my MD is coming to an end, the process of dissemination is just beginning with a raft of publications, secondary analyses and collaborations planned. The challenge is now spreading the word, getting the messages heard and achieving associated changes in policy and clinical practice to benefit the significant and growing population of women having babies via IVF and wider postnatal community. My next unknown research projects are around the corner. And I’m excited. Maybe the real question here is not “Clinical Research in SRH: what does it take?” but “where does it take you?”

Read the first paper from Annette’s MD, a qualitative study of views on contraception of women who have had spontaneous pregnancies after successful IVF open access in full here:

Thwaites, A., Hall, J., Barrett, G. et al. Contraception after in vitro fertilisation (IVF): a qualitative study of the views of women who have had spontaneous pregnancies after successful IVF. Reprod Health 19, 40 (2022).

This work was also featured in an article by Medscape: “Women Not Told About Need for Contraception After IVF Births”.