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This week, I met up with 4 University of Leeds students who have just started a 12 month placement in the Covance Research Clinic. After a bit of a friendly natter, I learned a lot about their experience so far, their plans for the future… and how to cope with handling bodily fluids on a daily basis!
All of our interns are working towards different Bachelor's degrees within the faculty of Biological Sciences – so does this mean that their roles are different here at Covance? Well, actually no, as they explained to me! Their role this year is identical, because the work undertaken at Covance covers such a broad spectrum of skills.
I was interested to know what, if anything, the students had known about Covance before starting their placements here. Like many students at the University of Leeds, they had often passed the building on their way to and from lectures, and knew that we recruited volunteers for clinical trials; however, it was really their interest in building professional skills during their degrees which led them to Covance. All of the students had registered to receive emails about professional work placements from Leeds University, and responded to Covance's advert with their CV and covering letter; the rest, as they say, is history.
'Every day is different', says Rebecca, reflecting on the first 4 weeks in clinic. 'You might do a certain task, like ECGs, every day, but your schedule is never the same 2 days running'. Over the year, the students will have the opportunity to experience roles in different parts of the clinic – they've already been introduced to the nurses' station and to Screening reception. It's clear to see that they enjoy the challenges of this ever-changing role, as they talk confidently about preparing for up-and-coming assessments which will allow them to complete more functions without supervision.
Surely, with the constant exposure to needles and bodily fluids of every kind, this type of clinical work is not for the faint hearted?
'It's amazing how quickly you get used to seeing fridges full of wee', they reassure me. However, as Jacqui explained, blood was more of a challenge initially; 'It was really nerve wracking drawing blood from somebody for the first time'. The students showed me one of the plastic arms which they use for training with needles, and stressed that they get to practise a lot on other members of clinic staff before drawing blood from any volunteers 'someone who doesn't mind getting stabbed', Rupert adds.
As if a regular blood draw wasn't pressure enough, our students are now participating in 'blood runs'; all volunteers in a room must have their blood drawn at strict one-minute intervals, and any deviation from the schedule will invalidate the sample as part of the study data. 'At first, it was a scary concept and we felt really pressured,' says Jacqui, 'but after a few goes you realize just how long a minute actually is. Also, you don't have time to get worried about getting the needle in, you just achieve this level of focus.'
All of the students agree with Rebecca when she adds 'It's such a great feeling when you have 9 or 10 vials of blood lined up after a run and you know you've done a good job'.
Looking forwards, then… I'm almost reluctant to ask a question which was the bane of my own undergraduate life, but in the name of being fully informed… do our students know what they'd like to do after finishing their degree?
I probably shouldn't be surprised that they're far more equipped to answer this question than I was 8 years ago! Jacqui felt that this placement would give her the practical skills to work in a clinical or hospital environment, while Rupert said he'd be really interested in a biomedical role at Covance's Harrogate unit. And they were all certain of one thing; 'I'd love to stay on as bank staff while I finish my degree', said Maxine . 'It would have been difficult to get a job at Covance without any previous experience, but we know of lots of people who've come here as temps and stayed on the staff.'
'We've also heard of a lot of Covance staff taking on roles in different departments, even in the units in New Jersey and Texas, which is an exciting concept', Rebecca adds.
So, would our interns recommend a Covance placement to other students? The answer is a resounding yes, plain and simple.
But what about volunteering? Would they recommend coming on trials to friends and family?
'I'd love to do a trial myself!' says Rebecca. Their hands-on experience with our volunteers has confirmed that everyone is safe and comfortable at all times on study. 'Covance's safety record is fantastic', Jacqui adds, 'I wouldn't have any qualms about somebody's safety if I'd advised them to get involved in a trial'.
As a final thought, I asked the students how they would describe Covance's work to somebody who was interested in starting a placement here. After quite a long and thoughtful silence, Rebecca offers 'That's a hard question to answer, because Covance is the only company which covers such a range of different services'.
'Covance offers everything from pre-clinical to phase 4 testing', says Maxine 'even study design, which is probably why this is such a successful company'.
In summary, I think it's fair to say that our interns have enjoyed their first month on placement. We'll be catching up later in the year to find out more about their experience.