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In this blog, current student Tara gives us an insight into her experience as a mathematician on our DPhil in Cancer Science programme

I am a current 1st year DPhil student in the Cancer Science programme, working in the Nuffield Department of Primary Health Care Sciences. I have a background in mathematics and Statistics with a high interest in applied statistics, including developing and applying statistical models, for example through training and validation datasets

Before applying for the DPhil in Cancer Science, I sparked an interest in medical research through an internship working as a statistics intern on Colorectal Cancer at the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine. Within this role I worked on optimising the criteria for secondary care referral using the non-invasive diagnostic blood test FIT (Faecal Immunochemical Blood Test).

Through this work I enjoyed being able to apply my statistical skills to positively influence the delivery of healthcare for cancer patients – for example, the challenge of managing the frequency of false positive and negative FIT test results by balancing sensitivity and specificity rates through adjusting thresholds for secondary care referral. Additionally, I had the opportunity to work on the impact of COVID-19 on the specialist colorectal cancer screening, and producing recommendations to deal with patient backlog, which I found very fulfilling.

 

My main interest is in the diagnostic pathways of non-communicable diseases, in particular cancers and global outbreak viruses such as COVID-19. I have a passion for working on early diagnosis, exploring how to improve clinical outcomes through examining the various disease, healthcare and patient related factors using published literature, health-care record databases and by developing statistical prediction models.

I was attracted to apply for the project with Prof. Clare Bankhead as part of the DPhil in Cancer Science programme so I could continue to explore my interests in the statistical aspect of early diagnosis research further. In my DPhil, I am carrying out research on addressing the challenges faced in diagnosing lymphoma cancer, with a particular focus on the primary care setting.

This involves:

  • Quantifying features and test results associated with time to diagnosis of lymphoma.
  • To understand the role of tests in primary care by looking at frequency, date conducted, and to find out the results leading up to diagnosis of lymphoma.
  • To investigate the use of new approaches, tests and technologies in the diagnostic pathway.

Currently I am working on a systematic review covering a broad search on the existing lymphoma diagnostic and prognostic factors on predictability of lymphoma.

 

I have had the opportunity to attend various training courses run by the Primary Health Care department which have greatly enhanced my research skills, for example on how to carry out systematic literature searches on online databases, as well as how to carry out and interpret meta-analyses on different study designs. In addition, I have received statistical software training using STATA and R, as well as on literature review tools such as RevMan and EndNote.

Attending the DPhil in Cancer Science research seminars, including on biological areas such as the impact of hypoxia in cancer on treatment and analytic such as the management of the rise in survivorship of cancer have been very insightful! As a mathematician, it’s been really interesting gaining additional knowledge about cancer.

I have been fortunate to be able to interact with patients as part of my DPhil, for example as an observer in the lymphoma clinic at the Churchill Hospital, which I found very fascinating. I was able to record characteristics of presenting outcomes of the lymphoma patients, such as the standard recommended investigative scans and treatment options. Furthermore, I greatly appreciated being able to attend a Patient Public Involvement (PPI) meeting where I was able to hear anecdotes of lymphoma diagnostic experiences from patients who highlighted key factors which impacted their route to diagnosis.

I very much enjoy working with my team of supervisors, which comprises clinical experts in early cancer diagnosis research, particularly on the pathways for non-specific symptoms. I have benefitted immensely from their guidance over the past year on the epidemiology of lymphoma. They have also provided networking connections through being able to observe other ongoing lymphoma early diagnosis research. For example, a radiology project aiming to establish the utility of CT imaging in predicting a diagnosis of lymphoma by identifying specific clinical and radiological features, including blood results that can be used to increase the pre-test probability of a biopsy.

The best part of my DPhil experience is being able to interact with both the Primary Health-care and Cancer Science DPhil students, all of whom come from various backgrounds, both clinical and non-clinical. Everyone is so friendly and welcoming, which creates a lovely working environment!

I find the social events run by the department something to look forward to – these include pub trips, an annual Christmas Party and summer BBQ, formal dinners, coffee mornings and a recent punting trip.

I have enjoyed my first year immensely. It has been filled with plenty of enriching opportunities. Although the stress is starting to build up, working with experts in the medical field to create a project to address real challenges faced in the public healthcare sector and improve patient outcomes is really exciting – I can't think of a better way to be using my statistical skills!

  

Find out more about studying for a DPhil in Cancer Science and how to apply on our Study page.

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