Dani Pierce – MRC Research Unit The Gambia

Dani Pierce is a third year PhD student at the University of Leeds who undertook her PIPS placement at the MRC Research Unit The Gambia. Read her full PIPS case study to find out what scientific work was involved in the two clinical trials she was part of and what it was like spending 3 months in The Gambia (complete with more pictures that capture her experience)! Dani also shared her tips and advice on looking for a PIPS placement.

Where did you go and what did you do?

 I went to the MRC Research Unit The Gambia, West Africa. I spent a month based at the rural field station upcountry in Basse Santa Su and the rest of my time at the main camp in Fajara.

MRC Field Station at Basse Santa Su
MRC Field Station at Basse Santa Su

The first project I worked on was a malaria clinical trial. This involved spending a lot of time in the rural tribal villages around Basse and interacting with local people to distribute the medication. I worked with mosquitoes in the entomology labs, learning how to do blood feeding, catch mosquitoes as well as mosquito identification and dissections. I also spent time in the health centres working with nurses who were consulting with and diagnosing patients.

Mosquito breeding

Mosquito blood feeding
Mosquito breeding and mosquito blood feeding

At the main camp in Fajara, I worked on a pregnancy clinical trial project where I spent a lot of time in Bundung Maternal and Child health hospital and Serrekunda health centre.I worked with the clinicians doing check-ups on newborn babies and their mothers before discharging them. In addition, I spent a lot of time in the hospital on the Neonatal intensive care unit, doing ward rounds with the doctor and learning how to check the babies. For part of the project I was based in an office, doing data cleaning for the clinical trial.

What made you want to do that particular placement?

 I had no idea what I wanted to do for my PIPS but I knew I didn’t want to just work in an office as I wouldn’t have enjoyed that. I am really interested in the medical field so I wanted to do something related to that but not lab-based research like my PhD. I found out about the MRC Unit The Gambia and thought seeing how clinical trials are conducted would be interesting, especially in a different country. I was particularly interested in the field work, in the city hospitals and the tribal villages, as I have never experienced that side of research and it is something that I would not be able to do in the UK. I also wanted to live in a different country and do something out of my comfort zone, which this definitely was!

Lake at the MRC Wali Kunda Field Station
Lake at the MRC Wali Kunda Field Station

How did you go about finding and planning your PIPS?

I did a lot of research online trying to find interesting places to work at and contacted a lot of different people and organisations with little success. I emailed the Director of the MRC Research Unit The Gambia about a potential placement and he agreed and put me in contact with people here to choose which projects I would like to take part in. I wanted to be involved in both clinical research and field work as I don’t get this experience from my PhD so I chose to work on two of the clinical trials. Since one project was in the main city area and the other was in the most rural part of The Gambia, I got to experience both sides of the country.

What have you gained from doing your PIPS?

I gained a lot of experience and knowledge about work in the medical field and how large-scale clinical trials are conducted in different environments. I learnt entomology skills such as how to identify different species of mosquito, how to catch and dissect mosquitoes and how to conduct blood feeding experiments. Working with doctors and nurses was a great opportunity to learn more about medicine and how to examine mothers and babies for various things. I observed and assisted some procedures in the neonatal intensive care unit. I also attended a 2-day course on Good Clinical Practice and Research Ethics training.

I learnt so much about The Gambia, its people and its culture and had so many great experiences meeting people, visiting different places and trying local Gambian food.

Joe’s Bar, Basse Santa Su
Joe’s Bar, Basse Santa Su

How would you sum up your PIPS experience?

 I had an incredible time on my PIPS. I learnt so much about so many different things, especially the work that the MRC The Gambia does and so much about life in The Gambia. I met and worked with so many amazing people in different disciplines and made so many friends, some of which had come from all over the world to work in The Gambia too. My friends and I went on many adventures there and had some incredible experiences that I will never forget. I have learnt some incredibly valuable life lessons from my time in The Gambia and made some life-long friends I am very grateful for. I wish I could have stayed there longer.

Surprise leaving party with colleagues at work
Surprise leaving party with colleagues at work

What advice would you give to other students about PIPS?

Keep your options open and don’t be discouraged if some places turn you down for a PIPS.  This happened to me a lot. Take advantage of this opportunity and do something different from your PhD that you are interested in; it could be a life-changing experience!

Dani Pierce at PIPS Dani Pierce at PIPS Gambian restaurant

Banjul market
A selection of Dani’s adventures and interesting places she visited (such as a local restaurant and Banjul market) in The Gambia