The little things in life, literally
Dr Patricia Tay is a Clinical Research Network (CRN) Manager at the Singapore Clinical Research Institute (SCRI) where she coordinates the development and maintenance of the research networks by encouraging and facilitating research through collaborations among clinicians.
Clinical research networks are critical platforms to gather clinical evidence that would not have been possible in the past with single sites. These networks facilitate and enhance the collaborative partnerships between academia, industry and public institutions.
Patricia takes charge of the small but crucial details that others may overlook. With her meticulous attention to detail, she navigates the complexities involved in maintaining the networks seamlessly. As a reliable anchor at the core of SCRI’s networks, she ensures that its members can collaborate effectively, enabling clinical research trials to progress smoothly with minimal obstacles.
Read on to find out more about the pivotal role Patricia plays as the key communication link and how it has been an eye-opening experience, giving her renewed purpose in her work and opportunities to appreciate life’s little moments despite not being the career path she had originally intended.
At the molecular level, seemingly insignificant components such as nucleotides bind the two strands of DNA together, the single thread of a spider’s web, or the gluten that provides elasticity to dough, play crucial roles in maintaining the integrity of vital structures. In a similar manner, as a CRN manager at SCRI, Patricia undertakes a significant role in facilitating research collaborations such that clinical research networks run smoothly.
As a student, Patricia found herself drawn towards the prospect of working in a lab over debating literary tropes in English lessons. “The good results (in Science) were a huge push factor,” she says with a laugh. Her fascination with research was further fuelled by her interest in medical shows such as Grey’s Anatomy and ER. It came as no surprise when Patricia pursued a science-related career after studying Biotechnology in Polytechnic, followed by Molecular Biology during her undergraduate years, and eventually earning a PhD in anti-cancer research.
Hanging up her lab coat
While she initially enjoyed working in a lab, Patricia began to realise that the “bench to bedside translation” of research does not happen as quickly as she had imagined. This spurred her to seek out positions where she could make a “more direct impact on patients”, leading her to her current role as a CRN manager.
However, while her background in science allowed for a relatively smooth transition, it was not easy to get her foot in the door. “Interviewers were sceptical and often asked why I left,” she says.
Unwilling to let that deter her, she “decided to gain more knowledge in the procedures of conducting clinical trials and enrolled myself in Good Clinical Practice (GCP) courses conducted by National University of Singapore.” This seemingly small initiative eventually became her stepping stone. Acquiring the added credentials not only showed interviewers she was competent in the area but also sparked her interest and naturally, she “went on to study further”.
Compared to her peers in pharmaceutical companies or research labs, Patricia gained a holistic understanding of the research-to-treatment process and its impact on the patients’ well-being as well as their accessibility to treatment.
“I had a newfound appreciation for the vital roles that clinical trials play in advancing patient care,” she says.
Advancing patient care through CRN efforts
Asked about the most memorable advancement she had seen impact patient care; Patricia recalls the period when the statistics for Out-of-Hospital Cardiac Arrest (OHCA) patients were dire at 2% in 2003. The Pan-Asian Resuscitation Outcomes Study (PAROS) Clinical Research Network implemented a c_ardiopulmonary resuscitation_-assisted dispatcher which was later adopted as part of the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) workflow. When 995 is dialled, callers receive guidance on doing CPR over the phone. “Together with other research and development projects, the implementation of this step in the SCDF workflow significantly improved the survival rate of patients by 20%,” she shares.
A further indication of its success — countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia have sought for PAROS and SCRI to organise workshops to educate their dispatchers on-site. With OHCA being a global health concern, this breakthrough was a powerful reminder to Patricia that her efforts had played a direct role in impacting public health.
The value of a CRN as a single point of contact
Beyond that, she recognises the value of CRN managers being “a single point of contact” for principal investigators (PIs). This simplifies the process for companies with clinical research ideas as well, as Patricia explains, “They can simply approach me, and I disseminate their proposals to the relevant and interested PIs.”
Like nucleotides binding two strands of DNA together, she deftly connects PIs with research interests in the same disease areas. By eliminating the need for multiple back-and-forth discussions, the proposal process is streamlined, enabling clinical trials to be executed more effectively.
With over a decade of extensive experience, Patricia has had the opportunity to work across different disease areas, facilitating outputs such as the development of treatment guidelines in Singapore and the region.
For the Asian Liver Transplant Network, she played a pivotal role in conducting consensus guideline meetings where she worked with clinicians to draft guidelines for treatments such as liver transplant immunosuppression. The guidelines were published on PubMed which serves to guide treatment in certain areas across the region. The guidelines will specify the most effective treatment options for specific conditions and indicate those that are more cost-effective while providing the same outcomes.
“Without the guidelines, it will rest solely on the doctors’ experience to map out the treatment plan,” she adds. Patricia believes that the evidence from the research can be used to guide treatment decisions in a wider net since the clinicians come from surrounding Asia-Pacific regions.
Going global with SCRI
“When I first started, there were only three networks. Today, SCRI has nine active networks,” she says. The development of these networks in the Asia-Pacific region provides engagement opportunities in critically important research for diseases of Asian significance.
“Many of our networks have reached out to public healthcare institutions worldwide,” says Patricia. As with most PIs, they lean towards having a single point of contact, and she helps to coordinate everything. This benefits the PIs because having a diverse population from each country ensures their research is “much more representative”, rather than having just their own people.
Patricia has received small tokens of appreciation and simple words of thanks from her PIs. They often share snacks and souvenirs from their home countries such as tau sar piah from Penang, savoury pork floss crackers from Thailand and knick-knacks from India.
“Not only is it sharing a piece of their culture but it also feels representative of the growing network that SCRI is building,” Patricia says.
She also recalls with fondness of the warm hospitality by the international PIs whenever she visits. “They would give me a tour around the city, and we would chat over good food,” she shares.
While the gifts themselves are not of great material value, their small gestures warmed her heart — to be remembered as having been an integral part of their journey.
Patricia (third from right) in Hangzhou for the PAROS Exco meeting in 2017.
Going with the flow during the back-to-back grind
Despite her meticulous nature when it comes to work, Patricia describes herself as a person who goes with the flow and “rarely overthinks” situations beyond her control. “I just do it,” she says firmly.
Her personality would serve her well for the challenges she faced as a CRN manager, where she had to apply her problem-solving skills and adapt quickly to last-minute changes. Patricia often finds herself having “back-to-back events with different networks”.
However, she reminds herself to remain calm and focused. “Do not panic. Be systematic. Prioritise the task to be completed,” she shares her strategy for tackling such scenarios. This approach has helped her to plan while allowing things to fall in place naturally.
Flipping through her calendar mentally, Patricia outlines her schedule. For the last week of February 2023, she led the launch symposium of the ADVANcing Clinical Evidence in Infectious Disease (ADVANCE ID) Network and attended meetings for PAROS. On behalf of PAROS, she will be organising workshops in March and end-April, the latter in the Philippines. In May, her time is dedicated to the Paediatric Acute & Critical Care Medicine Asian Network (PACCMAN).
Patricia (right) and her colleague at the ADVANCE-ID Symposium in February 2023
Describing her role as eventful would be an understatement, she manages every miniscule detail — from secretariat duties and logistics arrangements to consolidating presentation slides and even arranging accommodations. Every aspect is given her undivided attention, no matter how seemingly insignificant it may be, as she ensures everything runs smoothly.
“I’m swarmed,” Patricia says, and adds with a glint in her eye, “But the work is incredibly fun.”
Paying attention to the little things
Her face brightens up further as she recounts her experiences of working with PIs from different fields of research. “Each PI has a different working style, and you learn to cater to them. Some PIs prefer working in the wee hours of the mornings and some on the weekends,” she elaborates. Ultimately, it was about knowing how she could best help them achieve their desired results. Remembering their little quirks is simply part of Patricia’s meticulous work ethic.
When asked about her advice for women interested in pursuing a career managing clinical research networks, she emphasised the importance of interacting with people without perceived bias. She stresses: “To be a good CRN manager, you must be comfortable interacting with people.” There is the presumption that clinicians are difficult to communicate with but in fact, she finds most of the PIs she has worked with to be friendly and approachable.
As cliché as it may sound, Patricia shares that being herself is the best approach when communicating with clinicians, “I am here to work with you to resolve issues.” By being authentic and sincere, it becomes easier for the clinicians to share their concerns with her and seek out solutions together.
Patricia strives to encourage more researchers to continue their work without getting “bogged down by tedious administrative tasks”. By taking care of the nitty-gritty details, such as noting their concerns, coordinating meetings and documenting minutes, “the PIs can remain focused on their core responsibilities” which ultimately leads to more efficient research and improved patient outcomes.
Appreciating the simple things in life
Amid her packed schedule, what Patricia looks forward to at the end of the day is a warm shower and winding down by staring into space. “Having a quiet moment to myself feels therapeutic,” she shares.
She also finds pleasure in baking. However, it is not the tasty pastries that she enjoys. Rather, it is the process of “following the recipe” and “measuring specific amounts of ingredients” that appeals to her, reminiscent of her days in the lab where she had to “follow the protocols closely”.
“It brings me back to my research days,” Patricia says with a nostalgic smile. Though not all her cooking endeavours turn out to be edible, she appreciates the process of attempting new recipes, which she describes as similar to conducting experiments.
When asked about her journey from a researcher to CRN manager, she reflects, “Oncology and Molecular Biology are still my first loves. But I love what I am doing right now.”
While she may have hung up her lab coat, Patricia still finds meaning and fulfilment in life’s little pleasures, be it in the grand scope of facilitating research among clinicians to impact public healthcare or in the simple act of whipping up tasty bakes for her loved ones.
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