This summer the SHOUT team had the opportunity to interview Sheffield Hallam University lecturer Claire Craig about her work at the university and Lab4Living. Over a quick cup of coffee before dashing off to a meeting, she discussed her research, talked about the thrill of receiving the COT Fellowship Award at this year's annual COT Conference and offered advice for students on conducting their own research.
Claire is part of the Active Aging project with Professor Gail Mountain, a community-based multi-million pound control trial intervention - the idea came from American research and has been translated for European use.
Claire is also involved in the Euro-Education: Employability for All project, which looks at the role of OT education and aims to promote social change amongst disadvantaged groups in relation to work. Claire and an international team hastily wrote the bid for the £250,000 teaching grant over a weekend in Berlin - despite the exciting sounds and smells of the city drifting in through the hotel window, she regrets that there was no time to sightsee...
And, as if that wasn't enough, Claire is working on Engaging Aging: practice-based research methods using art as a method of data collection, by using photography or children's drawings. Its an expression of what people have told them about their environments and their experiences, using critical articfacts to embody this. This project is now expanding to reach everybody, using the principle of "A Museum in a Box" to take the exhibiton Europe-wide, as Claire explains in more detail in the interview.
Despite her huge success, Claire says that not everything has worked in the past but that she believes its important not to be overcautious in OT and not to worry if sometimes things don't work out as planned.
"We're inventing the history of OT as we speak! It's an emergent profession, we're not there yet... but that's what is exciting about OT. We're not stuck like other professions."
Claire says that what excites her most is seeing students take up this baton of enquiry, development and research.
"Students are the future, its my privilege to teach and encourage."
"Students are the future, its my privilege to teach and encourage."
Claire with colleagues from the EEE for All project. Photo property of Linkoping University
SHOUT: Which piece of research are you currently working on?
Claire: "At the moment I am working on a piece of research with Professor Paul Chamberlain called 'Exhibition in a Box' - the work is taking place across 21 countries and seeks to understand the experiences of older people in these countries. We are using something called practice-based research methods focusing on critical artefacts as a way to stimulate discussion and to help older people to identify and articulate what is important to them. This is building on a previous piece of work which used exhibition as a method of data collection. That work was really interesting as part of it took place on the Taipei underground with the Museum of Contemporary art!!"
SHOUT: Could you ever have imagined that your research would reach this scale?
Claire: (Laughing) "I see myself as a completely normal person and what it shows is that if you have an open mind you can see where it takes you and achieve anything. When I first started researching, I felt that I would be rubbish at it but I remember Gail Mountain's words to me: research is an apprenticeship."
SHOUT: What inspires you about being involved in this research?
Claire: "This is a really exciting project. I really value its participatory nature - focusing on the older person as the expert and the scale of the work across all those countries!! It has the potential to be so wide-reaching and I think it could lead to some very interesting insights. Research is all about generating new knowledge and this project could offer a really useful starting point to understand how the experiences of ageing differ across countries."
SHOUT: What impact do you hope this will have on the health and social care sphere and on older adults?
Claire: "I really hope that in undertaking the research we can begin to understand more about the role that design plays in relation to quality of life for older people. Work from previous research projects undertaken has led to the design of real products that can improve well-being and increase participation in valued occupations."
SHOUT: Are there any areas of OT that you specifically feel need more research?
Claire: "As occupational therapists we definitely need to be involved in as much research as possible - research to enable us to understand the factors that impact on occupational engagement, research to explore the efficacy of our interventions. If we are to really demonstrate the effectiveness of occupational therapy we need the evidence base."
SHOUT: Do you think there should be a greater number of randomly controlled trials conducted on OT interventions?
Claire: "This question of randomly controlled trials conducted on occupational therapy interventions is a very interesting one. We do need RCTs because they are a currency that the medical research world (and health) understand. They can provide a specific type of information, conducted in a specific way where variables are controlled as far as possible. Professor Gail Mountain (an amazing occupational therapist) is currently involved in a number of these and is really leading the way.
However, and this is a big however, it is important to also recognise that we work with people and occupation doesn't fit into a tightly controlled box. There is a place for RCTs but there is also a place for more qualitative and participatory forms of research which seek to understand experiences and also work in such a way as to place the locus of control with the individual. I would say that different research paradigms have their place and one isn't necessarily better than the other - it just depends on what you are wanting to find out. The trick then is choosing the right approach to fit your question."
SHOUT: What advice would you give to students conducting a piece of research?
Claire: "The best advice I ever had about undertaking research is that research is essentially an apprenticeship. Don't worry that you don't know everything there is to know. I work with some amazing researchers who have been doing research for a long, long time and even these amazing people tell me that they are still learning. I think that is what is so exciting about it!!"
SHOUT: Have there been any particular pieces of student research that have caught your attention?
Claire: "I think that every piece of student research I have supervised has caught my attention!! Each one is so individual - the subject chosen, the methodology and methods adopted, the findings of the research and the conclusions that are drawn. As a tutor I am always learning which is a lovely thing to be able to say. "
SHOUT: How did it feel to be honoured with the COT Fellowship Award?
Claire: "The COT fellowship was extraordinary. The letter came through the post, and I just thought it was my annual subscription - so when I opened it and realised I was receiving the highest accolade that an OT can receive I thought they must have the wrong person! I felt incredibly moved and honoured. I am OT through and through.
It was such a lovely ceremony too, being able to share this with all of your peers. There aren't words really. I just feel very proud to belong to such an amazing profession. I think we are very lucky. "