Jenny Philbin, Sarah McCullough, Grainne O'Connor

Blog: Curiosity sparked my route to research

Dr Sarah McCullough is Deputy Director of Research and Consultant Neonatologist at Oldham Care Organisation. Here she blogs about how her sense of curiosity led her to become involved in research. She is pictured centre with research colleagues Jennifer Philbin and Grainne O’Connor.

“I have always asked why and how and always wanted to know and understand more!

I remember when I was studying chemistry at school, I could not understand something and went to the central library (in the time before Amazon and Google) to get some proper chemistry (and old) books, no mean feat as it meant one of my parents had to drive me into Leeds. I read them and it just gave me more questions so went and asked my chemistry teachers. The first one told me off for asking questions and said that only stupid people ask questions. The second one spent the whole lesson trying to answer my question.

At medical school I intercalated and did a BSc in Biochemistry after my first two years – mainly because I had been told it increased your chances of getting a good post after you qualified. I loved it! I learnt a lot about the behaviour of proteins and I got to play around with a PCR machine and RNA primers and all sorts in a real lab.

Embedding research

We had to pick a special study module in the 3rd year of medical school and I ended up working on the EURICON project, looking at the ethics of consent in neonatal research. I road tested the questionnaire that was going to be used in the research study and also had to do a lot of reading about qualitative research and ethics while my fellow students who had easier modules were enjoying the summer sunshine.

During my paediatric and neonatal training, I got to do a few research projects. One involved measuring the temperatures that a warming mattress reached when activated at different temperatures. I spent my weekend  melting this mattress in the microwave and then sitting by an incubator while measuring temperatures at various intervals. The second one was a randomised controlled trial where we looked at the use of  sucrose as a pain relief for nasogastric tube insertion in neonates. I got to learn about the joys of submitting to the ethics committee.

A baby being cared for on the neonatal unit

When I started as a consultant at Oldham in 2012, the neonatal unit was being ramped up from being a level 2 to a level 3 unit.  Both the medical and nursing team were new and we got to start from scratch for a  lot of things.  The unit was involved in the EXTUBATE trial and the PI for this left to work abroad so I ended up taking over because I can never say no to things!


From this I managed to create the role of  research lead. It has been a steep learning curve but I’ve had a lot of support from the research nurses who held my hand for quite a while and also underook a five-day course in Clinical Trial Training for Investigators.

Now I’ve been the Principal Investigator for many national and international neonatal trials including PLANET, the largest neonatal trial to date, and I became Deputy Director for Research and Innovation for the Royal Oldham in September 2022. My aim is to get everybody involved in research and to consider it as important as clinical governance, audit and infection control. I would also like every patient who attends hospital to have the chance to be involved in research.

Positive contribution

I love the whole process of research from the set up to the actually doing it. I always get a buzz when we have consented and randomised a patient – you are doing something very positive and I’m always amazed at how altruistic parents are. Many have said that they are doing it to help improve care for other babies and not just their own. I also feel that research activity in a departmental helps to raise standards of care as it gets people thinking and questioning.

My daughter has also been enrolled in a research study after she was born and got to have a MRI of her brain, I have the images still somewhere.

I have been also been  involved as a participant due to having long Covid. Word of advice though, don’t give long Covid patients a very lengthy questionnaire to fill out, they won’t.

I’ve also completed my PGCert in Simulation and clinical learning and am currently doing a masters/diploma in clinical education. This has really opened up my eyes to different types of research and scientific fields. I love teaching and simulation teaching allows you to teach so many skills, clinical and non-clinical all at once. I’ve also become an NIHR Clinical Research Network Neonatal Clinical Studies Group member, helping develop their portfolio.

During the Covid pandemic it was very depressing at work as two of my favourite things stopped, research and simulation!”

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