Sunday, 22 October 2017

An Introduction to Surgical Research - Short Course

by Mr James Lee
There is no doubt that surgical research is an integral part of surgical training. Over the last 12 weeks, a group of aspiring surgeons have completed “An Introduction to Surgical Research” short course. They come from diverse backgrounds – ranging from 3rd year medical students to surgical registrars – with some commuting from Newcastle, NSW for each of the 3 weekends. But they had one thing in common – an insatiable appetite for knowledge.

“An Introduction to Surgical Research” is a 6-day short course established in 2016, delivered on 3 weekends spread over a 3-month period. Many of the participants took advantage of the long intervals between course weekends to work on their existing research projects, thus immediately putting their newly acquired skills into practice. One participant said, “Everything that I wanted to learn had been ticked off, from study design to analysing data. During the course, I have managed to see a research project through, from formulation of a question, to writing of a paper, simply by applying the skills taught at every session. This was not only incredibly satisfying for myself, but also for my supervisor.”

The success of the course has led to the recognition by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) as one of its accredited courses. RACS accreditation is awarded to high quality courses that make a significant contribution to the surgical education landscape. At the 2017 RACS Annual Scientific Meeting a student of the 2016 research short course won the T. S. Reeve Prize for the best clinical research paper in endocrine surgery. His prize is a further testament to the positive impact of the course.

The course covers a wide range of skills fundamental in successfully conducting a research project. The daunting task of performing a research study is broken down into bite-sized components, and systematically taught in a series of interactive sessions during this course. The teaching style of the course is casual and practical – didactic sessions are kept to a minimum, allowing for more hands-on workshops and small group discussions.

This year, the course faculty included 5 academic surgeons, a clinician epidemiologist and an outcomes researcher with a background in informatics. Each faculty member brought with them unique perspectives of research within their specialty. With all the members of the faculty being active researchers themselves, the candidates often learned from their personal anecdotes illustrating the various challenges and pitfalls of surgical research.

A/Prof Silvana Marasco is a cardiothoracic surgeon with a PhD, and a Master in Bioethics. She explored with the group possible motivations to pursue surgical research, which fall into the categories of altruism, career enrichment, and/or personal growth. With her background in bioethics, she was also the perfect candidate to be talking about research ethics.

A/Prof Sebastian King is a paediatric surgeon who is a current holder of the RACS Senior Lecturer Fellowship. With a team of research students under his supervision, he is no stranger to the challenges and struggles of a novice researcher. Drawing on his personal experiences, and using memorable anecdotes, he taught the candidates how to turn a clinical problem into a structured research question, and how to perform a relevant literature search. He further discussed ways to select and recruit patients, as well as to appropriately measure study outcomes.

The 6-day long course included 2 full days of statistics workshops. Boring as it might sound, the statistics days consistently scored highly in the evaluations over the last 2 years. This can largely be attributed to the accessible teaching style of Prof Danny Liew, a clinical pharmacologist and epidemiologist. Complex concepts were explained with relevant, real-life examples to help with understanding and retention. The candidates also walked away with loads of practical tools to perform their own data analysis. “I finally understand some stats now!” said one happy customer.

As the Chair of the Department of Surgery at Central Clinical School, Prof Wendy Brown took time off from her busy schedule to speak to the candidates about how they can all play an important part in a research team. Looking around the room during that session, there were some seriously inspired individuals. The take home message went something like this: from humble beginnings, sky is the limit.

On the final weekend of the course, the candidates enjoyed the unique opportunity to participate in a data visualisation workshop, facilitated by Mr Brandyn Lau, Assistant Professor from the renowned Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. With a background in health informatics, and a career in quality improvement programs, Brandyn showed the candidates how to turn complex, and oftentimes confusing, data into visually clear and impactful messages.

As the saying goes, one cannot hide bad science with good writing, but one can certainly ruin good science with bad writing. So what is the use of a perfectly conducted study which perfectly answers a well-thought out research question, if it is not effectively and accurately communicated to other clinicians? As the course progressed, the candidates learnt the many unspoken rules and conventions of scientific writing. Manuscript writing skills were developed in a series of section-by-section workshops. It did not take long before the candidates were skilfully critiquing manuscripts. Hopefully they will put all this knowledge into practice when they write their own manuscripts.

A/Prof Jeremy Grummet, a urologist who is no stranger to the world of high impact journal publications, took the candidates through the process of submitting a manuscript. The session highlights included a live demonstration of the online submission platform, examples of reviewers’ comments and how to respond, cover letters, along with many tips and tricks that can save a lot of time for an early career researcher when submitting their first few manuscripts.

As part of their assessment the candidates each gave a mini presentation to showcase what they have learned over the 6 days. Apart from fully embracing this task, many also appreciated the safe environment in which to give their first (faux) scientific presentation in front of an actual live audience which did not consist of their mother, housemate or pet poodle. The course ended on a high note, culminating to the award of the best presentation as voted by their peers. Although there was only one top prize, no one left empty handed. Everyone left with practical research skills, new friendships, and hopefully the inspiration to incorporate research into their surgical career.

For further details of the course, visit or email

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