Karen Palmer takes us through her journey from a school leaver with a handful of GCSEs, to her current role as a senior research nurse.

“I remember really clearly my dad saying to me, it doesn’t matter what grades you get because I know you will have tried your best. This summed me up at 15. I took great pride in having a beautifully colour coded revision plan, a tidy desk and a mountain of revision notes, but struggled to convert those organisational skills into high marks!

GCSEs were so challenging for me and my family knew this. We knew I wouldn’t reach the grades I needed to secure my place on a veterinary nursing course, so after my exams I entered the world of work. In August 1992, the postman confirmed my suspicions, with three grade C GCSEs and grade D in the rest.
After four years as a care assistant in a rest home, I decided to spend 1996/97 in the USA as an au pair. Once back in the UK, I returned to my old job but the hospital was calling me. Working on an acute medical ward as a then auxiliary nurse was enlightening, I had the privilege of caring for people during a very traumatic period of their lives. I learnt so much about myself and what I considered to be the moral compass for nursing, tuning into my own values that have become an intrinsic part of my nursing career.

I worked alongside an inspirational auxiliary nurse who wanted to apply for nursing. She encouraged me to consider nursing too but I knew I didn’t have enough qualifications, so I embarked on an intense period of study, determined to advance my career, which helped me to study in new ways, focusing less on the presentation and more on the content! 

I completed a Level 3 NVQ and two GCSEs, securing a place at the University of Manchester.

I had to work hard to pass each assessment but sailed through the practical placements. I knew what type of nurse I wanted to be, role modelling amazing nurses I had met along the way.

Can hard work beat intelligence? Always! I started my qualified nursing career on a cardiology ward at Manchester Royal Infirmary. I had found my calling.

My professional life took a very different turn at a work night out. I met a nurse who worked in research. She told me all about her job. ‘I would love to be a research nurse’ were my parting comments to her and three weeks later she came to tell me a job had come up. I applied and the rest, as they say, is history.

She became a lifelong friend and mentor and is now a professor of nursing at the University of Salford. She continues to inspire me and I am forever grateful for the opportunities she gave me. We all need those people who can open doors for us or just give us that nudge to try something new. I hope that I can do that for others now.

I love working in clinical research and it used to feel ironic that the girl who left school with few qualifications now works in healthcare research science. As time has passed, I have realised that although we often portray researchers as brainy boffins, this is simply not true! Often they are people who have inquisitive minds with a passion to change things for their patients. They have a ‘can do’ attitude and don’t set limits to what they can achieve. It’s important that we remember that research in the NHS is everyone’s business and something we should all be getting involved in.

My work involved caring for people whilst they took part in a research project, sometimes that would be very short, but sometimes I would be working with participants for several years whilst they trialled a new medication or treatment. I could build therapeutic relationships with them and support them.

Working as a clinical research nurse helped me to improve my clinical skills as each new research project I worked on would require something different from me, whether that be learning about a new medical condition, treatment option or practical skill to deliver an intervention. I studied for a degree in nursing studies, completing it whilst pregnant with my second son. A few years later, I secured a scholarship with the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) to do a Master’s in Clinical Research.

I am now more knowledgeable to support colleagues who are interested in research. Making research part of everyone’s business is something I feel passionately about, but we must change the narrative around whose business it is. Research isn’t about knowing stuff or learning answers – it’s about finding things out and asking questions.

I recently started a new role as an NIHR senior research leader to support nursing staff to increase capacity and capability at a local, regional and national level. Recent NIHR data shows a high number of mental health conditions and low participation in mental health research in the North West.  I aim to boost efforts to correct this, working with colleagues to develop locally relevant research. I hope that by learning new research skills they can then support others to get involved in research too.

The face of science is changing. Forty years ago if you asked a child to draw a scientist, they would almost certainly sketch an old, white man in a lab coat with glasses and Einstein-like hair. Today, more children will choose to draw a representation of themselves instead.

But one thing hasn’t changed: the thing that most people associate with a scientist is their braininess. In a major study, 80% of young people agreed with the statement ‘scientists are brainy’.

The word ‘genius’ is still associated with white men, contributing to biases that have left women and ethnic minorities under-represented where success is believed to hang on innate intellectual talent. I hope through telling my story you can see that this isn’t true, I’d like to sign off by using the saying – if I can do it anyone can!”

Interested in working the field of research or finding out more? Email Karen.Palmer@lscft.nhs.uk