By Victoria Mah
Lab coats, cubicles, flasks.
The image of a scientist pouring contents from one flask to the other was my perception of all research. Working as a Research Assistant with the Active Aging Research Team at the University of British Columbia quickly dismantled this perception.
As an undergraduate student, I was curious about what was in this black box labelled ‘research.’ I wondered whether this mysterious field aligned with my overly simplistic perception of research.
So when I had the opportunity to join this research team, I jumped at it. During the interview for the position of Research Assistant, I recall being in awe as I was speaking to experts in the field of aging research. Before this introductory meeting, it had never occurred to me that I could meet the esteemed authors of leading journal articles. I was excited to finally get a sense of what research work might entail and why so many bright minds engaged in this time-consuming and highly competitive commitment.
I was thrilled at the opportunity to work alongside such well-respected leading lights of the aging research field. While I was enthusiastic about starting this work, I was equally concerned about my shortcomings as a new researcher. What did I have to offer as an undergraduate student with minimal research knowledge and non-existent research skills? What could I possibly contribute to this interdisciplinary team of dedicated and experienced researchers?
My apprehension of starting this research work subsided once I began my first project. This project looked at the experiences of staff, residents, and their families of long-term care facilities during the pandemic. This was a project that I had a personal stake in as I worked as a care aide during the pandemic.
During this time, I also took on the role of caretaker for my grandparents when my grandfather sustained a hip fracture. Both positions afforded me the lens of concern for older adults.
I was assigned to tasks that were different than what I had imagined research work would entail. I thought that objectivity was necessary for accurate research findings. had originally thought that all personal emotions and connections to research work threatened the quality of research outcomes. Instead, I realized that my profound concern for the well-being of the long-term care staff, and my interest in the health of residents were motivating. My concern was the main driver for my dedication to quality research work.
I was motivated to best support my supervisors and colleagues so that the voices and sentiments of care-aides, like myself, could be heard and communicated. I was eager to educate myself on the current main issues which underlie the long-term care sector. Through synthesizing relevant literature, I was keen to learn about the corresponding proposed solutions which could relieve much tension and improve the work conditions of long-term care staff.
One of the best parts of conducting research in long-term care facilities during the pandemic was having the chance to speak with the many support staff, residents, and their families directly impacted by pandemic-related policies and public health orders. When speaking with residents and their families, I felt a strong sense of mutual understanding as they shared their worries and frustrations. I empathized as families communicated the pain of not being able to visit their elders in long-term care facilities.
Through my personal experiences as a caretaker and care aide, I felt compelled to acknowledge and appreciate the physical and emotional labour that care work demands. Through facilitating interviews with participants working in support care roles that are labour intensive, I deliberately offered them the time to elaborate on their frustrations with leadership teams, systemic inequities, and organizational shortcomings. By empathizing with these participants, I was deeply connected to what they communicated and wanted to help amplify their voices.
When offered the opportunity to ask follow-up questions during interviews, I intentionally asked questions that allowed for participants to respond with personal anecdotes so that the nuances of their stories could be expressed.
The interview process led to a complete shift in my perception of research. I learned that through research, I could provide a way for colleagues in the long-term care sector to voice their concerns, observations, and opinions. Research became a way for me to make an impact on the long-term support community by providing a platform for workers to be heard.
I am starting to understand why so many scholars choose research work, despite its demanding nature. When the research topic encompasses people you care about, the work that goes into data collection, synthesis, and interpretation, does not feel like a chore. Instead, it is a privilege to use the tools in this seemingly mysterious black box of research to uncover the long-standing perspectives and feelings of those supporting and experiencing the long-term care sector during these difficult times.