As part of Springer Nature’s strategic partnership with The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), we’re interviewing researchers from a whole range of disciplines about their experiences of creating societal impact through research.
In this interview, we speak to Professor Mai Chin A Paw, University Research Chair Professor at VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam. Her research focuses on epidemiology of child health, in particular determinants and health consequences of physical activity and sedentary behaviour in childhood. She explains how she takes a participatory approach to her research and supports her PhD students to do the same.
Yes, I'm a very big fan of participatory research. The way I define it is that you really collaborate with the target group of your research – they can even become co-researchers. Working this way allows us to understand what the really important research questions are in their eyes and when they would view research as being successful. And following the research, we also ask them what they think are the most important results and how they would communicate them.
Essentially, participatory research is all about getting to grips with and truly understanding the lives of the people you’re studying – and taking into account their preferences, needs and wishes. I believe this leads to better quality, more impactful research because it helps us to understand the problems that really need solving.
It’s easy for researchers to look at a specific community and think that something is a problem for them. But the community doesn't see that as a problem – they have other more pressing issues to deal with. For example, it's a luxury to be worried about your diet if you can’t even afford three meals a day or to be worried about your physical activity if you don't have the time to exercise because you have three jobs.
That's why we want to include the community in our research because we can then create, study and implement results in a way that’s meaningful to them – and that’s going to have much more impact.
A good example is the work I do with children, which is my main field of research. We often involve the children in communicating research to their peers. They’re brilliant at creating blogs or videos and other really cool materials that attract their peers.
For instance, we did a project on school playgrounds where the children researched which aspects of their school playground were physical activity-friendly and which were not. They then suggested what had to be changed to encourage more physical activity. We did that at four schools.
We then asked each group of children who had participated in the research how they would like to present the results. And each group wanted to present it to a live audience. So, in one case the group presented to the architect of the school and the director of the school, their parents and their peers. They chose their own public and they chose how to present their research.
I think this approach – both including them in the research, but also presenting the results – is so beneficial for the children. You definitely see them growing and developing throughout the process and the teachers see it too.
The children are often surprised that adults listen to them because they're used to not being listened to and taken seriously. And alongside that, the adults are surprised at the expertise and the capacity the children have. A good example of this was one of the school directors who, after the presentation of the children, said, "Wow! I was so stupid. I hired a play expert to help me design the playground when I have a school full of play experts."
As adults, it’s easy for us to forget the capacity of children. But who is going to know better than the children themselves what’s going to encourage them to be more active?
There’s definitely a shift – more people are doing it and there are also more funders looking for it. I have to say, it also feels like it’s getting “hip and happening”.
While it’s great that more people are paying attention to it, I think it could also be dangerous because people will then try to call something participatory when it’s not really. For example, they might ask people for feedback as part of the research process, but that’s not real participation and definitely not equal participation.
It's also important to remember that it’s not the right solution for every type of research or research question. For instance, we're now doing research with 0-4 year olds. And realistically, in this case, we can’t discuss with them what they prefer. Of course, we can involve their parents, relevant professionals and so on, but not the children themselves.
One of the key things I’ve done is set up a talent lab for my PhD students. It involves regular meetings that the PhD students themselves can fill with whatever topics they want to learn more about. So, for example, we invited a school director with expertise in educating kids with special needs to come and talk to the group. That allowed all the students to pose questions about how to handle different scenarios when working with those children.
Another completely different example is that we did a ‘drawing for business’ workshop where the students learnt how to draw or make sketches of their research to communicate it in a different way. One of my students, in particular, is really talented at this, so she now uses it a lot.
The way we run the lab is participatory (of course!) – it’s driven by what the students feel they need and so I think they get a lot out of it.
We also try to provide some tailored training to students, as we recognise that some of them are naturally skilled at working with children, while others need more support and coaching. In addition, we’ve just got funding for an Innovative Training Network from the European Union. It's focused on training early career researchers and our grant is about supporting co-creation in Public Health research.
As part of the funding, the PhD students have to do a secondment with a non-scientific organisation. And I think that’s also a really important way to develop your understanding of your target groups and build your networks. For example, if you want to improve education you have to spend time in schools and see how education is happening in real life. The same goes for childcare organisations.
I believe they could drive it themselves. I started this group, but I don’t believe I’m necessarily the best person to teach the students everything they want to know. It’s helpful for them to learn from other experts and from each other. Setting up the talent lab was about providing them with an infrastructure to do that, but I do believe that students could create something similar themselves.
Leave your ivory tower and connect with society. If you want to make a difference for a specific community or target group, get to know them so you can really understand what they need. And importantly, you need to see them as equals. Those people know best what works for them, so you need to get to know them if you really want to have an impact.
About Dr. Mai Chin A Paw
Prof. Dr. Mai Chin A Paw dreams of a world where children grow up healthy and happy. Such a world provides plenty of opportunity for active play, inspiring education, and nutritious and delicious foods. Mai is fascinated by why we do what we do and how this affects health, with a particular interest in youth. She combines her scientific expertise in human movement science and epidemiology to unravel working mechanisms using innovative methodologies, exploring unique intervention strategies, and creatively combining multiple disciplines.
She was awarded University Research Chair professor and is the chair of the section Child & Adolescent Public Health Research at Amsterdam University Medical Centers. Also, she has served as one of the two programme directors of the program Health Behaviours and Chronic Diseases of the Amsterdam Public Health Research Institute, an alliance between AMC and VU/VUmc and she is the current president of the International Society of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. Growing up in a multicultural family, she learned to observe the world from various perspectives, enjoy diversity, believe in serendipity, and search beyond the unexpected. This sculpted her unique scientific frame of mind.