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Paulina Pérez-Duarte Mendiola did her MSc Medical Anthropology with UCL Anthropology Department last academic year (2019/2020). Originally a clinical paediatrician, Paulina worked with CRIS to develop her ideas of making a difference with her research into the use of play in paediatric healthcare. If you’re wondering what and how CRIS can contribute to your master’s experience at UCL, read her story to find out more!


Tell us a little about your dissertation?

I worked for around 10 years in paediatrics as a clinician, and I was always very interested in the social and cultural aspects that shape health. This curiosity led me eventually to medical anthropology.

So my research study was how to explain chronic illnesses to children according to health play specialists in the United Kingdom. I did qualitative research, interviewing health play specialists, asking them how they explain chronic illnesses to children. In my dissertation, it’s all about the importance of play, the benefits of play, how health play specialists use play to communicate unexplained things to children as well as all the barriers and all the structural limitations that they face as a profession.

How did you find out about CRIS?

I heard about CRIS through one of my professors, Gul Deniz Salali. I told her, at the end of one class, that I want to do something with social impact and she told me that CRIS are the kind of people to go to.

Why did you want to do this?

When I was working in Mexico, I was working in a burns unit of a hospital. And I had a 12-year-old patient who, because of his burns, was going to get one arm and one leg amputated. I asked around and neither the nursing nor the surgical team had explained the situation to the child – they didn’t think it was their responsibility.  For me, it was a life-changing moment. Who has this job, who has this responsibility? I became extremely aware of nobody explaining these things to kids. My big aim is to improve the experience of children in hospital.

 What difference do you feel you’ve made through your collaboration?

So far I’ve shared the findings of my research with two hospitals in Mexico City. I gave a presentation through YouTube, through the UCL Mexican Society. I also shared my findings with the Children’s Hospital in Copenhagen. It’s a massive project they have in Copenhagen, where there is going to be a complete hospital based on play, supported by play and I talked to the play and health research team about the findings of my dissertation. I got a lot of positive feedback and there are many like-minded scientists.

The other thing is that I started a social media project. A 15,000 word dissertation is inaccessible to most people.So I started not just for fun, but with the intention to reach younger generations with my research findings and  spark conversations about play and the importance of it in healthcare settings.

What difference did your collaboration or CRIS make to your master’s?

When I arrived to UCL I had an interest in communicating with children, but I had no idea what my dissertation was going to be about. I felt like ideas were growing, going in circles, without a structure. But I knew I wanted to do something related to paediatric healthcare and that I wanted it to have a social impact; I didn’t want to make a dissertation that was going to be put on a shelf and create no change.

I think the intervention of CRIS was a massive push for me to get into not-for-profit organisations and applied medical anthropology. It was a shift from my clinical experience and my career path. But I think the moment when one of my professors recommended CRIS and the dialogue between CRIS and my supervisor started, it pushed me where I needed to be, where I wanted to go.

Can you describe your interaction with partner(s) and what they contribute to the research?

One of the organisations recommended by CRIS that I liked most was called Medical Aid Films. They design videos and visual aids to help doctors and facilitate patients’ understanding of treatment in different settings. That triggered the realisation that what I want to explore is how to communicate with children. So when I talked to this organisation, they told me they were seeking to design a video explaining diabetes to teenagers. They gave me many options, but that was the one that I liked back then, and I wanted to help with that research. We started exchanging emails between Anne and my dissertation supervisor, and my supervisor provided me with an article about the use of play and imagination to help children understand their condition: about the kids’ experience, how children experienced decisions, and how they play to make meaning and cope with diseases. I went back to the Medical Aid Films proposing research into communicating with children through play and imagination. And they told me play does not match the environment where they work: with communities of limited resources, with refugees.

So, Anne told me that I have to choose if I want to change everything to fit Medical Aid Films’ needs or to follow my interest. So I told her I can explore this because I think it has a lot of potential. I wanted to give something to Medical Aid Films at the end, if not my full dissertation: this is what I found, I hope it’s useful for your next video.

Later one of my classmates told me about Health Play Specialists and I started reading about them. And then I knew that was what I was going to do.

What impact has this collaborative experience had on you?

It was like half therapy, half job interview at the CRIS office. They knew how to accommodate my ambitions: opening my eyes to two different possibilities, helping me find out what I wanted to do and who I wanted to help, and adapting it.

I’m still grateful to CRIS and to Medical Aid Films, because they did organise my mind and send me back to that little kid that was amputated, and completely changed my career. They reminded me of why I was there and what I wanted to do. Those pieces of the puzzle resulted in a dissertation about paediatric healthcare that is at the moment creating social impact and is not on the shelf. And that was largely facilitated and enabled by CRIS.

What’s the best thing about CRIS and collaborations?

The best thing about joining CRIS was the team. They are truly interested in helping you find your way. They are not going to tell you, “This is what we have”.

At the beginning I thought that they were going to tell me, “This is the research we need, you go and do the research”. But I started learning that it was more like, “This is what’s available and this is what you want - how do you want to put this together?”. So I think it is very, very useful for those students that know that they want to have social impact, but they don’t know how.

I also went to one of the events and we were doing creative and collaborative things, playing, writing. And I met like-minded people that wanted to do something with a social impact and listened to others. I think it was very good.

And the most challenging? How did you overcome the challenges?

I think that the challenging part was to understand and to choose: am I going to comply and do exactly what this organisation needs or am I going to go and follow my gut and what I really want to do? Anne told me that I have to choose. Even my tutor told me to let go. I decided based on what’s going to be more useful for my research objectives. I couldn’t continue with Medical Aid Films as they weren’t interested in play. I had to keep moving forward, but maybe I could still go back to them at some point. So I think the tricky part was deciding. But at the end, I think it was an amazing result.

Tell us about something memorable that’s happened to you whilst working with CRIS or your partner.

The relationship with health play specialists was quite amazing, the research positionality. It was an amazing response because they were very interested in why a paediatrician is interested in play and health play specialists. They were very interested in how my research was going to create a benefit for their career, for their recognition.

And they talked a lot about hospital hierarchies. I think all the participants talked about hierarchies in the hospital being very strong. Because it’s a new profession, doctors and nurses sometimes don’t know what health specialists do. So my position for them was very important: a doctor was going to be able to speak for them, to publish for them. They told me it’s very hard for them to publish. Because, as one of them told me, as soon as they say that they’re health play specialists, they are not listened to anymore, because they don’t have that recognition in hierarchy. And they told me that me coming from medicine, doing a master’s research in this is going to lift the recognition of their profession.

Would you recommend CRIS and working in this way?

Yes, I do. I do. And I did - I recommended CRIS to my classmates, because we were struggling a lot to develop our research ideas. I think some of them contacted CRIS.

What’s happening now for you? Has your CRIS experience got anything to do with it?

The last thing that happened with the dissertation is that after I gave my presentation in Copenhagen Children’s Hospital, we put a post in LinkedIn and I got contacted from an NGO that is called Pediatric Potential Inc. This NGO is tailored to improve children’s experience of going to a hospital. It supports play, psycho-social and environmental interventions to help children to have a better experience when they’re in hospital by providing training and research, which what I am doing at the moment. So I just joined as their Director of Development. I hope that, in the near future, UCL students working with CRIS could collaborate with Pediatric Potential Inc. It would be an honour to work alongside UCL students that find this NGO inspiring or are aiming to work on behalf of hospitalised children.

What I’m mainly doing now is publishing my dissertation. I also just got accepted for a PhD with Cambridge Cambridge University PEDAL (Play in Education, Development & Learning) research centre and now I’m actively looking for funding to make this possible.