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An interview with Aki Rintala on working with colleagues across Europe and his role on the Clinical Harmonization team

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This week we have spoken to Aki Rintala, a PhD student in the Center for Contextual Psychiatry at KU Leuven in Belgium. Aki is part of coordinating clinical harmonisation across clinical sites in the RADAR-CNS project. His special interest is an electronic diary called the experience sampling method (ESM), which is used to assess daily life experiences such as mood, activity, stress, social interactions, quality of sleep, cognition, and momentary quality of life.

What’s your background?

I'm from Finland and studied Physiotherapy at Jyväskylä University of Applied Sciences (Bachelor’s degree) and at University of Jyväskylä (Master’s degree). I worked as a physiotherapist for over nine years specializing in neurological physiotherapy before moving into research.

What does the Clinical Harmonization team do?

My colleagues and I are providing the coordinating help between clinical sites, technicians, and members working in analytics. We can be thought of as the “glue” between different clinical, technical, and analytic work packages inside RADAR-CNS project.

Our actions ensures that their work is as aligned as possible which helps the ground-level research across the clinical sites. We’ve achieved this recently through monthly meetings with the clinical sites.  We have eight clinical sites and work with dozens of researchers across Europe to share experiences across the project.

In the past few months, my work has mainly been been gathering information on how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted work across the clinical sites, and how it has affected the data monitoring in participants’ daily lives. Although we are living in challenging times, I hope RADAR-CNS can contribute and  give insights into  how participants have coped during the pandemic.

What do you enjoy the most about your work on the project?

The most interesting element has definitely been coordinating tasks on the ground-level work that all clinical studies are doing. We need to harmonize the research as much as possible to reflect the overall aims of RADAR-CNS. Working with so many talented experts in the field of MS, Epilepsy, and MDD research as well as in technical and analytic work packages has been extremely valuable and interesting.

Are they any challenges to your role?

It’s not always an easy task to try to coordinate clinical, technical, and analytic clusters when taking into account that we are communicating mainly remotely through teleconference conversations. These meetings are made up of problem-solving, communication, knowledge sharing, updates from all work packages, and planning next steps for upcoming tasks. It has sometimes been a challenge as there are cultural differences and also language barriers! Luckily, our great team has found excellent ways to manage these challenges.

What do you think is the importance of the project for the wider field of wearable devices?

I think RADAR-CNS has great potential to make a contribution to science by investigating the use of consumers’ wearable devices and smartphones to monitor daily life activities and circumstances that people with MS, Epilepsy, and MDD experience in their daily lives..

I am very hopeful that we can demonstrate a useful way to detect daily life experiences and situations that may help the work of clinicians, but more importantly, can help the people with different disease disorders and improve their quality of life.

How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted your work or life?

As I am quite an introverted person in general, the lockdown here in Brussels, Belgium has been tolerable. I have been able to continue my work in RADAR-CNS in a normal pace remotely from home. Change has actually not been that drastic because all the work in RADAR-CNS in terms of communication and coordinating tasks are already organized remotely.

In life, I have found new ways of doing online physical exercises and increased walking and running. I just ran my first 10k a few weeks ago! Interestingly, my new reading hobby that I started early this year has decreased during the lockdown, which has been a bit surprising. That is something I need to catch up now.

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