My experience as a research intern in the VAX-TRUST project
In this blog post, I share my thoughts and experiences as an intern for the VAX-TRUST research project at Tampere University. During Spring-Summer 2022, I was interning for five months in the Finnish research team of this multinational research project, currently ongoing in ten partner organizations in seven European countries: Finland, Italy, Belgium, United Kingdom, Poland, Portugal, and the Czech Republic. Originally, I became interested in the topic of vaccine hesitancy as the Covid-19 pandemic started and the complex relationship between vaccines, public health and health information came into the spotlight. I thought this would make for an interesting topic for my master’s thesis! I contacted the Principal Investigator (PI) of the project and asked for any type of advice or hints on what an interesting and current master’s thesis topic on vaccine hesitancy could be in these times. After we exchanged e-mails on the topic and had an online meeting, I was offered an internship in the project – a dream come true, since I’ve always been interested in research and working in an international environment!
We agreed that I would take charge of recruiting and collecting the interviews of vaccine hesitant parents in Finland, and these interviews or part of them would serve as the data for my upcoming master’s thesis in Sociology. I was excited but also quite nervous to explore this new territory of conducting real research interviews. Recruiting and interviewing people, who may sometimes be greatly hesitant to trust and talk to universities and their representatives, was not easy but definitely taught me a lot.
The greatest thing about working on a topic like vaccine hesitancy is that it also challenges your own views and your previous knowledge of the subject. In order to gain better understanding, you have to be able to let go of your pre-formed conceptions of the phenomenon. I realized that I knew really next to nothing about vaccine hesitancy as a phenomenon before I started my internship – but you could also say that means my internship has been successful because I leave with so much more than I came in with!
University of Turin (Italy), where the project meeting was held
I have also gained new work life skills during my internship. I think active listening is the most precious tool that you need in qualitative research. There is a lot to take in with every interviewee, and every story I collected for the project is unique. That is the beauty of sociology – being able to access multiple social worlds by listening carefully about what the people speaking to you want to say and express.
When I began my studies in Sociology in University of Helsinki – where I originally come from – I did not expect to end up researching health related topics in my master’s thesis. However, when looking through a sociological lens, health is a very relevant topic: Health is present in every individual’s life in all stages, and entails many different aspects interesting for social research, such as inequality in access and information and also contestation of expert information. The contestation of expert information, however, goes beyond just health-related themes and is connected to a larger number of contemporary phenomena, e.g., the fall of the “ivory-tower position” of researchers in controlling the narrative of critique, especially online due to the egalitarian nature of Internet discussion (Väliverronen 2016). Researchers and scientific community need new ways to engage in civil debate, especially where understanding, distribution and appreciation of expert information is needed. In many ways, this is one of the great goals of VAX-TRUST – to guide better encounters between patients and health care professionals and creating space for safely asking questions about health in a dialogical manner.
The most challenging part of the research process – because honesty is always the most interesting – was the recruitment and finding the vaccine hesitant parents to be interviewed. I would be lying if I said there weren’t times where I felt being at the end of all my known means, having exhausted all the different channels and strategies of recruitment that I know of and still not finding enough people who were willing to talk to me. However, in the end, we hit our goal number in parent interviews after months of active recruiting, and I have to say I feel very proud of our final collected data! It sometimes required doing two interviews per day which is the very maximum you can take in in one day, but it was very well worth it at the end. Our data is very rich and insightful into the phenomenon.
Beautiful city of Turin
This enriching internship also included a trip to Italy to a consortium meeting – my very first work trip abroad! I got to meet most of the other teams working in VAX-TRUST around Europe. It was very exciting to be able to witness and participate the first time in a multinational academic community working together. The consortium meeting was held at University of Turin in beautiful city of Turin, which we also had time to stroll around a little bit.
As my internship comes to its end, I leave feeling inspired about the knowledge I’ve gathered during my time in the project. My goal is to write an interesting master’s thesis that will bring forward more information on the important topic of vaccine hesitancy. I’m quite confident about being able to deliver something current and worthy, as this experience gave me lots of insights and new information of the phenomenon to begin with.
Finally, I want to thank my research team and everyone I met in the consortium meeting for being very welcoming and creating a great work environment – thank you all for the great internship experience!
The author is a Master’s Student in Sociology who was interning in the research project during spring – summer 2022
Väliverronen, E. (2016) Julkinen tiede. Tampere: Vastapaino.