Researchers On The Rock: Sonal Samtani

Each month we’re profiling a research student at the University of Gibraltar to find out about their background, studies, what motivates them and how they’ve found the experience of further study on the Rock.

This month’s student is Sonal Samtani, a part-time Doctoral student at the University of Gibraltar who is researching Alzheimer’s.

Please introduce yourself:

Hi, I’m Sonal - a final year PhD student, a curious learner and (hopefully) a kind, compassionate person.

When you’re not a Gib Uni student, what are you doing?

I’m a Physician Associate working in the GHA, a job that is both challenging and one that I really love. And when I’m not doing that, I enjoy spending time with my family, friends, doing pilates and most of all exploring different places that I cannot wait to continue to do in the new year!

In layman’s terms, can you explain what you are researching at the University of Gibraltar?

Basically my study is an exploration of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia in Gibraltar. We have made a turning point with therapeutic intervention that is aimed at promoting autonomy, supporting caregivers and delaying institutionalisation. I wanted to carry out a mixed methods study (collecting both quantitative and qualitative data) to discover how people were coping with their diagnosis using a holistic approach. As medications for dementia are very limited, an individualised, non-pharmacological strategy to manage the condition has become the frontline to tackle various aspects of the condition.  

Why are you exploring this area of study?

I became involved in working with people who have dementia a few years ago and realised that there was so much potential in research. Gibraltar, being a small country, gives us the opportunity to explore the entire (diagnosed) dementia population. This is something other countries may not have the ability to do due to their much larger population size. Therefore the impact of new interventions, such as the day centre, can be studied to a great extent.

Who are your supervisors and what do they contribute to your studies?

I have fantastic supervisors that include Dr Darren Fa from the University of Gibraltar, Dr Fiona Kelly and Dr Derek Santos – both from Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh (my degree is a collaboration of both universities). My supervisors provide me with guidance and support to help me navigate through the study from the early stages to its completion and final write-up. I will be forever grateful to my supervisors for not telling me the answers but constantly prompting me to ask myself better questions and to think critically through my problem solving skills. I also have an amazing mentor, Dr Antonio Marin, who is a dedicated doctor for dementia care in Gibraltar and has helped me throughout the milestones of my research.

How have you found the experience so far?

I like to think of the journey of doing a PhD, like playing a video game in terms of there being obstacles that you would never have predicted as a beginner researcher. Curveballs come your way and you fall a lot but get back up wiser than before. The learning curve is steep and the most important thing (for me personally) is to keep moving and not get caught up on the little set-backs. Additionally, learning how to pivot and re-navigate yourself when you hit a dead end is essential. I remember feeling lost at many times throughout the journey. However, those are the times when your supervisors and mentors come in, and overcoming these challenges makes you realise how much you have developed as a researcher and as a person. There is a lot of discipline needed and I’m grateful that this study has shaped me to think differently and more analytically that I did before.

What are the benefits of staying in Gibraltar to conduct postgrad work?

As I mentioned before, exploring the dementia population in Gibraltar allows me to look at the picture in its entirety as well as individually. This gives my research an advantageous stance that larger countries may not have. Additionally, access to the university and facilities are very convenient in Gibraltar.

What about the social aspect?

As PhD students we are friends throughout cohorts and we always support each other despite being busy with our everyday lives.

What are your plans for the future?

My upcoming plans are to soon submit my thesis and take the final viva. I hope to keep growing as a researcher and becoming better at my field. I also hope to lecture more often and teach other beginner researchers the excitement and satisfaction of carrying out an investigation that you have developed and are contributing to the world. I would continue to do this alongside my clinical role as I find the most alignment when I’m able to bridge the theory with the practical.

For more information on studying at the University of Gibraltar, visit: https://www.unigib.edu.gi/