“Top three [of induction block week]: 1. The chance to be on campus (I live 8 hours south) and interact face-to-face with staff. 2. The opportunity to meet fellow HDR; to share our stories, to challenge each other and to laugh together! 3. To participate in the foundational PhD courses; knowing that the workshops are required and necessary.”(Starting candidate, Cohort 13, July 2017)
“Comprehensive coverage of key topics. Great to get us going!”(Starting candidate, Cohort 12, February 2017)
“The cohort week has been highly valuable and it's been fantastic meeting other individuals along a similar journey. I would highly recommend the program and would advocate for its future continuance. Can't wait for block two!”(Starting candidate, Cohort 12, February 2017)
“I liked the topics which they selected for the cohort program. It was according to the needs of the specific batch of students.”(Cohort 11 candidate, 2nd block week, February 2017)
“Many thanks to all the facilitators for organizing such an informative and power-packed program. Your support has been very helpful.”( Cohort 11 candidate, 2nd block week, February 2017)
“I really value catching up with everyone, it is great to touch base with other cohort members. Doing a PhD is quite isolating, I'm only realising the extent of it one year in. The cohort blocks are timely opportunities to reconnect with people who are living the same experience. I also appreciate the enthusiasm of the team that organise the Doctoral Cohort Program. […] They are so committed to the program and to us students.”(Cohort 10 candidate, 3rd block week, February 2017)
“Great opportunity to network with colleagues. Found there was a lot of bonding and sharing of stories. It was great to talk to some of the cohort 11 too and found an opportunity to help another student make some connections that hopefully will help with their study.” (Cohort 10 candidate, 3rd block week, February 2017)
“The blocks have been fantastic, and the support from program mentors, lecturers, and students has made this journey easier.”(Cohort 9 candidate, 3rd block week, February 2017)
“I find there is variability in the content, which allows me to choose which session I attend giving a level of flexibility. This block provided great content - mixed methods, data storage and leadership, supervision and mentoring - paying it forward! All great sessions - thanks!” (A candidate from Cohorts 1 to 7, February 2017 block week)
“This cohort block has been particularly good in terms of content, because everything has been relevant to where I am in relation to my project.” (A candidate from Cohorts 1 to 7, February 2017 block week)
“As an external student I relish in the fact I can catch up with a group of people who are experiencing the same emotions as I am. Knowing this reinforces these experiences are normal in the journey. It provides opportunity to spend quality time with other students in the cohort and to touch base with the mentors who are responsible for conducting the cohort blocks and share our progress. It provides the required booster shot to carry on until the next time I come into this space to be nurtured, recharged and invigorated – Thank you.” (A candidate from Cohorts 1 to 7, February 2017 block week)
“I travel from Cairns and I always um and ah about the value of coming to the Cohort. That is dispelled within the first 5 minutes of the first session. The support within and from the group has been amazing. I am approaching the end of my project and I can honestly say that the stories of other people’s journeys and the hardships (either personal or their project) has been an inspiration to get through my own hard times. Being able to hear about other people's projects gives a perspective and texture to my own project. I have learnt so much from the Cohort that I would not hesitate to recommend the program to both people considering a PhD and those that may provide funding to support this unique program.” (A candidate from Cohorts 1 to 7, February 2017 block week)
“Thanks for facilitating my attendance at the cohort block. I found it a great opportunity to meet several times with my supervisors and get lots of tasks requiring 'campus time' done ie meet with library staff etc. As a part-time external student, this is extremely valuable in being able to keep me on track with my studies. I also really enjoy the student and peer support and interaction that the cohort brings.” (A candidate from Cohorts 1 to 7, February 2017 block week)
Cohort Candidate Projects
Dementia support psychologist, Denise Craig, is investigating how to help hospital doctors navigate a potential minefield – interpreting patient-authored advance care plans, including end-of-life instructions.
However, when a senior medical colleague advised her to pursue her research at a PhD level, with JCU, she was initially aghast – until the AITHM Cohort Doctoral Studies Program offered crucial support.
“I was motivated, but had a bit of a ‘deer in the headlights’ feeling,” she said.
A mother of four, the former dental assistant was already a mature-age student when she embarked on her undergraduate psychology degree at the university in 2002.
In the third year of her course, her mother was diagnosed with dementia, which steered Denise to her current position supporting people living with dementia, as a senior psychologist with the Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service ACAT and Memory Service – a challenging, but rewarding role she has held for the past decade.
“I help clients to identify and voice what is important to them, then work to remove barriers that prevent them from living life to the full.” Denise said,
As Australia’s population is aging, a growing number of people are creating advance care plans, outlining their treatment wishes, in the event they can no longer communicate adequately or lose their capacity to make complex decisions. However, many plans are not clear-cut and pose challenges for hospital clinicians.
“The doctor has to try to interpret the plan and reconcile it with their own professional views. There can be complexities around deciding what is actually in the patient’s best interests. Legal issues may also arise. What if a family member is disputing a patient directive?” Denise observed.
“Not an enormous amount is known about how hospital-based doctors perceive advance care plans – certainly not in Queensland.”
She had already begun researching how clinicians in her own workplace responded to advance care plans, when she was advised last year to approach her studies “robustly” – at a PhD level. At first, the idea was overwhelming.
“Then I thought about it from the perspective of my clients, who choose to complete advance care plans – and the clinicians who sometimes struggle with those plans. I thought, if I don't do this, then I'm part of the problem, because I'm not doing something about it. We need to know the barriers and enablers to doctors implementing advance care plans,” she said.
Denise was encouraged to enrol in the AITHM Cohort Doctoral Studies Program, which provides a comprehensive support network for PhD students. She joined Cohort 16 this year and attended the induction block week on the JCU Townsville campus in February.
“It just cut to the chase and helped save an enormous amount of time and effort in working things out on my own,” she said. “Things like polishing academic writing, ethics applications, and tricks of the trade with researching.”
Denise valued peer support during her undergraduate studies and is establishing similar bonds with members of Cohort 16, which numbers 14 students.
“Now I am part of a post-grad student group on a similar journey. We come from different backgrounds, which adds rich perspective, and we share a determination to make a difference,” she said.
Ready access to academic mentors is also welcome. “They've been there and done that. And their job and joy in life, I think, is to encourage and shepherd and help celebrate the wins of people who are going through the Cohort Program.”
And Program support staff are quick off the mark to help solve problems. “They’ve always got our backs,” Denise observed. “All in all, I feel as if I am part of a family of unconditional supporters – and that’s pretty powerful.”
Denise now embraces her studies with confidence. She plans to conduct a qualitative study involving interviews with people living with neurodegenerative disease, who have made advance care plans; hospital-based doctors and other clinicians; as well as bereaved family care-givers to ascertain their satisfaction in relation care plan implementation.
She hopes her research findings will help inform medical training, GP education and hospital-based policies around advance care plans.
“Collectively, I hope that we can support individuals to have maximum autonomy through until death,” she said.
Medical laboratory scientist, Andrew Cross, is on a quest to reduce mislabelled patient blood samples – and their potentially catastrophic consequences – with the assistance of the AITHM Cohort Doctoral Studies Program.
This year, the Townsville Hospital haematology supervising scientist has embarked on a Master of Philosophy (Medical and Molecular Sciences) degree at JCU. His aim is to develop a mathematical formula to help detect blood samples bearing the wrong patient name.
“We see wrong blood in tubes throughout our whole career. It is a world-wide issue,” observed Andrew, who also lectures fourth-year Medical Laboratory Science students at the university.
“At the moment, detection comes down to the skill of the scientist or some checks in laboratory information systems. We are trying to improve on that, by developing a mathematical formula that automatically predicts the likelihood of mislabelling, based on past and present results.
“This will provide a support network for the scientist, doctors and patients, so that when we analyse the sample, we can say with a degree of mathematical certainty that this sample is from the correct patient.”
There is a great deal at stake, if mislabelled blood samples are not identified.
“It could lead to treatment delays, because a disease picked up in the blood is attributed to the wrong patient. Or someone may receive treatment they were not meant to get,” Andrew said. “In the worst case scenario, it could result in the transfusion of the wrong blood type to a patient, resulting in death.”
It is almost 30 years since he last viewed the world as a student. Born and raised in Sydney, he graduated with a Bachelor of Applied Science (Medical Laboratory Science) degree from Charles Sturt University in 1990.
“Now here I am doing research in the field that I both lecture and work in, so it is actually a really nice fit,” he observed.
This year, keen to revitalise his study skills, Andrew enrolled in Cohort 16 of the AITHM Cohort Doctoral Studies Program, which provides a comprehensive support network for students.
“Working with the Cohort Program is fantastic for people like me, who haven't studied for quite a long period of time,” he said. “It has been great from week one.
“It is helping us transition back into that field, providing a good stable background of information and resources; the tools to successfully do our research. Everything, from time management, to how to write a thesis and literature review. I'm always using references that I have downloaded from the Program website.
Andrew met other members of the 14-strong cohort, during an induction block week held on the JCU Townsville campus, in February. He is confident that they will form a strong peer support network, based on their shared commitment to health research.
He is already energised by new, unexpected avenues opening in his own research.
“We are looking into machine-based learning at the moment, which is something I didn’t know anything about before,” he said. “So writing a mathematical formula to detect mislabelled blood samples is one option, but another way is to actually teach a machine to recognise wrong blood in tubes. That’s exciting. It is another pathway to explore.”
Cancer nurse educator and JCU PhD student, Sara Hurren, is exploring the healthcare experiences of a little-known group of breast cancer sufferers – those who are diagnosed with the disease during pregnancy.
This year, she enrolled in the AITHM Cohort Doctoral Studies Program to support her research into this gruelling scenario, which affects one in 1000 pregnant women in Australia – a figure that is likely to grow as more women delay pregnancy until later in life, when they are at greater risk of developing breast cancer.
“How do these women interact with a health system that is looking after two such radically different aspects of their health at such a crucial time?” observed Sara, who educates nurses involved in inpatient and outpatient cancer services, radiation and palliative care at Cairns Hospital, as well as two satellite services in Innisfail and Atherton.
“One component of the health system, maternity and gynaecology services, represents joy and hope, while the other component, oncology services, is shadowed by fear and uncertainty. How do these different services actually collaborate with the woman and her family about their needs?”
She plans to undertake a qualitative study, initially involving interviews with women in Far North Queensland who have experienced gestational breast cancer (breast cancer during pregnancy) over the past five years, but hopes to expand her research to include women state wide and even nationally.
Breast cancer is a subject close to Sara’s heart. Raised on the Gold Coast, she obtained a Bachelor of Health Science (Nursing) degree from the Footscray Institute of Technology, Melbourne, in 1986, then opted to specialise in cancer nursing, in light of her grandmother’s experience of breast cancer.
“When you are young, you feel out of your depth, trying to understand health issues such as cancer. I was looking to learn more about how it could be treated; what the options are,” she said.
She spent 22 years working as a nurse in Victoria and New South Wales, where she obtained a Master of Health Science degree from Southern Cross University in 2006, while based in Lismore, prior to moving to Cairns 10 years ago to be closer to family.
In 2017, Sara ventured back into study to undertake a one-year Graduate Certificate in Research and Methodology at JCU, which included a qualitative study on the impacts of lymphoedema, a potential side effect following removal of lymph nodes under the arm during breast cancer surgery and radiation to prevent the spread of the disease.
Her research uncovered widespread misinformation about how to avoid the debilitating, sometimes painful, condition, which causes a build-up of fluids in the arm or breast. During her study, she met two women who had suffered gestational breast cancer, undergone treatment, and subsequently spent four years carrying their children on one side of their body, in the mistaken belief it would help them avoid lymphedema.
“Their experiences impacted me quite profoundly, because after all my years in nursing, I had not thought about this particular group of women,” she said.
When Sara heard about the level of support that the AITHM Cohort Doctoral Studies Program offers PhD students, it provided additional impetus to embark on her PhD study this year, as a member of Cohort 16.
She relished attending the Program’s induction block week on the JCU Townsville campus in February.
“It was really beneficial. Just having a solid week to do our professional development and learn all about different styles of research, as well as academic writing, literature reviews and ethics,” she said. “The Program even assists with grant and scholarship applications.”
Meeting other members of the 14-strong cohort was another highlight of the week; fostering the beginnings of a strong collegial spirit.
“I’m already making such beautiful connections with the other PhD students,” Sara said. “We are encouraging each other. It’s not competitive at all. It’s also fascinating to mix with students from different disciplines and see what they are researching. We are from different backgrounds, but we’re all in it together. It’s very uplifting.”
She hopes her own research findings will enhance the delivery of healthcare services to pregnant women battling breast cancer. “For me, that’s the end game,” she said.
Accredited Mental Health Social Worker and JCU Masters student, Rachel Bruce, is undertaking her Master in Philosophy (Health).
Rachel Bruce was born and raised on Thursday Island, North Queensland and her ancestral heritage is Meriam (Eastern), Mabuiag (Western) Islands in the Torres Strait.
Rachel completed her Diploma in Indigenous Community Welfare and went on to further studies completing a Bachelor of Social Work at the University of Queensland and later obtaining her credentials as an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker. She has worked in the field for 20 years predominantly with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and is passionate about supporting and advocating for Individuals and families, and holds strong stances around human rights, self-determination, equality, social justice and community empowerment.
Rachel has been thinking of future studies for a while and in 2018 decided to undertake her Research Studies. Her research question is “How can Cultural Resilience enhance support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experiencing grief and loss during Chronic Illness?”.
In February this year, she attended the Induction Block week for the 14 members of Cohort 16, at the JCU campus in Townsville. The AITHM Cohort Doctoral Studies Program has equipped her with skills and support to explore her research studies.
“The Cohort Program is a good platform for someone returning to university life after 20 years and getting back into study mode,” Rachel said.
“I enjoyed all the various sessions and content during induction week. The presenters were brilliant, and so were the Program support staff. I felt at ease and know I am able to access their assistance if needed, and also the program has set me up in terms of my research study now. I also felt very comfortable interacting with other students in the group. The Cohort Program is imperative for students undertaking higher degree studies” Rachel said.
Rachel is now looking forward to pursuing her research study and she hopes her research findings will help inform future health initiatives to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living with chronic illness.