Celebrating the future leaders of health research

Early to mid-career researchers (EMCRs) have been recognised at Deakin University’s Institute for Health Transformation’s inaugural Future Leader Awards for Academic Excellence.

Written by Judy Baulch

Designed by the Institute for Health Transformation’s EMCR Committee to recognise excellence in academic achievement of PhD and early to mid-career researchers across the Institute, the Award winners were officially announced today.

“These Awards acknowledge the achievements and hard work of the talented early to mid-career researchers we’re fortunate to have within the Institute,” said Professor Anna Peeters, Director of the Institute.

“The work of our EMCRs is making an impact nationally and internationally, with initiatives spanning population health and obesity prevention, patient care and services, evaluating the cost-effectiveness of prevention strategies and reducing burden of disease. We look forward to seeing what they do next!”

Two awards were offered in each of the three categories of ‘PhD student/1 year post doc’, ‘Early Career Researcher’ and ‘Mid-Career Researcher’ – The Institute for Health Transformation Future Leader Award for Research Excellence for an excellent record of publications in terms of quality and contribution to science; and The Institute for Health Transformation Future Leader Award for Research Impact for engagement, translation and communications.

Applications were assessed by a panel of senior researchers from across all four of the Institute’s research domains. The winners in each category receive $500 and a certificate acknowledging their achievement.

Future Leaders Award for Research Impact

Winner, PhD Student/1 year Post Doc: Ms Christina Zorbas

Ms Zorbas is a PhD candidate in the Institute’s Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE), a World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention. Her research prioritises investigating how the price and affordability of foods and beverages, and retail pricing strategies, can be leveraged to promote healthy eating for everyone. She is passionate about science communication and works closely with communications teams at Deakin and external partners, such as VicHealth, to translate her research into formats that are accessible to non-academic audiences. Through such knowledge translation, Ms Zorbas hopes to transform social norms and gain support for policies that can equitably promote healthy eating.

In the three years since Ms Zorbas commenced her PhD in 2017, she has published 12 articles, with more than 80 per cent in first quartile journals and six as first author; been Chief Investigator on two grants totalling $525K; and supervised two Masters students.

The judges commented that, “Ms Zorbas has fast built a reputation for her work examining the price and affordability of food and beverages, demonstrated by invitations to write for Current Nutrition Reports on the role of pricing policies to improve population diets (first author), for The Conversation on the myths and counterpoints for a sugar sweetened beverage tax in Australia (co-author), and to be a member of a working group for the 2020 World Public Health Nutrition Congress.

“Ms Zorbas has contributed to policy and practice through numerous appointments during her PhD and supported the establishment of the EMCR committee in the Institute for Health Transformation to support emerging researchers.”

Highly Commended, PhD Student/1 year Post Doc: Ms Alexandra Chung

Ms Chung is a PhD candidate at GLOBE and is dedicated to improving equity in childhood obesity prevention. Her vision is to become a global leader in the development and communication of policy-relevant research that delivers benefits for the whole population.

Throughout her PhD, Ms Chung has produced high quality research that has advanced the field of equity in childhood obesity, including four first author papers published in top quartile journals. She presented the findings of her research into factors influencing sweet drink consumption among preschool-age children at the Food Governance Conference in 2019, and will present her analysis of childhood obesity and equity in Australian health policy at the World Public Health Nutrition Congress.

Ms Chung sees translation of her research beyond academia as critical to bridging the gap between researchers and the public and actively engages with media to increase coverage of her work on television, radio and newspapers across Australia and internationally.

Winner, Early Career Researcher: Dr Anna Ugalde

Dr Ugalde is a Senior Research fellow in the Institute’s Centre for Quality and Patient Safety Research (QPS) and Deakin’s School of Nursing and Midwifery. Her research, which focuses on health services research and psycho-oncology, has had impact through performing several funded evaluations to optimise existing health services with research principles and designs and include development of recommendations to directly improve patient care.

These include an evaluation of wellness programs for people affected by cancer in the Barwon region leading to a grant to explore the concept of wellness centres in Australia and an invitation to lead a white paper for the Integrative Oncology Group of the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia on wellness centres to generate national guidelines; an evaluation of a peer support service for women with breast cancer (2017), with several recommendations accepted by the board;  an evidence check funded by the Sax Institute on self-guided interventions for people with cancer, exploring whether there is sufficient evidence to implement these programs; and evaluating telephone support services for people with cancer across the US, Australia and UK, informing support services in Victoria for Cancer Council Victoria and internationally.

The judges commented that in collaborating with multiple agencies working in the cancer area, Dr Ugalde had “contributed to the evidence base through systematic evaluations that have already led to recommendations being adopted, and now approached to contribute to the development of national guidelines on the role of wellness centres.” 

Highly Commended, Early Career Researcher: Dr Anna Chapman

Dr Chapman holds a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship within QPS and the School of Nursing and Midwifery and has a clinical background in dietetics. She conducts implementation research that aims to improve the quality and experience of care provided to individuals with complex needs and, in various peer-reviewer and editorial roles, focuses on ensuring research findings are accurately reported and interpreted to allow research evidence to be more readily applied in routine practice.  

Dr Chapman was first author on a meta-analysis examining the effectiveness of maternity service organisational interventions on the improvement of caesarean section rates, which captured the attention of a wide variety of Australian print, radio and online media. This work also gained interest from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, resulting in an invitation for a team member to present at a meeting in New York in December 2019, addressing the impending caesarean section crisis in low/middle-income countries where the meta-analysis findings informed the development of implementation strategies.

The final paper from Dr Chapman’s PhD has influenced diabetes management approaches within Chinese primary care settings, with elements of the trial now implemented in Beijing, Nanjing and Shenzhen. She is an honorary Research Fellow of a Primary Health Care Research Institute in Shenzhen and through this affiliation regularly contributes to training Chinese primary care professionals in patient-centred care approaches to chronic disease management.

Winner, Mid-Career Researcher: Ms Jaithri Ananthapavan, Associate Professor Gary Sacks, Dr Vicki Brown, Ms Phuong Nguyen, Dr Anita Lal

The Assessing Cost-Effectiveness of Obesity Prevention Policies in Australia (ACE-Obesity Policy) team from the Institute’s Deakin Health Economics unit and GLOBE consists of EMCRs who were instrumental in the completion of a landmark priority-setting study as part of Deakin’s NHMRC-funded Centre of Research Excellence in Obesity Policy and Food Systems.

The broader ACE-Obesity Policy team was an interdisciplinary team of health economists, economic and population health modellers, epidemiologists and public health policy researchers. With a focus on capacity building and career development, leadership roles were given to the EMCRs in the team with the senior researchers providing a supportive role. The study answered the research question: ‘What are the most effective, cost-effective, affordable and implementable policy options to prevent obesity across a range of settings?’

The team completed economic evaluations of 16 potential policy options for addressing obesity across 50 scenarios; advanced previous modelling work and developed a state of the art economic model; progressed methods to assess the strength of evidence of prevention interventions and further enhanced the reporting of the cost-effectiveness findings to maximise policy relevance.

The outputs of the ACE-Obesity Policy study include over 20 academic publications, with the EMCR team authors on all publications, and 15 national and international conference presentations. The team was also invited to present its findings at the World Health Organization in Geneva and the National Obesity Summit in Canberra. Translation to policy-makers was enhanced through meetings and invited presentations to the Victorian Government Departments of Health and Human Services, Treasury and Sports and Recreation Victoria. Evidence of the impact of the ACE-Obesity Policy report is its use in the development of state policy briefs related to the COAG obesity strategy and it was referenced in the National Obesity Strategy consultation document.

The judges described the ACE-Obesity Policy as, “an outstanding example of the impact of multidisciplinary collaboration, and EMCR leadership. In addition to an impressive reach through the traditional means of publications and conference presentations, this team has demonstrated broader impact through strategic engagement with policy makers and invitations to present to departments of health around Australia.”

Highly Commended Mid-Career Researcher: Ms Devorah Riesenberg

An Accredited Practising Dietitian and Research Fellow at GLOBE, Ms Riesenberg’s focus is public health and food policy to improve the health of the population and prevent obesity. She worked with a team of researchers, including Associate Professor Adrian Cameron, Ms Christina Zorbas, Associate Professor Gary Sacks and Dr Kathryn Backholer, to write the paper, Price Promotions by Food Category and Product Healthiness in an Australian Supermarket Chain, 2017–2018, published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2019. The research and an accompanying short video received wide coverage in various media outlets and on social media. The team was also contacted by public health researchers around Australia with congratulations on the video infographic and requests to learn more about how it was put together. 

 

Future Leaders Award for Research Excellence

Equal Winners, PhD Student/1 year Post Doc: Ms Ha Le and Mr Olumuyiwa Omonaiye

Ms Le is a PhD student within the Institute’s Deakin Health Economics (DHE) unit with a research program focused on the economics of child health, specifically in child language development. She has made an ongoing significant contribution to DHE, the Institute and Deakin’s School of Health and Social Development, supporting other PhD students using her health economics expertise, filling the position of Unit Chair of Health Economics in a Global context, tutoring for multiple units and supervising students for minor and major projects. Her PhD research outputs between 2018 and 2019 include two published articles in top quartile journals, one accepted book chapter, and one under-review manuscript, all as lead author.

Given the scarcity of research on the economic impact of child low language ability, Ms Le’s recent publications are an important addition to the field of child language development, and her first PhD publication is the first systematic review on the overall economic impact of child low language. Her second PhD publication on HRQoL in children with low language, comparing a multi-attribute utility measure to non-multi-attribute utility measure is published in Value in Health, a prestigious journal in Health Economics. This publication not only adds to the limited literature on the child language field but to conventional methodology in health economics (for example, decisions on instruments used to measure health outcomes in children).

As well as being a part-time PhD candidate and mother of two young children, Ms Le has succeeded in nurturing and developing strong research collaborations with a number of multidisciplinary external researchers such as Murdoch Research Institute and Griffith University, is ahead of her PhD completion schedule and has secured external funding from the NSW Government totalling $950,000.

Mr Omonaiye is a PhD student in the Institute’s Centre for Quality and Patient Safety Research (QPS) and Deakin’s School of Nursing and Midwifery. His research addresses a major global health issue – the persistence of paediatric human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infections due to mother-to-child transmission and his PhD study (currently under examination) focused on medication adherence among pregnant women receiving antiretroviral therapy for prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa in Nigeria. A mixed methods approach was used for the multicentre study, comprising interviews, focus groups, a clinical audit and a survey.

The study involved participation of senior policy makers working in the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV in six sub-Saharan African countries, which allowed this complex issue to be examined at a macro level. Participation of pregnant women living with HIV, their family members or friends, and health professionals, enabled the collection of micro-level data.

Based on his PhD research, Mr Omonaiye has written six manuscripts as lead author – four published and two currently under review in top quartile journals – and has had two conference papers published in top quartile journals.

In recognition of Mr Omonaiye’s PhD contribution to international health, he was awarded a postgraduate student scholarship in 2018 by the Public Health Association of Australia. He is also a three-time consecutive winner of the best international student presentation at the Annual Deakin Nursing and Midwifery Research School (2017, 2018 and 2019) and in 2018 was one of 10 PhD students nominated by Deakin’s Executive Dean, Faculty of Health, for membership with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Science Program for Excellence in Science.

Since 2018, in acknowledgement of his growing profile in global health and the impact of his research, Mr Omonaiye has been involved in the peer review process of three top quartile journals, including Clinical Epidemiology, BMC Public Health and Plos One, and invited to review conference abstracts for the Public Health Association of Australia. In 2019, he was invited by the Deakin School of Medicine, Public Health Unit, to deliver a lecture to second-year medical students on infectious diseases in Africa, primarily based on his research.

The judges commented that both Ms Le and Mr Omonaiye had, “demonstrated an unusual level of research excellence for current PhD candidates”.

“Both appear to have a comprehensive strategy for their PhD, having published a number of first author publications in top quartile journals. Both award winners have demonstrated early recognition of the importance of collaboration, both with international co-authors on their publications and both contributing to delivering educational outcomes to students in their fields of expertise.”

Winner, Early Career Researcher: Dr Lan Gao

Dr Gao has dual qualifications in medicine and health economics. She is a medical doctor by training and an experienced health economist with a PhD in Pharmacy (Pharmacoeconomics). Her research has gained an international reputation for advancing knowledge into the economics of cardiovascular disease (CVD), one of Australia’s national health priorities, and the economics of primary and secondary CVD prevention. Her post-market review of ezetimibe (a lipid-lowering agent to prevent CVD) examined the latest clinical evidence, its utilisation and cost-effectiveness and her analysis of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) utilisation of ezetimibe over the past 10 years contributed to the refinement of PBS restrictions and more efficient use of this medication nationally.

In her short career so far, Dr Gao has published 32 peer-reviewed journal articles ((25 as first or senior author), plus eight government/commissioned reports and has been responsible for the health technology assessments of new pharmacology and medical devices for the Australian Commonwealth Government (Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee and Medical Service Advisory Committee), as well as the economic evaluation of a diverse range of health interventions targeted at CVD treatment, and primary and secondary preventions, which were informative for policy decision-making at various levels. She has also led four successful grants in collaboration with neurologists, cardiologists, and cardiac anaesthesiologists from key tertiary hospitals in Victoria.

The judges commented that Dr Gao’s economic evaluation of a cardiac tele rehab program in New Zealand provided first time cost-effectiveness evidence for its use in patients with myocardial infarction.

“The new knowledge developed by this study was highlighted in an editorial accompanying the resultant publication and the economic findings led to an improved version of the intervention, now being tested in the Australian setting.

“She has also examined interventions to prevent CVD by reducing workplace sitting time, and this was reported by 33 news articles in Australia, and 94 internationally, including UK Daily Mail. The new knowledge generated by this study significantly raised public awareness of the harm posed by excessive workplace sitting.”

Highly Commended, Early Career Researcher: Dr Long Le

Dr Le is a Research Fellow with Deakin Health Economics at the Institute for Health Transformation. He has extensive academic and research experience in trial-based economic evaluations with a strong focus on modelling techniques to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of interventions for mental disorders. His work in evaluating mental health and psychosocial care within an Australian context has contributed to policy implementation and his research into the treatment of eating disorders contributed to a revision of the Medicare funding policy in Australia in 2018, with Dr Le’s research cited in the policy document. As a result, people with eating disorders can now receive up to 60 treatment sessions compared to 10 sessions in the past.

In 2018, Dr Le was CIB on a commissioned project for the National Mental Health Commission evaluating the cost-effectiveness of 10 interventions for mental health prevention and promotion. This project delivered policy and industry-relevant research and built a solid relationship between Deakin and the National Mental Health Commission.

Dr Le’s other notable projects include investigating the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of online self-help to prevent mental health disorders in young people (LINK trial); the cost-effectiveness of universal and indicated prevention for bullying at school (PAVe trial); the analysis of utility-based quality of life for mental health disorders and the cost of illness study for mental health disorders in adolescent and young people. He has recently been successful as a CIB (co-lead) on a NHMRC funded project – the ACE-HiBED project – to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of integrative prevention for eating disorders and high BMI. He is proudly the only health economist who invited to the National Forum for Obesity and Eating Disorders.

Winner, Mid-Career Researcher: Associate Professor Kathryn Backholer

Associate Professor Backholer is Associate Director and Head of the ‘Equity in Food Policy’ research group within GLOBE and a Heart Foundation Future Leader Research Fellow. Her research aims to inform policy and practice of the most effective and equitable ways to create healthy food environments and is problem-oriented with pragmatic and inter-disciplinary solutions, designed to push public health methods beyond existing boundaries. Dr Backholer’s program focuses on reducing inequities in diet-related non-communicable disease (including a focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations); and the use, and misuse, of emerging technologies to influence population diets and health.

Despite taking six months of full-time maternity leave and working part-time between 2018 and 2020, Dr Backholer has published 22 research articles and four editorials (two invited) and contributed to numerous reports for national and international bodies (including invited content to the 2018 and the 2019 Global Nutrition Report – an influential annual report that aims to connect and strengthen existing processes for reporting on nutrition around the world). More than 80 per cent of these manuscripts have been published in top quartile journals with Dr Backholer as first or senior author on 80 per cent of these. In this time, Dr Backholer has generated more than $2M in research income, with more than $1M as CIA. She recently led a successful Cancer Council grant that brings together expertise from public health, policy, complex systems and artificial intelligence. This includes two Deakin Institutes (The Institute for Health Transformation and the Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation), to create a world-first, automated intelligent system to monitor children’s exposure to, and engagement with, advertising of unhealthy products.

The judges said Dr Backholer stood out by demonstrating excellent outcomes in supporting early career researchers to write high quality research grants, and by helping her PhD students to receive competitive fellowships.

“Kathryn also showed excellence in relation to the awards she has received, including a government scholarship to complete the Women on Boards leadership program, a Victorian Tall Poppy Award and a Deakin HSD Research Excellence award.”

Highly Commended, Mid-Career Researcher: Associate Professor Melissa Bloomer

Associate Professor Bloomer holds a number of key leadership roles in Deakin’s School of Nursing and Midwifery, including Director of Postgraduate Studies, Course Director Master of Nursing Practice, member of the School External Advisory Board and School Executive Group. She is also a Faculty HEAG reviewer and was recently appointed to the 2020 Research Integrity Advisor Network. As Deputy Chair, Australian College of Nursing End of Life Care Policy Chapter, Associate Professor Bloomer influences national policy and research agendas and has co-authored a national Position Statement on Voluntary Assisted Dying in Victoria (2018), and a White Paper, ‘Achieving Quality Palliative Care for All: The Essential Role of Nurses’ (2019), both of which are available online to support nurses’ education and clinical practice.

Since joining Deakin in 2016, Associate Professor Bloomer has continued to grow her program of research focused on end-of-life care across the lifespan, from neonates to older people, in inpatient settings including critical care, acute care, and aged rehabilitation. The outcomes of her research are applicable across hospital and community care settings in Australia and internationally and have made a significant contribution to end-of-life care in acute and critical care hospital settings, attracting recognition from peak national and international bodies.

Associate Professor Bloomer’s 2019 publication in Australian Health review was selected by the Australian Council of HealthCare Standards and GovernancePlus to guide health service managers through the upcoming Australian hospital accreditation and her 2017 publication in Journal of Clinical Nursing was selected by UK National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) for reproduction as a ‘NIHR Signal’, a research summary promoted to UK clinicians as actionable, accessible and trustworthy information, intended to inform practice. Only two per cent of appraised studies are selected as NIHR Signals. In 2018, Associate Professor Bloomer led international policy work in behalf of the World Federation of Critical Care Nurses resulting in the 2019 WFCCN Position Statement: Provision of a Critical Care Nursing Workforce, promoted to critical care nursing organisations worldwide.