Alison is a lecturer in Physiotherapy here at QMU. She is also a Chartered Physiotherapist, specialised in Oncology and Haematology with a wide range of clinical experience including neuromusculoskeletal, respiratory and neurology physiotherapy. From working in a wide range of NHS hospital outpatient and inpatient departments her main area of focus has been Oncology and Haematology and improving the quality of life of those diagnosed with cancer through research and clinical practice.
Alison tells us more about her experience of being a PhD candidate at QMU, what drew her to focus her research on cancer care and how she found her experience balancing her PhD and being a new mother.
How did your experiences of seeing cancer and its treatment influence your decision to become a physiotherapist?
I am and have always been incredibly passionate about cancer care. Growing up, like many others, I witnessed first-hand just how hard the effects of both the disease and its treatments can be on individuals diagnosed with cancer, their families and loved ones. I always looked back wished I knew more and could have done more. These experiences ultimately became the driver for me to become a physiotherapist and shaped the passion and curiosity I have for improving cancer care through research. Throughout this time both personally and professionally I have seen the advances in treatment that have helped people live longer with cancer. We, as well as many other Allied Health Professionals play a critical role throughout any cancer journey. When I first started out in physiotherapy practice, our role in cancer care was underutilised, however with improved detection, treatments, and survivorship our role is now strongly acknowledged as an imperative part of cancer rehabilitation.
Can you explain to us the focus of our PhD research?
Fast forward many years later and it is now technology that remains underutilised in healthcare. Digital technology is fast transforming how we deliver healthcare and what is equally just as fast is the research it requires to make these changes sustainable, accessible and operational for all. As a result, my PhD research is investigating the feasibility and impact of delivering prehabilitation programmes via a mobile health application for patients with oesophago-gastric cancer. I started my PhD part time in September 2019 and 6 months later the global pandemic both accelerated and facilitated its research dissemination. However, more importantly it highlighted its significance, its research gap and its urgent need in healthcare.
Can you talk to us about your experience presenting your research to the International Physical Therapists for HIV/AIDS, Oncology, Hospice and Palliative Care?
In May of 2020 I was invited to present the foundations of my PhD research to the International Physical Therapists for HIV/AIDS, Oncology, Hospice and Palliative Care (IPT-Hope) by Professor Jacqueline Drouin, a professor at Oakland University, USA and President of IPT-HOPE. I addressed delegates online about the need for digital health in cancer care rehabilitation which is a key area of my PhD research. I was subsequently awarded an International Scholar Award by the World Confederation for Physical Therapy (WCPT) IPT-HOPE for my contributions. It was a great experience and my first online presentation that I delivered during the pandemic.
Why did the DCA award you with the People’s Choice? And can you explain what 3 Minute Thesis is?
In April 2021, the Doctoral Candidates Association awarded me as the winner of the People’s Choice for the 3 minute thesis competition at their annual conference. My PhD presentation was titled “Can an app a day keep the Doctor away?”. It was such an enjoyable and supportive experience made all the better by being awarded £250 for its presentation. The three minute thesis competition challenges doctoral candidates to present a compelling spoken presentation on their research topic and significance in just three minutes. It’s a brilliant and fun challenge and I would highly recommend every PhD candidate to participate. The preparation and support by the graduate schools study weeks and my supervisors made me very much aware and appreciative of just how supportive QMU is towards fostering positive research environments for its PhD candidates and early career researchers to grow.
When you chose to take maternity leave, did you feel that the university supported this decision and offered the space to do so?
In October 2021, I took maternity leave from both work and PhD life to have our first baby. Ironically my PhD feels like another baby of mine and I found it hard to completely abstain. Throughout the year I still kept reading, researching and reflecting on my PhD journey. The time away from the pressures of deadlines, reviews and submissions, allowed me to enjoy the reading and further exploration of how my ontological viewpoints not only contributes to my new sense of self as a Doctoral student mother but how these perspectives are now guiding, framing and shaping my research. QMU was very supportive in my decision to take maternity leave and my supervisors offered lots of advice in being able to handle work, study and family life as a new Doctoral student mother. Female academics and researchers building both a career and a family can feel that these most important and career defining years can simultaneously overlap, however with supportive institutions such as QMU I strongly believe achieving both can be possible.
How did you find the return to your PhD after maternity leave and did you feel properly supported by the University to make that transition?
In September 2022 I returned from maternity leave. I felt apprehensive and both academically and maternally guilty about how my time would now be challenged in newer ways and responsibilities, however I was greeted with a large amount of support and encouragement on my return to QMU. I feel that the women in academia and research who have gone before me and juggled family life, work and study inspire me every day to just keep going. Whilst I appreciate my part time PhD journey will be a very long one, I feel its length of time is playing a key part in developing who and what both my research and I are becoming.
You had another PhD article published about regional inequalities in cancer care, what makes this such an important issue and how should it be tackled?
In November 2022, soon after my return from maternity leave I published another article from my PhD in the Regional Insights journal for regional and urban research, development and policy. It was titled “Geographical inequalities in cancer prehabilitation. Can m-Health applications be the answer?”. The article focused on cancer demographics and the disparities of cancer specialist services in metropolitan versus rural areas, highlighting the need to research and adopt technology into cancer care. This gave me a boost of confidence soon after returning from maternity leave and the internal encouragement to keep going.
What else are you involved in at QMU?
I currently teach a range of subjects across the MPhys and MSc Physiotherapy programmes as well as some subject areas across the wider division of Health Sciences. I absolutely love teaching and I find it immensely rewarding. Preparing and educating the future workforce of tomorrow makes me very proud and I enjoy the cross disciplinary thinking and research the role offers. Being in a position to be able to positively influence a new generation of professionals as well as trying to develop innovative ways of thinking about some of the key issues within my area of expertise is what I enjoy most about academia here at QMU.
What do you hope to do after you complete your PhD? Do you want to become a lecturer or is there a specific field of research you are interested in? How do you plan to use your PhD in the future?
As a result of gaining this valuable expertise within the use of mobile applications in delivering prehabilitation, I hope to continue even further research on this topic. QMU is a fantastic university in which many staff have amazing research profiles and contribute their research skills both nationally and internationally in order to tackle key global challenges. That is what I aspire to do post completion of my PhD. I hope to continue working in academia here in QMU whilst simultaneously trying to collaborate with others and further contribute to the already high level of research culture established here at QMU. I feel my PhD will hopefully offer me the skills and qualifications I need to carry out further research in order to make real change and impact in our communities.
"I am and have always been incredibly passionate about cancer care. Growing up, like many others, I have witnessed first-hand just how hard the effect both the disease and its treatments can be on individuals diagnosed with cancer, their families and loved ones. I look back and always wished I knew more and could have done more. These experiences ultimately became the driver for me to become a physiotherapist and shaped the passion and curiosity I have for improving cancer care through research."