Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Medical student on an education mission

Zak Doherty
Zak Doherty is on a mission to bridge the gap between public and private schools – one student at a time.

The Hamilton-born medical student has spent his first clinical year in Bendigo gaining experience in the Bendigo hospital. In his spare time, he’s also been tutoring Bendigo secondary students as part of The Smith Family’s senior secondary tutoring program. Along with a core group of four other medical students, once a week he’s been helping Year 11 and 12 students who receive Smith Family scholarships with their homework.

The public school disadvantage

From his own experience, he knows that students in public schools often lack access to specific exam strategies. “In my high school, we didn’t have those teachers who knew exactly what to teach for the exam because they had never marked them. The teachers were great, but if you don’t have that extra bit of knowledge, you don’t have it.”

He remembers asking a chemistry teacher from Melbourne, who was in Hamilton for revision lectures and who had written and marked VCE exams, to look at a practice exam that Zak had attempted and marked himself based on published marking criteria. The results were quite different. That was when he realised that other – unwritten – criteria were at play. “I thought: well I’d better try and work out all these things. I worked out some of them, and I figured I’ll teach the [Smith Family] students that sort of thing to try and close the gap.”

“I know that students everywhere get lower marks than students at private schools. They might be smarter, they might work harder, but they just don’t have that education environment or that teacher that marks exams. I’ve got the knowledge, I guess I can impart it to them. It’s just a little thing that I figure kind of reduces that inequality.”

Secondary students gain confidence

The secondary students did gain confidence over the course of the year. At the start of the year, Zak recalled that two girls he’s tutored in biology wouldn’t know how to approach a question about a topic they weren’t sure of, or they’d simply give up. “Now it’s nice when they do practice exams, they don’t just switch off when they see something they don’t know. They actually have a crack at it. And they think about things differently. I think that because of that, they’ll do better than they may have otherwise.”

Zak said he loves teaching and even considered it as a career. His favourite day in Year 11 was when his maths methods teacher was absent. “I loved maths and I was pretty good at it because I loved it and worked hard.” His fellow students asked him to take the class and reported that they’d learned more in his session than the rest of the year. “I know – it sounds like I’m pumping up my own ego,” he said chuckling.

Love of numbers leads to a research year

His love of numbers has led him to take a year off from his medicine studies to undertake an honours research year in 2018. He’s investigating a question of his own interest using the code blue database to look at the long-term outcomes of patients who have suffered a cardiac arrest in hospital. It’s already known that only one in six patients who experience a cardiac arrest will leave hospital. “But the data once you leave hospital is a bit patchy. No one cares about leaving hospital; they care about what their life will be like when they leave. And that’s what matters.”

After three years of study, he’s looking forward to the change. “I get to do placements in the ED and ICU, which is where I hope to work in the future, so it’s something I’m very excited about. I kind of got sick of just learning and doing exams. It’s nice to actually create something.”

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Warragul paediatrician heads new push to keep young doctors local

As a young paediatrician, Michael Nowotny, and his new wife Jo, wanted to do something fun. So they moved to Darwin.

Dr Michael Nowotny
It’s perhaps not so surprising a decision given his peripatetic childhood. With his diplomat father, Michael spent years travelling between the UK, Switzerland, and Thailand where he went to school with the children of American service personnel during the Vietnam war.

A long way from Vietnam, Darwin still had its own challenges. While Jo studied law, Michael worked as one of three junior registrars at the Royal Darwin Hospital. “It was a very busy unit and in the wet season it was crazy because we had really, really sick Aboriginal children come into the hospital all the time. We worked really hard, but developed good independence, problem solving skills, and learnt how to deal with finite resources.”

Stemming the doctor drain

It’s those sort of learning opportunities that the Warragul-based paediatrician wants available to junior doctors in Gippsland. It’s why he agreed to head up the Gippsland Regional Training Hub, one of Monash University’s two new regional training hubs that are working to create clearer pathways for medical graduates to do their specialist training in rural and regional Victoria. “Despite being fully committed, I couldn’t pass it up,” he said.

The drain of junior doctors from regional areas takes place between their second and fourth years after graduation he explained. “That's where we really lose most trainees. There are really good opportunities for interns in Gippsland through a couple of well set up intern training programs.” But after that training opportunities all but vanish.

“Junior doctors who would like to stay in a regional area can't because there aren’t many training opportunities for them. These are really, really committed young doctors who have often have come from the region that they're working in, who would like to stay, and who would potentially like to work in the region long-term. Unfortunately once they're attracted out of the region and move to alternative regions, meet people in the region and partner those people, it's very hard to get them to come back.”

A passion for rural practice

It was an opportunity twenty years ago – and family ties – that eventually drew Michael and Jo to Warragul from Darwin after seven years. With Charles Hamilton, Michael established a paediatric practice that quickly grew from the two of them to five practitioners. Education was an important focus of the practice right from the start.

With his practice co-located with the Warragul hospital he teaches in both his rooms and the hospital. Monash University medical students in their second clinical year, advanced trainees, two senior registrars, a general practice trainee and a rotating basic trainee from the College of Physicians are all there gaining experience in a “really busy training space”.

“I think it's important to try and encourage young doctors to come to rural places because the experience and enjoyment of being in a rural place is just wonderful. It's very different to working in the city. I'm really passionate about that component of what I do.”

As well as teaching in his practice and the hospital, Michael is head of paediatrics assessment with the College of Physicians. “I felt that it was important to be involved in the college because it has given me a lot over my training. And mentoring young doctors is really important to me particularly in the rural space. I am trying to be a rural voice to assist in making people understand how good it is to be working in a rural area.”

It’s an enjoyable lifestyle as well. Squeezed around his paediatric practice and teaching commitments, Michael plays the odd game of golf, and runs cattle on a 40-acre farm near Warragul where he and Jo raised their three children. The farm might see a little less of him as he sets the foundations for the postgraduate training hub.

Training hub to draw networks together

The initial phase has established a number of new advanced training positions in the region, but Michael sees the hub’s role as much greater: attempting to draw together existing groups who have been working to set up regional training networks. “That's what I feel is probably my most important role if we can do it: to try and get all the various groups around the table and see what we can do to advance networking of – not only existing training opportunities – but trying to create new ones.”

Education at all levels is close to his heart. “My son is a Monash medical student and I have tried to instil in him and to my students how important it is for them to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. I was beautifully mentored when I was a student and a trainee, and hope that my trainees feel mentored and supported. I want the next generation to feel that is part of their role.”

Friday, 3 November 2017

Medical students help raise secondary students’ aspirations

Bendigo-based Monash University medical students have been recognised for their voluntary contribution to The Smith Family’s senior secondary tutoring program this year at special presentation in late October.

Confidence inspiring: Monash medical students have been working with Smith Family scholarship students to raise marks and aspirations. L-R Ravali Gaddam, Lachlan Elliott, Zakary Doherty,  Dayle Howlett, Liam de Vries.

The program provides Smith Family scholarship students in years 11 and 12 with homework support and ultimately aims to lift students’ aspirations and improve their confidence. Up to 23 secondary students took part in this year’s tutoring program in Bendigo, working with a core group of five Monash medical students.

From a solid fail to a pass

Year 11 student Tia Hendry said without the tutoring program she’d have struggled this year. “You’ve helped me go from a solid fail to a pass,” she said of the medical student tutors. Although she’s not certain what she’d like to do on finishing school, Tia is now thinking about studying health professions at La Trobe University.

Year 12 student Reza Azimi knows exactly what he wants to do. Reza sought help in Maths Methods to lift his ATAR result so he can get into law and global studies at Monash University. Year 12 student Genevieve Somerville is also focused on her goal: to study a Master of Dietetics at La Trobe University. She was grateful for the exam tips the medical students were able to pass on.

Why should regional students be disadvantaged?

Medical student Zak Doherty, who volunteered his time for the tutoring program, is determined to pass on exactly that kind of information. Hamilton-born Zak has spent his first clinical year in Bendigo gaining experience in the Bendigo Hospital and he remembers very well how disadvantaged country high school students can be. “Why should those students be disadvantaged because they don’t go to that flash private school in Melbourne?” he said. “In medicine you typically require really good marks to get in and I see people who didn’t get in from my school that probably should have because they didn’t have that teaching advantage. It’s just a little thing but if I can reduce that inequality … close the gap a bit, that’s a good thing.”

A previous Smith Family scholarship student herself, Dayle Howlett grew up in Rosedale in Gippsland. She has also spent the year studying medicine in Bendigo and tutoring in her free time. “A lot of it is encouraging them to keep going because it’s very tiring being a VCE student,” she said. “I really enjoyed teaching – it’s a stress release for me to be able to explain something I’m comfortable with.”

Investing in education benefits everyone

Bendigo program coordinator Lia Comodo said one in seven Australian children and young people grow up in disadvantage, which can limit their opportunities and outcomes in life. “Investing in education support gives students from all backgrounds the chance to succeed in their studies and opens up their future pathways,” said Ms Comodo. “A program like this not only delivers long-term benefits for the student but also their family and the wider community.”

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Finding the courage to shift careers

Yiran ZHANG realised early in an economics degree that she really wanted to study social work.
Two years into a  master’s degree in economics at the University of East Anglia in the UK, Yiran ZHANG decided that what she actually wanted to study was social work.

She had seen two videos by social work researcher Brene Brown which aroused her interest and she started to realise that there were many vulnerable people who need help. But while she could see a need, the courage to make the change came from her Christian faith, ignited while she was studying in the UK. “It changed my way of thinking about a lot of things. This faith made me stronger, there is a voice in my heart to encourage me during these years,” she said. She could see a future for herself that didn’t involve working in a bank or a consulting firm.

Concerned that it was just a whim, her parents encouraged her to continue with economics. If she still felt strongly when she completed her master’s, they said, then she should follow her dream. “When I finished my Master of Economics I still had really strong feelings that I want to be a social worker in the future and help people. So here I am in Australia studying my second master’s – in social work,” she said.

When you’re in your early twenties, she feels, you’re going through a process of self-discovery and she’s very glad she persisted. “I’m settling down, I know what is the purpose of my life, what I want to do in the future. I’m not worrying about what I’m going to do.”

Now four weeks into a three-month research placement in Moe, Yiran will be working with Monash University Department of Rural Health researchers mainly on the Hazelwood Health Study. She’s not daunted by the prospect of three months in a small country town.

She was keen to go to a rural area when she saw this opportunity. “I kind of want to explore a different place. When I was in the UK I lived in the countryside, so I really wanted to go to a rural area because I’m really quite new to Australia. I want to know how people live in a rural area and also the small community makes me feel really safe.”

Her research topic for the master’s theory unit that preceded her placement explored post-disaster and gender inequality. “This is the sort of thing I always wanted to do Here we’re doing the Hazelwood mine fire study. It’s also related to this area.”

So far, the placement has been focussed on learning the practical aspects of research but she’s looking forward to going to the local schools to start interviewing students in the next couple of weeks. “Here everyone is really friendly and there’s a lot of support. If you have questions, you just ask – it’s really good.”

Long accustomed to studying away from home, Yiran sees the positive in spending three months on placement. “I think you spend three months in a rural area you’re going to be really close to your colleagues and friends around you. You get more of a chance to know each other,” she said.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Social work students gain insight into rural research

Diana and Kang enjoyed their recent research placement with the Hazelwood Health Study in Moe so much, they’re both back working as casual research assistants.

Applying social work skills in new ways

The two are among seven social work master’s students who’ll each spend three months working on the Hazelwood study and other research projects with Monash Rural Health and they both faced the challenge of learning new ways of applying their social work skills. “It was an opportunity to think outside the box; you have the skills, here’s an opportunity to put them into practice,” said Diana. It was also an opportunity to learn about themselves. “I realised I enjoyed working with children – working with children was not something I’d thought seriously about before starting the placement.”

Rural research: (L_R) Diana, Selina and Emma are among seven social work master's students who will complete a 14-week placement this year in Moe with Monash Rural Health

Going back to school

For Selina who’s only recently started her placement, working with the Hazelwood Health Study is a chance to go back into schools. One of the students’ tasks is interviewing school children about their experience during and since the 2014 mine fire. “I used to be a teacher,” she explained. “Some children come to school with problems, they’re very distressed and I can’t help them.” While she started reading around working with families, she realised that as a social worker she could really help those children. It was through that early reading that Selina realised the importance of evidence-based practice, so the research placement resonates with her. It’s also bringing the research process to life. “Working with researchers who talk about real experiences is much more vivid than the theory,” said Selina.

Researcher and one of the students’ supervisors, Sarah Lee, said she sees students grow in confidence over the 14-week placement. “They have great skills and ideas and I have learned a lot from them also.”

Discovering life outside Melbourne

Emma who is also just starting on her research placement had lived in the countryside in the UK, so she was keen to see how people outside Melbourne live. “I like that small community feel, it feels really safe.”

Although the three-month placement was the first time Kang has lived in a rural place he loves the atmosphere. “Most parts of Australia are not like big cities like Melbourne,” he said. “It’s a good learning experience of other perspectives in Australia.”

City bred Natalie has long held the desire to move out of town. “I’ve always wanted to buy a little farm and keep alpacas,” she laughed. The placement has done nothing to dim her enthusiasm. “Living in a rural area is not as bad as what people make it out to be,” she said of advice she been given before spending three months in Gippsland.

The absence of distractions is a boon for Selina. “You get rid of the noise,” she said. “You can concentrate in the quiet.” And being one of only two students working with a lot of research staff is also a bonus: “You get to talk to them.”

Opportunities to network

The staff were also happy to help students explore their research interests and make connections with agencies and practitioners in the region. “There was a lot of flexibility to network with people and Sarah was always happy to facilitate networking,” said Natalie who was grateful for those opportunities.

Sarah Lee affirmed that part of the aim of placements like this is to support students who are considering working in rural areas. “One way to do this is to allow them to see what opportunities are out there and to meet with other agencies and network. Placements can provide a really valuable opportunity for students to explore pathways they may be interested in, and giving students the time and support to do this is really important,” she said.

Gains for staff and students

For their part, the students walk away from the experience with a good grounding in the research process. “I’m much more confident in research now,” said Kang.

It’s not only the students who gain from the placement. “All the staff really enjoy having students here and the valuable contribution they make while on placement,” said Sarah. The feeling must be mutual if Diana and Kang’s return to work on the Hazelwood project is any indication.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Social work placement a chance to trial the dream

Natalie Cignarella is unequivocal: the Master of Social Work changed her life.

Social Work master's student Natalie Cignarella: her research placement in Moe allowed her to sample life outside a big city. 

A promise made good

She was in and out of hospital for many years with an illness.  “It wasn’t a really pleasant experience,” she said. “But every time I’d go into hospital, the social workers were floating around the place. I had an inkling that I wanted to do social work but I didn’t pursue it until I was exposed to social workers in a hospital setting.”

After years working in immigration, she moved to Victoria from her native New South Wales and promised herself that if she started to feel better, she would study social work. She’s made good on that promise to herself.

Working on LIFE

This year, she’s done a three-month research placement with Monash University Department of Rural Health in Moe. Natalie worked on two projects during her placement: the Hazelwood Health Study and the LIFE (Local Inclusive Fitness for Everyone) project. LIFE is an exercise program established for people of all abilities in partnership with the Moe Life Skills Community Centre. “For me the LIFE project was a big part of the placement experience and an opportunity to work on another project at the same time as the Hazelwood Health Study.”

She helped on the literature review, spent time on Fridays at the community centre where the exercise program was run, and met some of the support workers who gave her valuable insight into their role. At the end of the 16-week program, Natalie helped with interviewing the participants and analysing the data. “Building rapport with the people at Moe Lifeskills – it was just a really beautiful experience,” she remembered.

Space to learn

LIFE project supervisor Dr Eli Ristevski, and Moe Lifeskills staff Carole and Sharyn encouraged her to work through her ideas. “They provided a safe space for me to ask a lot of questions because when I first started working on the LIFE project I wasn’t really sure how something like that would work. It helped me break through a lot of barriers.”

With a heavy research focus, this was not a straight social work placement, but Natalie found social work theories were still applicable. She urges other students looking at a placement like this to be patient. “It may not be what you expected, but there’s always something to learn. There is really so much to gain from doing a research placement.”

A chance to network

And while she was learning new ways to apply the skills she had, she made the most of the flexibility the placement gave her to network with Gippsland health professionals. Placement supervisor Sarah Lee was always happy to facilitate networking and it gave Natalie an insight into how her chosen profession might also allow her to follow another dream.

The dream of a country life

“I’ve always been a city person,” she said. “But I would really love to move out to the country. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to see what it would be like.” Sharyn of Moe Lifeskills lives on a small farm and owns alpacas. “And I really, really want alpacas,” Natalie declared. “So she’d give me some insight on what it’s like to own a few alpacas.”

Natalie knew little about Victoria and the Latrobe Valley but some of her friends were dubious about her choice of placement. “Living in a rural area isn’t as bad as what people make it out to be,” she said looking back on her three months. Natalie enjoyed learning the history of the valley, what had happened to people who lived there and why. “And I really enjoyed the peace and quiet to be honest.”

While she still has two subjects to go to complete her studies, Natalie is already reflecting on the personal influence of her chosen course. “I can see things from different points of view, I’m a much better critical thinker. Before this course I was a bit of a fiery person, but this course has helped me manage myself a lot better. And I really hope I can get a social work job out of it!”

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Public health researcher settles in Central Victoria

After years working in public health programs in Papua New Guinea and Myanmar, Dr Claire Nightingale finds it hard not to buy eight packets of couscous when she sees it in the supermarket – just in case it’s missing next time. It’s one of the many cultural adjustments she’s had to make since returning to Australia recently to have her second child.

Now with a new role with Monash University based in Bendigo, she’s developing community research partnerships much as she was doing overseas.

Public health researcher, Dr Claire Nightingale, is looking forward to working with central Victorian communities to define their research priorities.

Lab work with a purpose

Central Victoria where she now lives is a long way from the Burnet Institute in Melbourne where the young Monash University science graduate – then Claire Ryan – followed an interest in infectious diseases and public health into an honours project. “I don’t love lab work,” she confessed. But the honours project looking at HIV sub-types among Vietnamese drug users in Melbourne used lab techniques to answer an important public health question. “That year really did change everything for me. I loved the research focus where you actually get time to focus on one question.”

She loved it so much, she also did a PhD with Burnet through Monash University looking at the way HIV is transmitted around Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and the Pacific islands at the molecular level. It was the start of her overseas career. Her PhD work landed her a role at the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research. As the laboratory lead with the Sexual and Reproductive Health unit, Dr Nightingale worked with a group of eight PNG scientists. Much of the team’s work influenced PNG health policy and led to Wellcome and other grants which enabled further work there.

An incredible history in PNG

“The Institute has an incredible history with Nobel Prize winners. It’s the kind of place that just hits you in the face with its potential and it’s so exciting when you’re there. It’s full of really bright Papua New Guineans who really do care about the health of their communities.

“It really full on, but it was great. We built the lab up to be highly functioning and worked very closely with the community implementing point of care testing for sexually transmitted infections amongst pregnant women. We also did some novel work around cervical cancer and implementing screening for it in PNG. “

A return to Melbourne after three and a half years saw her working in the implementation team for Victoria’s first community-based HIV testing service for gay men. The Department of Health and the Victorian AIDS Council were close partners and the PRONTO service is still running.

Public health in Myanmar

Soon she was overseas again. This time she accompanied her English-born partner and future husband whom she met in PNG. He now had a job with Save the Children in Myanmar. Initially Dr Nightingale worked in research development, as well as advising on the establishment of harm reduction drop-in centres which were offering HIV testing for people who used drugs. There she helped set up the labs and diagnostic processes. “It was a very different team [from PNG] and my role there was very different. They already had enormous capacity; the level of education there was impressive.”

After the birth of her first child she went back to Myanmar to work on a range of projects with various organisations: HIV testing during pregnancy, helping establish HIV viral load testing and looking at the quality of testing in decentralised facilities, and the Burnet Institute’s Hepatitis C program. That project helped develop a national Hepatitis C strategy and aimed to make sure that community-based Hepatitis C therapy would be allowed so treatment was available outside specialist hospitals.

The end of concrete

Dr Nightingale had gone back to work in Myanmar four weeks after the birth of her first child, but by the time she was expecting her second, she and her husband decided they needed a tree change. “As much as we love travelling, we didn’t want to look at concrete anymore and in Yangon there’s a lot of concrete and it’s hard to get out of the city.” They took a risk and moved back to Australia, settling close to family in Castlemaine, in a Harcourt house surrounded by orchards.

Community-focused research

Her new role with Monash University gives her scope to continue doing what she loves. “A lot of work I did in Myanmar was training people for research and then working with senior academics in Melbourne to get their research off the ground in Myanmar. I’ve always been involved in research but with a really strong public health, community focus. I love working with communities and doing some work around the priorities defined by the people who live there.”

With two children and new job she’s also studying a Master of Public Health focussing on health promotion. “I really want to maintain that outward focus of why are we doing this and what are the results of this going to tell us and how can we use this to change policy to change things.”

She’s also learning that she no longer needs to stockpile each time she visits the supermarket.