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Institute of Health and Wellbeing Early Career Researchers' Blog


  • Jan 27 / 2016
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Current Affairs

Science and Semantics: Focus on Immigration

Photo LA(PHOT) Jay Allen ©. Royal Navy Media Archive. Used with permission under Creative Commons license.

By Louis Nerurkar:

In recent months the media has repeatedly discussed the waves of “economic migrants” entering Europe as they attempt to flee from the conflicts that have displaced them. In this context the word economic is often used to imply that the decision to journey to the United Kingdom was taken with the sole purpose of acquiring increased income and exploiting the welfare systems that exist across much of Europe. Continue Reading

  • Jan 06 / 2016
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Is it dangerous to ask or talk about suicide?

Photo by Charlie Foster ©. Unsplash. Used with permission.

By Tiago Zortea

This is an understandable concern. Suicide is a delicate issue since it involves suffering, emotional pain, and sometimes stigma for those who have lost loved ones through suicide or feel suicidal themselves [1]. In addition, there is a well-known phenomenon called the Werther effect” (or copycat suicide) where a person bases a suicide attempt on another suicide they have heard about (e.g., in the media). When it comes to asking someone whether they have suicidal thoughts, people might feel particularly reticent due to a concern that they will become responsible for that person if the answer is “yes”. These sorts of concerns can discourage people from talking and asking about suicide, and reinforce the idea that these conversations might, in themselves, increase the risk of inducing suicidal ideation and behaviour, especially if the conversation is with someone who is already depressed or psychologically distressed. Continue Reading

  • Nov 25 / 2015
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Current Affairs, David Blane

Time for a sugar tax?

Photo by Thomas Kelley ©. Unsplash. Used with permission.

By David Blane:

League tables are everywhere, and no-one wants to be bottom of the class.  In terms of health indicators, considerable efforts have been made across Scotland in recent years to shrug off the unfortunate title of “sick man of Europe”, but another dubious accolade is up for grabs.  With some of the worst obesity figures among OECD countries – almost two-thirds of adults and a third of children were considered to be overweight in 2013 [1] – Scotland is in danger of topping the chart as the “fat man of Europe”. Continue Reading

  • Nov 11 / 2015
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Current Affairs

Eleanor Rigby, Loneliness, and Suicide

Photo by Joshua Earle ©. Unsplash. Used with permission.

By Tiago Zortea:

“Ah look at all the lonely people!
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?”

The thought provoking, sad, and very reflective Beatles’ song, Eleanor Rigby shocked me when I listened to it for the first time many years ago. For a teenager who was starting to understand how life works and how to navigate relationships, I found the song extremely thought provoking. Who wants to be lonely? Who wishes to have no bonds? Though the music expert Richie Unterberger suggests that Eleanor Rigby focuses on “the neglected concerns and fates of the elderly”, the song tells us about a human experience that can be devastating regardless of age: the constant feeling of being lonely. Continue Reading

  • Oct 28 / 2015
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Making the most of clinical research networks

Photo by Daria Shevtsova ©. Unsplash. Used with permission.


By Siobhán O’Connor

For those public health researchers with a specific clinical background, tapping into a local and national network of clinical researchers can make a huge difference in terms of how your research progresses and opportunities for a long-term research career. Continue Reading

  • Sep 30 / 2015
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The Profcast: Professor Anne MacFarlane

Anne MacFarlane 08

Today we’re interviewing Anne MacFarlane, Professor of Primary Health Care Research at the Graduate Entry Medical School, University of Limerick.

Why did you become an academic?

When I was younger, several people who were close to me were unwell and spent a lot of time visiting GPs and hospitals. I was so struck by the fact that, often, their interactions with doctors and nurses were adding to their distress: for example, things were not explained properly or their worries were dismissed. I became fixated by this, particularly because I was very fortunate to have an excellent GP who never let my family down in these ways – Dr. Bill Shannon who went on to become the first Professor of General Practice in Ireland at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. So, I kept thinking that these negative healthcare encounters were unnecessary and avoidable. I wanted to know more about why this was happening and to understand more about people, health and healthcare in general. First I opted for a psychology course and took all the health related options going. Then, through my postgraduate research in Health Promotion, I realised I was more satisfied with sociological literature and its accounts of health issues. I also got completely interested in research methods and, particularly issues of rigour in research. I thoroughly enjoyed my teaching experiences and, so, by the end of year 3 I was hooked and determined to get more work as a health services researcher in primary care. Continue Reading

  • Sep 10 / 2015
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Current Affairs

Suicide Prevention: From Illness and Risk Factors, to Thoughts and Actions

Photo by Austin Ban ©. Unsplash. Used with permission.


By Tiago Zortea

As a PhD student carrying out research in suicidality, I am recurrently asked why people take their own lives. The thing is, there is not an obvious, quick, or complete answer. Suicide is a complex phenomenon, and it involves biological, psychological and social factors that interact with each other, and these interactions vary across cultures, genders, and ages. The main reason why researchers have been working so hard to understand it and to develop effective interventions is the fact that there is no time to lose when the aim is saving lives; equivalently, someone dies by suicide every 40 seconds somewhere in the world [1]. Continue Reading

  • Sep 02 / 2015
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The Profcast: Professor Carl May

In our latest Profcast IHAWKES speaks to Professor Carl May, Professor of Healthcare Innovation at Southampton University.

Why did you become an academic?

There are many different ways of plotting this story but the simplest, and perhaps the one that is nearest the truth, is that I found that I just loved the work. I did as a student and I do now as a professor. These are fantastic jobs to have. I can’t think of another career where I would have had the opportunities that I’ve had as a university researcher and teacher. My collaborators are often my friends and some of them are very good and close friends indeed.  Together we do great work. This may seem a bit rose-tinted, but it’s true for me. Continue Reading

  • Aug 26 / 2015
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PhD Experience

Big data – how to predict our future health and wellbeing

By Siobhán O’Connor:

As a fledgling researcher, I heard the term ‘Big Data’ several years ago when it appeared on the cover of New Scientist. It was billed as an exciting new field that was evolving at the peripheries of lots of disciplines and one that could potentially revolutionise them all. Having scanned the article briefly I didn’t make much of it at the time and resigned it to the realm of techies, one which would have little impact on me and the way I lived my life. However, as the years ago by and the proliferation of digital data seeps into every facet of life; from monitoring what I eat and the exercise I do via mobile apps, to sharing my personal data on family, friends and life events on social media, I realise I may have missed the central point of the article. The technology to continuously monitor human life (both biological and behavioural) and the environment that surrounds us is here.

When the opportunity arose to learn more about Big Data, I jumped at the chance, as I could see its potential for post-doctoral research. The Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) was holding a summer school on the topic of ‘Big Data and the Digital Divide’ for postgraduate researchers and I was lucky enough to secure a scholarship to attend. The weeklong initiative was held in Canada and brought together over 20 international researchers from several commonwealth countries.

On our first morning we got a tour around Toronto from our student ambassadors, before travelling to the University of Waterloo where we listened to interesting perspectives on Big Data from two industry speakers. Kevin Keane, co-founder of Brainsights, spoke about a range of wearable technologies like FitBits and Hexoskin that can measure a variety of physiological signs which are enabling us to quantify and understand different aspects of human behaviour. The following day, Mark Damm the CEO of Fuse Forward outlined how cloud-based analytics platforms can be used to process large, diverse datasets that can help us better predict a range of outcomes and impacts. That afternoon, Professor John Hirdes from the School of Public Health discussed how Big Data could impact the healthcare system if we used standardized clinical assessments to collect digital data and create more robust predictive clinical decision support systems for doctors, nurses and other health professionals.

On Tuesday morning, Dr Christian Boudreau spoke to us about how statistical techniques such as survival analysis are being used to query large amounts of bone marrow data. This is helping researchers to understand how long patients will survive if given a particular treatment or drug. A trip to nearby Wilfrid Laurier University to meet Dr Colin Robertson and his team resulted in us appreciating how geographical information systems can contribute to Big Data and help us understand the spread of diseases such as Japanese Encephalitis in Nepal. We were then treated to a real Canadian experience by going camping and canoeing at the nearby Laurel Creek nature reserve. Of course important data can also be gleamed from the natural environment, which heavily impacts our health. We were given a demonstration of a miniature drone or UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) that remotely collects environmental data such as wind speed and direction, air temperature, agricultural practices and other geospatial data. After a campfire, sing-along and too many roasted marshmallows, we spent Wednesday morning canoeing around the reservoir with Dr Robert McLeman to learn how citizen science initiatives can help us monitor environmental changes in the weather as well as animal and plant species through mobile technology (http://www.ontarionature.org/protect/species/app.php).

For the last leg of our journey, we travelled to Western University in London, Ontario where Dr Mark Daley and Dr Dan Lizotte spoke about the difficulties of statistically interpreting big datasets. They highlighted the importance of robust algorithms for drawing correlations and causation, as mistakes can lead to glaringly strange results as shown by Google’s initial Flu Trends data which has since been corrected. They were joined by Dennis Buttera from IBM, who reiterated this point from the industry perspective. He outlined the challenges IBM face supporting different businesses from multiple industries with analytics capabilities. This in part is due to a lack of computer and data scientists and he highlighted the urgent need for many more skilled graduates in these areas. He recommended a book called ‘Thinking About Data’ to educate everyone from children to adults on Big Data, which is now at the top of my reading list (sorry pile of JAMIA papers sitting on my desk!). In relation to healthcare, he noted that precision medicine is taking off as people are using large DNA and genomic datasets to personalize drugs and treatments for individual patients and the potential benefits of this for society are still in its infancy.

As the week drew to a close and we said our goodbyes after a trip to Niagara Falls. As it turns I couldn’t have been more wrong about Big Data – it is here and it is going to affect us all as the wealth of digital information at our fingertips will only continue to grow and grow. For health researchers that means more multidisciplinary collaboration with industry and other research disciplines, both from the technical and social sciences, to broaden and enhance our understanding of how Big Data can improve health and wellbeing.