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Lab-based nursing PhD – a Melbourne First

[ The University of Melbourne Voice Vol. 6, No. 5  3 May - 13 June 2010 ]

Zoe Nikakis talks to Fiona Newall about combining clinical nursing work with laboratory-based research.

Fiona Newall has created history at the University of Melbourne.

Last year she became the first person to graduate from the University with a laboratory-based Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Nursing.

Dr Newall chose to undertake her PhD at the University of Melbourne because, after completing her Master of Nursing (Research) here in 2005, she understood the wide range of opportunities and support networks available to Research Higher Degree (RHD) students in the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences (MDHS).

Her Masters degree was focussed on patient care, so moving into a laboratory based research PhD was a big step, says Dr Newall. “It was certainly challenging, but at the University there was support for me to negotiate it successfully.”

Her PhD looked at whether children receiving the anti-clotting drug Heparin are receiving the optimal dose and monitoring. “My PhD aimed to improve understanding of how Heparin works and how it is managed in children,” she explains.

“Children on Heparin have higher rates of bleeding than adults and higher rates of recurrent clots. However, despite the widespread use of the drug, little is known about its effect on children. “

Having worked with blood-thinning agents (anti-coagulants) for the last 11 years, Dr Newall chose to undertake a PhD in this area to increase her opportunities to work in her field of expertise, and improve the areas of practice in which she works.

She says she received great support from the University’s Department of Paediatrics and the School of Nursing at the University of Melbourne to undertake a research higher degree that was focussed on her areas of practice.

“My research provided information that can inform and change clinical practice to provide the safest, most effective treatments for children, improving outcomes for the patients with whom I work.”

Dr Newall found that the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences’ close ties with hospital research groups and clinicians – in her case at the Royal Children’s Hospital – allowed her to continue both her clinical appointment at the Royal Children’s Hospital and her research work.

She continues to combine her clinical work with two days research each week, working closely with the current Head of Department and Stevenson Chair of Paediatrics, Professor Paul Monagle.

Dr Newall says that she finds wearing so many different hats intellectually stimulating.

Dr Newall will continue her post-doctoral research exploring questions arising from her PhD at the Royal Children’s Hospital and the University of Melbourne, because there is no other paediatric haematology unit in the world affiliated with a School of Nursing.

And though Dr Newall is the first University nursing student to graduate with a research-based PhD, she certainly won’t be the last.

She says there’s a growing understanding among nurses and students that a research degree can complement clinical roles and other areas of practice. “Nurses are no longer just clinicians, or researchers or educators. There’s a growing understanding that nurses can work across the fields, that multiple roles are complementary and a range of expertise ultimately benefits the patients.”

She continues to teach in the University’s Master of Nursing Science, where she began teaching while completing her PhD.

Many research higher degree students with the appropriate qualifications are encouraged to work within the departments at MDHS, Dr Newall explains, because they contribute to the Faculty through teaching and learning as well as through their research.

The Master of Nursing Science is a particularly interesting course to teach in, she says. “Because students can enter it with any Bachelor degree, (students without any scientific background must complete a bridging course) they bring a wealth of different experiences and skills to the program.”

She will continue to teach at MDHS despite her busy schedule, Dr Newall says, because she can’t see herself doing anything else. “And I am constantly learning.”


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