How did you first become involved in research?
When I was doing the Surgeon Noonan elective in 4th Med, I looked at what symptoms predicted a positive HIV test in the children attending our clinics in Zimbabwe. The HIV incidence of 20% of the population was a shock to the three girls from Cork. That gave me a taste for research which I have never lost.
What is the main focus of your research now?
Early brain injury and neurodevelopmental outcome. We have been really lucky in being able to develop a unique birth cohort here in Cork which we hope will answer many questions in the field of allergy, growth and development. With the Neonatal Brain Research Group, I have been trying to find an early and reliable biomarker for predicting outcome in hypoxic-ischaemic encephalopathy. Professor Geraldine Boylan has been a fantastic mentor and colleague.
What has been the most interesting aspect of your career to date?
Clinically, the 12 months that I spent doing paediatric retrievals in the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne was unforgettable. The day might include a late evening helicopter trip past the Twelve Apostles and landing in a football field in rural Victoria to stabilise an injured child. This could be quickly followed by a night-time fixed wing aircraft flight to the bush for the next patient in need. We had to think fast and stay calm. I met rural GPs who acted as extremely effective obstetricians, anaesthetists and neonatologists to mother and child. The paediatric intensivists of the RCH in Melbourne are all I need for inspiration when I’m at a loss.
How do you think research has changed in Cork over the years?
I can only speak for Paediatrics, but our research landscape has changed dramatically in the last 8-10 years. There are many more post-graduate students completing higher degrees, PhDs in particular. We have seen the development of the Anu Research Centre, the Neonatal Brain Research Centre and the HRB Children’s Discovery Centre. There is a lot more interaction between basic science/ engineering and clinical researchers. This is what we have to do. We need to use the rapidly developing technologies to help our patients. We are also much more involved in international multicentre trials. Again, this is essential in Paediatrics as we are often studying relatively rare diseases.
Is it becoming more difficult to carry out research as financial grants are becoming less available?
We have been lucky so far, and I have fantastic colleagues in the Department of Paediatrics. We have been able to grow our research in many areas. Translational research is more important than ever for our economy and so I think you need the combination of innovative research methods and clinical relevance to be successful.
What do you think has made the most dramatic impact on health and well-being?
For Paediatrics, as clinicians we have put our hands up and admitted that really it is public health and epidemiology that have made the biggest differences. Clean water, vaccinations and the Back to Sleep initiative have saved more lives than anything else.
What advice would you give to any medical students interested in research?
Go for it!
What do you think is the most interesting part of research?
When you look at a clinical situation and see an unanswered question. Then you think, I could find that out, and you work out a way of answering the question. The thought that you could improve the knowledge base or management of a clinical problem is what it is all about.
What do you think is unique to research as opposed to clinical medicine?
I think you can’t have one without the other. Clinical problems drive clinical medicine and vice versa. If you separate them, neither will develop.
What career could you see yourself in besides medicine?
Don’t laugh, but I have dreams of going back to study art and ceramics. I don’t know if I would be any good, or make any money, but I always loved it.
What has been the most exciting place you have visited?
As a tourist, canoeing to Angel Falls in Venezuela was a great adventure. As a doctor, I worked in South Sudan, about 40 miles behind the frontline with the tribal Dinka people. This was exciting at times, but mostly humbling, and it definitely changed my perspective on life.
What do you do for fun or to relax?
Relaxing is making pancakes for the kids on a Saturday morning before we start the runs to football/hurling etc. With three kids, I don’t get a lot of time to relax, but when I get the chance, I like to get out and go for a run to clear out thoughts of work for a while.