Meet Marita who is currently undertaking a PhD in Health Promotion
What inspired you towards a career in health promotion?
I graduated with a degree in Nutritional Sciences from UCC in 2001. Our final year module on public health nutrition really struck a chord with me; up until then we had very much been focused on more basic science areas. While I initially toyed with the idea of undertaking a Masters in Health Promotion at NUI Galway, I found myself accepting an offer of a place on a graduate recruitment programme in the food industry. To be honest, I felt I needed to start working, and earning! After four years in this sector, I knew it wasn’t for me (though, on reflection, the insider experience was invaluable) and I set out on my health promotion path. I started working with safefood, and during that time I did a part-time Masters in Health Promotion at the University of Limerick. It was life-changing. Learning more about the social determinants of health and health inequalities, I knew that I had found my tribe. I have several contract research posts over my career; after safefood, I worked in the National Children’s Research Centre in Trinity, the National Cancer Registry, and Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT). While the projects I have worked on have been quite different in their focus, e.g. the nutrition needs of young people in alternative education and training, and men’s experiences of prostate cancer care, I have always loved research, and translating this into policy and practice to make a meaningful difference – or at least trying to anyway! My last job before starting the PhD was as a Research Officer for National Funding In WIT. I loved the role, and interacting with staff and students with really varied and exiting research interests, but I missed doing actual research so I got my act together and applied for a full-time PhD on the SPHeRE Programme. Thankfully I was successful!
What does a typical day look like for you and what are you currently working on?
I am currently in the final year of this Health Research Board-funded four-year PhD and am based within the Health Behaviour Change Research Group in the School of Psychology at NUI Galway. I am very fortunate to have an excellent supervisory team (Dr Caroline Heary, Prof Molly Byrne, and Dr Rachel Laws) and research environment in Galway. I’m not sure there is any typical day for me! I live in Cork but study in Galway (and sometimes have workshops/events in Dublin). You could literally find me anywhere in the country! In my PhD I am trying to build the evidence so that we can maximise the effectiveness of early life interventions to promote healthy growth and prevent childhood obesity. I’m focusing on the first 1,000 days – the period from conception to a child’s second birthday – so it is quite varied in terms of target age groups and behaviours. There are also so many different levels and angles to potential interventions; it’s fascinating. In particular, I am interested in how we can translate research into policy and practice and how we can integrate obesity prevention into routine contacts within the health services for optimum effect. At the moment, I am trying to write up my systematic review of early life interventions to prevent childhood obesity and am also analysing data from interviews that I conducted with parents of young children around their views and experiences of healthy infant growth, so that takes up the bulk of my day. I also spend a bit of time doing work for other Groups that I am involved with, e.g. I sit on the Committee of the Association for the Study of Obesity, the HSE’s Healthy Weight for Children Working Group, and the Training and Communications Working Group at QUESTS, the Qualitative Research in Trials Centre, at NUI Galway. I am quite active on social media so I have to admit that I spend quite a bit of time each day on Twitter and LinkedIn, exchanging research and thoughts in my various areas of interest, of which there are many. I also try to engage in advocacy around early life nutrition and childhood obesity and like to do what I can to influence change in this area, e.g. I recently collaborated with other researchers and clinicians to //medium.com/@darren_dahly/an-open-letter-to-dr-eva-orsmond-20f5d2420672">object to comments that “pregnant women allowing themselves to be overweight is criminal”, and highlight unsuitable corporate sponsorship arrangements. World Obesity Day takes place on October 11th and in the lead-up I am doing my bit on Twitter to end weight stigma and highlight the importance of people first language in journals.
What advice would you give to anyone starting out in a career in health promotion?
Be open to any and all possibilities to develop your knowledge and skills – training, further education, volunteering. As I said earlier, I found my tribe in this area and have built up a really supportive network of people around me. I would encourage people starting out to do the same and invest time and effort in developing and maintaining those relationships. I only realised the true value of this when I started my PhD. I have been reconnecting with people that I engaged with years ago now that I am back working in the area of childhood obesity prevention.
What does AHPI membership mean for you?
On a personal level, I find it really useful to keep up-to-date with developments in health promotion, particularly programmes, resources, funding opportunities, and in general what others in the area are up to. On a broader level, I think it’s really important to have a strong national body to represent and promote health promotion nationally and internationally, and to be a part of that.
You have been given a magic wand and are able to fix one problem (related to health/ health promotion), what would you pick?
Oh wow, that is such a big question! Well if it’s a magic wand, then I think that if I could drastically reduce/eliminate the health gap then that would be brilliant. And it would have ripple effects in a lot of areas so would be worth the one wish! Child poverty and homelessness are two issues that I am particularly passionate about advocating for change around. Last year Dr Michelle Share in Trinity College Dublin, and I, conducted a study on the challenges families, who are homeless and living in emergency accommodation, face around nutrition and health. It really reinforced the prime position of housing as a social determinant of health (participants knew what a healthy diet was but were forced to make constrained food choices because of their circumstances) and how we must provide people with their basic human rights in order for them to realise their health aspirations. As health promoters/advocates, and as a society, we have lots to do to effect change for the 1,778 families and 3,867 children who are currently without a place to call home.