What drew you to academia?

When I was a student sitting in my undergraduate classes to become a physiotherapist, I was inspired by my lecturers, my professors. I kind of knew, even before I finished, that I would be back there. The pursuit of knowledge and the curiosity they had was quite inspiring.

Was there one teacher in particular that inspired you?

there was a whole lot of the evidence around movement science, like skill acquisition and biomechanics and how people learn and acquire skill that was just ignored in practice I think the ones that really challenged the status quo. It was at a time where physiotherapy was moving into a science and evidence-based profession and we had some quite inspirational academic teachers who actually changed the face of physiotherapy. Professor Roberta Shepherd and Professor Janet Carr thought the science behind movement should be what’s guiding physiotherapy practice. Whereas before, it was kind of knowledge that was handed down by practitioner gurus, that wasn’t based in science and evidence. Roberta and Janet identified there was a whole lot of the evidence around movement science, like skill acquisition and biomechanics and how people learn and acquire skill that was just ignored in practice. They really came to understand muscle mechanics better and putting all that together really changed the face of physiotherapy. I graduated many, many years ago and when they were teaching me they were actually undertaking higher studies at the time, they were doing their masters and doctorates and doing research, so that was really changing the way we thought.

Along the way who have been your mentors?

I have had some great mentors, who have been academics and clinicians. My first day of work as physiotherapist at Royal South Sydney Hospital, (a fantastic rehab hospital that no longer exists), I was a new grad and I got on a neuro-rehabilitation rotation. On the first day, this fantastic physiotherapist Fiona Mackey welcomed to me, she was my senior in the area.

What was amazing was she asked my opinion the first day,

A younger Cath!

A younger Cath!

about what I thought about a complex patient, and we kind of had a groupthink, with the patient included. I think that inclusiveness was really inspiring. She was another person that was working clinically while undertaking further studies and looking at how research could change our practice. So I actually saw that translation of research into practice, and trying to improve practice, and that inspired me to do much more.

When I graduated most people would work a year then go do their gap year. But I didn’t want to go overseas just to holiday, I wanted to go overseas and live in a country but also work. So I went and did my masters in New York and my Post-doc in Quebec Canada. My professors in the U.S. put me in contact with other leading people in North America, so I am lucky to have international mentors. To have been able to study and live in New York for a time, it was an amazing life changing experience. At a personal level, you have to get out of your comfort zone and that’s good for meeting a whole lot of people and hearing different people’s perspectives and stories.

With your wealth of experience now, what would you say to your younger self, or what do you wish you’d have known?

if you really want to do something, if that’s really your goal, then you can do itI think you know more than you think you do, so it’s around backing yourself a bit more. Confidence. And if you really want to do something, if that’s really your goal, then you can do it. There are often different ways to the same outcome. I wanted to go overseas and study, I wanted the international experience, but I didn’t want my career to suffer. I just didn’t want to go and travel. I really wanted to live somewhere so I worked out where I could go and study, but then it had high international fees. But before I went I worked 3 jobs to earn money. I also applied for international scholarships and got them. I wrote 30 letters to insurance companies to say, “Look I’m trying advance my understanding of movement, which will have an impact on people. With my interest in neurological rehabilitation, for people who have had car accidents who suffer brain injury, if I can improve rehabilitation knowledge in Australia, it will have a benefit of reducing your costs as an insurer”. I wrote 30 letters and I got 2 yeses. The NRMA sponsored me and another one of the insurers sponsored me to travel overseas but I also got a Queen Elizabeth Silver Jubilee award and then I got an international scholarship from the university. So I think there are options to try and find funding to pursue your dreams. If you’re clear and that’s what you really want to do then you can actually do it.

I went to Columbia University because a lot of my academic teachers had also been to this degree but one part of me didn’t want to follow them. I looked internationally at a whole lot of degrees in the Netherlands and the UK. I just wrote to all these people. I wrote a letter to one Professor in the UK and the next thing I got a phone call. He rang me from the UK. I don’t know if that would happen now. But I think you can make contact with people and if you engage them and if you’re interested, they’re interested in helping you.

So I came back to Australia and worked clinically again at Royal South Sydney hospital, and then Cumberland College of Health Sciences, the only place you could do Physiotherapy in New South Wales, which became part of the University of Sydney. Professor Roberta Shepherd became the Foundation Professor of Physiotherapy and I took a $13,000 pay cut to be her research assistant. Then I did my PhD and then I got an academic job. I think there are sacrifices you might make for future career progressions as well.

So I’d liked working clinically in physiotherapy and I liked neuro-rehabilitation but why I came to work in academia was because

I can have a greater effect as an educator and researcher, because it has a multiplier effect. I can change the face of healthcare or contribute to improving healthcare by how I teach the next generation of health professionals.

Because they’re usually the agents of change, I think it’s that multiplier effect that education has. I was called to the pursuit of further knowledge. As an attribute, as a value, in terms of my family, education was incredibly valued. And my mum always says I like an argument and I say that’s because you educated me so well, because there’s usually always two sides to things and there’s much more complexity and embracing the grey. I think I’m a change person. I like change and that’s well suited to higher education, in a way, because everything’s always changing. People try to stop change but that’s not happening. We’re always changing and evolving and doing things better or sometimes not better. I love doing something new and improving it and changing it, working out what worked well.

What advice would you give to new academics coming up?

I try and demonstrate in some way some of the major research findings or they get up and use their body as a way of understanding the conceptNow it’s different. I think they have to embrace the grey. We really need to master complexity. There’s a danger of just thinking you must tell students everything. I’ll tell them, and tell them more and it’ll be fine. I think it’s really true that less is more. You’ve got to work out a way of engaging them and really picking out one of the key messages, one of the key concepts and try to think of good learning activities which will enable them to understand those concepts. The best lectures I think I run are when I try and demonstrate in some way some of the major research findings or they get up and use their body as a way of understanding the concept. Because it’s the study of movement, they can use their own experience to try and understand concepts and actively participate in things. I think for new academics and new teachers I think they need structure, they need to know what they’re trying to achieve. Being clear on learning outcomes and having clear activities that direct the student to being able to actively work out one of the answers and what’s unknown.

And then just being honest with students. If you don’t know something, say “that’s interesting, I haven’t thought about that, let’s see if we can think about that over the next week and see if we can have a bit more of a discussion next week”, it’s fine to say that. And recognise complexity. I think students like black and white but not much is black and white and the more you know the more you don’t know.

Less is more.

If you’re studying in the area, you might think some things are really fascinating, the minutiae is really fascinating, but it’s unlikely that they don’t care.

But I think linking it to something contextually is also very important. Years ago I was doing a lecture on understanding the concept of balance. It was a time when the baby elephant was born at Taronga Zoo and it’s pretty amazing, a baby elephant can stand up and walk. It’s a large heavy thing so I was trying to work out why a young human baby takes a year to learn how to walk and try to demonstrate some of the concepts that way. I also believe in the power of the story, the power of the narrative. If you can embed a key concept in a story, that can connect a little bit emotionally with your audience, then you’re probably likely to have a better impact. That is more easy in health because you can do case-based learning, layering the complexity. With a strong narrative, you remember it.

Half of my time searching for good learning activities is spent trying to connect to what’s important to my audience. What’s important for future health professionals and what’s going to connect with them as an audience. There are so many resources now, I think the major job of an academic is to curate their resources.

We’re always learning, all of us, and asking someone for feedback on our performance is really a healthy thing to doI think our role as academics is trying to find good quality resources for students. We’ve got to help students develop skills about finding the resources in a systematic, reasonably efficient way and then actually working out if they are high quality or not. Because knowledge is changing all the time. We’re not going to teach them what they need to know, they need to really be able to work out the problem, work out what their level of ability is, what they need to improve on, where they can find the resources, what they need to know and then who they need to get assistance from. We’re always learning, all of us, and asking someone for feedback on our performance is really a healthy thing to do. In healthcare, the people who don’t seek feedback are dangerous. Being a reflective practitioner is really important, not just healthcare, in life, in education, in everything.

Also don’t sweat the small stuff. As an early academic if a session doesn’t really work it doesn’t really matter. But I also encourage people to keep portfolios and do reflection almost after the class and make some notes quickly – what worked well in that session, what didn’t work, are there things I need to change? Just even jotting down some notes on their teaching material so when they come back next session to run the same thing, it’s with them. So we’re not just relying on student feedback. It’s got to be the triangulation of what the teaching team thinks, what the student thinks and also sometimes what the profession thinks about graduates. It needs to be triangulated, trying to work out how to make improvements in our educational program.

What continues to inspire you?

I am enormously proud of the graduates of our programs. I’ve been working in training physiotherapists since 1992 so that’s a long time. I think it’s amazing seeing young people flourish and seeing the next generation of health professionals. If they believe in themselves and build on what they learn and continue to learn then they have the chance to really make an impact on the on the health and wellbeing of people across the globe.

What inspires me is trying to inspire the next generation of health professionals.

The world needs health workers. I really want them to be culturally respectful, person-centred health practitioners so they put the person they’re trying to serve in the middle of the key decision making.

I’ve learnt lots of things now that I wouldn’t do. I was kind of a bit of a harsh rehab therapist who was saying “you must do this, you must do that”, you must, must, must. And really it was personal insights when my father had a failed knee replacement and developed dementia and from my niece’s experience with autism. I think it’s about really understanding the struggles for the family in providing those services. What I think as a priority may be different to the priority of the patient. We actually need to be listening to what consumers want and co-designing services so that we’re delivering on what people want and need and getting the right treatment at the right time.

I used to think we did a really good job in rehabilitation and I think we do do a good job in Australia, but we can always do better. Access to good quality healthcare isn’t always available, unfortunately it’s still depends on perhaps the finances that you’ve got. There’s plenty to do in this space, so that’s what inspires me.

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Posted by Catherine Dean

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