04 Aug 2014
What makes a good researcher? Perseverance, creativity and problem solving all come to mind, but what about time and support? In 2008, CHeBA won an NHMRC Capacity Building Grant for the prevention and management of mental disorders in older Australians, funded to run from 2009 until 2015. One aim of this funding was to provide promising researchers with a sufficient period of training and apprenticeship to help them emerge as independent leaders in their respective fields. But is “capacity building” just another meaningless buzzword? With no definitive understanding of the course, prevention or treatment of dementia as yet, and dementia rates anticipated to rise to almost one million in Australia by 2050, ensuring junior staff are equipped to lead dementia research in the coming years is essential.
When we think of training researchers, we often focus on specific skill-sets, such as statistical analysis. However, it’s often more mundane skills that determine the success of a research group, like financial and staff management. Recognising that research leaders need a complex and diverse skill-set, staff on the capacity building grant were allocated a minimum of three mentors with different expertise. Four key strands guided the mentoring process: determining career paths, professional development (including work/life balance), research skills and teaching/training skills to help researchers to become effective educators. Staff identified one of the most helpful elements of the mentoring process was advice on how to engage with relevant stakeholders (including government departments, industry and peak bodies, such as Alzheimer’s Australia and Beyond Blue) to ensure research was relevant and translatable.
Like the adage that it takes a village to raise a child, we recognised that the more research leaders our staff could learn from, the better their training and skills development was likely to be. To this end, we allocated funds for each researcher to do a professional exchange with institutes internationally recognised in their fields. Dr Nicole Kochan stayed with the Mayo Clinic in the US, Dr Simone Reppermund and Dr Karen Mather worked with the Max Planck Institute in Germany, Dr Lee-Fay Low collaborated with the French National Institute of Medical Research (INSERM) and Dr Adrienne Withall visited University College London. As well as invaluable training experiences, the exchanges facilitated collaborative relationships resulting in a number of studies, such as comparison of genetic factors for cognitive ageing and depression between Australian and German samples.
Translating Research into Practice
But what is the point of ground-breaking research if we only publish it? One of the strengths of NHMRC funding is that it recognises the need to translate research into policy and practice. To this end, staff were expected to contribute to the policy-making process, clinical training and community outreach through media and public forums. Dr Jasmine Menant trained NSW hospital staff in falls risk and prevention, and her research was incorporated into the latest falls guidelines. Dr Nick Titov contributed to government policy decisions as a member of the e-Mental Health Expert Working Group and Anxiety Disorders Awareness Campaign Advisory Committee, as well as running a number of public forums to increase awareness about the role of e-health strategies for treating anxiety and depression. Dr Lee-Fay Low’s research on humour therapy for dementia patients was showcased in the ABC’s documentary, ‘The Smile Within’.
Where to Next?
One of the benefits of the capacity building grant for CHeBA has been a more concerted focus on how to train researchers for the future. The mentoring program we established has been extended to all CHeBA post-doctoral researchers and a modified version is being used with our PhD students. With the 12 funded researchers now managing their own groups (both at UNSW and other universities), passing on the valuable skills they have developed to the next generation of PhD students and junior staff, the capacity building cycle continues.