We are delighted to welcome Dr Melanie Haines to our team at the Digital Health CRC!

As Education Manager, Melanie will have a key role in assisting our PhD students as they undertake their industry placements.

Melanie comes to us from the University of Canberra and has extensive experience in supporting PhD candidates through their research journeys.

She is also the maestro behind the highly popular @WriteThatPhD Twitter and Facebook accounts, which have over 55,000 and 108,000 followers respectively.

Her ‘can do’ attitude, friendly personality and passion for assisting students makes her the perfect fit for our team, as we look to ramp up our Industry PhD program in the months ahead.

Patrick Daley caught up with Melanie one Saturday in April, as she was packing up her office at the University of Canberra prior to joining us.

From your accent, it sounds like you are originally from New Zealand?

That’s correct! I’m from Marlborough, which is at the top of the South Island. I came to Australia in 2006 and only intended to stay for five years, but I’m still here and loving it thirteen years later.

You started off your working life in a slightly different career?

I began my career as an entomologist, and just happened to get into researcher training via life’s unexpected twists and turns. I find my job really rewarding, and even though I’m not doing my own research anymore I get to live vicariously through the work of others.

What will your work as Education Manager at DHCRC entail?

Over the coming months, we’ll be recruiting over 100 PhD students and post-doctoral researchers. My first task will be connecting with our 16 university partners to determine how we’re going to recruit our students. I will also be talking with our 50+ industry partners about industry placements for our students and how they will work.

How does DHCRC’s approach differ from a traditional PhD model?

Our program will give PhD candidates an edge – something over and above their university program – that’s not only going to help them with their PhD but will make them really employable and competitive for jobs at the end. Our graduates will be an asset to the health sector and the digital health leaders of the future.

Most PhDs take around four years to complete – but unlike the traditional PhD model where students spend most or all of their time in an academic setting, our students will be spending half their time doing research and the other half getting industry experience.

Our students will be embedded with industry participants across the health sector and that’s educational in itself – they’ll be part of a team, have access to industry mentors in addition to academic supervisors, and the workplace skills they gain will complement their research and enhance their CVs.

Is this approach trying to bridge the gap between academic research and a practical endpoint?

Yes, definitely. This is about translating research into the needs of the healthcare sector. Industry participants have problems that need to be solved, and universities have people who can solve them, so it’s bringing the two parties together to get practical outcomes.

We need to make healthcare better and more efficient for health professionals and patients alike. It’s a huge task but we’re a big CRC harnessing the power of data and technology, which provides unlimited potential.

You’ll be liaising with PhD students from many backgrounds?

That’s right…and it will be really fascinating! We’ll be recruiting PhD students from all over the world – some will have health backgrounds and will want to learn digital skills, and others will have data science qualifications and will want to develop competencies in health.

Part of my role will be helping these students to identify their skill and knowledge gaps, and provide training opportunities to meet their needs. For example, those students who are coming from an IT background – or from overseas – who don’t know the Australian health system will need an overview of it, including its many acronyms and how it functions. At DHCRC, every student will have their own personalised learning plan to take them from where they are now, through their PhD, and into a career beyond.

In addition to discipline-specific skills and knowledge, a key part of my job will be helping students with transferable skills like project management, communication, critical thinking, problem solving, grant writing and pitching, which are highly sought after in both the academic and industry workforces.

How will DHCRC’s approach help PhD students?

DHCRC’s PhD students will get the best of both worlds – they will design and carry out a substantial piece of original research in a specialised area of academic study (ie. a traditional PhD) while at the same time learn how industry (including government) functions.

They will experience first-hand things like the pivotal role that policy, planning, teamwork and community plays in achieving successful solutions. DHCRC’s approach will produce multi-skilled, industry-ready graduates with strong skillsets, networks and knowledge, who can work across the interface of academia and industry and will have an advantage over those from typical PhD pathways.

The aim of our program is to build a significant cohort of research-capable, work-ready digital health graduates and retain them in the heath sector.

One of the other things our program will do is make the students feel they are part of a special community. When you are doing your PhD you can often feel isolated, and a sense of belonging is critical to PhD completion and success. Our PhD students will have their community at their institution, but they’ll also have the DHCRC community for extra support.

In addition to our annual face-to-face training camps and conferences, I’m hoping to build good online support mechanisms through webinars, social media and other online platforms, where our PhD candidates can come together virtually, help each other and get feedback on their ideas – because peer support and ‘critical friends’ are central to good research outcomes.

Why is the Industry PhD approach beneficial for the universities?

There are lots of ideas in academia but they are often not translated into tangible outcomes or products without the influence of industry, so there are definitely benefits with this type of collaborative model.

We’ll be providing scholarships and funding for the students, so this will be attractive to universities. DHCRC’s model is also likely to result in high rates of PhD completions, good graduate employment outcomes and high levels of end-user engagement, which are important metrics for them. Our projects will deliver positive impacts for society and make a real difference in people’s lives – so prestige and possible future collaborations will be generated for universities from these partnerships.

Will the Industry PhD model still encourage blue sky research?

I believe the future of blue sky research will be in using multiple perspectives to connect knowledge across disciplines. A multidisciplinary approach to problem solving is something we will be fostering within DHCRC.

The beauty of our model is that it will link the evidence-based and creative thinking approaches of academia with industry’s need for practical outcomes. This will open up opportunities to bring other stakeholders into the mix, including consumers and other end users.

You are the mastermind behind @WriteThatPhD …

I have really enjoyed bringing this to life! Basically, I support students to make progress with their PhDs by aggregating resources from across the internet and sharing them via social media.

Your decision to work in a health-related area was quite personal?

Absolutely. I was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, and while I am now fully recovered I got to experience the health system as a patient – so moving into this role appealed to me on both a personal and professional level.

During my treatment, I paid $3000 for a genetic test (which was not covered by Medicare) to determine whether or not I needed chemotherapy. If I didn’t (or couldn’t) pay the $3000 to have that test, I would have been prescribed chemo by default.

Because I was in the fortunate position of being able to afford the test, it was a no-brainer for me. I had the test and the results came back showing that my cancer was unlikely to respond to chemotherapy treatment and the risk of recurrence was low, which meant I skipped chemotherapy and went straight to radiation.

The whole experience opened my eyes to the fact that some breast cancer patients may be having chemo (and enduring ongoing physical and psychological side-effects) unnecessarily, because they can’t afford the $3000 test. This not only comes at a cost to them, but to the health system at large.

There were a few instances during my treatment journey where I saw scope for change, improved patient outcomes, increased efficiency and reduced costs. Of course, there’s a key role for DHCRC in guiding reform in these and many other areas.

Outside work, what are your interests?

I love spending time with my partner Willie and my pet cat, Grayson – he is a rescue moggy from the RSPCA, which means he is quirky but adorable! I am also a keen jogger – I find it’s a great way to clear my head, and it provides me with weight-bearing exercise which is important given the post-cancer treatment I’m on. Grayson prefers to stay curled up at home when I go out running, though!

You can email Dr Melanie Haines at [email protected].