“The University of Wollongong (UOW) has so many high achieving PhD students, working towards solving real world problems. Each month we will meet one and hear their story

Vivienne Guan works within the IHMRI team under the supervision of Dr Yasmine Probst. Her work investigates dietary intake data quality, which involves translating data from data collection to analysis in a clinical research setting

Title of submitted thesis, year you commenced and year you completed

My thesis is: “Dietary intake data quality in the clinical research setting: Implications of quality improvement”, which I began in March 2015 and completed in April 2019.

Please give a broad description of the topic or question you investigated as part of your research.

Nutrition is the science of how the foods we eat affect our health. Dietary intake data reflects the foods that we eat. The quality of dietary intake data is the prerequisite to high-quality evidence in nutrition science. My doctoral research focused on habitual dietary intake data quality in a clinical research setting by looking at dietary intake data generation flow. Specifically, I was interested in the quality of dietary intake data, the causes of the identified quality, the predictors of poor dietary intake data quality and the potential ways to improve the dietary intake quality in a clinical research setting. My doctoral research has not only provided evidence of the quality of the dietary intake data but also offered information on the areas required to be targeted for improvement and training.

Collecting dietary intake data often requires study participants to describe their consumed food items and quantities. Such descriptions can reflect the level of food knowledge and skills of participants. Therefore, the findings of my research have also offered novel insights into food choices and portion size estimations made by overweight and obese people by using an advanced method.

Can you provide some background on how you came to HDR research (e.g. undergrad degree & university studied at – honours project – PhD + any breaks in between)?

I completed a Bachelor of Commerce-Accounting at Macquarie University in 2007. Soon after that, I realised that accounting wasn’t the field for me. I took some time to work out that I was passionate about food and wanted to become a dietitian. I then completed a Certificate III in Nutrition and Dietetics Assistance at TAFE in 2009 to help me to understand the role of a dietitian. In January 2010, I successfully applied the Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics (Honours) degree (BND) at UOW and moved to Wollongong.

When I was considering my options after the BND study, I did want to pursue HDR research. I completed my BND in 2013 but before then I was offered an opportunity to conduct neuroscience research at UOW in 2014. I really enjoyed studying biochemistry and decided to give it a try. However, I soon realised that conducting research was quite different from studying biochemistry. Later, I was offered to conduct doctoral research on dietary intake data quality in the HealthTrack study. I took the opportunity and started my PhD supervised by Dr Yasmine Probst. Four years later, I’m still here and passionate about doing research on dietary intake data.

In one sentence, describe the ‘journey’ of your PhD study at UOW?

My PhD journey at UOW was challenging but eye-opening, transformative, enjoyable and rewarding.

How did you and/or your approach change over that time (how you imagined it would be when you began, how it actually was, and how you view it now you’ve finished)?

The majority of people I spoke to before and soon after I started my PhD told me that doing a PhD was really hard and very stressful. When I reflect on my PhD journey, I can say that it was certainly difficult at the beginning. I guess it was largely contributed by stepping out of my comfort zone. Although I was willing to conduct the PhD study, the aims and learning outcomes of the HDR degree determine the nature of the PhD study. A few transitions were required. After a while, I learnt that it's okay to not know all the answers, and that knowing how to find the answers was important. When I got stuck, such as when I was analysing data, I started to solve my problems by looking at the literature. If I was still unable to find a way to do it, I found support from my supervisors and those who have the expertise. Now, after I’ve finished, although challenging, I appreciate independent learning which has been a liberating and exciting endeavour.

What were some highlights of your HDR study?

The highlights of my PhD study were that the outcome of my research was recognised by the scientific community and translated for the general public.

In 2017, I won the Right Size Me Student Competition supported by the Australian Government Department of Health for the Healthy Food Partnership Portion Size Working Group to solve one of the biggest public health challenges in Australia (how to effectively get Australians to eat better diets through moderating amounts of foods). In the competition, I successfully pitched a novel idea for encouraging Australians to eat the right amount of foods based on my research experience and qualifications.

My publication on mining food choices at meals in an overweight/obese sample was promoted by the United States Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as emerging research on their digital news platform (Nutrition and Dietetics SmartBrief July 2018). I also won the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute publication of the month award in July 2018. My research work has been translated into two articles for the general public published on The Conversation in November 2018 and March 2019. The articles were republished by 39 publishers including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Daily Mail, NZ Herald and Inverse with a total readership of 853,572 (until 31/07/2019). A total of 68% of the readers were from countries other than Australia, including the United States, New Zealand, United Kingdom and Canada.

What were the lowlights?

Lowlights of my PhD include having my work questioned by others, such as experiencing a manuscript rejection from a peer-reviewed journal and I couldn't move forward. However, I valued this as constructive criticism and upon reflection it has taught me resilience and perseverance, and to be humble and tolerant.

Describe the most important things for PhD study (e.g. supervisor support / library resources / peer support / holidays)?

The most important thing for my PhD study was the supervisors’ support and guidance. There were a few transitions during my PhD study, particularly in the first year. The supervisors’ support and guidance helped me to adjust and adapt to these changes. I guess I was lucky to have Dr Yasmine Probst as my primary supervisor for my PhD study. Apart from our regular meetings, she was accessible by both answering my emails and having the one-off meeting when I needed one. She provided a way forward when I got stuck, such as suggesting an alternative inquiry. I did trust her suggestions. She also assisted me in identifying opportunities to develop new skills and networks, such as making contact with other experienced researchers in the field and attending workshops and conferences. I very much appreciated her time and the conversations I had with her.

What advice do you (or would you give) to those considering HDR study or currently studying?

For those considering HDR study, my advice would be to get involved in a research project during your undergraduate degree. It offers you great insight into how research is done and allows you to engage academics at UOW. Although challenging, HDR study is eye-opening, transformative, enjoyable and rewarding. It helps you achieve greater depth of knowledge and sharpen your skills, both of which are important in becoming a strong contributor to your field.

For those currently studying, be passionate about your research or find an angle of your project that you’re passionate about. It does make the journey and outcome of the PhD study quite different. If you have extra time, it’s a good idea to take any opportunity you can to assist with other projects. I’d say that my experience working on projects outside of my PhD project has been beneficial for my CV, depth of knowledge and research skills. Attention to detail, creativity, criticality, originality and self-direction are built on experience and learnt from mistakes.

What are you doing now and/or how do you plan to utilise your research degree in future? What has it given you that will help in your future career?

I’m an Associate Research Fellow at UOW. I’m working on projects for advancing dietary assessment tools, developing a combined dataset from clinical trials and data mining for the translation of dietary advice for an internationally funded project. With my PhD degree, I’ve not only obtained a field speciality but also got confidence and skills to analyse and solve the problems, as well as deal with the unknown in my current role.

How do you think your research can change the world?

Research can change the world. I’d say that my research has received interest, but it’s still a long way to lead to the action that I desperately hope for. The application of my doctoral research has garnered transdisciplinary interest from those in public health and industries, as well as the policymakers. I certainly hope that my research can move forward step by step to help people improve their diet to become healthier and stay healthy.