Monday, 3 November 2014

Researcher of the month: Dr Darshini Ayton

Dr Darshini Ayton is a lecturer for the Bachelor of Health Science at Monash University and is involved in coordinating a number of units including research methods, public health and health promotion. She is also year one coordinator for the degree. For Dr Ayton, her interest in public health lies in her desire to look at the bigger picture when improving people’s lives.

“I've always been a more macro ‘big picture’ sort of person…I discarded the laboratory component early on in my career and focused on the public health aspects of the research - in particular social determinants of health including access to health services, health literacy and settings for health . Due to limited exposure to public health in my undergraduate degree [Bachelor of Biomedical Science] I felt that I was being introduced to a new world of big picture thinking on how to improve the health of populations – I was hooked!” She said.

Dr Ayton sees her numerous roles as a researcher, lecturer and consultant, to be complimentary of each other, noting that each role helps her improve her work in all of her positions.

“Being involved in teaching has made me a better researcher and being a researcher enhances my teaching.”

One of the greatest highlights for Dr Ayton is witnessing her students learn and grow as they understand the significance of public health practice.

“It is very rewarding to see students apply the concepts and theories taught during the health science degree into practice and to become excited about a career in health promotion and public health,” she notes.

Describing her multiple roles in various research areas as an opportunity to learn new concepts, Dr Ayton said that she sees her different experiences as platforms for her to work with different researchers.

“Each research role I have worked in has been for a reason – for example, early in my career I moved to the University of Melbourne to improve my quantitative skills by working as a research assistant on a longitudinal study of depression in a cohort of primary care patients”.

She is also an avid user of Twitter to connect with senior researchers, policy advisors and public health practitioners.

“I have diverse research interests and Twitter has helped me keep on top of what is happening in different areas easier than reading numerous journal articles. I find Twitter incredibly useful for teaching as it is a great source of information for current case studies and public health programs from around the world,” she said.

In her own work, Dr Ayton’s PhD thesis was focused on the role of local churches in the promotion of health and well being. She also looked at churches in the US which are funded by government and health services to deliver public health and health promotion interventions to congregation members. Dr Ayton found that whilst church attendance is significantly lower in Australia (less than 10% of the population attend church on a weekly basis compared to ~40% in the US) - churches in Australia do run a number of activities that engage the wider community such as exercise classes, playgroups, youth groups, community meals, welfare programs and education activities (computer classes, literacy).

Dr Ayton says that there is very limited research on why and how churches run these activities and whether these could be considered health promoting - which is what her thesis focused on.

She observed that despite an increasingly secular society, churches offer communities resources (both material and human) which can be of benefit.

“For example, one church I visited during my PhD is located in a poor area of Victoria and instead of a church building they built a community centre. They have 12 regular congregation members but an average of 400 community members will access the different welfare, health and community services that they run each week. Also church attendees tend to be older which has implications for activities associated with healthy ageing – a number of churches in my study were running seminars and activities about ageing well,” Dr Ayton explained.

Dr Ayton and Peduncle 
A little closer to home, Dr Ayton contributes to her own community through a charity that she helped set up for vulnerable young people in the Keysborough Dandenong region of Melbourne. Called Ignite.Sport.Dance.Life (Ignite), the organisation uses sport as a platform to engage with youths who are experiencing difficulties in their lives.

“We have over 100 young people who connect with our programs including sport camps, basketball teams and competitions, homework clubs, healthy meals, and mentoring and internship programs. Some of these young people are experiencing homelessness, disengagement from school and family difficulties. Ignite seeks to support them through providing them with healthy activities to participate in as well as providing support and role models”, Dr Ayton said.

Amongst all her positions, Dr Ayton is also working with Dr Anna Barker in the Falls and Bone Health Team. She provides program evaluation and qualitative research support for the team and in particular undertakes qualitative data analysis and prepares manuscripts from the 6-PACK program – a nurse led falls prevention intervention for acute hospitals.

When she isn't working or volunteering, Dr Ayton can be found at home with her dog, Peduncle. The miniature dachshund is named after the nerve tract in the brain called the cerebellar peduncle.

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