SEEDs for the future

How do we improve the physical and mental health and wellbeing of future generations?

It’s a real-life question that demands research with practical, real-life outcomes. At SEED, more than 50 researchers, the majority of whom are women, are working on research that delivers practical solutions to the problems facing young people around the world.

SEED’s researchers work within four themes: Lifecourse and Surveillance Sciences, Intervention Sciences, Interpersonal Neuroscience and Translation Sciences. Each theme focuses on different aspects of promoting health and wellbeing from conception through childhood to adulthood, investigating the most effective approaches to promoting wellness and intervening at the earliest opportunities in troubled pathways.

As many of the issues it addresses are global, SEED collaborates across Deakin, Australia and the world, with partners ranging from local institutes, hospitals and schools to clinics and universities in the UK, USA, India, Canada and New Zealand.

However, the most important collaboration of all is with the real world, according to SEED’s Translation Sciences platform leader and Director of Research and Research Training in the School of Psychology, Professor Helen Skouteris.

“We might be masters of theory, models and concepts but our research results have to work beyond the walls of academia,” she said. “The answer is to partner with end users from the very beginning to understand what problems they need solutions for, so that the research can be designed to address real-world issues from its conception.”

Prof Skouteris and her colleagues in Translation Sciences work to translate SEED outputs into health, education and community systems, policy and practice, emphasising collaborative stakeholder engagement throughout.

“I think we’re doing a good job of making people think first about the issues that need addressing and co-designing research projects with stakeholders,” Prof Skouteris said.

“It’s increasingly important when it comes to funding as well; funding bodies really want to understand how end users have informed the research. If you don’t have these conversations at the coalface before you start the project you risk the significance and impact of the results.”

The Translation Science team’s work includes creating a web portal to provide a high-quality, graphical user interface on the major game-changers in early emotional life, coupled with effective intervention responses for parents, teachers, health professionals, practitioners, researchers and policy makers.

Two of Prof Skouteris’ PhD students are also developing educational resources and toolkits to support early childhood educators to foster positive parent-child relationships and social and emotional development in preschool children.

One of the best known and longest collaborations between SEED and an industry partner is the influential Australian Unity Wellbeing Index Survey. Established in 2000 as a joint project between SEED’s Australian Centre on Quality of Life (ACQL) and the private healthcare fund, the Index provides regular snapshots of how Australians are faring across class, gender, marital status, and racial backgrounds.

Last year, SEED researchers led by Dr Delyse Hutchinson began developing a new version of the Index as a national tool to measure the wellbeing of Australian children.

Dr Hutchinson, who co-leads SEED’s Lifecourse and Surveillance platform with Dr Emma Sciberras and Dr Jacqui Macdonald, said the new Index would identify ‘at risk’ children at the most crucial time in their development and provide missing pieces of the information puzzle.

Like the adult Index, the new Index could play a significant role in guiding policy development and allocation of government resources, as well as provide national data that researchers can use to determine the most needed types of intervention.

SEED’s Deakin Child Study Centre, established by Prof Nicole Rinehart to create a new platform in the community for researchers and industry to make a real difference in the lives of children with developmental challenges, has also developed a national, high profile partnership to deliver the ALLPlay program.

In collaboration with the AFL, Moose Toys, the NDIA, the University of Melbourne, University of Western Australia and Charles Darwin University, Prof Rinehart and her team will contribute to the AFL Disability Action plan to remove barriers to inclusion in sport and gather evidence of how, and why, being involved in sport is important for all children, regardless of ability.

“This will have an enormous impact on our community, where disability is associated with disadvantage, low expectations, exclusions, obesity, poor school attendance and poor mental health,” Prof Rinehart said. “With the evidence we gather it’s possible that, in the near future, clinicians will prescribe team sports as a key intervention for children diagnosed with a developmental challenge.”

For Prof Skouteris, the work that SEED does to improve health and wellbeing across the lifespan also applies to the researchers she mentors.

“I was a junior researcher in 2008, but I achieved promotion rapidly as a result of the excellent support and mentoring I received from senior academics. They helped me to focus strategically on building my capacity as a researcher and their input was so important in helping me shape my career directions,” she said. “I want to do that for our early career researchers because I know it works if you have senior academics who are focusing on your career trajectory and wanting to see you excel.

“It really is about building capacity in the next generation of researchers and practitioners, to skill them to prioritise collaboration and engage stakeholders in order to inform how their work might translate into policy and practice.

“That’s the rewarding part of my work. I really like knowing that I’m contributing to a research world that will reveal meaningful, relevant and applicable findings for the greatest positive impact on the health and wellbeing of all Australians.”