Laura Alston

PhD topic: Nutrition and rural health

Laura's PhD journey

Dr Laura Alston is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian and National Heart Foundation Research Fellow within the Global Obesity Centre, Institute for Health Transformation and Deakin Rural Health. Dr Alston’s research focuses on rural health inequalities in non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, along with a focus on building research capability and capacity in rural health services.

What motivated you to pursue research in your chosen area?

I am from regional Victoria, and before my PhD I was working as a dietitian in the local hospital. I was working with patients who had conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Knowing that they were preventable really spurred me on with my research. I saw there was a difference between rural patients and the metropolitan patients I saw earlier in my career in Melbourne. During my Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics I worked as a research assistant at Deakin with the Global Obesity Centre.

I’d dipped my toes in research and really enjoyed the experience because of the great team at Deakin. When a PhD opportunity came up, they were very supportive of my research interests.

Laura Alston

Did you establish any friendships or collaborations that you will maintain in the future?

My supervisors encouraged me to link with Deakin Rural Health because my research aligned with a lot of the work they were doing. The Western Alliance ended up giving me funding while I was a student to start working on some additional research. These opportunities were absolutely invaluable to my career. I’ve been able to get international collaborations as well. I was able to connect with an international mentor who was doing similar research to me, but in a different country. My supervisors also encouraged me to apply for the World Heart Federation Emerging Leaders Program. I was successful, so I was able to go to London and work with a group of other heart disease researchers. We were given a grant to keep working together so I’m still working on that project, which will go for a few more years. I’ve only recently finished my PhD and I’ve had local, national and international collaborations, which have come from my supervisors at Deakin.

How has your PhD helped you realise your career ambitions?

One year post PhD, I have worked on over 25 peer review publications and received over 5 million dollars in research support as either lead, co-investigator or associate investigator. Deakin Rural Health supported me to get a competitive National Heart Foundation Post-Doctoral Fellowship after I finished my PhD. My fellowship has focused on building data around food environments in rural areas and looking at ways to support communities. I've also been specifically focused on rural health services and how we can build better rural health research so we can address inequalities. As part of my research, I’m still working with my local hospital. I help to build research capacity and capability in the health service as part of my postdoctoral role. I work on rural health research that’s followed on from my PhD so it’s getting broader from just nutrition.

What future aspirations do you have for your research?

There hasn’t been a lot of investment in rural research over the past few decades, compared to what has been done in metropolitan areas. I want my research to help fill those gaps, especially around how we prevent chronic disease in rural areas. It would be great, if in two generations time, we could say that rural Australians don’t have worse health than their metropolitan counterparts. It would be great if rural health services are doing their own research and informing policymakers, so we know more about how to keep rural people healthy. That’s my vision.

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