Epidemiology, PhD (2014)
Melanie Walker with her son, Jacob, right before convocation.
Creating A Niche For Yourself
by Sharday Mosurinjohn, July 2014
When Melanie Walker was in high school, her dad was diagnosed with colon cancer. It made her curious about medicine, but she wasn’t sure exactly how that might figure into her career path. As time would tell, the interest led her through a Queen’s BScH psychology undergraduate degree, work as a research associate at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa, back to Queen’s for an MSc in Public Health Sciences (then Community Health and Epidemiology), then to work at the NCIC Clinical Trials Group (NCIC CTG), and again back to the Department of Public Health Sciences for a PhD. Last month, her father, now 80 years old, watched her cross the stage as she received that doctoral degree.
Walker, who describes herself as a Queen’s grad “through and through,” is already continuing her research with a one-year postdoctoral fellowship in the division of Cancer Care and Epidemiology at the Queen’s Cancer Research Institute under the supervision of Dr. Michael Brundage and Dr. Patti Groome. Her work now builds on the clinical, academic, and teaching work she has done to date where she is involved in a number of research projects in the area of “knowledge translation” in cancer system-related health services. Knowledge translation (often abbreviated to KT), broadly speaking, refers to the process of making sure research results get back into the hands of the people it’s meant to serve for maximum impact.
Walker is looking at ways of understanding systems involved with the care of cancer patients, including primary care and specialist cancer care. She is particularly interested in identifying barriers and facilitators to help close the gap between evidence-based research output and clinical uptake. Her ultimate goal is to learn more about how knowledge translation happens and how it could be improved. The message Walker wants to share with other Queen’s graduate students is about “maximizing opportunities and creating opportunities.” Many steps on her path from finishing her MSc depended on making connections and making “decent impressions” on people who had the ability and creativity to open up and offer “unique opportunities.” “We want to look for that perfect job ad written for us and when we can’t find it we get down on ourselves. Instead, try saying yes to something that isn’t the perfect fit, and let it morph,” she advises.
Before coming back full time for her PhD, Walker had enrolled in an epidemiology course taught by Dr. Bill Mackillop, previously the head of Public Health Sciences, and a colleague. “When I began my PhD Dr. Mackillop was running the course by himself,” Walker recalls, “and I offered to do a lecture or two for him because I had enjoyed the course so much.” The two worked so well together that Walker was hired as a teaching assistant the following year. Walker stayed in this role for three years, taking on greater administrative and teaching responsibility each time the course was offered. The opportunity to work with such an “eminent clinician, researcher, and administrator” was a highlight of Walker’s PhD “and it wasn’t originally on paper,” she emphasizes. Another formative experience was with the Undergraduate Medical Education office. “I was hired by Dr. Heather Murray to be the TA for a first year critical appraisal course and that has evolved into my being the course director for that course this coming year and working alongside Dr. Murray to oversee the research training in undergraduate medicine.”
In Walker’s PhD thesis project, her work experience with the NCIC CTG allowed her the opportunity to design an observational study nested within the group’s largest randomized controlled prevention trial. Walker’s original work with the NCIC CTG began as a Study Coordinator for an international lung cancer study which progressed to a role as a Senior Manager for 5 years for the, then, Ethics and Regulatory office. She then transitioned from this role to being the group’s sole PhD fellow, where she had an opportunity to conduct a study on the role of vitamin D in breast density, a risk factor for breast cancer. “Clinical trials are the best of the best in the hierarchy for research evidence,” Walker explains, “and NCIC CTG, which is funded by the Canadian Cancer Society, is itself a highly esteemed organization.” She goes on to characterize the intersection of school and work: “Working with both Public Health Sciences and NCIC CTG through my PhD program allowed me to marry my course work with pragmatic research that involves and affects the lives of cancer patients.”
One of the opportunities that helped Walker’s thesis forward—this time, one that’s available to all grad students at Queen’s—was the Dissertation Boot Camp offered by the School of Graduate Studies. What is the boot camp? Maybe not what it sounds like, and certainly not as harsh. “You’re with likeminded people, in a quiet space, protected from the daily interruptions of the world,” Walker smiles. Walker did the boot camp “fairly early in her writing stage” and would recommend it both for people who are just starting to write as well as for those who are in the final push. Early on, starting a pattern of daily writing without electronic distractions can “set the trajectory for your writing.” Conversely, for students getting frustrated with dissertations that are dragging on, Walker recommends boot camp because it gives you “one-stop access to resources. There are different sessions offered by SGS staff throughout the week, including the opportunity to meet with someone from the Writing Centre to get helpful advice, and professional networking.” Then, for mental and physical strength and relaxation, there’s also lunchtime yoga. “The only thing they don’t do for you is your laundry,” quips Walker.
As someone who has balanced working in the research world with family and with pursuing graduate training to its fullest extent, Walker’s advice to other grad students is to “create a niche for yourself.” She acknowledges that “it can be risky, taking a chance to pursue a long-term goal. You have to see it all as intrinsically rewarding. If you only give a piece of your heart to the work, you will only get out what you put into it.” At the same time, Walker acknowledges a lot of serendipity in being able to find and take advantage of great opportunities, including the opportunity to work with supervisorsDrs. Harriet Richardson, Ralph Meyer, and especially Will King, whom she calls “a strong methodologist, a wonderful teacher, and a great mentor.” King was with her during both graduate degrees. If in no other way, grad school is a little “like the Oscars,” laughs Walker, “in that I need to thank a long list of people whose names I don’t have enough time to rattle off. It’s been a collaborative effort, and often a multidisciplinary one.”