Researcher Spotlight – Dr Renae Kirkham

As a qualitative researcher, Dr Renae Kirkham is really interested in people’s experiences and stories, and in particular those of the aboriginal community. Her passion stems from a desire to see greater equality in health outcomes after growing up in a small town where inequality was evident.

For her latest project she’s focusing on young indigenous people, finding out what it’s like for those living with type 2 diabetes. The most recent research from Western Australia found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth were 20 times more likely to have it than the non-indigenous population.

“We know that more and more young aboriginal people in Northern Australia are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and at an earlier age,” she explains. “But, we don’t know how many and we don’t know what it’s like for them, how they access care, what supports they have, and what they understand about the condition. It’s important to have an understanding of these factors so that we can provide guidance on how to enhance models of care for these young people and design appropriate interventions to improve health outcomes.”

She says it’s also critical to focus on this age group.

“It’s important to recognise that young people under the age of 25 are in their childbearing years and we know that undiagnosed or poorly managed diabetes in pregnancy can put both the mother and baby at risk.”

Renae moved from Adelaide to Darwin at the end of her PhD. Her research then, was looking at the role of Aboriginal Maternal Infant Care-workers in the Anangu Bibi Birthing Program. She still has a strong interest in antenatal care, particularly for young aboriginal women, so working now, with the NT & FNQ Diabetes in Pregnancy Partnership marries many of her interests.

“I think the work of the Partnership is impressive, in terms of involving key stakeholders to make timely changes to enhance models of care for women who have a pregnancy complicated by diabetes,” she says. “Often, other smaller research projects don’t have that leverage.”

So far, with the support of her supervisor; Associate Professor Louise Maple-Brown, colleague Dr Angela Titmuss and the Youth Diabetes Working Group, she’s had ethics approval for this HOT NORTH fellowship in the Northern Territory and identified potential sites to gather data. There will be one urban and one remote site in the NT and in Far North Queensland, but she is hoping to secure more funding to expand that to include Central Australia and Northern Western Australia too.

“I hope to visit the sites with colleagues; Sian Graham and Chenoa Wapau,” she says. “Both Sian and Chenoa are developing their skills in qualitative research. As Indigenous researchers from the different regions, they have well established relationships with communities that we hope to include in this research. We also hope to employ local community researchers to assist with recruitment, interviews, translation and interpretation of findings.”

Renae says she absolutely loves this part of her work.

“It’s really good to be on the ground with people you’re working with and for, rather than at a desk being removed from the reality of people’s lives. And it’s beautiful out there.”

And she says it’s very satisfying to work with a passionate and knowledgeable group of people at Menzies, many of whom were familiar before she even arrived in Darwin.

“I remember during my PhD, reading a lot of papers from many of the people I now work with. There are some great leaders in Public Health up here who I am really lucky to have as mentors and colleagues,” she says.

You can also find Renae co-teaching the Qualitative Research Methods unit for the Masters of Public Health with Dr Marita Hefler, and she says the training and development opportunities are there to grab. But as well as her work, she loves the lifestyle and environment of the Northern Territory too, and six years in, she has no plans to move away.

“It’s pretty wild here, you can be out bush really quickly. Darwin is like a big country town, without the hustle and bustle of the city, it’s by the ocean, and the people are great.”