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A sure shot for health research

28 October 2016

Paralympian Dr Deirdre Mongan’s work with the HRB has recently involved reviewing evidence about alcohol consumption in Ireland. She talks to Dr Claire O'Connell...

Dr Deirdre Mongan

Dr Deirdre Mongan has a hectic schedule. Based in Co. Down, where she lives with husband Steve and their two-year-old daughter Amy, she splits her working time between home and the HRB office in Dublin. 

But there’s more. Deirdre is also an international athlete. A wheelchair user since her teens, she has won medals for shot put at world and European championships and this year she represented Ireland at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. 

'It is a bit of a juggle, but it’s just about being organised', says Deirdre, who is a Research Officer with the HRB’s Evidence Centre. 'I think it’s the same for everyone when you have children, you have to be more focused about getting your work finished so you can get back to pick up your child or go to the gym to train'. 

Looking for evidence 

Deirdre’s role in the HRB is to look for and review evidence that relates to policy decisions and communicate these findings to policy makers. In practice that has seen her work across numerous health policy areas. 

'We undertake evidence reviews', she explains. 'So if the Department of Health is looking at a new policy, we review the evidence base for that policy. We may also examine the practice of other countries and [see] if are there any lessons learned or obvious barriers'.

One of Deirdre’s main interests in recent years has been evidence to inform and support decision-making for policy around alcohol in Ireland. The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill was approved by Government in December 2015 with the aim of reducing alcohol consumption and related harm in Ireland, and one of Deirdre’s roles has been to look at the scientific facts and gaps in the area. 

'We published an overview earlier this year on alcohol consumption and related morbidity in Ireland', she says. 'Having the data gives us a baseline so we can evaluate whether the policy has an impact over time'. 

Sobering trends 

Deirdre has seen worrying trends in harmful drinking in Ireland, and cautions against us becoming ‘immune’ to the warning signals coming out of the data.

'In Ireland we are seeing huge increases in liver disease and the harmful way in which so many people drink', she says. 'Previously men consumed a lot more alcohol than women, but in recent years this has changed especially among those aged the younger age group of 18-24 years – where women are drinking in quantities closer to men. This could take years to manifest as liver disease, and we need to know about these patterns and think about the future harm to health they can bring'. 

Science and sport 

A native of Galway, Deirdre initially studied science at NUI Galway, but she had “little interest” in the bench experiments. She followed her undergraduate studies with a Masters in Occupational Health and a PhD in epidemiology, both at NUI Galway, and then decided a change was in order.

'The week I submitted by PhD thesis I saw an ad for the job in the HRB and I applied and got it', she recalls. The move to Dublin saw her get involved in wheelchair rugby. 'It was a way to get fit and meet new people and I enjoyed it', she says. 'I also got to represent Ireland at European Championship level twice'. 

Then about four years ago, one of her teammates suggested that Deirdre try athletics, and she took to the shot put. Her talent and dedication saw her star rise quickly. In 2015 she won a bronze medal at the IPC World Athletics Championships in Doha and in 2016 she won bronze in the IPC European Championships in Italy.  

Deirdre qualified for the Paralympics in Rio 2016, where she represented Ireland and came 5th in the shot put. 'That was such a big event', she says. 'Nothing can really prepare you for the attention, the media, living in the Village – it was very different to any competition I had been in before'. 

It involves hard work and organisation, but being involved in a solo sport does help with the training, according to Deirdre. 'You can train on your own, you are not tied into team training sessions, so that does make it easier for fitting in with family and work life', she says, noting that the support of her extended family is also a huge factor. 'Myself and Steve decided that preparing for Rio was really important for me to do, so we went for it'. 

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