SPHeRE scholar takes a personal approach to public health

As a PhD student on the HRB-funded SPHeRE programme, Sara McQuinn is inspired by the personal approach to improving public health, and she is bringing the message to Europe. She talks to Dr Claire O'Connell ...

It’s not every day that a PhD student speaks onstage alongside the head of health in the European Commission. But last month, Dublin City University PhD Scholar Sara McQuinn did just that. At the 12th European Public Health Conference in Marseille, France, Sara spoke about some of the skills that early-stage public health professionals need to build for the future.

The theme of the conference was ‘Building bridges for solidarity and public health’, and sharing the stage with Sara at the plenary was Anne Bucher, Director-General, Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE), European Commission.

‘It was intense, and I spent a lot of time preparing for it’, says Sara, who is the co-ordinator of EUPHAnxt, a European network of students and young professionals, early career researchers and policymakers in the field of public health. ‘One of the pieces of advice in my talk onstage was to take the opportunities that come your way, and me being on that stage was an example of doing that’.

The personal side of health

It’s hardly a surprise that Sara is so active in a community that promotes health. Growing up in Carrick on Suir, Co. Tipperary, Sara’s family was notably sporty. ‘My mum worked as a sports instructor, and myself and my brothers did every sport going, including swimming, horseriding and kickboxing’, she recalls.

The family also unfortunately had experience of the health system, when Sara’s father underwent treatment for cancer before passing away earlier this year. ‘We spent a lot of time with health professionals, and I could see how dedicated they were, and how their kindness went a long way for us as a family’, says Sara, who recalls two examples.

‘In one case, my Dad was on a trolley in A&E and we were waiting for a long time, but the doctor came to us and apologised for the wait, and I thought that showed a lot of compassion for us. Then, on Christmas Day last year, my Dad was in a hospital ward and I was sitting reading my book as he slept. One of the nurses gave me a Christmas dinner – she assured me all the other patients had already eaten theirs – and again it showed real kindness’.

Girls Active Project

In her studies at DCU, Sara is now looking out for the health of adolescent and teenage girls, who are particularly at risk of low physical activity. ‘We can see that girls often suddenly drop the sports and reduce their physical activity around this age, so I am working on the Girls Active Project. We are going into DEIS schools in Dublin and talking with them, getting their insights into how we can bring about behaviour change and keep girls physically active in this important stage of their lives’, she says.

While the interventions are still being explored, Sara has been finding out from the literature that ‘gamifying’ physical activity can work well – perhaps setting a challenge of doing 10 PE classes and getting a reward – or encouraging older students to work with younger ones on getting more active.

‘We have a steering committee and we have a youth advisory group set up in each school, teacher and student are under time pressure it’s important that we come up with approaches that will be taken up and that will be sustainable’, says Sara. ‘It’s an example of public and patient involvement, we are making sure the people who will be running the interventions and taking part in them are the ones helping to design them’.

Building networks and pushing boundaries

The SPHeRE (Structured Population and Health-Services Research Education) programme offers Sara and her peers training and support as they do their PhDs, as well as a growing network of colleagues in public health. ‘I love being part of a PhD cohort where we are working on different things in public and population health and we are supporting each other’, she says. ‘We meet up regularly, it’s a brilliant network’.

Even before she joined SPHeRE though, Sara had already built up an impressive record of studies and experience – an undergraduate degree in Public Health from University College Cork and a Research Masters degree with Professor Anthony Staines in DCU on a European Commission-funded project. 

Sara also spent a summer in Copenhagen working as an intern with the World Health Organization. ‘I was really nervous about taking up that internship, but I made myself do it and it really ignited my interest in public health and built up my confidence’, she says.

Now, during her PhD, Sara is continuing to push the boundaries, doing a Fitness Instructor Training course with Litton Lane. ‘I like going to the gym, so I decided to take it a step further and become a personal trainer’, she says. ‘You have to practise what you preach about physical activity and creating new opportunities’.