Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow Nadine Kasparian is Associate Professor in Medical Psychology at UNSW Sydney and Head of Psychology at the Heart Centre for Children, where in 2010, she established Australasia's first integrated psychology research program and clinical service dedicated to childhood heart disease.
World-first research by Associate Professor Kasparian’s team has revealed an important gap between what parents of babies with congenital heart disease want and what is currently available.
She said the study, published in Genetics in Medicine, showed that meeting a specialised clinical geneticist and a cardiac genetic counsellor, with support from online health resources, was a high priority for parents of children with heart disease.
"We need to understand the needs of the people the service is supposed to help. We may not always be able to reach theideal, but this gives us a clear goal to aim for."
What area of research do you work in?
As a medical psychology researcher, I’m passionate about better understanding the connections between our physical and mental health.
Critical or chronic illness during childhood can have profound consequences – physically, emotionally, socially and neurodevelopmentally. My work is dedicated to discovering new and more effective ways of buffering children with heart disease and families from these effects.
How did you get into research?
I wish I could say my path into research has always been clear, but that just wouldn’t be true!
I’ve always followed my heart and while I may not have always known I’d be a researcher, for me, there’s no better field than the ‘science of the mind’. Here, I can combine my love of science and people in ways that are endlessly fascinating and never feel like ‘work’.
Through research, my team and I are working closely with patients and families to develop a deeper understanding of the connections between heart and mind, and using this knowledge to build better models of care.
What are some of the key findings of your research to date?
Our team at the Heart Centre for Children has developed one of the largest and most complex psychobiological datasets in childhood heart disease. We have collected more than 2,000 biological samples, and undertaken more than 750 clinical and neurodevelopmental assessments with babies with heart disease and their parents to deepen our understanding of the psychological and neurobiological effects of serious medical illness in early childhood. We have identified factors that influence risk and resilience in young children and their families, and we are applying this knowledge to improve the care we provide in children’s hospitals.
How important was funding from the Heart Foundation for your work?
The Heart Foundation’s Future Leader Fellowship provides an incredible opportunity for me to pursue new ways of tackling the challenges that affect children with heart disease. It also links me into an amazing community of heart disease researchers and enables me to create new opportunities for young and emerging research leaders – and that’s vital for our field.
What are you currently researching?
Recently, my team has started investigating the links between mental health and the gut microbiome in children and adolescents with heart disease. Learning more about the ways in which childhood illness can influence the microbiome, and new inroads this may offer in terms of mental health treatments, is something we’re really excited about.
We’re also exploring the use of new technologies in paediatric healthcare, so that we can more quickly identify children or families who may be struggling and offer the right care and support at the right time. This work has already been recognised by NSW Health, with our team receiving an award for Contributions to the Prevention or Management of Child Abuse and Neglect.
To mark International Women’s Day 2018, we asked A/Prof Kasparian to reflect on equality in the field of research.
Researchers differ in many ways and for many reasons. I don’t think women ‘do’ research in a way that is systematically different to men, but the evidence does show gender differences in terms of career progression, with significantly fewer women reaching A/Professor and Professor levels compared to men. This is where the Heart Foundation’s support of International Women’s Day can make a difference – by showcasing the work of women in research and shining a light on ways to overcome the challenges women face.
Recognising and embracing our individual differences, irrespective of gender, can only add richness to what we are able to achieve.
My team (which is comprised mostly of women) thrives in a multidisciplinary context, and this study is a great example of that. Each researcher is from a different discipline (psychology, health economics, paediatric cardiology, cardiothoracic surgery, clinical genetics) and offered a different way of thinking about the work based on his or her training, experiences and unique skill set. But we also had a common goal – to provide the best possible care for children with heart disease and their families – and this has a way of uniting people, despite our differences.
What do you think would make women more likely to pursue a career in research or STEM field?
Having inspiring role models and peers – both female and male – has made all the difference for me. None of us can do this work alone and creating a culture of kindness, one in which we celebrate our successes and share our challenges, is so important. At all stages of my career, I’ve had champions who’ve encouraged me to be fearless and to dream big – bigger than I could ever have imagined for myself - and I hope I can do the same for others in the years to come.
My hope for STEM is that one day, in the not-too-distant future, we will have created an environment where we no longer see gender differences, only the unique skills and talents each of us have to offer our field.
Do you have a message for Heart Foundation supporters?
Heart Foundation supporters are our lifeblood. They make our work possible, and for that we owe a debt of gratitude.