By Laura Byrne, Dietitian Connection newsletter editor

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One of our very special guest presenters at Dietitian Day 2015 was Dr. Shelley Wilkinson, an advanced APD and the Senior Maternity Research Dietitian in the Mater Mothers’ Hospitals, Brisbane.

A dietitian for nearly two decades, Shelley’s current work blends dietetics and psychology, and aims to improve maternal health nutritional status and pregnancy outcomes.

Out of her research, she recently “birthed” a major new initiative: a suite of free, available-to-the-public nutritional resources for a healthy pregnancy, called “Nine Months of Nutrition”. The online tools, developed in partnership with other divisions at the Mater, cover practical and essential maternal-health topics, from food safety to gestational diabetes.

Given this experience and influence, we took advantage of the chance to catch up with Shelley onsite at Dietitian Day, to gain her perspective on work – and life. Listen in…

Dietitian Connection: Shelley, what’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?

SW: It came from Professor Ian Caterson, of the University of Sydney. I was at an early career research workshop, and all of these researchers got up and spoke – but their advice was very linear (“Do this, then this, then…”). 

Then Ian spoke. He said, always have three or four things on the go; invest in work, home, family and hobbies. At any time, there’s always something up, and something down. When one thing drops, frays or doesn’t work, another wins, and energy can be diverted there.

As long as you’ve got something good going in your life, it counteracts all of the things that may not be going so well.

DC: What’s been the most rewarding part of your career?

SW: Being a clinically based researcher, and seeing the benefits of my work (almost) immediately by integrating and embedding our research in service changes and ongoing evaluations. Call it, “adjusting on the fly”!

The rewards I receive from my work are two-pronged: I’m building the clinical skills and the research skills of the clinicians, as well as actually being able to do the work myself.

DC: …And the most challenging part?

SW: Managing work-life flow. I won’t say work-life balance; it’s not that clear-cut, especially in research. It’s hard to switch off. But I’m working on ensuring there are plenty of other things to balance with work. I’ve learned that there’s a real ebb and flow: sometimes you do more work; sometimes you spend more time on home priorities. Give yourself permission to allow the ebb and flow.

DC: How do you see the role of the dietitian evolving in today’s society?

SW: Recognizing different ways to support healthy eating, and creating partnerships and networks to support this. Asking, whom can we work with, to put out a consistent message? How can we use technology, to make it easier for patients?

DC: What advice would you give to newly graduated dietitians who are starting out in the field?

SW: Don’t walk before you can run! Gain as much varied experience as you can. Recognize, learn and observe those who have gone before you. Go and work broadly first, before deciding your specialisation. I worked in about seven or eight Queensland hospitals, before I went back to the Mater.

DC: Speaking of your career specialisation…have you seen progress in recent years in the use of maternal nutrition education programs to produce improved outcomes for mums and bubs?

SW: Unfortunately, no – or not as fast as is needed. A lot of the changes are trialled in a vacuum, and then attempted to be applied in a clinical setting.

I’d like to see more well planned, practice-based research, to decrease the time to get from research to the real world, while increasing patient benefits and adding to the knowledge base.

Missed Shelley’s presentation on “Framing Messages to Support Change”? Click here to learn more.