I am very much a “left brain” person and have spent my entire life focusing on numbers, facts, details and logic.  Until now.  After a number of different experiences in the past year, I have come to appreciate using my “right brain” and the power of story telling!

I wonder if we as dietitians have spent much of our time focusing on numbers and facts telling people what to eat and not to eat and have also lost our way a little.  Would we have more success if we were to start connecting with our clients using stories and emotions?  But that’s a topic for another day.

So I have committed this year to sharing stories through Dietitian Connection.  I thought I would start by telling you a story about myself.  Now this is way out of my comfort zone, I have always been a very private introvert, but it’s a new year and time to take a risk, so here goes…

I was born in Newcastle in the early 70s, making me part of the fabulous generation X.  My dad was in the air force so we moved around a bit.  We lived in Malaysia twice (where my sister was born), Amberley near Ipswich in Qld, and Penrith in NSW, and finally Brisbane where I completed high school.  I think all these moves made me very resilient and gave me the ability to adapt quickly to change.  A side note, miraculously I have just reconnected with a friend from grade 1 in Amberley who is now studying to be a dietitian, truly amazing!  I suggest my love of travel also came from these early days of being on a big jet plane.   I thank my parents for instilling in me the importance of education and I am a big believer in continuous professional development and self-improvement.

I have always wanted to be a dietitian for as long as I can remember. The other option at one point was to become a laboratory scientist, I am really glad I didn’t pursue that!  I think it was the combination of a love of science, nutrition and home economics. I remember collecting books and articles about nutrition such as those by Catherine Saxelby and Rosemary Stanton. While I was still at school, I wrote letters (yes regular mail, no emails back then) to the Mater Hospital in Brisbane asking if there were any volunteer opportunities.  And I was fortunate to have the opportunity to volunteer at Mater Hospital with Karen Innes-Walker and Jenny Job.  I can’t even remember what tasks I did, but I loved every minute of it. And I am still as passionate today about dietetics as I was back then. I can’t say how important it is as a student and new graduate to volunteer – you will have amazing experiences!

So back in the day when there was only one university teaching dietetics in QLD, I enrolled to study science at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) – the required entry path to dietetics.  I then went on to do the Graduate Diploma of Nutrition and Dietetics at QUT. The graduating class of 95 was huge – with a grand total of 15 of us!   I do wonder if we are graduating too many dietitians today?

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QUT dietetics class of 95

After I graduated, I knew that I didn’t want to be a clinical dietitian – I think I probably just scraped through my clinical placement!  So what should I do, oh maybe a PhD?  At the time, Sandra Capra had secured two PhD scholarships from Spotless Catering and I was successful along with Judi Porter in obtaining a scholarship.  Judi and I became the first two dietetic PhD graduates in QLD. My PhD was not without its ups and downs – three years is a long time to focus on one thing in particular.  I had the most amazing supervisory team – Sandra Capra, Judy Bauer, and Merrilyn Banks – to whom I am forever indebted.  On the emotional low side, I had tears at the end where self doubt creeped in and I wasn’t certain that my work was good enough to graduate and I had a backpacking trip around Europe planned and flight booked and was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to make the trip.   On a more positive note, developing the Malnutrition Screening Tool, which is now used in hospitals around the world was a proud achievement.

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Judi Porter and myself on the big graduation day

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PhD supervisory team at the American Dietetic conference in Boston

Some people say you must be so smart to do a PhD.  Let me tell you, a PhD has nothing to do with academic ability but all to do with what I say are the three Ps – patience, persistence and perseverance!  Whilst I encourage people to do a PhD, I don’t believe everyone needs to have one.  What I do believe is that we all should reflect and critically question and evaluate our practice, seek and implement evidence-based practice, and honing your research skills can assist with this.

Completing my PhD opened many doors for me, which were beyond my wildest dreams.  Whilst presenting at the American Dietetic Association conference for the first time in Boston in the late 90s, I was privileged to meet my future manager at Abbott in the USA, Anne Voss.  Anne recruited me to work at Abbott in Columbus Ohio. I can still remember the day when I found out – it was my birthday and I was backpacking around Europe with my sister after finishing my PhD.  We were checking email on the top floor of a department store in Berlin.    Kids were waiting to use the computer but there was no way I was getting off the computer any time soon, I was so excited!

Living and working in the US was one of the best times of my life.  The only downside, being a Brissie girl, I hated the long, cold, grey winters.  As such, I never planned on being there for more than one or two years, but I ended up staying for eight.  By opening that first door for me at Abbott, Anne opened up so many career opportunities for me and loving to travel I had the chance to see much of the US and the world whilst working at Abbott.  I was fortunate to work in many areas of Abbott, starting in research managing the Australian sites for an international multi-centre clinical trial.   It soon became apparent to me that all of the major decisions on the future of the company were being made by the marketing/business side and so I decided that I needed to complete my MBA and gain some marketing and business experience.  I discovered that marketing is actually not all about fancy ads and slogans but rather is numbers and research driven, a perfect fit with my research background.

Eventually I returned to Brisbane in 2007 and was honoured to obtain the role of Director of Nutrition and Dietetics at Princess Alexandra Hospital (PAH).  There have been a long list of amazing directors at PAH – Sally Evans, Sandra Capra, Susan Ash, Merrilyn Banks, just to name a few, so I had big shoes to fill!  And I must admit when I started I wasn’t quite sure if I was up to the job.  I compared myself to the extroverted leaders in our profession and thought I can never be a great leader as I will never be able to be like them.  What I realised eventually is that I probably just needed to be myself and not try to be something different.  Perhaps this only comes with time, age and experience!

At PAH, I am fortunate to work with a fantastic group of dynamic dietitians and it is a privilege to work with all of them.  They each teach me so much and I am a much better person for having the chance to work with all of them.  A very big thank you!

So if I had to give a message to my 18 year old self or those of you beginning your dietetic career journey I would say be yourself, understand and capitalise on your strengths, seek out the advice of many mentors, dream big and most of all live in the moment and enjoy the here and now.

Many people ask me why I started Dietitian Connection – this will be next week’s story!

Till then, Maree Ferguson, Director, Dietitian Connection