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MEET OUR PHD RESEARCHER!

PhD candidate Naomi Algeo is researching cancer survivorship and employment

An occupational therapist by background, PhD candidate Naomi Algeo is developing a programme to support women with breast cancer return to the workplace after their diagnosis. Naomi is funded by the Irish Research Council and has presented her work widely to date, including at the Association of Occupational Therapists of Ireland virtual conference, the SPHeRE Network 6th Annual Conference, RCSI and the Irish Association for Cancer Research (IACR) – where she was the only allied health professional to be a finalist for the Professor Patrick Johnston IACR Award for Excellence in Cancer Outreach. Naomi has two peer-reviewed papers in process at present and anticipates that she will publish five papers from her PhD studies. We spoke to Naomi about her research, her advice to those considering a research career, and her future plans.

Can you describe your research topic?
My research is focused on cancer survivorship and employment. Specifically, I am developing a programme to support women with breast cancer to return to the workplace after their diagnosis. To do this, the research has been guided by the Medical Research Council Framework for Developing and Evaluating Complex Interventions and involves a number of phases:

  • Phase I: A qualitative-descriptive design exploring what helps and impedes women with breast cancer in transitioning back to work after diagnosis. This involved interviewing women with breast cancer, healthcare professionals and employers across Ireland.
  • Phase II: A systematic review and meta-analysis exploring what rehabilitation interventions are effective in improving work outcomes for women with breast cancer. This involved searching the evidence-base to find out what research has been carried out in the area before, and importantly, what has been found to be effective in supporting work.
  • Phase III: A consensus study to prioritise content and delivery of the programme being developed. This was completed using an online workshop using the nominal group technique (NGT) and was informed by those living with and beyond cancer, cancer policy informers, cancer support centres, and healthcare professionals.
  • Phase IV: A single-arm feasibility study with qualitative process evaluation. This involves testing the programme that has been developed and finding out from participants (women with breast cancer) if they found it beneficial or not, if they’d change anything about the programme and if they think it’s worth pursuing further in research.

How do you see your work impacting healthcare in the future?
At present, there are no evidence-based programmes to support return to work for those living with and beyond cancer in Ireland. The importance of exploring this area of research has been underlined recently by the Irish Cancer Society and Economic and Social Research Institute in their February 2021 report ‘Returning to Employment following a Diagnosis of Cancer: An Irish Survey’. This ‘Work and Cancer’ programme addresses many of the core issues highlighted in the report and has the potential to not only benefit those living with and beyond cancer in Ireland, but society as a whole.

Did you always want to pursue a research career?
I had always considered pursuing a PhD, but I wanted to wait until the timing was right. I was keen to build clinical experience first and also have certainty around the research area I wanted to pursue. Since graduating with a degree in Occupational therapy from NUI Galway in 2014, I have worked clinically in Ireland and the United Kingdom in leading acute and rehab hospitals such as University College London Hospital, the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, and the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH), Dun Laoghaire. By the time I had commenced my PhD, I had also completed two research internships and a Masters (Clinical Research). I had a fairly good understanding of what was to come, and this was the next logical step

What do you enjoy most about your studies, and would you recommend the academic life to young student and undergraduates?
I’m incredibly biased because I love research, so of course I would recommend any students to explore an academic path. I love the variability and flexibility to it, the space to read, think, reflect and learn. If I could offer any advice to those considering the PhD route, try to get some hands-on research experience if you can. There are more and more research internships available which are really valuable opportunities to dip toes into the field and get a sense of if it’s for you.

What are your plans for the future?
I’m in my final year of my PhD now and in the process of exploring post-doctoral funding opportunities as well as clinical roles. Ultimately, I would love to build on the momentum that we have achieved with this research and the support we have from key stakeholders in Ireland. Should the programme be deemed feasible, the next logical step is for further research with larger scale trials.

Who are your mentors?
I would like to acknowledge the guidance and support of my supervisors Dr Deirdre Connolly (Associate Professor, Discipline of Occupational Therapy, and Director of MSc Cancer Survivorship, TCD) and Professor Kathleen Bennett (Head of Data Science Centre, RCSI).

When you are not working on your PhD studies, where could we find you?
Floating about on a boat on the River Shannon. I’m typically either socialising or sailing, although I am known to bury myself away for a few hours to tick off something off the PhD list – there’s always things to do!

If you would like to hear more about the Work and Cancer Study, you can contact Naomi at nalgeo@tcd.ie or follow on Twitter @WorkCancerIRL