Things happen for a reason – how reaching for opportunities led me to my PhD at NeuRA
Trinidad Valenzuela has come to NeuRA from Chile to complete her PhD by exploring ways to improve falls prevention exercise programs for older people. This is her story…
I believe everyone is surrounded by opportunities. I like to think of it as one of those Christmas snow globes. Imagine you are inside, and all the tiny snowflakes moving around you are opportunities. All you need to do is be ready for them and reach out.
My first big snow flake came about seven years ago… I had recently graduated as a physical education teacher in Chile, my home country, and was doing what I loved the most: working as a PE teacher and a track-and-field coach. I still remember walking into a 2nd grade class and hearing my students scream with excitement that it was PE time! Yes, that’s right, PE is probably one of the top three favourite subjects for kids – or, it was always my top one, at least. One day I started having quite a bit of pain in my hips, I didn’t think much of it until I started limping and decided to do something about it. Long story short – I had a malformation on my hip, which needed urgent surgery (or as the doctor said… it’s either surgery now, or a hip replacement in three years… being only 23 years old at the time, as you can imagine, I went for the surgery).
Some complications during the surgery meant I was going to be out of action for at least a year, and needed to find something else to do in the meantime. That’s when I reached for my first ‘snow flake’: applications were open for postgraduate scholarships to go and study overseas. What a great opportunity, I thought! But all crumbled when I realized the deadline was only a couple of weeks away. “I’ll never make it,” I thought, but as a wise man, my Dad, said, “You have nothing to lose – if it works, this opportunity could change your life – and if it doesn’t, you’ll just be where you are now”. So I went for it – crutches and all, ‘running’ around to organise my application – and voilà! I got it! Six months later, I was saying goodbye and boarding a plane to pursue a Masters in Exercise Physiology. Destination: Sydney, Australia.
During my Masters, I got the chance to do both research and clinical work covering a diverse group of people with different health conditions, all of whom could benefit from undertaking an exercise program. My most rewarding experience was working with older people. I enjoyed their company, the stories they would tell and, most of all, I was motivated to see that I was making a difference in their lives. The exercise programs that we were doing with them were helping them walk and move better, be less afraid of falling, and remain independent for longer.
After completing my Masters, I was eager to continue doing research into the benefits of exercise for people with chronic conditions. I applied for a PhD scholarship but, unfortunately, I was not successful. On my return to Chile, I went back to teaching, but this time as a university lecturer on exercise for the management and treatment of chronic conditions. At the same time, I had the opportunity to develop research projects in the area of exercise and ageing – what a dream! …See, that’s why I believe everything happens ‘for a reason’.
Who would have thought that six months later I would be reaching for yet another ‘snow flake’: on traveling back to Sydney for a couple of weeks for a holiday, I received an email from NeuRA’s Dr Phu Hoang, a supervisor during my Masters degree, to let me know that NeuRA was looking for a PhD student for a project called “Understanding and Improving Adherence in Falls Prevention Program”. I was in the right place at the right time to get an interview for the position on the other side of the world! You can imagine what happened next (or I wouldn’t be writing in this blog in the first place): I was selected for the highly prized PhD scholarship at NeuRA, and six months later was packing again to start what has possibly been one of the best, and toughest, experiences of my life.
I am now in the fourth and last year of my PhD. My research has focused on exploring ways to improve adherence to falls prevention exercise programs in older people.
My specific interest is learning how to best design effective technology-based exercise programs that older people can use in their homes. Under the supervision of Dr Kim Delbaere and Prof Stephen Lord, and with the help of many others, we have successfully developed a unique exercise program called “Standing Tall”. This program consists of an iPad application to deliver effective fall prevention exercises in the homes of older people. The program offers over 2,000 exercises that are individually tailored and progressed according to the abilities of each person. Users are also able to set and review their own exercise goals and receive feedback on how they are progressing. Lots of older people are trying out our program, and we will soon find out what benefits it brings to them.
My dream is to see this program implemented in the community and available for all older adult use in their homes. If you are keen to learn more about it, check out this paper.
Doing my PhD at NeuRA has been hard and very challenging. But it has also been one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. Feeling I can help someone else is hugely rewarding for me, and however challenging my journey has been, it’s really nice to remember that whatever happens at the end of it, I’ve had the chance to help others.
So, be ready to reach out for the opportunities that come along, because then your life could change forever, just like it did for me!