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Fiona Matley is from Bristol and joined Oxford Brookes as a research student in September 2018. The title of her thesis is “Using automatic processes to change drinking behaviour in midlife adults”.
After studying for a master’s degree at Oxford Brookes University, I worked as a Research Assistant in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, and found both experiences enjoyable.
Through working here, I was already part of the Prevention Science Group, and knew both my supervisors - Dr Emma Davies and Professor David Foxcroft. These were important factors in my decision to apply to study for a PhD here. I’d also heard about the Nigel Groome studentships, and feel fortunate to be one of the students benefiting from this source of funding.
In 2017, I started working as a post-graduate Research Assistant in the Faculty of Health & Life Sciences, which has given me great experience working on prevention and supportive cancer care research projects. Before that I worked as a market research and customer insight manager in the voluntary and corporate sectors. Whilst working for a national disability charity, I realised that I wanted to develop new skills that could be applied in health research, and this led to me undertaking the MSc in Psychology.
I’ve found the research culture here to be open, welcoming and enabling. People are willing to share what they have learned from their own research experiences, or suggest other sources of advice and support. Recently, the psychology department moved into refurbished offices, giving researchers access to new facilities and equipment. I can see how these will support the different research activities in my PhD project.
Around two thirds of alcohol-related deaths in the UK occur in people who are in their midlife years i.e. aged between 45 and 64 years of age. Even though some people are drinking less than they did 10 years ago, patterns of alcohol consumption for people aged 45+ years are largely unchanged. Currently there is a limited amount of research focused on midlife drinking behaviour, and very few initiatives aiming to reduce alcohol consumption in this age range have been developed and tested.
Although most adults in the UK know about government guidance suggesting that low risk drinking means consuming no more than 14 units of alcohol each week, there is evidence to suggest that advice such as this has little effect on behaviour. The limitations of using information to drive behaviour change are explained by dual-process models of health behaviour, in which decision making can follow two paths. Cues such as information are considered via a conscious or reflective pathway whilst a second pathway, representing non-conscious or less deliberate decision making, explains responses based on automatic associations, habits and impulses. Results from several research studies show that automatic processes are particularly good at explaining and predicting drinking behaviour. The purpose of my PhD project is to research, develop and test an intervention that aims to help midlife adults reduce the amount they drink, by targeting these automatic processes.
Organisations such as the Medical Research Council (MRC) want health interventions to be informed by evidence and theory, and to be developed using systematic processes. My project will be using the Behaviour Change Wheel (BCW), which provides a clear eight-step process, to guide the development of a new intervention to reduce the amount people drink. In line with MRC recommendations, the first four steps of the BCW focus on understanding the problem, resulting in a detailed analysis of issues around midlife drinking. It is only at this point that decisions about the features of the intervention will be assessed and decided, in steps five to eight of the BCW. Once the intervention has been fully developed, it will be tested in a pilot study, and evaluated. Positive results from the pilot and evaluation studies may indicate that this type of intervention has potential for practical application, following further research and development.
It’s a privilege to be able to spend time learning and develop new skills, and to be working with people that you respect and with whom you share interests. Life as a research student means taking on responsibilities, but you’re also given autonomy and flexibility in the way you approach and manage your work. There are bound to be challenges along the way, and learning how to deal with these, and where to go for advice and support, is all part of the experience.
There are plenty of training opportunities at Oxford Brookes University, and students are encouraged to get involved with different development activities that are available at a department, faculty and university level. My development program to date has been excellent, and I feel well supported and thoroughly prepared to undertake my first research study.
Like many other countries, the UK is facing some considerable challenges in responding to changing healthcare needs. We need good quality research, and skilful researchers to help us understand and address those needs. I’d like to be a part of that, and continue to build experience and expertise in developing health interventions.