In touch with… Kate Fairweather-Schmidt

From suicidality to disordered eating or the co-morbidity of psychotic features and cardiovascular risk, Dr Kate Fairweather-Schmidt’s transition from elite sport to psychology has seen her target some of society’s more multi-faceted issues.

What prompted you to embark on a career in research?

An interest in psychology culminated in my interest to undertake a PhD in mental health/illness – suicidality. I wanted to provide a sense of what’s breaking down in people’s lives in the general population setting and what we need to look at, particularly factors that are orientated around specific age groups and gender.

I conducted a number of studies using a big cohort study called ‘Path Through Life‘ which collected data including questions about suicidality in the Canberra and neighbouring Queanbeyan region. This study involved three different age groups with participants tracked every four years (and they’re still being tracked today.)

From there I branched out into other areas of psychology/psychiatry.

What does your current research involve?

At the moment I am undertaking an exciting adolescent twins project funded by the Channel 7 Children’s Research Foundation with Professor Tracey Wade. The first paper was accepted for publication last year (Fairweather-Schmidt & Wade, 2019), which I presented at a conference in Adelaide in August.

In this group of studies, we are looking into the possibility that anxiety is related to the development of disordered eating. We’re applying the premise that anxiety occurs quite early in childhood – usually prior to the development of disordered eating.

Twin modelling appears to indicate there is significant genetic influence implicated in anxiety, and this same genetic influence is related to disordered eating. However, anxiety and disordered eating are influenced by their own independent, unique environmental factors.

I am also working with a team testing a psychosocial intervention in the translational psychiatry space working alongside SALHN (Southern Adelaide Local Health Network), particularly community mental health. My role is to manage the randomised control trial for a study funded by the NHMRC, headed by Professors Malcolm Battersby and Sharon Lawn. The trial involves people with psychiatric illness who experience psychotic features, combined with cardiovascular risk factors. This co-morbidity is serious, and means that this group of people frequently die 30 years earlier than those without a severe mental illness.

What do you value most about working at Flinders?

I think that as a university, Flinders is small enough to facilitate interaction more easily than many big monolithic universities. This means opportunities to collaborate and connect across disciplines is more doable, increasing opportunities for innovative outcomes, methodologies, and ultimately better (health) applications.

What is your proudest achievement at Flinders?

In 2015, I received a Vice Chancellor’s Early Career Researcher Award. Then in 2017-18 I won my first external competitive grant as Chief Investigator Grant, which now partially funds my role.

Can you share something about yourself that others may not know?

I spent my teens and much of my twenties being a driven sports person. I concluded my sporting career after having been a full-time athlete (archery) at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, and after competing at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. I think that elite sport is a really great preparatory experience for coming into the research / academic sphere: it is very competitive, there are lots of egos, there can often only be one winner, and, you need to be able to lose / miss out on funding. Really, they’re quite similar – just one’s got to do a lot less puffing.

I guess my sporting career has grounded me because I’m used to being ‘cut down’ and then having to get up again and reassess matters; a very useful capability for those of us in research! If you’re publishing, then it is common for reviewers to return blunt and critical feedback…but you have to pick yourself up again, and keep going.

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