From patients to public health nutrition – Dr Rachel Laws

Our next blog is from Dr Rachel Laws, a researcher and soon-to-be Senior lecturer from the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) in the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences.

Her research primarily focuses on early life nutrition and developing obesity prevention interventions for families with young children, particularly programs that can be readily scaled up and used in the real world.

Rachel has been invited to share her research journey.


Clinics to community

During my first clinical placement as a dietetics student, I knew almost immediately that hospital work wasn’t for me! So many sick people, many with chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease that could have been prevented through good nutrition and a healthy lifestyle. I walked away with a growing desire to work on the ‘big picture’ – prevention became my passion.

I landed my first job as a project officer at Divisions of General Practice, working with GPs on a local diabetes prevention project in one of the most deprived multi-ethnic communities in Sydney.  I loved the feeling of working at the community level to promote health, especially for those that needed it most. But it was hard to know if I was making a difference. This sparked my interest towards how we could measure this – through research and evaluation, of course.

So, while travelling overseas, I jumped at the chance to apply for a dietetic research position in the UK, as part of a team of eight dietitians working on a multi-centre trial. We were tasked with developing a weight management program that could be delivered in general practice. I worked with twenty practices over a five year period, training around forty practice nurses through workshops and one-on-one support in clinics. I really enjoyed seeing their confidence and skills grow, and reflecting on what worked well and what was a flop in terms of teaching strategies. I also relished the opportunity to evaluate how effective the program was, even though this involved many lonely hours extracting data from GP computers. The program has since been rolled out across the UK, and I feel immensely proud to think that it might still be making a difference to people now.

Dietitian to academic

After returning to Australia, I knew I loved both research and teaching, so doing a PhD felt like a no-brainer. I was keen to move my focus towards prevention rather than just management of obesity. My PhD focused on understanding how primary health care clinicians addressed nutrition and other lifestyle risk factors in their practice, and how this could be enhanced. While interviewing one maternal and child health nurse, it dawned on me that we needed to start with obesity prevention during infancy, and we needed to work with families, vulnerable families.

I was 36 weeks pregnant when I handed in my PhD thesis (what a deadline that was!), so babies were clearly on my mind. The transition to parenthood was also a transition point in my research, and I started looking for postdoctoral opportunities in the area of obesity prevention in infancy.

This led me to the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), where at that time Professor Karen Campbell was leading a world-first intervention to prevent obesity in infancy, the Infant Program. After two unsuccessful fellowship applications, I secured a postdoctoral position at IPAN working on a stream of research on obesity prevention in early life as part of the Centre for Obesity Management and Prevention Research Excellence in Primary Health Care. Two years into this position, with the support of my wonderful IPAN mentors Professor Karen Campbell and Professor Kylie Ball, I successfully obtained a 4 year National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) early career fellowship.

Over the past four years I have co-led the development of the Growing Healthy program, an innovative smart phone application designed to promote optimal infant feeding practices, specifically tailored to the needs of disadvantaged parents. This combines my passion for prevention starting early in life, helping those who need it most, and in a way that has the potential to reach large numbers of people – public health nutrition.

The next step

Next year I embark on the next phase on my academic career in the School of Exercise and Nutrition Science as Senior Lecturer in Public Health Nutrition. Combining my love of research and teaching is such a privilege!  I see no better way for my research to make a difference than teaching the next generation of public health nutrition professionals. Bring it on!


Dr Rachel Laws

Senior Research Fellow /Senior Lecturer Public Health Nutrition

Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University

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