Back to research

Today marks six months since I resumed my career as a researcher, following 3.5 years at home with my children, now aged 4 and 1. I work in a half-time capacity at the University of Queensland, kindly supported by the Margaret Peel Postdoctoral Fellowship through Fellowships Fund Inc. In the remainder of my time, I am a taxi-driver – ferrying my children back-and-forth to kindergarten and far too many medical appointments – cook, cleaner, and often hassled childminder. One day, I will master that elusive thing called “work-life balance” (and perhaps even that other elusive thing called sleep), but for now I’ll settle for the intellectual stimulation of being back at work and the excited looks on my children’s faces when I return to them after a day at the office.

In my previous life as a researcher, I worked in the areas of context-aware ubiquitous computing and information modelling for emergency response (publications here). These research areas had little in common with one another, other than broadly falling under the umbrella term of computer science, and are also only tangentially related to the topic of my newly-commenced postdoc. This is the way I like to organise my research career. I’m rather fond of the idea that, when I’m elderly and retired, I will have dabbled in so many sub-fields of computer science that I will be capable of very tedious dinner party conversation on many dull topics. This approach is a bit random and perhaps completely wrong in terms of acquiring the requisite track record, publications and grants to ascend the ranks to professorship (or research equivalent), but I’m sticking with it – for now, at least!

My career moves have also been influenced by an increasing interest in practical and use-inspired research, and my newest research topic is not only consistent with this trend but personally motivated. During my time away from the workforce, I received a rapid introduction to the world of food allergies and the myriad challenges that these bring. My eldest child, Master X, suffers from dairy anaphylaxis and a list of additional allergies and intolerances long enough to reduce even the keenest of cooks to utter despair. Unfortunately, this sweet, quirky child of mine arrived without any user manual, so that my husband and I were blissfully unaware of any food sensitivities at all, until an encounter with infant formula landed Master X in the ER at 6 months of age. Allergy testing revealed sensitisation to cow’s milk, egg and beef; however, a long list of delayed allergic reactions and intolerances also emerged over time through a process of trial-and-error. After four years, the list remains a work-in-progress as we encounter hitherto untested foods and re-visit previously banned foods in the hope that the allergies have been outgrown. Food reactions for Master X generally follow a common trajectory, involving itching, rash, gastrointestinal upset, and behaviour and sleep disturbances.

Navigating the world of childhood food allergies meant learning to negotiate a complex network of paediatric medical specialists. Our quest for diagnosis and treatment of Master X’s intertwined immunological, gastrointestinal and developmental quirks led us to GPs, paediatricians, paediatric gastroenterologists, paediatric allergists, dieticians, a developmental paediatrician, two occupational therapists and a child psychologist. Dealing with the medical profession has been nothing short of frustrating, with many GPs (and even some paediatricians) lacking more than a rudimentary knowledge of food allergies, and qualified paediatric allergists and gastroenterologists being in desperately short supply. According to a recent Melbourne study [1], the rate of childhood food allergy now stands at 10% of the one-year-old population, the highest rate found thus far anywhere in the world. As the medical profession struggles to keep up, parents are turning to each other in a bid to gain timely advice on everything from reputable medical specialists to recipe and meal-planning tips. Like many other parents, I now find myself frequenting allergy and parenting forums, scouring recipe blogs, and sharing my frustrations and triumphs on Facebook and Twitter. As a computer scientist, the varied uses of Web, social and mobile technology in this sphere (and other areas of the health domain) fascinate me.

Last year, when plotting my return to work and applying for research fellowships, I was faced with the daunting task (and utter luxury!) of pulling together a compelling three-year research plan – essentially from scratch, as I’d been disconnected from my research peers and immersed in the world of food allergy and kid-wrangling for so long. And so my research project was born: design and evaluation of software to support the care of young children with food allergies and intolerances. The project is a collision between my research background of mobile and ubiquitous computing, my supervisor’s expertise in interaction design and social and mobile software, and my current reality as a mother of young children with food allergies. Happily, the project was selected for funding from a large field of applicants, so I can only assume that the selection committee believes (as I do) that good things come about when worlds like these collide.

I have a number of things in the pipeline, but, as this blog post is already too long…stay tuned for the next one!

[1] Nicholas J. Osborne et al. Prevalence of challenge-proven IgE-mediated food allergy using population-based sampling and predetermined challenge criteria in infants. Journal of allergy and clinical immunology, Vol 127(3), pages 668-676. 1 March 2011.

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