Improving lives through research

After completing a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Applied Statistics at Victoria University of Wellington, Jennifer Summers went on to follow her passion for helping people and influencing policy through public health research. She is now a Research Fellow at King’s College London, where she has been leading a project that will benefit children with cerebral palsy throughout the United Kingdom.

How would you describe your student experience?

I probably did not have the typical student experience, as I began studies when my son was just two months old. I found being a student parent at Victoria University of Wellington compatible in terms of workloads and flexibility, and it was a fully enriching educative experience. I very fondly remember pushing my son’s pram up the Terrace to go and hand in assignments.

What was the most useful thing you learnt at Victoria University of Wellington?

The first thing that comes to mind is how to reference! But reflecting on it further, I would say the most useful thing I learnt was how everyone starts at the beginning at university, and you have to work to become proficient in a subject.

What sorts of opportunities did studying at Victoria University of Wellington open up for you?

After trying several degree and major options, I settled on studying Psychology and Applied Statistics. Both these subjects have opened up a wide range of opportunities to branch out into other fields, such as public health, epidemiology and medical statistics.

What have you been doing since graduating?

I completed a PhD in 2012 in Public Health, and then moved to the United Kingdom to take up a role as a Research Fellow at King’s College London in the field of Medical Statistics. I am still in this role, which so far has involved setting up national registers, running clinical trials, teaching medical students and lecturing to postgraduate students, providing statistical consultancies, and contractual work for the National Health Service (NHS).

Could you tell us a little bit about your current research?

For four years, I have been involved in a research project that was commissioned by the NHS in England to provide evidence on the longer-term outcomes following [the neurosurgical procedure] selective dorsal rhizotomy (SDR) in children with cerebral palsy. This has involved getting to know the peadiatric neurosurgeons and specialist physiotherapists in all the participating hospitals across England. As one of the leaders of the team, we set up a national register to capture the necessary information, liaised with the clinical experts and patient representatives regularly, and then undertook the analysis.

What are some of the implications of your findings?

As our study found evidence of benefits of SDR in children after 24 months of follow-up, the NHS in England decided to fund SDR for all eligible children along with the recommended follow-up physiotherapy. For the children in our study, we found an overall annual improvement in gross motor function and reduced pain with no serious adverse events following this irreversible neurosurgery. One day I hope that SDR will be available in New Zealand for Kiwi kids.

What’s been a highlight of your career so far?

It definitely has to be the publication of this major study in the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health journal, knowing that it directly influenced national policy in the UK and will help thousands of children with cerebral palsy.

What advice do you have for current students?

My advice for students is to study subjects that you are passionate about. And don’t worry if it takes a while and few changes in majors/degrees to figure out what that is!