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Researcher Spotlight: Maureen Dobbins

Sep 16, 2021


More than 20 years later, Dr. Maureen Dobbins still recalls some fantastic advice she received while she was doing her doctoral degree: “Think about something you’re passionate about, because you could end up studying this subject for a very long time.”

Today, Dobbins is the scientific director of the National Collaborating Centre for Methods and Tools, and professor in the School of Nursing. As she explains, “I am still studying today what I started in my doctoral work which started in 1995.”

Her experience in research stretches back even further, to a 4th year course in her undergraduate studies in nursing at McMaster University. “It was a project with Dr Cheryl Forchuk, extracting data from interview transcripts. The research was about the development of a therapeutic relationship between a nurse clinician and a patient,” she says.

After graduating from McMaster, Dobbins worked as a public health nurse for a few years before moving on to  do  graduate studies. Since then, she has focused on one main research area. “For the past 22 years, I have been trying to understand how to support those who work in the public health system to use the best available evidence to inform their practice  as well as organizational decision making. This focus stems from what would have helped me when I was a public health nurse and new graduate from McMaster’s nursing program. That’s what has driven my career.”

A key project that has impacted her research over the years was a CIHR-funded study conducted between 2010 - 2013. “Our team worked in partnership with three public health units to help build knowledge, skill and capacity for evidence-informed decision making. The basis of this intervention was a knowledge broker who had a public health background, and who also had knowledge and experience in research interpretation and appraisal. That knowledge broker worked intensely with the organization along with myself to change the culture and make more routine the use of evidence in decision making. The medical officers of health of those public health units were primary investigators with me on the grant.”

One of the key things she learned from that study was that there is no “one right way” for an organization to achieve evidence-informed decision making. “We tailored the intervention to the specific needs of each organization. It was incredibly important to have that flexibility. Another key learning was that randomized control trials were not really an appropriate design for evaluating the impact of knowledge translation studies where one is trying to change the culture within an organization.” In addition, she learned to embrace the fact that her co-primary investigators were equal partners in figuring out what their organization needed. Preparation for that study took several months, and by the time they were ready to begin, one of the units’ needs had changed considerably. “That required flexibility to sit down and redesign the intervention for them. If we had just said, no, we need to do what we proposed in the grant, that would have been detrimental to the relationship and impacted the success.”

What advice does Dobbins have for new researchers? In addition to the excellent guidance she received about finding a topic that will sustain your interest, she also passes on the following suggestions: “Use methodologies that allow for some flexibility. When it comes to working in partnership, I encourage the valuing of others’ perspectives and an openness to treat decision maker co-primary investigators as equal partners in the research process. Engage them really early to work together on identifying what that target audience needs and values as important. Develop relationships with the intent of lasting a long time – potentially decades. Listen to what they need and help figure out with them what will be most useful and impactful for them. Work with them in collaboration. Think about the types of research designs that provide the most flexibility to meet those needs.”

One final piece of advice involves the need to be “pretty thick-skinned”. As she explains, “There are usually more rejections than successes in being awarded grants. Believe in your work, in yourself. Surround yourself with people that are there to help. Don’t give up even if you’ve not been successful with a CIHR grant a few times! Keep improving the rigour. The same with publications. It’s incredibly rewarding when you do get those successes.”

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