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Katherine Howell FRACP - Understanding the aetiology of severe infantile epilepsies using an epidemiological study design.

Katherine has an MBBS(Hons) from The University of Melbourne, has done a BMedSci in laboratory oncology research, spent a year in Kilifi, Kenya doing malaria research, and performed her training in paediatric neurology at Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) Melbourne. She is 0.2 FTE staff specialist in neurology at RCH Melbourne and she is performing her PhD full time.

Interview 22 November 2013

RD:Hi Katherine. Congratulations on your Gustav Nossal PhD scholarship award from the NHMRC. This award is given to the best PhD scholarship application in Australia- you must be very proud. Can you tell us about the award, and could you give any tips to anyone hoping to be successful for NHMRC PhD scholarships?
KH:Thanks Russell. Gustav Nossal is a famous Australian immunologist, and is considered one of the grandfathers of biological sciences in Australia. He has his name to the top-ranked NHMRC Medical/Dental PhD Scholarship. The NHMRC publishes the criteria upon which applications are ranked – this is a really useful document for prospective PhD candidates to look at. Essentially the NHMRC PhD scholarship awards process is based predominantly on your track record and the likelihood of a successful and important candidature. The scoring is based mainly on previous research and publications and research output, which I have been working to develop for a few years.
RD:Can you describe your PhD please?
KH:Thanks, well I started in early 2013, and my project is to investigate the aetiology of severe infantile epilepsy using a epidemiologic and genetic study throughout Victoria. This is the first epidemiological study of its kind. I hope to describe the range of aetiologies - particularly the range of genetic aetiologies, to describe novel genetic causes, and to describe genotype-phenotype correlations. I also hope to better understand the yield and cost-effectiveness of particular types of genetic investigation in patients with severe epilepsies, in order to guide future practice.
RD:And who are your supervisors?
KH:Dr Simon Harvey and Prof Ingrid Scheffer.
RD:Neurology at RCH has a strong research pedigree, what’s it like to work there?
KH:I find it very stimulating; there is lots of epilepsy research here and at the Austin. It can be easy to get distracted as there is so much going on, but that is a good problem to have! It is a great environment.
RD:What are your long-term plans?
KH:I would like to have a predominantly research role with some clinical responsibilities, subject to opportunity of course.
RD:So far, what do you think are the main skills to be successful in research?
KH:I think the main thing is being curious, and having a real interest in the topic. I think you need to be obsessive! And also you need to be able to tolerate mundane activity like ethics and protocols, and be patient!
RD:The RCH has a new building. What is it like?
KH:The new building is family friendly, as there are mainly single rooms for patients. It is good for privacy and probably allows patients to get more rest. Also, epilepsy monitoring is better in that environment.
RD:If we try to build research opportunity in ANZCNS, what would you say should be the priorities?
KH:As we often work in rare disorders, I think multi-centre collaborations are increasingly essential. It would be great to develop registries and multi-centre cohorts with specific research aims. It would also be good for trainees to have opportunities to train in or with different centres to have access to subspeciality research activity.
RD:Finally, out of work, what would you recommend to do if visiting Melbourne for the first time?
KH:A weather-friendly option given Melbourne’s unpredictable climate: dinner at Zum Zum Lebanese restaurant on Rathdowne Street (with Turkish delight dessert) followed by a movie at Cinema Nova in Lygon Street (with chocolate chilli choc top second dessert!).
RD:Thanks for your time Katherine, good luck with your research.


Australia and New Zealand Child Neurology Society, ABN 12 146 982 452, ACN 146 982 452