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Sparked-turned-scientist aims for PHD

Published:  17 March 2021

On the face of it, Nathan Engstrom is as far away from the stereotypical researcher as you can get.

Nathan was working at Townsville University Hospital as an electrician while completing an exercise science degree before taking a job as a cardiac scientist.

In his job, Nathan is responsible for maintaining implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs), a small battery-powered device, that monitors heart activity and can deliver small shocks to fix abnormal rhythms, or arrhythmias.

As the years progressed, Nathan began questioning whether the time, cost and impost of implanting ICDs was worth it for some patients.

“These medical devices require surgery to implant, need regular monitoring and maintenance, last on average about five years and cost $18,000 per unit,” he said.

“I wanted to know if there was a better way to identify patients who were getting the most out of the device and those who were underutilising the equipment.

“The problem was research was so foreign to me and I had no idea where to start.”

Nathan discovered James Cook University’s cohort doctoral studies program where he was linked with renowned researcher Professor Geoffrey Dobson who runs the Heart, Trauma and Sepsis laboratory in the College of Medicine and Dentistry at JCU.

Professor Dobson said the cohort program linked people with specialist skills with academics who could assist in formulating an idea, carry out translational research, publish research papers and advance the field of mutual interest.

“We look for people with a passion for research and to translate that research to improve health outcomes,” he said.

“We worked closely with Nathan and helped him to develop his ideas and carry out his research.

“At the university we can offer the research skills but we need the specialist expertise to come to us so we can work together and that is where the cohort program has been so successful.”

James Cook University’s cohort doctoral studies program began in 2011 and 10 years on has 138 candidates across 60 groups and, since inception, has led to more than 450 peer-reviewed publications.

Having completed and published his first research paper: “Primary prevention implantable cardiac defibrillators: a Townsville district perspective” in Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine, Nathan has now begun work on his PHD through JCU.

Nathan is now working with Professor Dobson and research fellow Dr Hayley Letson on a retrospective analysis of 200 patients who have received an implantable cardiac defibrillator and reviewing the state-wide guidelines that govern who is suitable candidate for receiving a device.

“I’m looking at determining if we can more effectively predict patients who are going to have arrythmias so we can better target who we install these devices in,” Nathan said.

“Our goal is to examine the national guidelines to ensure that we are giving an ICD to those very sick patients who need it most, and not performing unnecessary procedures on people who don’t.”

Nathan said he had no exposure to research prior to becoming a cardiac scientist and had never considered undertaking a PHD.

“We have this amazing resource in a large, well-respected university just across the road and they’ve been nothing but willing to help,” he said.

“Personally, I’ve enjoyed my research journey thoroughly and I hope where it ends is at a place that delivers better outcomes for very sick patients with low heart output and irregular heartbeats.”

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