Doctor of Philosophy (Health) (JCU)
Effects of Impacts on Performance and Health in Female Collision Sport Athletes
In 2021, there were just under 700,000 females participating in organised collision sports in Australia, with this number expected to continue to rise, especially with the recent establishment of the NRLW and AFLW competitions. However, there are concerns that females may be more at risk to the negative health consequences of head impacts that commonly occur during these sports. Despite these findings, females only account for less than 20% of the research sample in this area. My PhD project is the first project in Australia to utilise instrumented mouthguards to quantify impacts occurring through single and multiple seasons of collision sports participation in females and how they affect performance and health. With aims to summarise the forces the brain is being subjected to and their context and how females may or may not be more at risk to injury and serious health consequences compared to males in collision sports.
Queensland has high levels of obesity and non-communicable diseases, especially in rural and remote regions. While an increase in physical activity participation is good for obesity, promotes healthy ageing and reduces the risk of dying from a non-communicable disease, it may be attenuated by sport-related concussions and subconcussive injury. Diagnosing concussion is challenging and typically relies on the patient to self-report their symptoms. There may be short term consequences (prolonged recovery, protracted symptoms) and chronic neurodegenerative risk associated with repetitive injury if the diagnosis is missed or mistreated. Due to Queensland encompassing a mix of regional, rural and remote locations, residents are faced with difficulties accessing health care for the diagnosis and monitoring/treatment of concussion. Queensland also has a unique environment (humid and hot) which can lead to dehydration. Dehydration of approximately 2% of total body volume can reduce cerebrospinal fluid volume by 10% which reduces the brain’s natural cushioning system and increases susceptibility to injury (Harwood et al., 2014). Sports with the highest concussion rates include rugby league, rugby union and Australian rules football. These sports are extremely popular in Queensland for both males and females. Concerningly, females are at a higher risk of concussion with significantly higher incidence rates, longer recovery times and worse symptoms than males across all contact/collision sports. Despite this, females only account for less than 20% of the research sample in concussion studies.
My research will contribute to a better understanding of what impacts females are exposed to during collision sports and how it affects them within Queensland. Also, my research aims to collect data for the development of a point of care device that measures saliva samples to determine concussion and track recovery. The findings of this project may allow players, coaches, support staff and health practitioners in Queensland and Australia greater autonomy when it comes to monitoring, diagnosing, and treating head impacts, lessening the burden on emergency departments. Also, support staff will be better informed as to whether players need to go to hospital or if self-care is more appropriate.
This field of research is very topical and has given me numerous opportunities to participate in interviews and articles on local and national media platforms (i.e. television, radio and newspaper). In February (2023) I was involved in the Australian Senate’s royal inquiry into repetitive head impacts and concussions in Queensland/Australian contact sports. It was noted during this inquiry that I was one of only two researchers in Australia undertaking research in this field with female athletes. In the 30min segment I used this opportunity to highlight that women are underrepresented in the literature despite the findings that they may be more at risk to concussion. I also gave participation rates and demonstrated the growing number of girls and women playing in these sports in Australia.
I believe I am a good role model for women and girls aspiring to work in STEM due to several positive qualities I possess. In 2017, I had a ‘bad’ concussion where I was home bound for six months then spent another six months slowly returning to work and normal activities. It was during this time that I learnt how little we know about concussion in women’s sports, and so I am actively trying to change that through my research. I have demonstrated commitment to the desired goal (PhD) and was/am willing to invest the necessary time and effort to achieve success. It took two years of hard work and planning to get my PhD off the ground (and finally enrol), and one year later here I am. I also regularly undertake interviews with different media outlets where I focus on raising awareness on female health, both on and off the field. I also actively work on things I know I am not good at (i.e. public speaking), and although it terrifies me, I make a conscious effort to never say no to an opportunity to publicly speak. I am not usually one for self-promoting, but I appreciate that applications just like this one, can lead to wonderful outcomes and are worth the time, effort and uncomfortable feelings.
My research has led me to have the opportunity to work with females aged 12+ who play and or work in the rugby league community. This group has a high number of females who come from low socio-economic families and minorities (i.e. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples). As I learn from them, I also try to demonstrate to these groups how their love of sport can be successfully combined with science and research into a career. Also, I lead by example and live a healthy lifestyle, balancing exercise, good diet, sleep, social, work and a PhD.
I work fulltime at JCU as a laboratory technician where I participate and facilitate in several STEM school group excursions and conferences each year. I was also involved in the (successful) application for the purchasing of new resources that could be specifically used in STEM events.