An Aberdeen student has been awarded a prestigious prize recognising 'outstanding academic excellence in postgraduate researchers' for her work on one of the least understood pain syndromes in medicine today.
Stefanie Doebl, who is in the third year of a PhD based in the Epidemiology Group within the School of Medicine, Medical Sciences and Nutrition, was awarded the 2020 British Federation of Women Graduates (BFWG) Johnstone & Florence Stoney Prize.
She was selected for the award for the quality of her research into fibromyalgia, a chronic condition which causes pain around the body, muscle stiffness and fatigue.
It is estimated that between 1.5-2 million people in the UK suffer from fibromyalgia but it remains poorly understood. There is no cure for fibromyalgia but there are therapeutic treatments that can reduce the impact of fibromyalgia symptoms on a person’s life.
Stefanie conducted a range of interviews and a survey with people with fibromyalgia with the aim of finding new ways to improve healthcare delivery for patients.
She drew on her background as a social worker to better understand the experiences of those with the chronic condition.
Stefanie said: “I spent more than a decade in social work with much of the time focused on primary health care and community mental health. I wanted to use my knowledge and experiences for health services research.
“It quickly became apparent that when it comes to designing better healthcare services, there is a real need for improvement for those with fibromyalgia. There is still limited awareness and understanding about this condition, its impact on people’s lives and their healthcare needs.”
Stefanie, who was able to embark on her PhD thanks to an Institute of Applied Health Sciences (IAHS) Studentship and Elphinstone Scholarship from the University of Aberdeen, was interviewed by a panel of distinguished women from a range of academic and professional fields before being selected as an award recipient.
She added: “It felt amazing and really special to me personally to be chosen whilst competing with incredibly talented female students across all fields of research.
“Despite the competition, it was a very friendly atmosphere and it has been an honour to see my work chosen by a panel made up of such inspirational women.
“I am delighted that they saw the importance and value of my research and its potential to have a really positive impact on healthcare delivery for fibromyalgia.”
The Prize follows a long line of awards for Stefanie, who is only the second person in her extended family to go to university, and the first to undertake a PhD.
Last year she won the inaugural Images of Research competition hosted by the Postgraduate Research School at the University of Aberdeen and was shortlisted for the 2020 Principal's Excellence Awards.
“Up until a few years ago, I never imagined I would do research but while working in primary health care social work, I realised the very limited research available for my field and saw the potential to improve this. Allied health professionals have an enormous amount of knowledge, skills and experiences which could help to improve services across the whole healthcare system.
“But I couldn’t have done it without the IAHS Studentship and Elphinstone Scholarship. I’ve also been awarded IAHS Staff Development funds twice to enable me to present at conferences and received a Santander Mobility Award 2020 from the University of Aberdeen. These kinds of support and the BFWG award have allowed me to take my PhD journey even further.”
“The support from my supervisors has been amazing and I would encourage other allied health professionals thinking about doing research to go for it. Having people from a variety of professions makes health services research stronger and more representative.”
Stefanie’s supervisors Professor Gary Macfarlane and Dr Rosemary Hollick said: “We are delighted at this award for Stefanie which reflects the fact that her study is the first of its kind in this common condition and the fact that she has worked incredibly hard”
Stefanie’s research provides the foundation for a major programme of work, namely ‘PAtient-centred Care for Fibromyalgia: New pathway Design’ (PACFIND), which aims to develop a new model of care for fibromyalgia not only in the UK but also internationally. The wider study was awarded a £1.3 million programme grant from Versus Arthritis (formerly Arthritis Research UK). Further, Stefanie’s qualitative interviews will be used to construct a new section for fibromyalgia on the award-winning website www.healthtalk.org.