Focus on research: Dr Denise McGrath, Insight

Denise McGrath, Insight
Denise McGrath, Insight

Knowing where to draw the line in sports data and why it's important to put the person at the centre of problem-solving

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8 November 2019 | 0

Dr Denise McGrath is an assistant professor at the UCD School of Public Health, Physiotherapy & Sports Science, programme director at UCD’s Health & Performance Science and a funded researcher at Insight, the Science Foundation Ireland centre for data analytics. In this interview she talks about working across disciplines and the value of putting the person at the heart of research.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on several different projects. One project in its final stage now focuses on the analysis of changes in equine behaviour as a result of joint inflammation using on-body wearable technology.

This is an interdisciplinary project working with UCD’s School of Veterinary Medicine, School of Engineering and with fellow Insight investigator, Prof Andrew Parnell at Maynooth University.

I am also currently working on a project that seeks to understand the determinants of crowd flow from first principles – ie through the analysis of biomechanical movement parameters. The existing models for crowd movement generally implement calculations that are based on average population flow data collected around 50 years ago.

I am working with an interdisciplinary, international team to come up with better models of crowd flow that reflect a more mixed demographic, eg including people with disabilities, larger body dimensions and old age. We are exploring the integration of various technologies to optimise this work, like wearable sensors and image processing.

Another project I have recently started explores more advanced analysis of actigraphy data, going beyond simply quantifying amounts of different activity/behaviours present in the data. Ultimately, we would like to understand causative factors for changes in the patterning of physical activity.

How important is it for researchers to be aware of the impact of their work across different fields?

I am a strong proponent of interdisciplinary research but I think it is a term that is bandied about a bit too lightly without sufficient thought on how it can really be harnessed for high quality research outcomes.

There was a nice review published recently showing that boundary-spanning teams have better outcomes such as greater productivity and scientific impact, compared with less dispersed teams or scientists working alone. But interdisciplinary research is challenging and if people don’t go in with their eyes open and consider things like team size, proximity, socio-cultural relationships, how to leverage knowledge brokers, self-evaluation and many other important factors, then it can make the process a little haphazard.

It’s important to create a strong collaborative structure from the outset so that creativity and innovation can emerge. In a centre like Insight, researchers are facilitated and encouraged through a number of channels to engage with other researchers outside of their discipline, and indeed to engage with non-research staff who are also key players in these types of networks. To answer your question how important is it – the success of a centre like Insight depends upon it.

Have you found it hard to find collaborators?

I have never found it hard to find collaborators to be honest. Networking skills is an important element of that but I think ‘networking skills’ means different things for different people.

For me, I love to hear and read about other people’s research and I love connecting dots across research fields, across sectors and across conceptual understandings to create bigger pictures. When you immerse yourself in someone’s research and broader field and then come to them with your boundary-spanning idea, I find that researchers are always keen to discuss possibilities.

Looking at your interest in wellbeing. How do you apply hard science to a something so ephemoral?

Yes, ‘wellbeing’ is a multi-faceted and somewhat nebulous concept, and one we are hearing a lot about these days. There are so many questionnaires out there that capture various dimensions of wellbeing, mostly revolving around mental/emotional wellbeing, social, physical and spiritual well-being, daily activities and functioning, and personal circumstances.

When using these instruments, it’s important to understand what they are and what they are not measuring, what theoretical framework (if any) they are based upon and whether or not this maps to your research.

In the last few years I have also shifted my emphasis away from purely quantitative research towards gathering subjective insights through qualitative enquiry. I very much see the value in mixed-methods research approaches, especially when trying to understand something as complex as wellbeing.

Your other field of interest is sports. In athlete development we are hearing more and more about the use of data. Does access to a wealth of information help or hinder performance?

The explosion of data capture tools and player monitoring and feedback platforms has brought us a very different landscape in the last 10-15 years to what has previously existed.

There are all kinds of data being gathered from players during training, competition and during their daily life, from GPS and game statistics, to video feedback, to sleep/nutrition/mood/injury risk/heart rate monitoring.

I don’t believe we are at the stage of knowing what is the most important data to capture and, critically, how to feed it back to players/coaches so that it is actionable for a) player development and b) the development of the team.

I have come across a lot of overwhelmed coaches, players and analysts out there. It is easy to get caught up in a sea of data without really knowing what to do with it. But I see more discernment coming into the field in recent times, more of a critical attitude that says “just because we can measure it, doesn’t mean that we should”.

The confluence of the data scientist and the applied sports practitioner – who is laden with game intelligence, who operates through various pedagogical paradigms and works within micro-political structures – is a really exciting space to try to navigate right now. There is a lot more to it than just counting things.

We’ve come across the idea of ‘person-centred research’ in medical services for chronic conditions like epilepsy. What does this term mean to you and how does it inform your research?

‘Person-centred research’ – another term we are hearing a lot about these days – is a good thing in my view. I learned about person-centred research, not through ‘the academy’ as such, but rather through communities – like the charity Move4Parkinsons who I began working with over five years ago – who humbled me into realising that my prior efforts to ‘tick the person-centred box’ were dangerously close to being tokenistic.

Undertaking sound person-centred research means that you genuinely recognise the fact that knowledge is not only created in institutions, but that people in all walks of life can contribute to the co-production of new knowledge, in particular knowledge that can be of direct benefit to society.

The Insight centre has manifestly adopted this position through a commitment from its Education & Public Engagement Committee (of which I am chair) to upskilling all 400+ researchers with ‘engaged research’ know-how.

Naturally, person-centred research is more applicable to some research areas than others. You gave the example of the development of medical services for chronic conditions – this without doubt calls for a person-centred research approach so that the needs of the person with the condition can be understood on a deep level, as very often they are quite different to the needs of the clinician or the needs of policy makers.

If a service is designed that does not meet the community’s needs, then what a waste of time and money that is, not to mention the erosion of morale and trust.

Another important aspect of this is that we need to be prudent in evaluating the impact of undertaking person-centred research – it comes with challenges and requires resourcing, so we need to understand how exactly it has or has not enhanced the research process. This is currently an under-developed but essential field of enquiry.

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