Chris Irwin is a dietitian, exercise scientist, Health & Physical Education (HPE) teacher and lecturer at Griffith University (GU) on Queensland’s Gold Coast. Chris is also my mentor as part of the Griffith Industry Mentoring Program and was kind enough to have a chat with me about his career and all things research, sport and dietetics.
Exercise scientist, HPE teacher, lecturer, researcher and dietitian, wow that’s a lot of qualifications! Can you give me a bit of an overview of your career to date?
Well, I actually started out studying a Bachelor of Engineering at The University of Queensland (UQ), which I hated! I then went on to work for 3 years at an engineering company before deciding to change fields entirely and enrol in a Bachelor of Exercise science at GU. Following exercise science, I then continued on to study teaching; teaching thereafter for five years both in Australia and overseas, including a period working at a school in London.
It was around this time that I started thinking I’d really like to take my qualifications further and do my PHD, but I knew there was a step that I needed to complete before I was able to do that. So, after much consideration (and being someone who has discovered a love and fascination with food later in life) I decided to do my Masters in Dietetics.
I have a dual role as a lecturer and researcher at GU: conducting a wide range of sports, alcohol and public-health related research; and teaching nutrition-related courses. I also worked as a dietitian to the Queensland Reds football team, as well as stints as a lecturer at Bond University and UQ.
Can you tell us a bit more about the research that you do at Griffith?
I have been involved in a huge variety of research both while completing my PHD and currently as a lecturer and supervisor of Honours students. One study that I’ve been involved in looked at the effect of alcohol on cognitive function, mood and driving performance; as well as the effect that eating while driving has on driving performance. We actually have a driving simulation set-up in the GU lab and had participants eat a subway footlong while “driving” which produced some really interesting results. Let’s just say I won’t be eating while driving from now on!
Other research I’ve been involved in was more sports-related and looked at recovery and performance nutrition in elite athletes from around the Gold Coast.
Looking back on your dynamic career, what has been a notable challenge you’ve faced as a dietitian?
I think one of the biggest challenges that I have had to deal with, both as a teacher and dietitian is working with students and the general public who don’t “agree” with the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (AGHE) and whose views and beliefs around food have been swayed by fads, celebrities and the media. It can be a real challenge working with these people and getting them to change their perceptions and accept your advice as an evidence-based professional.
An example of this is when I worked for the Queensland Reds Football team. Working with high-level athletes who require high quality nutrition, yet who have little tangible knowledge about basic nutrition and healthy eating, presented a real challenge. Often they had poor cooking skills and their knowledge was limited to what they’d seen in the media or been told by their PT at the gym and was centered around aesthetics rather than performance and health. So trying to change their perception of healthy eating was quite difficult.
Overall, I think we as dietitians need to learn to be accepting and non-judgmental of the wide array of views, opinions and beliefs that we encounter in our patients and the general public and offer our evidence-based opinion in a non-biased way and relatively simplistic and easy-to-understand way.
That being said, what are your personal food beliefs? I know you mentioned in a lecture once that you have been vegetarian at one point in time…
Yes, I used to be vegetarian. I went vegetarian as a dare actually! One of my colleagues said “I dare you to go vegetarian for a week and see what it does to your stools.” So, I took him up on that challenge and actually found I really enjoyed being vegetarian and remained so for about 3 years! These days I’m not a strict vegetarian (although I find my diet still sways towards vegetarianism) and enjoy all things in moderation, but I actually found it to be a really useful lesson in relating to others people’s way of eating and gaining a different perspective. In fact, I actually think it is an invaluable exercise for dietetics students to “try out” some of the diets that they will be prescribing to future patients (e.g. low sodium or texture-modified) because it puts you in that patient’s shoes and gives you an idea of how hard it can be to follow to recommendations we as health professionals prescribe. This can be a really valuable tool in empathising and understanding your patient’s needs.
Are there any other recommendations you can give to us as students? Anything you wish you’d known back when you were first stepping out of university into the professional world?
Dietetics in Australia is a really small industry. There are roughly 6000 dietitians to a population of 23 million Australians, so it’s quite an intimate field where everyone knows or knows of everyone. That being said, I think networking is one of the most important things students can do to open doors and provide career opportunities for themselves. You need to put yourself in a position where you are going to stand out from the crowd of other graduates, whether this be through charity work, work experience or extra-curricular activities that get you involved in the industry.
For me personally, this took the form of being the Dietetics Association of Australia (DAA) Student Representative for the Queensland branch while completing my Masters. For me, being involved in the organisation, conferences, meeting industry professionals and seeing how things worked was a really advantageous experience.
I think it’s definitely important not get caught up in having perfect grades too, by all means work hard and do your best in your studies, particularly if you hope to continue on to be further involved in academia, but good networking will provide a lot more career opportunities than having the a perfect grade-point-average will.