Feature Researcher: Jennifer Hutcheon, Ph.D.

Dr. Hutcheon became an Assistant Professor with UBC, Department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology in 2011, and was promoted to Associate Professor in 2016.  She received her Ph.D. (Epidemiology & Biostatistics) from McGill University in 2009, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. K.S. Joseph in 2010. She holds a CIHR New Investigator award (2012-2017) and a Career Scholar award from the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (2011-2019), and is Principal Investigator on research grants from CIHR and NIH. In 2016 Dr. Hutcheon received the UBC Faculty of Medicine Distinguished Achievement Award for Overall Excellence- Early Career.

What is your day job?
I am a perinatal epidemiologist in the UBC division of Maternal Fetal Medicine. I also spend one day a week as an epidemiologist at Perinatal Services BC, which gives me the opportunity to do more applied research.

What is your primary research focus?
My research primarily uses existing population databases, in particular the BC Perinatal Data Registry, to improve our understanding of maternal and infant health and health care delivery. I’m specifically interested in improving the charts that we use to assess growth in pregnancy. I’m also interested in methodological research, to help try to increase the methodological rigor of our database analyses and reduce the possibility that we get the wrong answer due to bias.

What drew you to the subject?
I was drawn to it by random chance! I started off my undergraduate training in Forest Ecology but became more interested in studying people rather than trees. I transferred into a Human Nutrition program, and while working as a nutritionist I became interested in gestational diabetes. From there, moved into more general perinatal population health research.  Many of the same methods I used during my forest ecology training are actually very similar to what I’m doing now- Its just that I’m modelling people not trees, and I no longer have the problem of deer eating my experiments!

What do you find are the biggest challenges in pursuing research?
Finding enough time. It’s always a challenge to keep focused on my top research priorities and not getting side tracked by the many other interesting opportunities that come along. One of the challenges with research is that, with the exception of grant applications, there are rarely any deadlines, so it’s easy to respond to deadlines from teaching or administrative responsibilities first at the expense of your own research moving forward.

How do you ensure that you do get your own projects done?
Staying focused, and time management, are really important. Connecting with colleagues also helps, because we’ll commit to a deadline within ourselves, which creates a little bit of external accountability. There’s nothing like having a deadline to help you get it done!

What are the greatest supports for your research?
Definitely my colleagues! I feel very fortunate to have wonderful colleagues, not only in the department, but also at other universities across Canada, the US and in Europe. Working collaboratively with people helps keep you interested and excited about your projects, and are a great source of motivation and advice, which makes all the difference in the world.

You’ve been successful in obtaining for funding for your research- what advice would you give to others?
Get used to rejection! Funding is very unpredictable, and you can have a grant that’s rejected in one round, but gets great scores when resubmitted. You just need to stick with it and it will get funded. It helps to have a thick skin, and this is where colleagues help- we all share our stories of rejection and our favorite quotes from the rejection letter. You’ll get all sorts of feedback in the peer-review process, so you have to be able to laugh about it a little bit.

What are your future plans and goals? What would you like your research to achieve?
One of the areas that I’ve become interested in recently is using more rigorous approaches to try to evaluate the effects of new obstetrical policies. For example, we recently did a paper that looked at how the closure of obstetrical services in many of the smaller communities in BC effected the safety of labour and delivery for women who were living in areas where the service closures occurred. I’d really like to see closer ties between this type of research and policy making so even before a new policy is introduced in the province, we’re planning a study to evaluate its impact, using more robust methodology. This is certainly an area I’d like to do more in, and I’d like to make contributions towards informing policy through research.

When you aren’t busy being a clinician and a researcher – what do you do?
In the winter I play on a women’s hockey team (the Ice Birds), which I love. In the summer, we’re often up in the Kootenays, where we have a small plywood shack up in the mountains where we like to spend time to go mountain biking, canoeing, and hiking.

If you weren’t doing the work doing that you’re currently doing, what career would you pick?
In university I actually really liked an accounting class I took! I suppose it’s similar to Epidemiology in that it’s working with numbers, but I was pleasantly surprised at how much problem-solving it had and I actually really enjoyed it! Perhaps I might have gone in that direction, but I’m certainly happy that I found myself where I am, though