Potential graduate research topics

Thank you for your interest in studying with MUARC. While applicants are more than welcome to suggest their own research topics, we have also consulted our team of supervisors for some ideas that you may nominate as part of your application.

Transitioning back to work as a head and neck cancer survivor: a holistic systems perspective

The most recent Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2019) report indicates that Head and Neck Cancers (HNCs) will be the 4th most diagnosed cancer in males (behind prostate, colorectal, melanoma and lung) and the 11th most diagnosed in females in Australia in the next 12 months. This cohort of cancer survivors are also getting younger on average, with the majority being of working age. HNCs and their complex treatments may lead to significant and persistent impairments following the completion of treatment, many of which pose challenges in the context of transitioning back to work.  This project is offered as part of a collaborative venture between Monash University and the Radiation Oncology team at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. This PhD project builds on the results of a recent project that explored and documented using cross-sectional qualitative approach, the experiences of individuals with head and neck cancer when attempting to transition back to work. Dr Dianne Sheppard provides expertise in the psychosocial predictors of return to work (RTW) and life for those with chronic conditions. Expertise in head and neck cancers support comes from the senior radiation oncologists (Drs McDowell and Coleman) at the Peter MacCallum Centre. The project would focus on identifying employer-related and system-related barriers experienced by those with head and neck cancer when attempting to return to work, and come up with recommendations to address these barriers.The project could also include the validation of a psychosocial assessment tool for use within this setting, i.e. exploring the predictive nature of the tool in relation to return to work and work capacity outcome measures.

This thesis would be supervised by Dr Dianne Sheppard (MUARC, Monash University), Dr Lachlan McDowell & Dr Andrew Coleman (Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Moorabbin).

Learn more about our Injury Outcomes research

Commuting to and from work: The impact on workplace compensation claims

Despite the fact that commuting is an important part of the day for those who work, the detrimental effects of this activity have long been established. Much literature has established that travel mode to and from work can negatively affect worker health and wellbeing (e.g., higher depression and anxiety low satisfaction in life). These results suggest that commuting in a car can negatively affect quality of life. Commuting is also likely to place individuals at greater risk of workplace injury. Commuting is a lifestyle choice and greater distances travelled between home and work places an even greater demand on workers’ time. This creates a problem given that the inability to maintain an appropriate work-life balance has been identified as a factor influencing the psychological health of the workforce. The physical health of the workforce may also be influenced by commuting. Travelling longer distances is likely to increase the effects of fatigue, including difficulty in maintaining alertness and vigilance. Thus, there is strong evidence to suggest that workers’ physical and psychological safety, health and wellbeing are likely to be influenced by commuting and that this relationship is likely to be exacerbated in those workers who commute longer distances. This program of research will explore this issue.

This thesis would be supervised by Assoc Prof Sharon Newnam and Assoc Prof Janneke Berecki-Gisolf.

Learn more about our Workplace Safety research

Work sustainability for breast cancer survivors undergoing a return to work support multimodal intervention

The health benefits of work are well established. Work-related needs of cancer survivors are a research priority: returning to work and sustaining ‘good’ work are markers of social recovery and quality of life. Aligned with the ‘cancer and work’ systems framework, this multi-modal, tailored Return-to-Work-Support Intervention will identify and modify the impact of biopsychosocial and workplace factors that could hinder transitioning to good work and returning to wellness. The project will examine the longer-term benefits of incorporating a holistic biopsychosocial assessment and health coaching program into work rehabilitation support services for breast cancer survivors.  It will require the collection and analysis of both quantitative and qualitative outcome data to evaluate the extent to which the tailored, multi-modal innovation is effective in facilitating sustained employment for breast cancer survivors. It brings together the insurance, occupational and cancer support sectors to implement and evaluate an intervention that has the capacity to benefit breast cancer survivors, their families and workplaces across Australia.

This thesis would be supervised by Dr Dianne Sheppard and A/Prof Georgia Halkett.

Learn more about our Injury Outcomes research

Mindfulness and Road Safety

Mindfulness training is defined as the teaching or learning of practices designed to help individuals to focus their attention on the present moment in a non-judgmental manner, and has been shown to improve attentional focus while simultaneously reducing reaction time and emotional reactivity. Given that mindfulness training can improve intentional and unintentional behaviour in other contexts, there is emerging evidence which suggests that it could be used as an effective intervention to improve driving behaviours and have significant benefits for road safety.

For example, recent research conducted by MUARC and the Mindfulness experts at Monash University, has demonstrated that increased mindfulness is associated with lower rates of intentional and unintentional unsafe driving behaviours, lower frequencies of distracted driving, and mediated the relationship between anger and aggressive driving behaviours. In addition, drivers who reported participating in a generic mindfulness training program had significantly fewer crashes in the previous two years compared to drivers who did not practice mindfulness training.

While these findings suggest that mindfulness training can improve driving behaviours, these findings are based on generic mindfulness training programs and it is anticipated that these improvements could be significantly enhanced if the mindfulness training targets key areas of road safety concern that are related to driver behaviour and attention (e.g., speeding, aggression, distraction, etc.). This PhD research program will explore how generic mindfulness training programs could be extended to incorporate key unsafe driving behaviours to improve driving behaviours and to reduce crash-related deaths and injuries on Australian roads.

This thesis would be supervised by Associate Professor Sjaan Koppel and Dr Amanda Stephens.

Learn more about our Behavioural Safety Science team

Aggression, confidence and driving behaviour

Driver aggression is increasing on Australian roads. While previous research has examined causes for aggression, there is a need to understand the phenomena more broadly. Further, to understand the long term influences of aggressive experiences on driving confidence and style. This is an important area of research, given the perceived prevalence of aggression on Australia’s roads. This project would explore the prevalence of aggression on Australian roads and specifically examine the consequences of this across a range of drivers, including more vulnerable road user groups. The project would include survey and simulation methodology to collect data on personality factors, attitudes and driving behaviour.

This thesis would be supervised by Dr Amanda Stephens and Assoc Prof Sjaan Koppel.

Learn more about our Injury Analysis and Data team

Emotions and autonomous driving

It is well established that emotions play a role in how drivers appraise and behave across different driving environments. In particular, when angry, drivers tend to make more hostile evaluations of others’ intentions and react aggressively. In contrast, anxious drivers, tend to adopt more cautious driving styles, often resulting in slower speeds, more driving errors or avoidance of certain anxiety-provoking situations. What is less clear is how emotions will influence autonomous driving, particularly at the levels that will still require driver monitoring and take-over. Research on manual driving suggests that drivers will evaluate the driving situation, or the autonomous behaviour of the vehicle. differently according to their anger or anxiety tendencies or their current mood state. This is likely to be the same in autonomous driving, however there are limited empirical data to support this suggestion. This project will examine this question directly, using the MUARC driving simulator. The initial stage will involve a literature review focusing on emotion, sustained attention, appraisal and action tendencies. The empirical component will involve a series of studies conducted in the driving simulator, to explore in greater detail the relationships between mood, situational awareness and safe driving. The design of these studies will be heavily influenced by the literature review.

This thesis would be supervised by Dr Amanda Stephens and Assoc Prof Sjaan Koppel.

Learn more about our Injury Analysis and Data team

Fleet safety in the emergency services

The emergency services play an integral role in public health and safety. These organisations are responsible for responding to a wide range of emergencies, and many agencies also engage in community awareness and prevention programs. The operation of a motor vehicle is a key activity in the job role tasks of emergency service staff. Given the specific demands of driving during emergency situations, these drivers are likely to experience a greater level of risk associated with their driving. In fact, research has identified that emergency service workers are at high risk of serious injury and/or death following a crash. Contributing factors include the size and weight of the vehicles involved, and speed during emergency response. Given the importance of the emergency services, it is important to ensure the safety of staff and volunteers, and thus it is important to understand the factors influencing risk. This project will take a systems thinking perspective to explore the safety of drivers in emergency vehicle fleets.

This thesis would be supervised by Dr Carlyn Muir, Dr Sharon Newnam & Assoc Prof Stuart Newstead.

Learn more about our Emergency Services Research Program

Occupational safety in the emergency services

The nature of Police and Emergency Service work means that first responders are regularly exposed to potentially traumatic events, putting them at risk of physical injury and may impact their mental health.  This type of work is subject to a combination of stressors, including: shift work; long working hours; repeated exposure to death, trauma and/or violence; difficult interactions with members of the public; high expectations of the profession; high levels of governance; strong cultural pressures; and stigmatising attitudes towards mental health and suicide. Most research on emergency service worker injury has focused on specific injury types or occupational hazards (such as stress, or arrest and restrain in police), and thus there is limited information describing the broader patterns of injuries (and associated costs). This broader understanding is important given that long-term health morbidity and mortality rates in emergency service occupations (such as police) exceed other occupations and the general population. A clear understanding of the nature and characteristics of injuries is important to assist in the development of more effective prevention approaches. This project aims to better understand the nature, characteristics and costs of emergency service worker injuries and near misses.

This thesis would be supervised by Dr Carlyn Muir and Assoc Prof Stuart Newstead.

Learn more about our Emergency Services Research Program

Interface design and evaluation for new technologies in vehicles

With the widespread introduction of new technologies and automation into vehicles it is important that such systems are ergonomically designed. Poorly designed systems can lead to user frustration, errors and can even contribute to road crashes. The proposed research area would use MUARC's simulators and human factors expertise to develop and evaluate new Human Machine Interfaces (HMI) for road vehicles. It would build on best practice HMI guidelines developed by MUARC and elsewhere and would involve identifying emerging vehicle technology and automation developments and HMI design requirements, and developing and evaluating an optimally designed HMI for future vehicles.

This thesis would be supervised by Dr Kristie Young and Dr David Logan.

Learn more about our Systems Safety team

Pedestrian Exposure Data Study (PEDS)

Walking is promoted as means of transport to promote health and environmental sustainability, yet research into risk factors for crashes involving vulnerable road users in urban areas is severely hampered without access to accurate exposure data. As such, it is vitally important for governments to invest in the systematic collection of exposure data for vulnerable road users. The aim of the project is to investigate methods to systematically collect consistent pedestrian exposure data. Currently pedestrian data is not consistently collected and there are limited measures of pedestrian exposure. A validated measure of pedestrian exposure that could be used in evaluations of road safety treatments would be invaluable. The method could also have broader applications in other fields including urban planning, transportation planning and public health. The project would investigate the use of “Big Data” and the “Internet of Things” to gather pedestrian exposure data. The ultimate goal would be to find data that would enable us to measure down to the level of road crossings, as this is the highest risk activity for pedestrians.

This thesis would be supervised by Assoc Prof Stuart Newstead, Dr Karen Stephan and Dr Steve O’Hern.

Learn more about our Injury Analysis and Data team

The influence of the design of the road and roadside environment on road user behaviour

The road system comprises road users, the vehicles they operate, and the roads and roadsides they operate within. Making the system safer requires a detailed understanding of how road users interact with each other and their environment. There are many studies of driver behaviour (behavioural science/traffic psychology/human factors) and many studies of the characteristics of the road and roadside that increase the risk of a crash occurring (engineering/statistics), yet there are surprisingly few studies that rigorously investigate how the road and surrounding environment shape driver behaviour, and influence safety. There are even fewer studies of how the environment shapes the behaviour of other road users, e.g. cyclists and pedestrians. This project will investigate the influence of the design of the road and roadside on road user behaviour (e.g. drivers, cyclists) using methods for measuring human behaviour (e.g. driving simulation, observational studies, etc.).

This thesis would be supervised by Dr Karen Stephan and Dr Steve O’Hern.

Learn more about our Injury Analysis and Data team

Examining the physical and psychological antecedents of distracted driving

Distracted driving is now widely recognised as a serious threat to road safety. Research has found that distracted driving is the main contributing factor in almost 16% of serious casualty road crashes resulting in hospital attendance in Australia (Beanland, Fitzharris, Young & Lenné, 2013). This PhD project will use data from the Australian Naturalistic Driving Study (ANDS) to examine the physical and psychological antecedents of distracted driving and its consequences. Specifically, the project will determine whether a range of physical and psychological factors (e.g. visual, perceptual, and cognitive capabilities, sensation seeking, strength tests) influence drivers’ willingness to engage in distracting tasks while driving and also how these factors might moderate the impact of distraction on driving performance once engaged. The project will make use of the ANDS driving, video, and physical and psychological assessment data. The ANDS was an ARC Linkage project involving almost 380 drivers from Victoria and New South Wales that aimed to understand what people do when driving their cars in everyday and safety-critical situations. Data from this study offers an exciting and unique opportunity to examine driver engagement in distracted driving under real-world driving conditions.

This thesis would be supervised by Dr Kristie Young and Assoc Prof Sjaan Koppel.

Learn more about our Systems Safety team

Identifying factors associated with prolonged recovery and return to work following musculoskeletal injury

The extent of physical incapacitation, pain and general disability that individuals endure post-motor vehicle or work-related injury varies tremendously. The unpredictable duration and nature of recovery from physical (e.g. musculoskeletal) injury challenges compensation system goals around facilitating recovery and return to work (RTW). Some with moderately severe injuries return reasonably quickly, while others with seemingly more minor injuries show a protracted recovery period. Evidence suggests that recovery and RTW for those who have been on compensation for over 6-12 months is even more complex and difficult. If we are to develop more individualised, targeted rehabilitation programs and interventions that have a greater chance of facilitating recovery, we first need to identify the factors associated with prolonged recovery and work absence, and then work with those that are amenable to change. This project has several components that can be further developed and explored by interested students. An example is to retrospectively contrast baseline and follow-up data elicited by a purpose designed assessment tool for a group of individuals who RTW within 6 months of injury, and a group who take longer than 12 months.

This thesis would be supervised by Dr Dianne Sheppard, Dr Ross Iles, Dr Melita Giummarra and partnering with IPAR Rehabilitation.

Learn more about our Injury Outcomes research

Older drivers: Exploring the relationships between medical conditions, medication use, and driving

Australia’s population is ageing and, while there is a strong global emphasis for older adults to maintain their vehicular mobility for as long as possible, they represent one of the highest risk groups for crash-related deaths and serious injuries. To achieve an appropriate balance between older driver safety and mobility, it is important to understand how age-related declines, medical conditions and medication use affect driving abilities, and whether they place older drivers at an increased risk of crash-related injuries and/or death.

The Candrive/Ozcandrive study is a longitudinal, multi-center international research program with the core objective of identifying opportunities to promote older drivers’ safe mobility. The study involves 928 drivers aged 70 years and over in Canada and 302 drivers aged 75 years and older in Australia and New Zealand (Australia: n = 257; New Zealand: n = 45). Using a longitudinal study design, the project has tracked this cohort of older drivers for up to eight years, assessing changes in their functional performance, self-reported medical conditions and medication use, self-reported driving practices (e.g., comfort, avoidance), as well as crashes and citations (both official and self-reported). Older drivers’ real-world (or naturalistic) driving practices (e.g., trip distance, duration, type of road and speed) have also been collected for up to eight years through an in-car recording device (ICRD) that was installed in their vehicles at the start of the study.

There is an opportunity for two separate and complimentary PhD research programs:

  1. Explore the relationship between medical conditions, medication use, real-world driving performance and crashes
  2. Explore the relationship between medical conditions, medication use and self-reported driving practices

These PhD research programs would be supervised by Professor Judith Charlton, Associate Professor Sjaan Koppel and Associate Professor Janneke Berecki-Gisolf.

Learn more about our Behavioural Safety Science team

The role of alcohol in the incidence of hospital-treated unintentional injury: a data linkage study

Alcohol consumption increases the risk of injury. Although this is common knowledge, there is limited information available on the injury circumstances, causes and injury types associated with alcohol consumption. Data available for research in this area are limited: alcohol consumption is not well captured in administrative hospital data. This research aims to address this gap in knowledge through a series of studies into alcohol and unintentional injury in Victoria, Australia. This will help develop methodology to better capture alcohol involvement in injury cases presenting to hospital, as well as identify alcohol-related injury risks that can be addressed through prevention strategies.

Study 1: The aim of the first study is to develop ICD-10-AM (International Classification of Diseases) coding to identify alcohol involvement or history in injury-related hospital admissions data. The coding will then be validated by medical chart review.

Study 2: Using the hospital-admitted injury cohort selected in Study 1, the next study will aim to determine how injury admissions with alcohol involvement differ to those without, in terms of patient demographics, injury cause, type and severity, and injury outcomes such as complications and length of stay.

Study 3: The aim of Study 3 is to determine the injury risk profile of those exposed to alcohol. A cohort of patients with hospital-recorded alcohol exposure, intoxication or alcohol-related health problems will be followed over time using linked hospital data and death data. Injury incidence in this cohort (hospital admissions as well as injury deaths) will be compared to injury incidence in a matched control group.

This thesis would be supervised by Assoc. Professor Janneke Berecki and Dr Angela Clapperton.

Learn more about our Victorian Injury Surveillance Unit

Motorised mobility scooters (MMS): Developing best practice guidelines

Motorised mobility scooters (MMS) offer many mobility benefits for older Australians who no longer drive, including maintenance of independent travel, quality of life, and social inclusion. Notwithstanding, there are many gaps in our understanding of the profile of motorised scooter users, particularly regarding their functional abilities, and the key issues surrounding assessment and training. While occupational therapists and other health professionals provide ‘fitness to drive’ assessments for drivers, there are currently no known best practice guidelines for professionals conducting assessment or training for users of MMS. There is a lack of consistent and comprehensive assessment and training processes for “fitness to ride” for MMS users, potentially placing the users and the public at risk. This project would develop best practice guidelines to address this issue, with the ultimate aim of increasing the safety and social participation of MMS users, and the community at large.

The thesis would be supervised by Professor Jennie Oxley and Dr Linda Barclay (School of Occupational Therapy).

Learn more about our Behavioural Safety Science team