Kar-Hau Chong, a trained nutritionist, became interested in movement behaviours and their impact on children’s health and wellbeing because of his own experiences growing up.
He is currently completing his PhD thesis looking at these behaviours (sleep, sedentary time and physical activity) during the transition from primary school to secondary school, and their impact on children’s psychosocial health. He joined Early Start in 2016 and is supported by three esteemed researchers in this area: Senior Professor Anthony Okely, Dr Anne-Maree Parrish and Dr Dylan Cliff.
What is your thesis title?
Understanding 24-hour movement behaviours and their associations with children’s psychosocial health during the transition from primary to secondary school
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I grew up in Ipoh, a beautiful city in Malaysia that is well-known for its cuisine and natural attractions, for example the amazing caves (see image below). In 2008, I moved to the capital city – Kuala Lumpur to do my degrees, both Bachelor (2008-2012) and Master degrees (2012-2015) in Nutrition at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, and that’s where I spent most of my time before coming to Australia in March 2017. I have worked as a research assistant for about 5 years while doing my Master’s degree, so I feel like I’ve spent much of my life in the academic world.
Pictured: One of Ipoh’s magical cave systems, in Kar-Hau’s home town.
Can you describe your research topic or question you are investigating?
My PhD project is looking at how the way children spend their 24-hour period in movement behaviours (i.e., sleep, sedentary time, physical activity) may change and affect their mental and social health as they make the transition from primary to secondary school.
The project is one of the first to use a wrist-worn device to capture children’s movement behaviours across a 24-hour period, and examine their influence on psychosocial health outcomes using a compositional analysis approach.
Where does your interest in this field come from?
I think it has something to do with my own life experiences. I’ve always been overweight since childhood (the peak was ~90kg when I was in high school), and I noticed that my physical and mental health significantly improved after I started exercising (e.g., running, working out in gym) and practising a more active lifestyle. That’s when I realised how important physical activity is for health and wellbeing. I also got a lot of exposure to this area when I was doing my Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition and that’s when I started developing more interest in the movement behaviour field.
Why did you decide to undertake a research degree?
My first exposure to research was during the final year of the Bachelor’s degree where we were required to conduct a mini research project. It was really tough and challenging, but I could see the ‘fun’ part of it, especially working on the data analysis to try to prove some kind of hypothesis.
I think my Master’s supervisor saw my potential as a research student and so she offered me an opportunity to do a full research degree with her on a funded project. During that period I learned a lot about research and became more passionate about it. I also felt that I really enjoyed working with research data and so I decided to continue my research journey as a PhD student (and hopefully a researcher in the coming years).
How did you select your research topic?
I’ve always been interested in research exploring the links between movement behaviours and health in childhood and adolescence. So when I first started my PhD I spent quite a lot of time looking at what other scholars had done in this research area and their recommendations for future research. I then came up with a few topics that are deemed important and able to contribute something new to the field.
But of course, there are a lot of other things to consider when developing a PhD research project, eg. the resources/capacity. I am really grateful for the support and guidance of my supervisors in helping me to identify a research topic that is not only interesting but also manageable or achievable considering my candidature time limits.
How did you find your supervisors?
I actually applied for a PhD scholarship for another funded-research project in Early Start in 2016 and my current supervisor, Tony Okely was on the interview panel. I didn’t get the offer but Tony recommended a few other scholarship opportunities to me. Eventually, with his and my other supervisors’ (Anne-Maree Parrish and Dylan Cliff) help and support, I received a full PhD scholarship from the University to do my PhD degree here.
How do you think your research has an impact?
My research demonstrates the need for a ‘whole-day’ intervention approach that simultaneously addressed all three types of movement behaviours (sleep, sedentary behaviour and physical activity) to tackle the behavioural changes during the school transition period. This means that policy makers and future research should consider developing initiatives that benefit all three behaviours (i.e., one that could reduce sedentary time while promoting sufficient sleep and physical activity), which is also consistent with the recommendations of the Australian 24-Hour Movement Guidelines for Children and Young People.
Another important finding of my research was that weekdays may be the optimal time segment for interventions due to greater behavioural changes observed during this period. This emphasises the role schools play in promoting healthy movement behaviours among children and adolescents, as this is where they spend a large proportion of time during a typical weekday. Considering these findings, policy and decision makers, and researchers, should work closely with the schools (and educators) and parents to develop strategies that could assist children in developing healthy movement behaviour habits.
Finally, my research also reinforces the importance of achieving a balance between different types of activities across the whole 24-hour day for children’s mental health. In particular, parents should limit the time their children spend on screen devices for recreational purposes (i.e., not more than 2 hours/day), while making sure they are less sedentary (e.g., less sitting-based activities) and getting sufficient sleep, to reduce their likelihood of developing mental health problems. This information should also be considered in the development of future movement behaviour intervention strategies and guidelines for the promotion of healthy psychosocial development in young people.
I am grateful that I’ve been offered a Data Analyst/Post-doc position to continue working with Tony and the Early Start’s team for another year or so on different research projects.
What advice would you give someone considering doing postgraduate studies?
I would say – be ready for it (physically and mentally)! Take as much time as you need to find a research topic that you are interested in, and a supervisory team that you feel comfortable working with.
Meet the supervisors
Kar-Hau is lucky enough to have three supervisors to support his PhD journey.
Dylan is an Associate Professor in the School of Education. His area of expertise is in children’s movement behaviours, including physical activity, sedentary behaviour, electronic media use and sleep. He aims to promote healthy levels of movement behaviours among children by enhancing our understanding of how movement behaviours interact to influence children’s development. This understanding can inform policies and practices that support children’s movement behaviours.
Dylan was a leadership group member for the development of the Australian 24-hr Movement Guidelines for the Early Years (birth to 5 years), and for the Australian 24-hr Movement Guidelines for Children and Young People (5 to 17 years). Dylan currently leads the international Sleep and Activity Database for the Early Years (SADEY) funded by the Australian Research Council, and is a Chief Investigator for the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child.
Anne-Maree originally trained and worked as a Registered Nurse for 10 years in Wollongong before completing her Masters and PhD in Public Health. Anne-Maree’s research is concerned with understanding and developing physical, social and policy environments to support healthy lifestyles. Her particular research focus investigates factors that influence children and adolescents physical activity and sedentary behaviour in the school environment.
Tony’s research focuses on movement behaviours (physical activity, sedentary behaviour, and sleep) in children, with a particular focus on low- and middle-income countries. Tony led the team that developed the Australian 24-hr Movement Guidelines for Children birth to 5 years. He was part of the Guideline Development Group for the WHO Global guidelines on physical activity, sedentary and sleep behaviours in children under 5 years of age, and for similar guidelines in South Africa, Canada and the United Kingdom. Tony currently leads an international study of movement behaviours in the early years called SUNRISE, which involves 41 countries.
What makes a great PhD candidate?
Dylan: An inquisitive mind, the desire to have a positive impact, resilience, perseverance, attention to detail, technical skill, and the ability to communicate well through a variety modes to different audiences
Anne-Maree: Someone who is hardworking, has integrity and is willing to learn and take initiative. Someone who has a passion for research and their research topic. Someone who has attention to detail and strives to do their best.
Anthony: Someone who is curious, willing to learn, thick skin (able to take constructive feedback and not be defensive), and perseverance. A PhD is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration!
How do you guide candidates on their journey?
Dylan: Spending 3-4 years on a single project sounds overwhelming, so it’s important to divide the process into smaller manageable parts that make up the whole. And make sure you celebrate the small “wins” because the journey will be challenging and you will face unexpected obstacles, so taking a moment to acknowledge success, big or small, is important.
Anne-Maree: A piece of advice I was given when I undertook my PhD was to research something you are passionate about. PhD journeys can be long and hard – having passion for something helps you to keep going even when it gets tough.
I think another important part of the journey is for the supervisor/student to consider their PhD within the context of their life. PhD students have lives outside of their PhD and understanding what is happening in their lives can provide context to their journey and the advice you give them.
The other advice which I give is for PhD candidates to try to link up with other PhD students, having peers can help them socially and can also help them to problem solve.
Anthony: I encourage them to be as proactive and independent as possible. It’s important to set goals for every 6 month period and schedule a regular meeting where they set the agenda and take minutes. I like to encourage them to think more about the process (journey) than the outcome. Yes, it’s important to obtain a PhD at the end, but it’s the skills you develop and the lessons you learn along the way that are important.
What should candidates consider when setting out to do a PhD or any other research degree?
Dylan: Are you passionate about the topic area? The work will be more rewarding and fulfilling if you can follow your passion.
Anne-Maree: It is important to understand their motivation for doing the degree and what they hope to get out of it at the end. Jobs in academia are limited, so it is important for them to think about alternate career paths for when they finish their degree.
Anthony: The most important thing is having an interest in your topic area. You have to like it because you will be immersed in it for three years. Also, choose your supervisor’s carefully.
What’s the best thing about being a researcher and supervisor?
Dylan: Celebrating your students' successes, like their first publication, but especially their graduation where they can enjoy the reward from all their hard work.
Anne-Maree: The best thing about being a researcher and academic is the satisfaction you get when a wonderful human like Kar-Hau comes to the end of his PhD journey and then looks on into the future, it makes me feel like my job is worthwhile—it is an honour.
If I get to keep working with my PhD students as they move into the next phase of their career, that is a double bonus.
Anthony: Having the privilege of being part of a student’s journey. The ups and downs and seeing them develop their research skills. I also love the opportunity to work with international students, many of who have made many significant sacrifices to study a PhD in Australia.
Interested in Kar-Hau’s research? Get in touch