The three of us: Fiona Sheppeard, Kathleen Clapham and Peter Kelly

Meet Fiona and her supervisory team

Fiona Sheppeard, a proud Dunghutti woman and UOW psychology graduate, is examining the importance of place in Indigenous culture, and how it can be incorporated into mental health approaches for First Nations People in Australia.

Fiona Sheppeard is completing a Doctor of Philosophy (Clinical Psychology) in the School of Psychology, Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. Fiona's thesis is connected to an Australian Research Council Indigenous Discovery Project that is being conducted by her supervisors Professor Kathleen Clapham, Director of the Ngarruwan Ngadju First Peoples Health and Wellbeing Research Centre and Professor Peter Kelly, Associate Dean of Research in the Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities and Director of the Centre for Health Psychology Practice and Research (CHPPR).

Meet the candidate - Fiona Sheppeard

Fiona Shepeard

Fiona is a proud Dunghutti woman from Kempsey, who grew up in the Illawarra region. She completed her undergraduate degree at UOW in 2019 and is currently undertaking a Doctor of Philosophy in Clinical Psychology.

Fiona holds the position of research assistant at Ngarruwan Ngadju First Peoples Health and Wellbeing Research Centre and has worked in this role for the last two years. This centre is an Indigenous-led and focused health research centre. During this time, she has worked on research which provides evidence for the important work that Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations do to contribute to the social and emotional wellbeing of the Indigenous people that reside within the Illawarra.

Thesis title: Aboriginal conception of place – an examination of the importance of place and how it can be incorporated into mental health or wellbeing approaches for First Nations People in Australia.

Can you describe your research topic or question you are investigating?

My research focuses on the importance of Aboriginal concepts of place and examines how place is incorporated by Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, to promote social and emotional wellbeing. Place refers to the interconnected relationships between Indigenous peoples, their Country, culture, spirituality, community and family.

Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations carefully consider place when supporting local Indigenous community. Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations deliver holistic and culturally appropriate services and play an important role in meeting the social, emotional and cultural needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities within Australia.

Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations are formed, based and governed by local Indigenous communities. There are 144 organisations operating across Australia. Ngarruwan Ngadju First Peoples Health and Wellbeing Research Centre has strong partnerships with a number of the local Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations. I am working alongside these organisations to describe the unique way that local Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations are able to consider place and support the social and emotional wellbeing of their clients. My research also includes scoping reviews which look at the literature within Australian Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations’, a frontline staff wellbeing survey, and an ethnographic case study.

Where does your interest in this field come from?

As an Indigenous person, I am passionate about contributing to Indigenous wellbeing. My research is attached to an Australian Research Council grant titled: A place-based model for Aboriginal community-led solutions to complex health and social issues. With my background in psychology, it made sense that I look at place from a social and emotional wellbeing perspective.

How did you meet your supervisors?

I met my supervisors at the University of Wollongong. Professor Peter Kelly supervised my honours project that I completed as part of my undergraduate degree. Peter later introduced me to Professor Kathleen Clapham and we discussed ideas for my Doctor of Philosophy.

What’s been the most exciting part of your journey so far? What’s been the most challenging?

The most exciting part of the journey was when I was accepted into my postgraduate program. In addition to that experience, it has been exciting watching the way people have been able to find new ways of working and supporting others during the global pandemic. It has been nice to start to get back to university and appreciate the little things in life.

The most challenging part of the journey has been the pandemic. It has been difficult witnessing the impact it has had on community, clients, friends, and colleagues. It was also difficult home-schooling young children while trying to complete my studies, but we did it.

How do you think your research will make a difference?

This research is helping to highlight the importance of Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations and the unique ways in which they support Indigenous people and contribute to social and emotional wellbeing. The research may be used to inform clinical practice or theory. This may provide clinicians or researchers with further understanding of Indigenous worldviews.

What’s next?

After completing my Ph.D. I hope to gain a post-doctorate position to continue researching in the Indigenous social and emotional wellbeing space. As part of my ongoing course work in clinical psychology, I look forward to becoming registered as a practicing Clinical Psychologist.

What advice would you give someone considering doing postgraduate studies?

Relationships are important in this process. My advice would be to network and get to know the people that you may be supervised by. I have been very lucky with my supervisors, as they have supported me to develop as a researcher.

Meet the supervisors

Professor Kathleen Clapham

Professor Clapham is a senior Aboriginal researcher and anthropologist (BA (Hons and PhD) and the Director of the Ngarruwan Ngadju First Peoples Health and Wellbeing Research Centre (SMAH). Within the broad area of Indigenous health Kathleen’s research focuses on health equity; safety, health and wellbeing of children and young people; community based interventions; social and cultural determinants of health; and health services improvements.

Professor Peter Kelly

Professor Peter Kelly is the Associate Dean of Research in the Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities and the Director of the Centre for Health Psychology Practice and Research (CHPPR). He has clinical and research experience working with individuals attending mental health and alcohol and other drug treatment services. Peter holds a number of research grants and consultancies supporting this work (e.g., NHMRC, ARC, NCCRED, NSW Health). His work is largely focused on non-government, not-for-profit health services.

How does Fiona’s research relate to your own research?

Kathleen: Fiona’s PhD project and scholarship contributes to an ARC funded research project which I currently lead. The aim of that research is to deepen our understanding of the role of Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations in developing and implementating local place-based Aboriginal-led solutions to complex health and social issues.

Peter: I have been lucky to have collaborated with Professor Kathleen Clapham across a number of projects. Fiona’s doctoral studies provide the three of us with an opportunity to continue collaboration, and conduct research that is highly integrated with local Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations. Fiona’s research is being conducted as part of our ARC Discovery Indigenous Project that is being led by Professor Clapham. 

Can you tell me about Fiona’s success so far?

Kathleen: Fiona has contributed in a big way to this community-engaged research. One of her PhD studies is a wellbeing survey of staff employed at Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations in SE NSW throughout the COVID period. Fiona has worked very closely on specific projects with three local Aboriginal organisations in the Illawarra: Coomaditchie (the Ngaramura program), the Illawarra Koori Men’s Support Group, and the Illawarra Aboriginal Corporation (Amplifying Women’s Voices).

Peter: Fiona has been extremely proactive in establishing links and meaningful relationships with local service providers. This foundational work is very important for both Fiona’s thesis, but also the broader success of the overall ARC project. Fiona is currently working on multiple systematic reviews, and continues to conduct her field work. Fiona is enrolled in a 4-year PhD program, which includes 2-years of course work and clinical placements that will enable her to be registered as a Clinical Psychologist. The Clinical PhD has an extremely high workload. I have been enormously impressed with Fiona’s dedication and ability to continue to make progress on both her research and her clinical commitments. 

What makes a successful PhD candidate?

Peter: This is a very difficult question to answer! I think the main attribute is ’sticking with it’. It's a very rewarding experience completing a PhD, but it can also be challenging and tricky at times. One of the keys to success is continuing to complete the small tasks along the way, and keeping your eye on the bigger picture of your PhD. 

How do you guide candidates on their journey?

Kathleen: In my experience supervising PhD candidates, I try to support them to figure out what it is that will sustain their interest and enthusiasm over many years. Often it is personal and family issues that need to be negotiated and worked through, particularly for students with work and family obligations in addition to HDR study. Having ongoing regular meetings are important so that problems or roadblocks can be solved as they arise.

Peter: I really enjoy the process of conducting supervision and being involved in the journey. I do my best to create a supportive environment that helps to link students with other doctoral students and actively involves secondary supervisors. I help students develop a structure around their series of studies, and try to keep the overall process fun and enjoyable. 

What’s the best thing about being a researcher and supervisor?

Kathleen: The best thing about being a supervisor is being part of the students' journey as they become the expert in their field.

Peter: I really enjoy the process of research. I like the creativity of developing new studies, and I like that our research has the potential to have real world impact. I really appreciate and value the opportunity to collaborate with students and peers in the research process.