Branching out: Pharmacist researcher Dr Renly Lim on exploring academia
Not every researcher begins with a solid idea of their intended work, but sometimes they gain clarity along the way. For Dr Renly Lim, her path has led through digital health, medication safety and geriatrics; her current work in the Australian ReMInDAR* trial evaluates pharmacist-led interventions for medication side effects in aged care. In our January-February 2019 issue, MIMS Pharmacist speaks to Lim, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) 2016 postgraduate and current research fellow at the University of South Australia (UniSA), about her path to the present.
Tell us about your journey from Malaysia to Adelaide.
I did my pharmacy degree via the International Medical University (IMU)-University of Strathclyde twinning programme. I returned to Malaysia from Scotland in 2010 and started out with my intern year at Hospital Ipoh.
After 1 year, I joined the Therapeutic Drug Monitoring Department and it soon became apparent that being a hospital pharmacist was not for me; so I started looking for options and when the opportunity to do a PhD arose, I jumped on the chance without a clue what I was going to do for my PhD.
I guess because I worked really hard during my PhD and achieved high quality output, I was really lucky to receive four job offers before my PhD was even conferred! I chose to go to UniSA because I thought that would be the most challenging one.
Why did you decide to enter the pharmacy field?
I honestly cannot remember! Probably because I wanted to look cool in a white lab coat, but I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor. I have always had an interest in medicines. It intrigues me how a tiny pill can have such a huge impact on people, so pharmacy felt like the right thing to do at that time.
Tell us about your research interests.
My current research interests include medication safety, digital health, medicine utilization and public engagement. I probably will give you a different set of answers a few years later because the key driver for my research interests is whatever that excites and fascinates me. Also, of course realistically speaking, “research fellow” isn’t a permanent position so we need to go where the funding is.
What is ReMinDAR and how did you get involved?
The ReMInDAR trial is a randomized controlled trial which aims to evaluate a novel pharmacist service to prevent frailty and adverse events in aged care facilities, also known as old folk’s homes in Malaysia. The trial is being funded by the Australian Government Department of Health Pharmacy Trial Program.
I got involved when I joined Professor Libby Roughead’s team at UniSA. It was her idea to do this trial and luckily for me when I came to UniSA at the end of 2016, she was writing up the grant proposal and I was asked to help because I have experience running clinical trials.
We started the trial around June 2018 and we are currently recruiting participants. The pharmacist service provision is for 1 year and the funding finishes mid-next year, so hopefully the results will be out early next year.
What do you find challenging about your work?
Everything! I guess you really have to be careful what you wish for. I wanted a challenging career and now I have it. Like I mentioned earlier, research fellow positions are not permanent. If the funding runs out, we will be out of jobs. So initially the lack of job security was a bit daunting because I think Malaysians are quite pampered. I think most people, if not all, have a permanent position in Malaysia, especially those in the government sector. Having said that, I am now getting used to the fact that job security is non-existent in my line of work.
The biggest challenge is securing funding. We not only need to secure funding to support our salary, but also funding to conduct research. The fellowship that I applied for last year, which will support my salary for the next four years, was very competitive. About 20% of early career applicants were successful. As for the ReMInDAR trial, we were really lucky because out of over 100 applications, only three proposals got funded.
Another challenge is having to juggle multiple roles and tasks at the same time. Researchers need to be well-rounded. We need to do high-quality research, write papers, apply for grants and fellowships, initiate national and international research collaborations, network, organise and attend conferences, supervise students, organize events to engage with the public and so on. This is by no means exhaustive and I don’t think I will ever fully comprehend it. But I love what I’m doing and will stay in this game for as long as I can.
Should digital tech focus more on empowering caregivers or care recipients?
Many older people find it challenging to keep up with technological advancements, but baby boomers are definitely picking them up and many now use health apps and activity trackers. That’s really positive because being more receptive of technology means it will be easier for researchers to trial out technology for health purposes in the future.
As for older people who aren’t as tech savvy, I believe empowering the ones receiving care is just as important as, if not more, than empowering the caregivers. After all, they are the ones who will use the digital tool and they get to decide whether or not they want to use it.
I know it is easier to empower the caregivers. But like every other service that they receive, older people will want to be included in the conversation. They may not know or understand as much, but I always believe that the act of engaging with them will influence their well-being and affect their health outcome.
You designed an award-winning device for treating stress incontinence; is it available?
Yes, the device is actually already on the market. The device is called QRS Pelvicenter® and is currently being used in many countries including the US, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, India and several countries across Southeast Asia. The device is also available in Penang and Kuala Lumpur.
Have you considered coming back to Malaysia?
This is a tricky question! Haven’t really thought about this to be honest. Research in Malaysia is still in its infancy compared to in Australia so I would want to stay here and learn as much as I can before deciding my next career move.
For now, I’m maintaining my existing research collaborations with partners in Malaysia and initiating new ones. I have given a few talks in Malaysia as a guest speaker in the past 2 years, and will be giving another talk at IMU in April.
So to answer your question—I don’t see why not, but life is unpredictable so let’s see what the future holds.
Any advice for younger pharmacists?
Pharmacists are versatile. You don’t have to constrain yourself to only hospital or community pharmacy, unless of course if that’s what you are passionate about. Always keep an open mind to new opportunities but don’t wait for opportunities to knock on your door, because they won’t. You need to seek them out. You need to create them.
If you don’t like what you’re doing, leave. Do something else. It’s never too late to start something new. If you’re thinking “That’s easy for you to say”, you’re whinging. Don’t whinge. Nothing will change.
Be nice. You don’t succeed by bringing others down. Create a support group. Together, you are stronger.
Find a mentor, or a few mentors, whatever works for you. Find someone who will guide and support you, not those who will spoon-feed you. If you don’t have one and think I can be of any help, you can email me; my address is available online.