Two kids, a pandemic and a successfully completed PhD

8 July 2021

Two kids, a pandemic and a successfully completed PhD

Dr Medbh Hillyard graduates this summer from Ulster University's School of Nursing with a PhD on physical activity in pregnancy.

Medbh’s PhD involved designing a physical activity intervention for women with gestational diabetes:

“Physical activity in pregnancy has numerous benefits for both mother and baby and there are additional benefits for women with gestational diabetes. However, despite these benefits, physical activity levels in pregnancy remain low.  There is a lack of evidence on what frequency, intensity, time and type of physical activity can have the greatest benefit for women with gestational diabetes, which led me to this PhD topic.”

Pregnancy was a key theme in Medbh’s PhD journey and not just in her research:

“When I started my PhD I didn’t have any children but during my PhD journey I gave birth to two boys, who were aged 2 and 4 when I finished. Having the boys during my PhD definitely changed my experience and my perspective on my PhD but in a positive way.”

Researching physical activity in pregnancy while being pregnant gave Medbh a unique insight into the topic that she was able to use to her advantage:

“Being pregnant myself gave me a unique insight into my research topic, particularly the barriers and challenges to becoming/remaining active during pregnancy, despite having been an extremely active person pre-pregnancy.  Also, when I was interviewing women whilst pregnant, an instant rapport was created between myself and the women I was interviewing. However, having two small children at home wasn’t always easy but it did help focus the mind and make me more productive.”

Juggling new motherhood with the demands of a PhD was always going to be difficult but things became even more complicated when COVID-19 hit.

“One of the biggest challenges I faced during my PhD was nurseries closing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. I had a 1 and 3 year old at home full-time and on top of that my final stage of data collection couldn’t go ahead with COVID restrictions in hospitals. For the first few months of the pandemic, I found it difficult to find any time to work on my PhD as my children were struggling to adjust to life in lockdown and not being able to see their grandparents.

“As time went on, we settled into lockdown life and I found time, mainly in the evenings and weekend to continue with my PhD. In addition, I managed to develop a new final stage of research, exploring the impact of COVID-19 on the physical activity and sedentary behaviour levels of pregnant women with gestational diabetes.”

The results from Medbh’s research were included in the 2020 Director of Public Health report for Northern Ireland and are also due to be published in a peer reviewed journal later this month.

During her PhD journey Medbh had the opportunity to participate in Ulster’s Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition that challenges PhD Researchers to describe their research and its significance, in non-specialist language to a general audience, in just three minutes.

“3MT was one of my favourite experiences of my time at Ulster and I would encourage anyone who has the opportunity to take part to go for it! I had been at numerous large conferences and when they opened the floor up to questions, I lacked the confidence to stand up and ask a question. Through the competition I learnt to how to stand out from a crowd when presenting, how to focus on telling a story and removing technical jargon but most of all how to be confident when doing it. Reaching the final at 34 weeks pregnant was a massive achievement for me and one I won’t forget in a hurry!”

Medbh has recently joined the scientific advisory board for a newly formed charity called the Active Pregnancy Foundation. Their mission is to support women to stay active throughout pregnancy and beyond, by providing expertise and advice; changing culture; and challenging policy.

She is currently pregnant with baby number three and has been documenting her activity on her Instagram account @active_motherhood in an attempt to normalise activity in pregnancy and give other pregnant women the confidence to be active during their pregnancy and postnatally. In the future Medbh will continue in her physical activity research, focusing on pregnancy and the postnatal period.


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