To celebrate Allied Health Professionals Day, and the NIHR’s Your Path in Research campaign, we caught up with Guy’s and St Thomas’ research dietitian Sarah Firman, to hear about how NIHR funding has supported her research career.

How did you first get involved in research?

I completed my Masters Degree as part of my dietetic training, so I had a taste of research, but what kick-started my interest in getting involved in research was seeing the opportunities to develop the evidence and knowledge underpinning my area of clinical practice to improve patient care and outcomes.

I currently work in Inherited Metabolic Disorders, providing dietary support to adults with rare conditions. At times I am faced with clinical scenarios where the limited published research is a barrier to optimising management of these patients. This was my drive to pursuing a career as a clinical academic in Inherited Metabolic Disorders.

Tell us about phenylketonuria and the work you have been doing on the condition

Phenylketonuria (PKU) is a rare inherited metabolic condition, which affects 1 in 10,000 people in the UK. PKU is managed by restricting natural protein intake (often <10 grams per day), supplemented with specialist low protein foods and supplements containing safe amino acids and micronutrients.

Early diagnosis and lifelong dietary management are essential to ensure normal neurocognitive development. While consensus management guidelines exist, robust evidence for the dietary management of adults with PKU is limited.

I am interested in contributing to building robust evidence to inform dietary management of adults with PKU, to ensure optimal health outcomes and to support them ageing well. As part of my NIHR Pre-Doctoral Fellowship, I have been undertaking reviews, speaking with patient groups and key stakeholders, and conducting a national survey to identify areas for further research.

What does the Pre-Doctoral Fellowship involve and what you have gained from it?

The NIHR Pre-Doctoral Clinical Academic Fellowship provides funding for health professionals to undertake a personalised programme to prepare them for doctoral study. The fellowship has been key in supporting me to bridge the gaps in my research experience to allow me to be equipped to apply for doctoral level funding. The fellowship has enabled me to complete courses in both quantitative and qualitative research, and gain skills and experience in the design and development of research, in statistical analysis and critical appraisal of research.

During my fellowship, I have had the opportunity to develop collaborations with experts in the area of protein metabolism and also those working in the area of Inherited Metabolic Disorders, which will be integral in supporting my further research endeavours in this area.

What advice do you have for other dietitians or AHPs who are interested in getting involved in research?

Research is essential in growing and developing our profession, and in improving the care that we provide to our patients. Finding the time to do research in our already busy clinical roles can be challenging and therefore obtaining funding to dedicate time to training and developing research skills, is helpful. The NIHR Pre-Doctoral Fellowship provided this for me. However, there are a number of different funding opportunities, and I would recommend talking with those who have been involved in research in your department or speciality areas.

Working in our clinical areas, we are equipped with excellent clinical knowledge and an understanding of the areas requiring further research. We can bring these ideas to the research world, working alongside academic researchers in increasing the knowledge and evidence that informs our clinical practice and ultimately, improves the health outcomes of our patients.