Explore UCD

UCD Home >

Researcher Spotlight: Dr Tara Cusack - Associate Professor


Associate Professor - UCD School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science

PhD Plus – Enhancing Higher Level Education

Interdisciplinary Ph.D. research is becoming increasingly popular. However, previous research has not examined how, why or if interdisciplinary research networks improve learning and the Ph.D. experience.

UCD lecturer Dr Tara Cusack and her research partners have presented a framework for developing interdisciplinary Ph.D. programmes. The framework is based upon the perceptions of Ph.D. students engaged in several large interdisciplinary connected health research networks.

This framework is the foundation for a Horizon 2020 project entitled Chameleons (Championing a Multi-Sectoral Education and Learning Experience to Open New Pathways for Doctoral Students) led by Dr Cusack. 

The objective of this project is to develop new and innovative educational interventions to improve the learning experience of Ph.D. students, ultimately producing more adaptable, entrepreneurial and employable graduates who will contribute meaningfully to society.

Dr Cusacks' research interests lie in education, particularly how to enhance interdisciplinary Ph.D. education to improve the quality of graduates entering the workforce. 

In the video below, Dr Cusack speaks about her research interests and what she aims to achieve from her work within UCD and beyond.

Only 10-15% of Ph.D. graduates are employed in academia long term. Therefore, as well as Dr Cusacks' research potentially benefiting many groups across society, it is imperative that the UCD Ph.D. education prepares them for employment in their chosen fields. 

Interdisciplinary research networks increase innovation, creativity and knowledge. Dr Cusacks' research has focused on understanding how these interdisciplinary networks work. This has been achieved through the application of social capital theory – a theory that explains that through these networks, social relationships are formed that enhance learning and work output. 

Research conducted in UCD has explored the lived experiences of students and academic staff in interdisciplinary phd programmes, and following on from this, built a framework for interdisciplinary programme design. 

The framework designed by Dr Cusack and the UCD team has led to a new project entitled Chameleons.

This project will aim to enhance the learning of Ph.D. students to give graduates the skills required for purposeful employment outside academia. Current Ph.D. curricula does not foster big thinkers and creative problem-solvers. These are key attributes that society needs.

CHAMELEONS Ph.D. students will engage with end users of research, with industry partners and with students across a variety of disciplines to create the most valuable research and graduates. 

CHAMELEONS will identify a range of appropriate modules and deliver three interdisciplinary and international modules for 15 Ph.D. students/post-doctoral fellows to improve their employability in academic and non-academic environments. Developing soft skills and personal skills will be a key component. 

The first programme will be in connected health - the use of technology to connect the healthcare system in a way that enables the delivery of ongoing, virtual care as needed across a population. Dr Cusacks' research is centred around the improvement of Ph.D. curricula. 

CHAMELEONS will use this framework to improve education of inter-disciplinary connected health Ph.D. students in areas such as business skills and emotional intelligence as well as developing research skills. 

Dr Cusack and the team at UCD are the first to publish research related to the understanding of social capital theory in the context of interdisciplinary Ph.D. connected health research, demonstrating why interdisciplinary and intersectoral research is beneficial to all involved. 

Focus is placed on educating the person as a whole, not merely on the topic they are researching, but also contributing to the development of soft skills, interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence to develop more rounded graduates which will improve employment opportunities for these graduates, within and outside of academia.

The use of Dr Cusacks' framework and projects such as CHAMELEONS will ensure the production of high-quality evidence regarding the value of interdisciplinary research networks.  This work has input from many sectors thereby strengthening the research findings. 

The aim of implementing the framework designed by Dr Cusack and her colleagues is to produce graduates who have a broad skill set and more valuable assets to the workforce, society and economy.

There is increased labour market demand, particularly from industry, for flexible Ph.D. graduates who can integrate knowledge from various sources. Furthermore, universities are experiencing increasing demand for entrepreneurial skills and experience from practice outside the academic context. 

In the future, there is potential that this type of research will encourage international investment and industry in Ireland thanks to availability of highly qualified, highly skilled employees. Using this framework to educate Ph.D. students will improve job opportunities for Ph.D. graduates. This is particularly important considering 85-90% of graduates are employed outside of academia.

The initial stages of the CHAMELEONS project will comprise Ph.D. students involved in connected health. Through intersectoral and interdisciplinary research, patient and clinician outcomes will be maximised.

For example, computer science and engineering students will be able to optimally develop applications and systems, healthcare students can discern the most appropriate way to present this and ensure the end users are consulted and involved in the development process. 

Ultimately improvements in connected health research will help develop more patient-and healthcare-worker-friendly systems, in turn improving communication links, workflow and patient outcomes. Connected health involves using existing technology or developing new applications and systems to improve healthcare. 

The CHAMELEONS project will begin in this area, bringing together Ph.D. students from multiple sectors such as healthcare, computer science, engineering, psychology, statistics, physics/mathematic to bring healthcare into the day-to-day lives of patients, by using technology already well established in the consumer market such as smartphones and combining these with new sensor-based equipment and remote monitoring. 

The aim is to provide all disciplines operating in the connected health domain with more information and data, giving them a better opportunity to diagnose and manage healthcare needs. 

About the researcher

Tara Cusack is an Associate Professor in the UCD School of Public Health Physiotherapy and Sports Science in University College Dublin. She is a physiotherapist and holds Master of Medical Science (UCD) and PhD degrees (UCD) together with a Graduate Diploma in University Teaching and Learning.

Tara is a recognized expert in the area of education and academic development and is a UCD Fellow in Teaching and Academic Development. Tara recently led a successful Horizon 2020 Co-ordinated Support Action entitled Championing A Multi-sectoral Education and Learning Experience to Open New pathways for Doctoral Students CHAMELEONS (998,000).

Previously together with Professor Brian Caulfield and Professor Susi Geiger, she secured 1,016,223 from Horizon 2020 for a project entitled Connected Health Early Stage Researcher Support System (CHESS) which developed an interdisciplinary education programme for primary health care professionals. Tara won the e-tender for UCD to deliver aptitude testing and assessment of professional competence for physiotherapists for the statutory regulator CORU.

She has chaired educational review panels for CORU in the University of Limerick, University College Galway, Technological University Dublin and University College Cork. Tara conducts pedagogical and clinical research. She has previously been a Teaching Fellow of the Dublin Region Higher Education Alliance (DRHEA), was awarded the UCD Excellence in Teaching and Learning College Teaching Award, and was shortlisted by UCD for the National Academy for Integration of Research Teaching and Learning (NAIRTL) Awards.

(opens in a new window)Tara Cusack UCD Profile

(opens in a new window)Tara Cusack on Twitter

Associated references

(opens in a new window)EU Strategy for Modernising Higher Education

(opens in a new window)Researcher Career Development

UCD School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science

University College Dublin Belfield, Dublin 4, Ireland.
T: +353 1 716 7777 | E: public.health@ucd.ie