Feeding an insatiable appetite for knowledge
Cinthya Wibisono’s PhD a testament to tenacity and a desire to help those in need.
For as long as she can remember, Cinthya Wibisono has had a fascination with food.
She’d established a career in the marketing industry but her passion for cooking and trying new foods led her to toy with the idea of delving deeper into the science of food.
But calling time on a well-established career and starting all over again as an undergraduate student was a daunting prospect.
“Curiosity got the better of me and wanting to understand the science behind food really motivated me to bite the bullet and study,” Cinthya said.
She chose the University of Wollongong (UOW) to start a new phase of her life, completing a Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics (Honours) and then moving into a PhD in the School of Medicine under the supervision of Professor Linda Tapsell.
She was among 1,500 students celebrating the completion of their education journey at the University of Wollongong’s autumn graduation celebrations this week (17 to 19 April).
Not that the PhD was part of the original plan.
“I was curious about getting into research. A PhD was never on my to-do list but the opportunity was presented to me and I thought, well I should just do it and see where it takes me.”
Cinthya’s PhD investigated something people deal with every day: food choices.
What we eat and drink has a major impact on our health and wellbeing, yet for people who require clinical interventions and are prescribed diets, the choices can be both overwhelming and underwhelming.
“A high-quality diet means a person can get their essential nutrients without compromising energy balance, which is important for weight loss.
"What my thesis looked at is how food choices – the sort of food and drinks that an individual would choose over a course of time – affected the overall quality of their diet and specifically weight-loss in intervention trial settings.”
The takeaway is that for people undergoing nutrition interventions to treat conditions such as obesity or diabetes, a one-size-fits-all approach is limited in effectiveness because all people have different preferences and tastes; but the emphasis must always be on specific food choices.
“The job of the dietitian in a clinical setting is to more or less negotiate with the patient and identify foods that they are happy to have and are comfortable with eating on a day-to-day basis,” Cinthya said.
“For example, if I were trying to help you increase your vegetable intake I wouldn't necessarily say ‘look, you have to eat five cups of broccoli’, if that’s not something you like.
“But we will figure out what vegetables you do like in a prescribed amount that's beneficial for you.
"We want you to stick to the diet. which is why we take into account the individual lifestyle preferences and needs and try to create a meal plan that would suit you.”
Like any PhD journey, there were plenty of ups and downs along the path.
For Cinthya, being a single mum who’d given up the security of a career added to the pressure, but also fuelled her determination to succeed.
She dedicated her thesis to her son, who is now 16 and starting to think about his own education future.
The dedication reads: “Whenever things were difficult, I would think of you and remind myself I could not give up [and] be a respectable role model for you.
"This thesis proves you can do anything you put your mind to … I hope this makes you proud of your mum.”
Cinthya said she wanted to lead by example and show that with the right support and desire, anything was possible.
“It was a sort of lead by example thing and I wanted him to be able to say, ‘look, if Mum could have done this at her age then anything is possible if you put your mind to it’. It's a cliché but it's true.
“Every time I hit a road bump it really helped me to put it in perspective by reminding myself why I was doing this.
“I have to say that I was very fortunate to have a team of supervisors who had my back, as well as having support from other PHD students in my office.
"Knowing we were all in the same boat and having them to have a cry on if it was needed really helped me through some of the tougher times.”
Since submitting her thesis in late 2017, Cinthya has been splitting her time between lecturing at UOW part-time, private clinical work and working at a high school to provide dietetic advice for students.
“Helping those in need is very rewarding. The high school is in a very low socioeconomic area so providing practical advice is very fulfilling.
“It’s similar in private practice. Having a patient coming in and I'm able to express advice in a way that makes light bulbs go off in their head and you can see you’re making an impact as the practitioner is very rewarding.”