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To drink or not to drink: Does a little bit of alcohol cause good health?

19 October 2021
Student Spotlight: Rachel Visontay
We sat down and spoke to PhD student Rachel Visontay who is using a range of sophisticated statistical methods to better understand the relationship between alcohol and our health.
Rachel Visontay

Rachel Visontay, PhD Candidate

What is your background and why did you choose to take on Higher Degree Research with the Matilda Centre?

I completed my Honours in psychology at the University of Sydney in 2015, and in 2016 started as a research assistant with the Matilda Centre when it was still part of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW. From 2016-2019, I was lucky enough to work on a wide range of the Centre's projects alongside many different academics. Early on, I knew the Matilda Centre was the place I wanted to do my PhD. After getting a taste of the possible research avenues, I found myself really enthralled by the kinds of complex questions the epidemiology stream investigated, and the clever methods used to answer them.

How would you describe your area of research to someone at a dinner party outside your field?

You’ve probably read those headlines in the news: 'New study finds a glass of wine a day is good for the heart', or 'Scientists say a little bit of alcohol will help you live longer'. But these findings – that moderate alcohol consumption is protective against a range of health outcomes – are actually pretty controversial.

At the heart of the problem is that we can't conduct proper experiments to test this question, and instead we rely on observational studies of people who happen to drink certain amounts of alcohol.

This kind of research is susceptible to quite a few limitations, particularly that we don't know if alcohol is itself protective, or whether it’s the kind of factors associated with moderate drinking, such as being wealthier, more educated and so forth, that are what is really causing good health.

My research is applying more sophisticated statistical methods to try to unpick these causal questions.

Rachel Visontay's 'Visualise Your Thesis' entry

In your experience, what’s the most exciting part of the PhD journey?

Getting to pursue things that pique my intellectual interest. The flexibility of the PhD is fantastic in that regard. For instance, if I come across a statistical approach that I find interesting, I can go off and read papers about it, contact different academics about how to use it, attend a specialist course on it, and finally implement it myself in part of my thesis. I also love getting to collaborate with academics based all over the world!

What is something most people wouldn't know about you?

Before Honours, I spent three months working on a dairy farm. I noticed that every day on their way from pen, some of the cows would spontaneously leak right before they reached the milking platform – Pavlovian conditioning in action!

What are you reading?

McGee on Food & Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture This book is endlessly fascinating (although it might take me a few years to get through!)


Supervisors:

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