A road leading across an empty field, followed into the distance.

Breathing new life into complex ideas with Dr Christina Marel

18 October 2023
Researcher spotlight: Dr Christina Marel
In this edition of the Researcher Spotlight, the Matilda Centre team sits down with Researcher Dr Christina Marel to discuss research funding, translating complex ideas to a general audience, and what she does to support herself when she's feeling down.
A bust image of Dr Christina Marel. She is a woman with brown hair pulled back, and is wearing a black shirt with a grey scarf. She is smiling.

Image: Dr Christina Marel

Full Name: Dr Christina Marel

Position at the Matilda Centre: Senior Research Fellow, Program Lead of Treatment and Translation in Complex Populations

What is your background and how did you come to join the University/Matilda Centre?

My background is a little different from many of the other people I work with at the Matilda Centre – my PhD was in Criminology at UNSW, where I researched responses to volatile substance misuse in Central Australia. My PhD was an adventure and I learned so much – I try to carry those learnings with me and apply them to my work and the way I approach my own students. 

Soon after submitting my thesis, I was overjoyed to be hired as a research assistant at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), where I had always wanted to work. On a project run by Professors Katherine Mills and Maree Teesson, my first role was to coordinate the development and dissemination of five evidence-based information booklets on the most common mental health disorders to co-occur with substance use, for the general public. I didn’t know it at the time, but these booklets – known as the Comorbidity Booklets – were the first step in paving the way for my later work in the development, dissemination and translation of evidence-based information to general and clinical audiences.  

Eight years later, I was very lucky to be included by Maree Teesson and other researchers in the establishment of the Matilda Centre at the University of Sydney – it has been an incredibly exciting five years, and so rewarding to be part of building a collaborative research environment. I still sometimes can’t believe I made it here! 

Can you tell us about your main area of research and the projects you have been involved with?

My research area focuses on improving our understanding of, and responses to, mental and substance use disorders in complex populations, and facilitating the translation of research into practice through the development of evidence-based resources.

These projects all have key roles in generating knowledge to improve our understanding of mental and substance use disorders; disseminating that knowledge to the general public and to the clinicians helping people with these issues; and developing resources to translate the evidence and facilitate uptake into clinical and care practice.

Although I am involved in and collaborate on a range of different projects, two important projects that I have been leading for many years that mean a great deal to me are the Australian Treatment Outcome Study (ATOS) and the National Clinical Guidelines on co-occurring conditions.

ATOS is a study examining heroin dependence among 615 people originally recruited in 2001-02. I have coordinated the 11- and 18-20-year follow-ups of this study, where we reconnect with our study participants.  This has provided vital evidence regarding the long-term unmet treatment needs of an incredibly vulnerable population, at a critical time where many countries are in the grip of a heroin epidemic.

While new research findings are important, they need to make their way to clinicians to have impact on the people who need them. To bridge this divide, in collaboration with an expert panel of clinicians, researchers, consumers, and carers, I have led the development of two editions of National Clinical Guidelines funded by the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care. The National Clinical Guidelines focus on the management and treatment of co-occurring alcohol and other drug and mental health conditions, and accompanying training programs.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

There are a lot of things I love about my work, especially my team and the great people I get to work with every day. But there are two things that I find incredibly rewarding, that continue to give my work meaning.

Firstly – often when I read research papers about people with heroin dependence, the findings can be quite similar. For many people, heroin dependence can be a chronic, long-term condition, associated with poor outcomes, illness, and poor physical and mental health. Through my work on ATOS, I have been able to meet, interview and engage with many people with long and complex histories of heroin dependence and mental health conditions. Being able to connect my translation work with my experience working on ATOS means that I don’t see the people in research as numbers – I see and remember the faces of my participants, which gives my work meaning and motivates me to keep going. And what isn’t always reflected or captured in research papers are that people can, and do, get better.

Secondly – the Guidelines were developed to build capacity among the alcohol and other drug (AOD) workforce in relation to responding to mental health conditions. I find it incredibly rewarding when visiting an AOD service to see a copy of the Guidelines – sometimes with the cover looking worse for wear, slightly grubby, dented, stained, but well used – sitting on someone’s desk. Hearing how the Guidelines and our other resources have actually made a difference to AOD workers’ practice (and the outcome of their clients) is almost beyond words – it’s why I’m here.

What do you like most about working at the Matilda Centre – how is it different to other places you’ve worked?

It’s difficult to describe how different the Matilda Centre is to other places I’ve worked! 

The Matilda Centre is incredibly supportive and provides opportunities across multiple levels for career development, internal and external collaboration and leadership for professional and academic staff. Being a research centre, there is a strong focus on academic career pathways, with many research assistants and professional staff encouraged to pursue postgraduate studies. 

Although our work can be incredibly competitive – we all apply for grant funding, often through the same schemes at the same time which is critical to support our projects and our teams who work on them – in my view, we’ve managed to create a collaborative environment where we can learn from each other. It’s very special and is built on trust and respect modelled throughout all levels, which means that we can be happy for each other when someone gets a grant or award. 

This October issue, we’re celebrating National Mental Health Month. So, we want to know, what is something that you do to look after your own mental health and wellbeing?

So important! It can sometimes be really challenging to make sure we are looking after ourselves. I’ve recently been trying to be more proactive about making time to do things I enjoy – rock climb, pilates, my weird design craft things, take pottery classes and I’ve just started learning the cello. I also try to force myself to do things I don’t enjoy but I know are good for me – go to the gym, eat fruit, walk instead of drive, eat less sugar. Funnily enough there’s not much time to do those things. 

For more information about Dr Marel's research and the Comorbidity Guidelines, visit the Cormobidity website.