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Researcher profile: Dr Stephen Ball

As a child, Dr Stephen Ball had a curious mind. Always intrigued by how things worked, he asked questions until he was satisfied with the answers. His curiosity led to some very long classes at school, while he questioned his teachers, much to the irritation of his school mates, and has underpinned a diverse and successful research career.

Dr Stephen Ball, PRECRU.
Dr Stephen Ball, PRECRU.

Dr Ball began his career as a zoologist and botanist, and is currently working as a Research Fellow in the Prehospital, Resuscitation and Emergency Care Research Unit (PRECRU) on a National Health Medical Research Council (NHMRC) funded project.

Provide an overview of your research career to date.

I started as a zoologist and botanist and did that for 17 years, which included my study. I completed a PhD at Adelaide University, which focused on the population viability of animals that live in habitat islands. After this time, I relocated to New Zealand for two years and I was radio-tracking brush tail possums, and researching their home ranges, as part of the national Possum Control Program.

After moving to Perth, my first encounter with Curtin was doing a postgraduate diploma on Geographic Information Science in the Department of Spatial Sciences. I then worked for what was previously called the Department of Conservation and Land Management. After three years, I wanted to move back into research and applied for a job at the Telethon Kids Institute.

Initially, I had a role as a database programmer and then as a spatial epidemiologist, looking at how health problems are geographically clustered. From there, I saw this opportunity at Curtin and thought it would be a good match with my epidemiology and database programming.

Professor Judith Finn also saw that it would be good to apply my spatial analysis skills in PRECRU. Now I am working as a Research Fellow on a NHMRC funded project on improving ambulance dispatch to time-critical emergencies.

Dr Ball with Professor Judith Finn, School of Nursing, Midwifery and Paramedicine.
Dr Ball with Professor Judith Finn, School of Nursing, Midwifery and Paramedicine.

How long have you been at Curtin?

I have been working at Curtin for two and a half years as a Research Fellow with PRECRU. 

Why were you drawn to academia/research as a career?

I always had an inquisitive mind, and always wanted to get to the heart or the truth of an issue. I always needed to understand how things work, and was the kid in high school who kept asking questions beyond what my mates wanted me to ask, as they wanted to go home and I was still questioning. And I still have the need to understand how and why things work.

What are your current areas of research interest/specialisation?

My current research is looking at ways to improve ambulance dispatch to time-critical emergencies, which is the Curtin-administered NHMRC project awarded to Professor Judith Finn. I also focus on spatial aspects of pre-hospital care, in particular looking at how cardiac arrest is clustered geographically, and where the best places are for defibrillators to be located in the community.

I also work with Dr Gavin Pereira and Dr Annette Regan.  This research concentrates on the spacing between pregnancies, and what that means for birth outcomes and for maternal health. Gavin and I worked together on several papers when we were both at Telethon Kids Institute.

Dr Stephen Ball collaborating with Dr Hideo Tohira, Research Fellow, School of Nursing, Midwifery and Paramedicine.
Dr Stephen Ball collaborating with Dr Hideo Tohira, Research Fellow, School of Nursing, Midwifery and Paramedicine.

Who do you collaborate with?

PRECRU collaborates with St John Ambulance Western Australia. In particular, I am involved with the St John Ambulance State Operations Centre, which handles all emergency ambulance calls in Western Australia. I also collaborate with a number of people on the NHMRC dispatch grant I work on, which includes people from Royal Perth Hospital, Monash University (Victoria), Ambulance Victoria and Warwick University (UK). 

What have been the challenges and highlights of your career to date?

One of the challenges has been changing career and therefore changing discipline. Working with clinicians is really helpful to work out that what I do is well grounded in reality. It is a challenge for me because I come from a more quantitative background, and the questions I ask are from that perspective. So I need to ensure the questions I ask have clinical meaning, and are important and challenging.

A career highlight was writing a paper on the effects of inter-pregnancy interval on birth outcomes. This paper was able to help change the science on what was understood about this topic, and was published in the British Medical Journal. This went on to form the basis of a NHMRC grant on inter-pregnancy interval.

A real highlight for me is working with such a diverse team in PRECRU at Curtin. My colleagues have clinical backgrounds as critical care nurses, they come from a paramedic background, from engineering and surgical backgrounds and social science backgrounds, which includes an international linguist. This makes the work so rewarding.

Dr Ball hard at work.
Dr Ball hard at work.

Working with St John Ambulance and our other research partners has been so satisfying. They have all been so generous with their time, and this has helped a lot in understanding how ambulance systems work, and what questions are clinically important.

Being able to work with Professor Judith Finn has been a huge highlight, as she is a great mentor and sees the value in people from all of these diverse backgrounds. Judith has a great understanding of clinical medicine, as well as quantitative analysis, which means that everyone has value and has learning opportunities in this multidisciplinary team. 

What are your interests outside of work?

My family is a huge part of my interest out of work, being able to spend time with them. My garden is a huge interest as I’m still a botanist at heart. I really enjoy body surfing, or anything which involves surfing. And I love being outside camping and hiking.

Contributed by: Sarah Fulford, Research Support Officer, Office of Research and Development.