Alumni Profile: Jill Byrne, '16 PhD

A student with a non-medical background navigates through pediatrics to a career

Jennifer Lavallee - 13 December 2017

The director of clinical research in the University of Alberta's Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, Jill (Avis) Byrne, '16 PhD, is a clinical researcher with expertise in childhood obesity prevention. An alumna from the Department of Pediatrics, most people assume she's a pediatrician. But Byrne is not a medical doctor.

"I've always been interested in children and health, that's why the researchers at U of A really stood out to me," said Byrne, who credits the department for encouraging students with diverse backgrounds to enter the graduate program. "It's quite wonderful because you get this multi-disciplinary lens to research and not just one that is a purely medical approach."

With a background in psychology, Byrne began a master's degree in the Department of Pediatrics in 2012, researching childhood obesity under the supervision of Geoff Ball. Before she completed her degree, Byrne transferred into the PhD program. "The thing I love most about the department, and what I will always appreciate, is the warm learning environment. There was no question that I felt couldn't be asked," she said.

Byrne says she learned invaluable skills that allowed her to gain a newfound sense of confidence. "It was in this department that I developed and finessed my communication abilities so that I was able to clearly and concisely connect with researchers, stakeholders, patients - and even the public." The once-shy student says she used to be intimidated to participate in seminars and meetings; however, with the support of those in the department, she was encouraged to become an active participant in her learning career.

"I attribute a lot of this to my supervisor, Dr. Ball, who encouraged me to leverage every opportunity to present and talk about my research―even when it made me feel uncomfortable," she said.

Byrne learned how to speak with ease in front of people and began to find her stride in the art of conducting research. It was here she gained a deep understanding of the nuts and bolts of how the process works. Through the course of her research, Byrne recruited nearly 300 participants. "Recruitment isn't easy," she stressed, "and the last thing I wanted to do was come across as a cold, scientific robot." The Department of Pediatrics helped Byrne discover how to show empathy for her participants while demonstrating herself as a credible researcher.

After Byrne graduated, she says she felt well-prepared to tackle the leadership position she is working in now. Today, her goal is to provide navigational support to researchers so they can get their own studies up and running.

Though she is no longer working directly in the Department of Pediatrics, Byrne believes this is where her career truly began and where a solid foundation of experience prepared her for new challenges. "I learned so many skills there, I wouldn't trade my journey for anything."