Impact Blog

What research means to me and why we need to talk about impact

August 2020
Dr Narelle Tunstall
Managing Editor, Graduate Research Impact; Consultant, Empirical Research Development; and Centre Manager, ARC Industrial Transformation Training Centre for Fragment-Based Design.


I’ll never forget the day I witnessed a globally aphasic man say “thank you” to his wife.

To be clear, I wasn’t actually in the room when he said this. I just witnessed the body language and the looks on the faces of this man and his wife after they’d participated in a research trial that had enabled him to speak a few words of thanks. All due to a novel type of functional speech therapy being trialled.

Now, I could next tell you all about Intensive Comprehensive Aphasia Programs (ICAPs), and the specialised details of the methodology of the Aphasia Language Impairment and Functional Therapy (LIFT) program, and why this was so novel. And I could also tell you about how this was only a 3-week, but intensive, style of therapy and that it was aimed at replacing standard 12-month-long drawn-out rehabilitation practices. And whilst all of that detail is VERY important to the results, it’s the results I want to tell you about.

On this day, apparently “thank you” was close to all this man said to his wife, but even that was a huge achievement… and it was clearly laden with so much more…


You see this man, many months or perhaps it was two years before (my memory has faded somewhat), had suffered a massive stroke. Not only did this stroke steal his physical abilities, with significant paralysis of one side of his body, what they call hemiplegia and a symptom that many people understand is a consequence of stroke, but it had also stolen his ‘voice’.

Another less known symptom of stroke is aphasia. Aphasia is an impairment of language, affecting the production or comprehension of speech. It can affect the ability to read or write, use numbers, use gestures, listen (understand what others say) and talk.

Aphasia, I came to understand, is a cruel, cruel, condition.

People with aphasia are competent and intelligent, though their lack of language often belies this. People with aphasia still have thoughts, opinions and emotions. They usually know what they want to say, but they have difficulties getting these messages out.

Can you imagine what that would be like? I could.

A few years earlier I’d gone through my own health crisis needing surgery and a long recovery but one big difference was that I could talk about it. I could share my emotions with my loved ones and easily communicate how I was feeling and what support I needed. Meeting this lovely man, and seeing the struggles he was having to simply communicate, on top of his physical complications, was heart wrenching. I couldn’t bear how horrendous it must be to suffer a stroke and not be able to speak to your loved ones about it. And at this precise moment in my life, some 8 years ago now and about 7 years after I’d finished my own PhD research, I finally realised just how important research was and the very real impacts it can have on people’s lives.

This novel (intensive and functional) therapy program had done more for this man’s quality of life in 3-weeks than the months and months (and months), of standard speech therapy he’d been receiving at the hospital – a model of care that had been rolled out the same way year upon year.

At the time of witnessing this precious moment in one man’s life, I was working as a Centre Manger for the NHMRC Centre for Clinical Research Excellence in Aphasia Rehabilitation (Aphasia CCRE). I’d got the job barely knowing what aphasia was – I’d had to google it to prepare my job application! And I didn’t know much about speech pathology either, which was the discipline of most of the researchers in the Centre.

I had ended up in this job because after my own PhD I knew I didn’t want to be a researcher anymore, but I’d had the self-awareness to recognise the depth of my transferrable skills at least. I thought I was pretty good at project management, and I didn’t really want to leave the University environment just yet. So, I was making what could be mistaken for an almost seamless transition to Research Manager after my decision to ‘quit science’. But really, I was going through various stages of “what should I do with my life now?!”

Working as a researcher I had always understood the benefits of research for the environment, society, culture and the economy, it was why I was there! But that one day in the UQ Aphasia CCRE clinic brought home to me, at a very deep level, what research truly offers us… a better future.

I guess you could say, from the day I started my own PhD, I was a research ‘admirer’. But I’d now found myself wanting to be an exponent for researchers. An advocate, a promoter, a backer, a booster, a supporter, a champion.

And for the period I was Centre Manger of the Aphasia CCRE, and the many years I’ve worked in higher education research since, I have worked hard to support some excellent researchers. But it is not just their academic excellence that inspires me. The people I’ve been fortunate to work with are some of the most passionate and dedicated humans I’ve ever known. People who commit their lives to pursuing knowledge, education, innovation, and generally trying to make the world a better place.

To date, I have had the privilege to support a variety of researchers – engineers improving water quality; molecular biologists finding new pathways to improve crop production; social scientists working with communities to tackle discrimination; public health experts designing new exercise interventions; education experts creating programs for troubled youth; immunologists and cell biologists finding new targets for cancer treatments; and most recently biophysicists and medicinal chemists pushing the limits of fragment-based drug design methods to make new kinds of cancer, antimicrobial, and antiviral drugs (I bet you’re interested in that last one right? Sorry, different virus).

I started a PhD in Drosophila genetics because I loved science, I loved lab work, I loved (and will always love) learning, and at the time, I was ready for an audacious challenge. I also really desperately wanted to identify a new gene and give it a really cool mutant name. I had thought ahead to maybe doing a Postdoc, but I also thought I had plenty of time to figure out my next steps… but time goes fast, in fact, “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana”.

Which is my charming segue back to language. It turns out I highly value communication. Not science communication particularly, just the plain old get your message across stuff. The thought of having aphasia and not being able to talk or write is truly terrifying to me. I also think the most useful skill I developed during my PhD was not to write grammatically perfect sentences (clearly), but to think about the audience I was ‘speaking to’ and communicate to them. Whether it was Drosophila diehards or chemosensory experts, or evolutionary biologists I had to know my audience and tailor my presentations and writing to them. This is the same skill I now use as a Centre Manager to communicate with finance teams, HR staff, marketing teams, industry partners or academics. It is this skill, of thinking about what a reader needs to know to understand what is (trying to be!) conveyed, that has enabled my grant consulting business. And it is this skill I want to further hone, and help others perfect, as I start my next challenge as Managing Editor of this Graduate Research Impact Blog.

Through this blog I want to help researchers, end-users of research, and anyone in between, tell the vast and diverse stories of research impact. To make it clear what research has to offer us, no matter how many years later it eventually occurred, or indeed, how many years in the future it might happen. And that it can also happen along the way, just like it did for the man in this story. We need to tell all of these impact stories, as many times as possible, in as many forms as possible, to make it abundantly clear that excellent research doesn’t happen overnight and it certainly doesn’t happen without funding! But it does happen. Every day.

Because I want what excellent research promises. For individuals like the man in this story, or communities (flora, fauna and human) facing another summer of unrelenting bushfires, or minorities facing discrimination, or our ageing population facing dementia, or the whole world facing a viral pandemic, we need everyone to understand what research truly offers us.

Hope. Potential. Possibility.

And so, I’m asking you to please tell your research impact stories, get your message out there in a way that anyone from any walk of life can understand, so that everyone knows what I know… that research, the majority of which is done in Australia by Graduate Researchers, will lead us into the best possible future.

(P.S. thanks to NHMRC funded research, while the Aphasia CCRE itself has ended, the academics and graduate researchers involved produced an Australian Aphasia Rehabilitation Pathway that is continuing to improve speech pathology practice and models of care across Australia. Now that’s what I call money well spent!)

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash


Natasha Kitano says:

This is a lovely inspiring article. I will share this with the group of HDR students who regularly attend an HDR Writer’s Lounge I facilitate. In the Lounge, the students do focused writing sprints, and they also have the opportunity to relate with other HDR students on aspects of their HDR journey. Your article can remind them of the ‘hope’ ‘potential’ and ‘possibility’ their research will give to others. Thank you.

Susan Kinnear says:

I really enjoyed reading this article, Narelle. It helps to remind us of just how important research ‘backers and enablers’ are. I also loved the concept of hope as another form of impact! An individual PhD is unlikely to single-handedly find an answer to complex problems that face our communities and industries… but each one can offer hope of being a step closer… good research is both incremental and essential.

Kate Simpson says:

Humans thirst for stories. They enable us to understand and remember important messages. Thank you Narelle for sharing yours and the story of that couple. Both stories are memorable and important. I have learnt from my many years of teaching international students in universities that sometimes a small personal anecdote, provoking empathy (through laughter, sadness or any emotion) can create such a clear pathway to knowledge. I may forget students’ names, faces and abilities eventually, as they will mine, but we remember those shared pearls. I have been inspired by so many of my research students and their quest for knowledge and visions of a better world. I look forward to more articles like this.

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