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Bridging boundaries and empowering caregivers: The fellowship journey of two emerging researchers

Lorane Scaria and Rachel Blance-Palmer are two early-career researchers who, despite living in different countries, are connected by their professional aspirations. Both are social workers and PhD candidates driven by a common passion for improving the lives of people with disabilities and their caregivers. Recently, they had the opportunity to experience academic life in each other’s countries as part of the Australia India Research Students (AIRS) Fellowship program. Their joint Fellowship project builds upon a longstanding collaboration between the University of Melbourne and Rajagiri College of Social Sciences.

You are both part of an ongoing collaboration between the University of Melbourne and Rajagiri College of Social Sciences focused on empowering caregivers of individuals with disabilities in Kerala, India. Can you tell me more about this partnership?

Lorane: In India, family members are the preferred care providers for people with disabilities. Despite this, there is limited research exploring the impact of caregiving on families and other caregivers. To develop effective interventions, it’s important to understand the daily experiences of caregivers and the factors that can contribute to caregiver strain. My university, Rajagiri College of Social Sciences, has a 12-year strong research relationship with the University of Melbourne. Rachel and I have been part of this collaboration that aims to promote understanding of the unmet needs of caregivers in India and identify available support resources.

Lorane on campus at the University of Melbourne
Lorane on campus at the University of Melbourne

How has your participation in the AIRS Fellowship program contributed to this ongoing collaboration?

Rachel: Our joint AIRS Fellowship project sought to improve the lives of individuals with disabilities in India by promoting caregiver engagement and social inclusivity. Our study delved into the current and emerging trends in community health programs and family-based interventions for care giving. Ultimately, our goal was to advance our understanding of how community services can effectively support the management of disability care. While I focused on finalising the research design with colleagues at Rajagiri College of Social Sciences, Lorane took charge of the second phase by completing interviews in India, and then analysing the results while at the University of Melbourne.

Rachel during a meeting at Rajagiri College of Social Sciences
Rachel during a meeting at Rajagiri College of Social Sciences

What advantages did you experience by collaborating with colleagues in India and Australia?

Rachel: A key lesson I learned from the fellowship experience is that while internet and technology offer valuable opportunities for international research collaboration, nothing can replace the benefits of spending time in the same location. Being physically present provided me with a better understanding of my Indian colleagues’ work culture and environment. Now, I feel confident reaching out to my research colleagues in India for queries, ideas, or research proposals because of the strong relationship we’ve built and my understanding of their work practices.

Lorane: Meeting my Australian colleagues in person, rather than on Zoom, has proven to be much more effective for collaboration. 

Directly connecting with people and engaging in meaningful conversations strengthens relationships and sparks new ideas.

Lorane Scaria, AIRS Fellow

By working with other academics and students in Melbourne I also enriched my knowledge and expertise in research methodologies. I was able to improve my skills in data analysis, writing funding proposals, and conceptualising thesis outlines.

Lorane and Rachel in chilly Melbourne
Lorane and Rachel in chilly Melbourne

How did the Fellowship add to your knowledge and cultural understanding of the other country?

Rachel: Living and working in a country offers a much deeper understanding than merely visiting as a tourist. 

The fellowship allowed me to immerse myself in the community, meet locals, and gain insights into their daily lives.

Rachel Blance-Palmer, AIRS Fellow

This provided valuable understanding about the environmental factors that impact access to services, health, and mobility in Kerala. I also learned about the social support systems and literacy and education systems, all of which is relevant to our research.

Lorane: Collaborating with PhD candidates in allied health fields at the University of Melbourne allowed me to understand the different layers of work culture in Australia and how it differs from India. I also enjoyed spending time with Rachel who organised a few weekend getaways, including visits to tourist attractions and a fun run.

Lorane, Rachel and a friend at the Phillip Island parkrun
Lorane, Rachel and a friend at the Phillip Island parkrun

What are your future plans for collaboration?

Lorane: Rachel and I are jointly writing an article under the guidance of our supervisors based on the results of our project. The article will focus on mapping, prioritising, and synthesising the community health workers' delivery of disability services for families of people with disabilities in India.

Rachel: The AIRS Fellowship program provided a rich opportunity to further solidify the existing relationship between the University of Melbourne and Rajagiri College of Social Sciences. We anticipate that the results from the current study will pave the way for us to undertake further research in this space. We are also in the early stages of exploring the development of an app which will provide family carers with a pathway to connect with other supports.

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