“Research naturally came about by wanting to be the very best doctor. To be the very best doctor, you really have to know the literature to try and answer the questions from your patients to the best of your ability,” Associate Professor Ryan Hodges.
He may have started his medical career as a bright-eyed, fresh-faced intern at Monash Health, but fast forward 20 years, and Associate Professor Ryan Hodges is now the Director of Maternity Services and Program Director for Women’s and Newborn; a department that oversees over 10,000 births annually across four hospital sites.
Born and raised in Melbourne, Ryan graduated from Monash University’s School of Medicine and got an internship at Monash Health in 2003. He did his six years of obstetrics and gynaecology training here and then completed his PhD in novel fetal therapy and fetal surgery. This involved developing fetal surgical models in sheep and testing various therapies for fetal and neonatal lung disease. It is exciting to see this research now translated into clinical trials for babies in our NICU.
Ryan was also awarded the inaugural Monash Health Emerging Research Fellowship during that time. He was awarded the Fellowship for his research in preterm rupture of membranes and early detection of infection. Ryan then went abroad for four years, spending a year in Leuven, Belgium, working under Professor Jan Deprest, who founded the Eurofetus Consortium. Supported by the European Commission, the Consortium brought together fetal medicine specialists and manufacturers to design a series of fetoscopic instruments. Fetoscopy is a procedure where a small instrument is inserted into the uterus to see the fetus and placenta and offer surgical treatments in utero.
Ryan then moved on to Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, Canada, where he completed the Canadian Maternal Fetal Medicine Fellowship through the University of Toronto, worked with some world leaders in high-risk pregnancy, and stayed on as a consultant.
Then, his former PhD supervisor and long-term mentor, Professor Euan Wallace, who is now Victoria’s Secretary of Department of Health, convinced him to move his family back here to take up a leadership role at Monash Health.
In 2015, Ryan returned as the Head of Perinatal Services, leading the high-risk pregnancy program caring for mothers with severe health problems, babies with abnormalities or growth problems, complex multiple pregnancies and those babies requiring in-utero fetal therapy and surgery.
In 2017, when Monash Health’s Women’s and Children’s program was separated into a dedicated Children’s program and then Women’s and Newborn, Ryan was appointed Program Director of the latter.
“I’ve been in this role for over six years, and it has been wonderful. Our team makes an extraordinary contribution as we are now one of the largest women’s and newborn healthcare services in the country.
“And we provide all the different models of care to so many women and their families. It’s a big impact, a big contribution, and to be successful at that, we have to have the very best team, which is what we have.
“It’s just been an absolute privilege to be on that journey and then to be in my current role where I get to have a leadership responsibility for such a remarkable team,” he says.
His journey at Monash Health came full circle when he started mentoring Dr Sasha Skinner, a registrar who was also awarded the Emerging Research Fellowship in 2018.
The next generation clinician-researcher: Dr Sasha Skinner
Sasha grew up in a small town on the Mornington Peninsula by the beach. Her mother was a local GP, and she spent a lot of time in her mother’s clinic and was always interested in how the body works. She knew she wanted to do medicine early on and got accepted to study medicine at Monash University.
“I loved most of my rotations in medical school and my internship and was never sure what I wanted to specialise in until I worked in obstetrics and gynaecology at Monash Health.
“I was fascinated by pregnancy, birth, and the strength of the women we cared for. The midwives and doctors I worked with were this wonderful mix of skill and compassion, and I was lucky enough to have some incredible mentors who showed me how special it is to work in women’s health,” she says.
During her obstetrics and gynaecology elective rotation, she had the opportunity to sit in on some maternal fetal medicine clinics and met Ryan. Sasha credits him as instrumental in facilitating her involvement in her first research project.
“After I finished medical school, I decided to do a Bachelor of Medical Sciences with the Hudson Institute of Medical Research, which was an incredible year. I have been involved in research in some capacity or another ever since.
“What amazed me as I got more involved in obstetrics and gynaecology clinically was how complementary research and clinical medicine really are – you have this never-ending source of unanswered questions that you can tap into with the resources to find the answers,” she says.
Ryan was her research supervisor for her BMedSci and encouraged her to apply for the Monash Health Emerging Researcher Fellowship due to his positive experience.
“It was obvious that she’s very bright, and you could see she was very ambitious in wanting to contribute. She was a wonderful team player and became a very effective member of a much bigger team. It was great to watch her impact and her contribution starting to grow,” Ryan says.
Sasha’s research at the time looked at the effect on the fetus and uterine circulation when the uterus is filled with gas for surgeries to repair fetal spina bifida in utero and how to make this as safe as possible.
“I was lucky enough to work with some incredible people, including Professor Stuart Hooper and the team at the Richie Centre and Dr Ben Amberg, who continued with the work after I left, completing his PhD on this topic,” Sasha says.
Sasha has most recently been part of a multidisciplinary task force at Monash Health led by Dr Peter Neil to improve the safety of operative vaginal birth for mothers and babies, including developing a safety checklist. Through quality and safety, clinical incidents and review, she has developed a research program to make these procedures safer.
It has been rolled out at all four of Monash Health’s maternity hospitals, endorsed by the Victorian Managed Insurance Authority, which is the state insurer. It is now about to be rolled out at the Royal Women’s Hospital and multiple other hospitals.
Her research will evaluate the clinical outcomes and consumer experience.
Sasha is now enrolled through the RANZCOG training program to become an obstetrician & gynaecologist. She is also doing her PhD now under the supervision of Professor Ben Mol and Adjunct Associate Professor Daniel Rolnik.
“Sasha has been incredibly successful and she is such a valued member of our team. From my perspective, it all comes down to recognising those with talent and who share our culture and values and then it is our responsibility to invest in them to achieve their potential and flourish.
“And she’s certainly on track,” Ryan says.
Advice for young clinicians who are interested in pursuing research
Ryan encourages young clinicians to find what they’re passionate about and what interests them, ask questions, and learn how to better care for their patients.
“And if you don’t know the answer, then it’s upon you to go and find out. And I guarantee you’ll find someone very enthusiastic to support that journey.
“And the wonderful thing is there is so much support and expertise available at Monash Health, and if it ignites a flame, who knows where your career will go? You could end up in leadership like me, or the university, government, industry and the private sector or a blend; there are so many opportunities.
“But most importantly, you’ll hopefully close the loop on that question for that very patient and that could make all the difference,” he says.
The next round of applications for the Monash Health Emerging Researcher Fellowship opens early January 2024 and closes in early to mid-April.
The Monash Health Emerging Researcher Fellowship is just one of the ways you can grow and diversify your career at Monash Health. Explore exciting career opportunities and view our latest vacancies on the Monash Health Careers website.