NOF/Weight Watchers Research Award - 2010

Tony Hirving, order winner of the 2010 Research Award 

Tony Hirving won the 2010  Research Award from the National Obesity Forum and Weight Watchers. What started as an idle corridor conversation with a dietetic colleague has blossomed into a full-blown research study. Now the post-win euphoria has subsided, he talks to Jenny Poulter about his research journey. He describes how the award gave him the kick-start to take the plunge and get involved in ‘grown up’ research. 
Tell us a little about your career history?

My pathway into dietetics was quite convoluted.  I dropped out of A-levels (my mother was not happy about that!) six months after starting 6th form; I then joined HM Customs & Excise as a clerical officer, but the civil service wasn’t me and I left after a few years. I spent many years after that doing a wide variety of jobs, including working as a chambermaid, selling ice cream and factory work. I started bodybuilding in my late twenties, which triggered my interest in nutrition. An inspirational lecturer persuaded me to do an access course in food studies, which qualified me for entry to study dietetics at the London Metropolitan University. After stints as a basic grade at Kingston and as a catering dietitian at UCL Hospitals, I took a part-time post as a Primary Care Dietiitian at Guy’s and St Thomas’, which allowed me to pursue other interests. I recently formed my own company and now I split my time between the freedom of working for myself and the stability of the NHS. It’s perfect. So it has been a long trip round the houses into dietetics, but my story might be inspirational to young people who leave school without any idea of a career path – it can take a while to find the way.

Why did you apply for this particular award?
The promise of help from a mentor really sold it to me. The thought of being able to call on someone who is experienced in research made the whole prospect of research less daunting to me. Shortly after seeing this award advertised I had a reflective conversation with my colleague Jessica Swann. Jessica expressed her strong sense of ‘dissatisfaction’ with the level of engagement during her consultations with black male clients referred to her for weight loss by GPs. She felt that something was ‘missing’ and wondered what this might be. This prompted me to look at the research evidence on effective weight loss interventions with black men. Surprise, surprise – it looks like we know little about how best to help this specific target group of overweight and obese patients. On top of this, the Department of Health’s own commissioned research (published last year) entitled ‘Maximising the Appeal of Weight Management Services’ confirmed once again that one size does not fit all; it is unlikely that an intervention that works well with white middle-aged women in Surrey will be equally effective with black males in Lambeth. I had my research question on a plate and this was the second impetus to grasp the Research Award opportunity and ‘go for it ’.

What does the award mean to you?
The award buys me time, some training and additional resources to conduct some good quality research. It’s given me a fantastic opportunity to do something a little different. Actually, writing the proposal was good fun once I got started – the key part was to have a clear ‘question’ and then think about the steps needed to go about answering it. This award offers an excellent platform from which to launch myself into the exciting world of research – to do what I’ve avoided in the past (because I never had time, of course!).

So what was your study proposal?
I’ll be conducting a 2-phase study. Initially my task is to find out more about the attitudes and belief systems around weight, health and body image amongst obese black males. I’m going to undertake the study in Lambeth (my professional stomping ground) and my plan is to reach out to the community via under-used channels like barbers, job centres, bus depots and places of worship, rather than GP practices. I feel that I’ll make more meaningful connections through these networks, which are part of the community. Qualitative methods will be harnessed to collect data – although I know little about focus groups or in-depth interviews, I’ve lined up some great quality training to get up to speed. When the findings are on the table, the second stage is to use these insights to design better weight loss services tailored to the needs of black males. I’d like to think that there will be a third stage which will be a randomised controlled trial to examine the effectiveness of the services we have designed – but that will be beyond the life of this Research Award.

Tell us a little about your feelings about research now that you have got stuck in – does it match your expectations?
Yes, it does. On the one hand I feel that I am sailing into unchartered waters – but there is also that very satisfying prospect of challenging myself, learning and making a small contribution to the understanding of people’s behaviours in relation to weight and health. I really relish the thought of doing what I never seriously considered before now. There is also the exciting realisation that this might result in some sort of publication or poster. My mother would be proud of that!

What’s been your steepest learning curve so far?
The application to the ethics committee – I was surprised how detailed the submission needed to be. It was pretty easy to summarise the study from all the work I’d done to put the proposal together. But for ethical approval I needed to have a fully tied-down methodology, including discussion guides, which detail the areas of questioning that I’m going to focus on with participants.   

What will be the main challenges ahead?
Recruiting the sample will be my main concern. I think it is going to be fun working with community forums, agencies, etc but I anticipate that actually getting people to participate in the research will be an uphill struggle. They will have to give up their time (when everybody is so busy) and feel confident about voicing their opinions within a group of strangers. This all translates into effort – which is not for everybody. My plan is to create a bit of a buzz within community networks – where possible, I will attend local events to promote the research and invite people to participate. I’m even contemplating offering small incentives to take part. If that doesn’t work then I’ll think again, but I believe community networking will be key to successful recruitment.

What would you say to someone else who is thinking of applying for this award?
Talk to others. Research is a little scary and sometimes you have to let go of certain aspects in the early concept stage. Let me give you an example.  Initially, I was thinking about doing the qualitative study phase and the design and delivery of a tailored weight loss service. It took a dietitian research lead at my trust to ask if that would be feasible given the available resources. Through sitting down and discussing things with people who have more research experience than I, we were able to distil and simplify the study into something that is achievable within the time and budget afforded by this Research Award. So I would say to anyone who is setting out on the research road: be brave enough to discuss your ideas with others and be prepared to change them as the research process evolves.

Tony can be contacted by email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.