A Catalyst for Change
Why Dr Shefaly Shorey (Nursing (PhD) ’13) is driving research to uplift families in Singapore.
WHO SHE IS
The recipient of the President’s Award for Nurses, Dr Shefaly Shorey cares deeply about supporting each individual within a family unit from “womb to tomb” through research-driven programmes. She has published over 130 papers on these matters and works closely with the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Social and Family Development to effect change in the community.
Last July, Dr Shefaly Shorey was conferred the President’s Award for Nurses, the highest accolade in the Republic’s nursing profession. Such an award would undoubtedly be a feather in the cap for any nursing professional — but it was an especially sweet moment for the 43-year-old, since nursing is her second career.
Despite being surrounded by medical professionals — her late father was a physician and her mother, a retired midwife — Dr Shefaly never seriously considered a career in healthcare. Instead, she spent her early years in biomedical research. That changed when her grandmother-in-law became ill in 2003. “She had terminal cancer and received great palliative care from her nursing team. That stirred something in me and made me want to impact people’s lives directly,” she says. Armed with that passion, she dived headfirst into an education in nursing.
It was early in this education that Dr Shefaly found her passion for academia and research. “Early on, I did an Advanced Diploma in Midwifery,” she tells The Alum
NUS. “During practical sessions, I learnt from my clinicians that we had to suction excess secretions from a newborn’s nose and mouth. But I questioned why we had to do that practice and that became my first clinical investigation. After vigorous research, we found that there was no benefit to the practice and it was eventually discontinued at the hospital I was attached to.”
This experience gave her a taste of the difference she could make through research and academia. “As a nurse, I could impact a great many patients. But as a nurse educator and academic, that impact could be profoundly multiplied,” she says, explaining her decision to pursue a PhD in Women’s Health at the University. She completed the programme in a record two years and, after a short teaching stint at Nanyang Polytechnic (NYP), returned to the University’s Alice Lee Centre for Nursing Studies to develop research programmes and train undergraduates and graduates. “I loved teaching the students at NYP but at NUS, I felt I could make a big difference by designing research efforts, in addition to the teaching.”
The runway is very long for me, since there are so many issues to explore. In the coming years, I am deeply interested in seeing how grandparents can be better supported, as they are the pillars of family life in Singapore.
To Dr Shefaly, having the title of a “doctor” is a double-edged sword. “I am someone who thrives on learning from role models — but a decade ago, there weren’t that many I could look to,” she notes. “I hope to be a role model for other women in STEM fields, as well as nurses seeking to venture into research.” But while the title is lauded in some circles, it can also confuse others. She recalls one incident two years ago when she met the parents of her student. “The student referred to me as ‘Doctor’ and the parents were dumbfounded, because they could not make sense of how a nursing professional could be a ‘Doctor’.”
Although she laughs off such incidents, she admits that it motivates her to better publicise the difference that nurse academics — and more broadly, nurses — make in healthcare. Through her research, she is driving this awareness. Her research interest is in enhancing family dynamics, which has been met with some discouragement from some peers in the profession. “Out of genuine concern, they would tell me not to take on maternity and parenting research because in their view, ‘it’s not rocket science’ and not befitting of serious academic study. But I completely disagree,” she says in her trademark straight-shooting manner.
Such close-minded attitudes like these are precisely what have shackled parents for generations. “Through my research, I learnt about the lived experiences of parents, especially mothers, who were so struck by feelings of guilt that they felt like crying after childbirth. Fathers would tell me that they were scared to even hold their newborns for fear of hurting their child. And you tell them that it’s not ‘rocket science’? We need to talk about these issues, not sweep them under the rug.”
A recognition of EXCELLENCE
The President’s Award for Nurses recognises nurses who have shown sustained outstanding performance and contributions to patient care delivery, education, research and administration. Dr Shefaly was one of 2021’s seven awardees.
Other issues that are sometimes shunned by some quarters of medical research include menopause, breastfeeding and working women. Dr Shefaly has taken all of these on in her various projects and hopes that they will lead to greater conversations on these issues. These, she stresses, must be rooted in science, evidence and data. “You cannot let go of your scientific fundamentals. All our projects enjoy the same scientific rigour of other STEM fields and I am very proud of that.” Only then can these conversations lead to real change, as it did in the case of neonatal suction.
While we are on the topic of conversations about change, Dr Shefaly segues into another aspect we should consider: the channels of conversation. To her, research cannot live in medical journals or be spoken about in medical circles. Instead, they have to be a part of everyday conversation, which is something she tries to do, both at home and in the community. As a mother of an 18-year-old son, Dr Shefaly is well-placed to have these conversations at home. “I share my research findings with him at the dinner table and encourage him to think about these issues at an early age. These are not women’s issues or men’s issues — they are human issues and we should all talk about them freely.”
It’s with this same enthusiasm that Dr Shefaly gamely accepted an invitation from the Ministry of Social and Family Development last year to lead a series of virtual parenting workshops during the Circuit Breaker. Through outreach sessions such as these, she hopes to encourage the community to stand behind parents and support them through their journeys. “We often say that it takes a village to raise a child. I want to reframe that and remind people that it also takes a village to raise a parent.”