Nov. 29, 2022

2022 Vanier scholar seeks to ease pain for childhood cancer survivors

PhD candidate Michaela Patton explores new methods in paediatric pain management
Clinical psychology PhD candidate Michaela Patton
Clinical psychology PhD candidate Michaela Patton Michaela Patton

Every fall, Calgary’s Run for Childhood Cancer mobilizes thousands of people in the community to raise funds for childhood cancer research. While this year’s run has been postponed until 2023, families facing the heartache of a paediatric cancer diagnosis get no such reprieve. Fortunately, research supporting these families is only gaining strength, and graduate student Michaela Patton is in it for the long run.

A doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, Patton is one of UCalgary’s 2022 Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship winners for her research on chronic pain treatment for survivors of childhood cancer. Her work explores the potential of an online pain management tool for paediatric users.

“WebMAP is a self-guided pain management intervention, developed by Dr. Tonya Polermo at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute,” explains Patton. “We know that face-to-face cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is the gold standard for pain management in children, helping them find ways to live well despite the pain they experience.

"However, in-person therapy is not always a good option for families because of barriers like transportation and cost. This online intervention can help to overcome those barriers.”

New directions in paediatric pain management

Patton’s research is charting largely unmapped territory. While WebMAP has had good results for other populations, it has never been tested with kids who have a history of cancer. Apart from an online therapy tool developed specifically for kids with sickle-cell anemia, Patton notes that there is no other tool delivering CBT for chronic pain to kids.

Adapting WebMAP for young users means making CBT accessible and easy to understand. “My work reduces complex, adult-focused concepts to simple, jargon-free terms,” says Patton, who sees this work as having potential benefits for other audiences.

“Stigma can be a barrier for many people, including children, to entering therapy. Having a self-guided option gets around that issue and can be a nice introduction to therapy.”

Under the supervision of Dr. Fiona Schulte, PhD, Patton is currently recruiting families to conduct a trial of WebMAP, and will assess the effectiveness of the tool using quantitative and qualitative research methods. Her team is also interested in determining whether the program should be tailored for this new population, or if the participants like the program in its current form.

Clinical psychology at UCalgary

Originally from the state of Washington, Patton started out in civil and environmental engineering as an undergrad but realized that her heart wasn’t in it. Recalling her interest in a psychology course from high school and a long-standing love of working with children, she switched into a psychology program and went on to work in Polermo’s lab before making her way to UCalgary’s clinical psychology program to pursue her interest in pain management.

“The University of Calgary gives me the chance to bring together my interests in both pain management and paediatric oncology,” says Patton. “I’m now working with some of the best multidisciplinary collaborators in both of these fields. Hearing stories from families with kids who are struggling with pain, I believe this concept can be a good tool in the toolbox to help kids live vital lives.”

Patton is preparing for a residency year as part of her clinically focused PhD program. She hopes to defend her thesis by December 2023 and complete her residency by fall 2024.

“The beauty of a clinical psychology PhD is that it opens so many paths,” says Patton. “There are options to go into industry, academia or clinical practice. I’m not sure what direction I’ll go, but I hope to find a scientist-practitioner role.”

Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarships

“As one of our Vanier scholars, Michaela has given the University of Calgary’s graduate education community so much to be proud of,” says Dr. Robin Yates, vice-provost and dean of graduate studies. “Graduate students are conducting life-changing research that can have an impact far beyond the confines of our campus. Michaela’s work underscores how important graduate education at UCalgary is for Albertans and Canadians.”

The Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship is one of the most prestigious doctoral awards available at UCalgary and is named after Major-General Georges P. Vanier, the first francophone Governor General of Canada. The scholarship is worth $50,000 per year for three years.

This year’s Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship winners also include:

  • Bo Ram Lee – Community Health Sciences
  • Govind Peringod – Neuroscience
  • Allegra DePasquale – Anthropology
  • Jaemyung Shin – Biomedical Engineering
  • Andrei Sabin Nataste – Neuroscience
  • Isla Shill – Kinesiology