They say a picture tells a thousand words and that certainly holds true for the photograph that sits proudly in an office at UQ’s School of Public Health.
Pictured are three women, Professors Gita Mishra, Annette Dobson, and Julie Byles (University of Newcastle), who together with Professor Wendy Brown (UQ School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences) became the pioneers of the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health.
Two years after the study commenced at The University of Newcastle, the women took a rare pause in their busy schedules to have dinner together, unaware that this photograph and their bond would endure the test of time.
Professor Brown was one of a small group of women at the University of Newcastle who had the idea to tender for the survey which would assess the health and health service use of three generations of women. They co-opted a person with extensive experience in large epidemiological studies to lead the study – this was biostatistician Professor Annette Dobson.
“I’d run a 10-year study on cardiovascular disease organised by the World Health Organization, so they invited me to be the founding director,” recalls Dobson.
Shortly after setting up operations, there was a clear need for a second statistician to help crunch the numbers and a fresh-faced Mishra was hired for the job in 1995.
“We hired Gita, who had just finished her PhD in New Zealand, in her first academic job.
“She became enthused with women’s health, and then progressed, spending about five years in Newcastle before going overseas. She always kept a focus on women’s health wherever she could, building her skills in statistics and large longitudinal studies.”
It was a fortuitous phone call from UQ’s then Executive Dean of Medicine Professor Peter Brooks in 1999, who offered both Dobson and Brown positions at the University and a new home for the study. Another notable researcher from the original group at Newcastle, Professor Christina Lee later joined UQ in the School of Psychology.
“Over time it’s been a serious exercise in capacity building and bringing expertise to UQ,” recalls Professor Dobson.
“By this time, Gita was a fairly senior researcher and was looking to come back to Australia; UQ stepped up to the mark and offered her a position.
“We worked in parallel for a couple of years before it became pretty clear I needed to have a proper succession plan.”
Passing the baton to Professor Mishra came easily for Professor Dobson, but she says there were times when she needed a gentle reminder from colleagues to pull back.
“When Gita took over, the advice from everyone was that I needed to make it very clear that she was the boss, and that I wasn’t to hover around. It wasn’t hard to step back, but I’m glad I had people reminding me.”
Professor Dobson now works as a part-time researcher on the study and was recently awarded an NHMRC grant to focus on dementia.
She admires the drive in Professor Mishra, who is determined to keep the study running in the safe hands of the next generation. They are preparing early and mid-career researchers for all the possible futures of the changing healthcare system.
“Whether you’re talking about better analysis of big data, how genomics fits into the picture or how the workforce will need to adapt to an ageing population, we need to prepare our young researchers to develop breadth right across the spectrum of healthcare so we don’t lose relevance.”
No matter what the future holds, both women will be there to guide the next successors through the ranks and continue the advancement of women’s health.
For more information on the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health visit alswh.org.au