I have worked in various aspects of public health nutrition for over 30 years now but nutrition was not my first choice for a career. I was born and raised in the Australian island state of Tasmania. Being a predominantly rural environment I first studied agricultural science at the University of Tasmania but ended up with a degree in biochemistry and microbiology. A short stint working as a research assistant on a project assessing salmonella adherence to chicken skins turned me off chicken for a long time but also convinced me that a career focussed on people rather than bacteria was likely to be a more rewarding long term option.
Nutrition and dietetics appealed as a career shift because it allowed me to apply my basic science knowledge in a practical and person-centred manner. This required me to move away from Tasmania to undertake further studies in nutrition and a Diploma in Dietetics at Deakin University in Victoria. I worked as a community dietitian in a range of regional and remote areas in Australia including a stint in Mount Isa providing services to the many indigenous communities scattered around the town. The health inequalities and the high levels of chronic diseases that existed in these communities were staggering.
These experiences convinced me to go back to do a PhD looking at potential mediators of social class variations in cardiovascular disease risk with Mark Wahlqvist at Deakin University. I was convinced that variations in smoking, diet and physical activity behaviours would explain most of this phenomenon and was quite surprised when our results suggested that these behaviours actually accounted for only a limited amount of the variability. Clearly other factors we did not measure were also making a significant contribution to risk of chronic disease.
Before completing my doctorate, I took a position as nutrition adviser to the Department of Health in Tasmania completing my studies part-time. It was during this position where I was required to prepare advisory notes for the minister on a range of matters relating to food and nutrition that I came to appreciate the true breadth of public health nutrition and the enormous potential to positively impact on public health by influencing policy development.
After a number of years within the department of health I was given the opportunity to go and work with Philip James at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen. I was offered a one year post but ended up staying for six years. This was a time of tremendous learning for me as I was engaged within the numerous public health activities Philip undertook on behalf of the UK Government, the EU and WHO as well as being involved in high quality research.
One of those activities involved establishing a taskforce to examine what could be done to improve the effectiveness of action to prevent and manage weight gain and obesity. The group grew to become the International Obesity Taskforce (IOTF) that was instrumental in raising awareness of the rapidly growing problem of obesity and galvanising action on the issue at a national and international level. I was fortunate to serve as scientific secretary to the IOTF in the late 1990s when it was composed of many of the great thinkers in this area under the leadership of Philip James. I also worked as the regional co-ordinator for IOTF in the Asia-Pacific region and have maintained an active role within IOTF. Looking for public health solutions to obesity and other nutrition-related chronic diseases remains my key area of work today.
Since returning to Australia I have worked in a variety of positions within the University of Sydney which have all focussed on generating and assessing evidence that underlies the development of improved public health nutrition and chronic disease prevention polices in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region. For a number of years I directed the NSW Centre for Public Health Nutrition which was directly funded by the government to undertake analyses and provide opinions on key nutrition related issues. Our group has also undertaken evidence assessments and provided input into the development of a range of nutrition, physical activity and obesity strategies and guidelines for Australian and regional governments agencies. Currently, I am the principal research fellow and research programmes manager within the Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise and Eating Disorders at the University of Sydney. As the name suggests, the Boden Institute cover a wide range of research and teaching areas that stretch from mechanistic research to sustainability and economics but the overall focus remains on improving the prevention and management of chronic disease.
Over my career, I have learnt that real change takes a long time and a lot of effort by committed persons and often involves many disappointments. Working in public health nutrition requires more than an understanding of the science of nutrition and its application to populations. You need to embrace the policy making process, drive or harness advocacy, bring in new generations to fight the battles, be adaptable and responsive to changing situations, but most of all be patient.