AITHM James Cook University

10 December 2019

Professor Maxine Whittaker, Dean of the College of Public Health, Medical and Veterinary Sciences at JCU, is passionate about building relationships – from helping isolated frontline health workers connect with patients and communities, through to establishing global research partnerships.

In 2017, she was awarded the Royal Australasian College of Physicians International Medal, in recognition of outstanding service in developing countries.

A pioneer in health systems research, design and implementation, she has spent the past 30 years working to overcome barriers to public healthcare access in a number of countries in the Africa, Asia and Pacific regions, including Australia; utilising social sciences to navigate pathways and promote the “human face in health”.

“One of the things I enjoy here at JCU is working with people as they design health interventions,” said Professor Whittaker, who was appointed Dean in 2016 and is also a member of AITHM.

“From early on, while they are doing the lab science, developing the vaccine or thinking about different ways of conducting rapid diagnostic tests, we also need to be asking how this is going to work in the health system. What are the service realities?

“Social sciences provide vital context; for example, political, economic, gender, cultural, historical and colonisation experiences. They help us understand why people may not use health services, even when they are there. This has a major impact on the success of health interventions.”

Having spent much of her career overseas, on the frontline in countries with major health challenges – including a three-year stint in Africa (Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya), three years in Bangladesh and nine years in Papua New Guinea – Professor Whittaker is now utilising her skills, experience and international connections to further global initiatives such as One Health.

“One Health is a transdisciplinary approach to understand the dynamics at the animal-human-environment interface and how that can lead to improved health outcomes in those three spheres for global challenges like food security, infectious diseases, biosecurity, antimicrobial resistance and responses to climate change,” said Professor Whittaker.

“An estimated 75 per cent of infectious diseases in humans originate in animals. The global annual incidence of reported zoonotic infectious disease outbreaks has risen by more than 300 per cent since the 1980s.

“JCU is also looking beyond communicable diseases to the role of One Health in addressing issues such as mental health, learning disorders and non-communicable diseases.”

Professor Whittaker is fostering the One Health ethos through new collaborative ventures in Australia. This year, the College of Public Health, Medical and Veterinary Sciences announced a partnership with the CSIRO – the joint appointment of a Science Leader in Emerging Infectious Diseases.

“The role, based at JCU in Townsville, will be responsible for leading and conducting innovative research in emerging infectious diseases, using a One Health approach,” said Professor Whittaker. “

A dab hand at securing external funds – since 2009 she has been chief investigator (CI) on Asia-Pacific region research and project grants worth a total of more than $80 million – Professor Whittaker is keen to use her international relationships, combined with cross-disciplinary leverage already accrued by JCU, to create new opportunities for upcoming researchers.

“We need to broaden our perspectives; explore more EU partner projects and competitive research grants in other countries. JCU researchers might not always be primary recipient, but they could still become a principal investigator or CI. It’s not just about the survival of researchers. There is evidence that cross-institutional and global collaborations actually makes sense, from a research impact perspective,” she said.

Professor Whittaker believes that JCU is well-placed to contribute to global health research agendas.

“What we bring is authentic relationships with countries in our region,” she said. “So it's not just location. Location doesn't matter, if you don't have authentic relationships. Most of us have actually worked, lived in and have enduring – I was going to say warm – relationships with countries in the region, and are highly respected for that.

“We are not just doing research. We work with our partners in a reciprocal and mutual learning manner. We do advocacy with and for those countries. We go beyond projects to provide capacity building opportunities and institution building for sustainability.

“JCU actually invests some of its own money – even if it is not going to get major returns for it – because it's the right thing to do.”

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