Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Public health researcher settles in Central Victoria

After years working in public health programs in Papua New Guinea and Myanmar, Dr Claire Nightingale finds it hard not to buy eight packets of couscous when she sees it in the supermarket – just in case it’s missing next time. It’s one of the many cultural adjustments she’s had to make since returning to Australia recently to have her second child.

Now with a new role with Monash University based in Bendigo, she’s developing community research partnerships much as she was doing overseas.

Public health researcher, Dr Claire Nightingale, is looking forward to working with central Victorian communities to define their research priorities.

Lab work with a purpose

Central Victoria where she now lives is a long way from the Burnet Institute in Melbourne where the young Monash University science graduate – then Claire Ryan – followed an interest in infectious diseases and public health into an honours project. “I don’t love lab work,” she confessed. But the honours project looking at HIV sub-types among Vietnamese drug users in Melbourne used lab techniques to answer an important public health question. “That year really did change everything for me. I loved the research focus where you actually get time to focus on one question.”

She loved it so much, she also did a PhD with Burnet through Monash University looking at the way HIV is transmitted around Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and the Pacific islands at the molecular level. It was the start of her overseas career. Her PhD work landed her a role at the Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research. As the laboratory lead with the Sexual and Reproductive Health unit, Dr Nightingale worked with a group of eight PNG scientists. Much of the team’s work influenced PNG health policy and led to Wellcome and other grants which enabled further work there.

An incredible history in PNG

“The Institute has an incredible history with Nobel Prize winners. It’s the kind of place that just hits you in the face with its potential and it’s so exciting when you’re there. It’s full of really bright Papua New Guineans who really do care about the health of their communities.

“It really full on, but it was great. We built the lab up to be highly functioning and worked very closely with the community implementing point of care testing for sexually transmitted infections amongst pregnant women. We also did some novel work around cervical cancer and implementing screening for it in PNG. “

A return to Melbourne after three and a half years saw her working in the implementation team for Victoria’s first community-based HIV testing service for gay men. The Department of Health and the Victorian AIDS Council were close partners and the PRONTO service is still running.

Public health in Myanmar

Soon she was overseas again. This time she accompanied her English-born partner and future husband whom she met in PNG. He now had a job with Save the Children in Myanmar. Initially Dr Nightingale worked in research development, as well as advising on the establishment of harm reduction drop-in centres which were offering HIV testing for people who used drugs. There she helped set up the labs and diagnostic processes. “It was a very different team [from PNG] and my role there was very different. They already had enormous capacity; the level of education there was impressive.”

After the birth of her first child she went back to Myanmar to work on a range of projects with various organisations: HIV testing during pregnancy, helping establish HIV viral load testing and looking at the quality of testing in decentralised facilities, and the Burnet Institute’s Hepatitis C program. That project helped develop a national Hepatitis C strategy and aimed to make sure that community-based Hepatitis C therapy would be allowed so treatment was available outside specialist hospitals.

The end of concrete

Dr Nightingale had gone back to work in Myanmar four weeks after the birth of her first child, but by the time she was expecting her second, she and her husband decided they needed a tree change. “As much as we love travelling, we didn’t want to look at concrete anymore and in Yangon there’s a lot of concrete and it’s hard to get out of the city.” They took a risk and moved back to Australia, settling close to family in Castlemaine, in a Harcourt house surrounded by orchards.

Community-focused research

Her new role with Monash University gives her scope to continue doing what she loves. “A lot of work I did in Myanmar was training people for research and then working with senior academics in Melbourne to get their research off the ground in Myanmar. I’ve always been involved in research but with a really strong public health, community focus. I love working with communities and doing some work around the priorities defined by the people who live there.”

With two children and new job she’s also studying a Master of Public Health focussing on health promotion. “I really want to maintain that outward focus of why are we doing this and what are the results of this going to tell us and how can we use this to change policy to change things.”

She’s also learning that she no longer needs to stockpile each time she visits the supermarket.

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