To say Professor Julie Bernhardt is changing the world is an understatement.
With a PHD in Neuroscience, the board member of the World Stroke Organisation and co-chair of the Australasian Stroke Trials Network is leading a major clinical trial that could significantly change the lives of stroke victims globally.
And she does it all from a ‘standing desk’ at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, in Melbourne.
Inspired at 16 to become a physiotherapist after watching an uncle struggle to recover from a stroke, she later pursued a ‘second career’ in research after realising just how little we know about brain recovery.
Now, she’s helping to build the evidence base for stroke rehabilitation and recovery in her role as Clinical Head of the Stoke Division at Florey, by heading up the AVERT Early Intervention Research Program, a study testing new rehabilitation interventions with the aim of reducing the burden or stroke-related disability.
Leading the largest stroke rehabilitation trial ever conducted is a role that’s getting some serious international attention, with Bernhardt presenting her findings all over the world and initiating some global collaborations. It’s also a role that involves managing cross-disciplinary teams, meaning great leadership and communication is essential. Despite always hitting a busy day, she’ll do what she can to keep 1pm free and open for a group lunch. Her team cites her positive energy and ability to inspire others as critical to her success.
She says she realised she could lead big teams and major projects after seeing her abilities extended well beyond influencing individuals and peers. She knew she could adjust entire systems, as long as she put in the work, remained optimistic, and hit the correct answers. “I’m labelled as an ‘enthusiologist’ by my peers, I think that’s a great label, it’s amazing what you can get done with the right approach,” she says.
(Curious about the methods of ‘enthusiology’ we found a couple of references online, citing a number of things as essential to its success including optimism, encouragement, self esteem, and energy. There’s also a US-based management consultancy business by the same name.)
Meanwhile, Bernhardt believes meeting with and working with people in a generous way pays dividends for whatever project you’re leading. “It’s being generous with your time, being supportive rather than critical, and positive rather than negative,” she says on how she successfully manages interactions and learns from others.
Concerned about a lack of female researchers in science, Berhardt and her team recently instigated a collaborative Women in Science initiative, running across five research institutes in Melbourne. She believes significant change at both the local and national level are needed to see women progress in the field. “We need to focus on changing cultures, to be more inclusive, and more representative,” she says. “We need to open access to leadership opportunities, something that will involve systemic challenges with career disruption management and a strongly male dominated workforce in senior roles. We need to remove barriers that prevent women from being able to excel.”
Despite the challenges, Bernhardt is convinced change is possible for women in science and research. “It’s complex, particularly when most researchers bring in their own salaries (from grants) and fund their own work (from grants) and don’t have job security (often yearly contracts). But we’ll get there!”
The short facts on Professor Julie Bernhardt’s leadership story
Born? Box Hill, Australia
Childhood? At the beach and in the bush as a girl guide
Leadership qualifications? Nothing formal, just years of experience
High school career ambition? To be a physiotherapist helping people with stroke recover their lives
And your first, ever job? Pharmacy assistant
Who and what do you lead? A global clinical trial, some international networks, the Stroke Division at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, my team, and I instigated a collaborative Women in Science initiative that runs in 5 research institutes in Melbourne, we are equal partners now.
How do you stay informed? I use twitter to help me keep abreast of my key areas of interest, and I listen the the ABC a lot. I can do this in transit as I buzz around.
And manage your wellbeing? I love sailing but don’t do it enough (yet), pilates keeps me strong and family keeps my priorities in order.
First thing you do in the morning? Walk my dog and enjoy the sun on my face and birds in the park and the ever changing sky, sort of meditative. I also think about my day but not consciously.
An average day in your life is… Dog walk, see my son off to school, come to work (I use a standing desk which keeps me more alert), wander around to say hi to my team, then meet to discuss projects, work through my priority list, look at my email in despair (too much to do), try and take lunch with the group at 1pm, think deeply about things (on a good day). I leave around 5:30pm most days, cook dinner and share a lovely meal talking with my family, then do some of the volunteer work of my role (journal or grant reviews, referree reports etc) for a while in the evening before early to bed.
Advice to your 18-year-old self. Act on your convictions … You’ll be amazed with what you can achieve.