A vaccine researcher's optimism & hope for humanity's 'triumph over the virus'

Leading vaccine researcher Kristine Macartney’s optimism, career advice and hope for humanity’s ‘triumph over the virus’

Dr. Kristine Macartney

As an expert in vaccines and vaccine preventable diseases, it is no surprise that Professor Kristine Macartney’s leadership has been vital to the success of Australia’s Covid-19 public health response over the past two years. 

Despite the challenges of this period, she remains optimistic and hopeful for the future and our eventual “triumph over the virus”, especially having seen the global response on vaccines, the work of her colleagues, and incredible innovation and leadership in action.

And having personally created a career that went against what others expected of her, or what she was told a woman should do, her advice to others is to “challenge ourselves to be confident that we can do anything we set our mind to.”

“My overarching piece of advice would be to go forth with confidence.  I encourage every person out there to find something that really interests you, something that you are passionate about and to be curious,” she says. “Get engaged and feel confident to take your footsteps forward in that field.”

The paediatrician specialising in infectious diseases and vaccinology has authored more than 200 peer-reviewed publications, and currently works as Director of the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS) within Kids Research at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead.

Macartney leads a team of close to 80 experts and postgraduate students in public health, infectious diseases, epidemiology, social sciences and clinical research. She’s also a professor at the University of Sydney.

As part of the recent Franklin Women event, Women in Leadership and the Covid-19 Response, Macartney shared more on her work and leadership from the past two years, and what she’s learned along the way playing a pivotal role in Australia’s Covid-19 public health response.

Can you describe your role and how you were called upon as a leader in your field during the COVID-19 pandemic?

My field of research is vaccines and vaccine preventable diseases so it has been an incredible journey since COVID-19 exploded into our lives. 

I felt strong from the beginning that the whole world would be working towards a common goal to develop a vaccine. At NCIRS we’ve gone from work on day 1 to understand disease transmission to now working round the clock to support the introductions of the COVID-19 vaccines, COVID-19 vaccine safety monitoring and public health research both here in Australia and internationally.

My personal interest is to derive and translate evidence from clinical research and clinical trials into real-world policy and programs and evaluation. It has been a great privilege to assist with determining how real world evidence could be translated to support the rollout of a vaccine to the Australian public and to countries in our region.

This has been the most incredible opportunity of my career personally but also really challenging to know what to prioritise as a leader of an organisation at the coal face of Australia’s COVID-19 response. There are still many years ahead until we can settle into a pattern of ‘predictable’ prevention of COVID-19 using vaccination as well as other public health measures – I remain excited to see us triumph over this virus, but know it will also take time.

How has your work with the National Centre for Immunisation Research & Surveillance (NCIRS) impacted Australian immunisation policy?

Researchers from NCIRS have worked tirelessly to undertake critical research to inform Australia’s COVID-19 public health response, especially in regard to the use of COVID-19 vaccines, and to develop resources for healthcare workers and the public.

In what ways did you see women’s leadership in the Australian COVID-19 response become vital to better community health outcomes?

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a great challenge for us all but I look up to the many colleagues and strong leaders who have led us through this. In particular, our chief health officers and senior health officials in Australia and globally – a number of whom of inspiring women –  are showing us each day how to lead with empathy and make evidence based decisions,  

I have been lucky enough to connect with many others at regional and global levels who are working through challenges in their own environments – especially in countries where COVID-19 has caused the greatest havoc – they also inspire me to do better.

What have you learned about yourself and your leadership style over the past couple years?

Whilst the last couple of years have been a great challenge for many of us, they have been full of rewarding experiences for myself and my team as we collaborate across many organisations, borders and sectors. At NCIRS I work with a fantastic team of many successful women and men who all support me in my role as Director. The support of my colleagues every day and their own work inspires me to keep going.

I find great satisfaction in supporting and working with the next generation of researchers in vaccinology, immunisation and public health. Empowering everyone in a team is incredibly important – we don’t live in the world as individuals, we don’t work and or achieve greatness on our own.

I gain immense personal satisfaction and pleasure seeing the amazing work of other women, young and not-so-young and from all types of backgrounds.  I hope in some small part, I can contribute to their professional and perhaps even personal growth, in the leadership role that I have.

What advice would you give other women looking to push past stereotypes and become leaders in the health and medical research sector? 

My overarching piece of advice would be to go forth with confidence.  I encourage every person out there to find something that really interests you, something that you are passionate about and to be curious. Get engaged and feel confident to take your footsteps forward in that field.

As a younger person, I remember some comments from others on what my career path should be – I was told that certain things would be better for me as a woman to do, but it really irked me that I had to consider my gender at all! As women we can be taught to doubt ourselves and second guess our choices. I think it is important that we challenge ourselves to be confident that we can do anything we set our mind to.

I have three young adult daughters. It empowers me to have seen them grow up with confidence and the belief that we can all achieve anything we put our minds to. All of us may have barriers that we meet in our lives but this shouldn’t be happening on the basis of our gender (or race, religion, or access to education.. among other things).

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