Stick to your guns: Professor Raina MacIntyre on speaking truth to power

Stick to your guns: Professor Raina MacIntyre on speaking truth to power

Professor Raina MacIntyre

Professor Raina MacIntyre is one of Australia’s leading infectious diseases experts who has become a household name in Australia over the past 18 months.

She’s given her time for television and radio, and been quoted in countless articles about COVID-19. It’s her expertise – along with that of just a handful of others – that has offered necessary knowledge, fact-based advice, and comfort to the Australian population as we’ve navigated the pandemic.

As she tells Shirley Chowdhary in the latest episode of The Leadership Lessons, at the very beginning of 2020, she felt a sense of obligation to share the expertise she had with the public.

“At the beginning, I felt an obligation to respond to media requests, probably up to about May 2020,” said Professor MacIntyre, who is the Head of the Kirby Institute’s Biosecurity Research Program at the University of New South Wales.

“By that stage there were lots of people doing media and I sort of stepped back. I started saying no to things because I was more interested in doing the research that would help with the pandemic.

“I’ll only do media now if I think I can say something that nobody else is going to say, or if I feel the topic is something really important that I can make a difference on.”

Professor MacIntyre’s areas of expertise are substantial and include emerging infectious diseases, epidemiology, vaccines, infection, biosecurity, and many others. She has over 400 publications in peer-reviewed journals, and her research has been influential on a global scale.

As she’s skyrocketed to national prominence through the media for her expertise, there’s also been backlash from those people – most often politicians – who don’t want to believe her message.

“I’ve been unafraid to speak truth to power and what I say is always about what’s in the best interest of the population and public health. That’s not always a popular message,” she shares on the podcast.

As a woman of colour, Professor MacIntyre says she’s often held to a “different threshold of acceptability” compared to other experts in the field, an experience that many women in STEM know all too well.

“The way I’m talked about in the media – often, there’ll be some other person, a white man and myself, and I’ll be just referred to as “Raina MacIntyre” and the other person will be referred to as “Professor so and so”,” she said. “I’ve noticed that for decades…it doesn’t really bother me, but when you’re being written about in a hostile way, the disrespect from certain parties is astounding.”

“I’ve got a very thick skin and I’m super confident in what I know, I’m not a pseudo expert. I actually do know what I’m talking about, and I don’t talk about things I don’t know about.”

One quality that comes across so clearly in the podcast is Professor MacIntyre’s total confidence in her own work, and the fact that when she says something in the media, she knows she’s right.

“I do understand what I’m talking about, and it comes from an absolute breadth and depth of relevant knowledge, which is just the circumstances of my career.”

Like many women working in STEM, Professor MacIntyre says she’s witnessed time and time again the elevation of people around her who are less qualified. And while it’s frustrating, she says she doesn’t let the discrimination bother her.

“I call it white washing, which is where there are huge efforts put into making you invisible and elevating people around you who are nowhere near as qualified,” she said. “Fortunately for me, I’m not ego-driven, so I don’t actually care. I care about the research I do, making a difference and like I said, I know what I’m doing.”

Professor MacIntyre agrees that women in STEM are less likely to promote themselves, and it’s a reality that she’s dealt with during the pandemic.

“I don’t promote myself the way I see male colleagues around me doing it with far less to boast about,” she said. “On the other hand, if I’m put in a position where my knowledge or credentials to be talking about this stuff is questioned, I’ve got no problem telling people the truth about what my credentials are.”

As she’s risen through the ranks in her research career, Professor MacIntyre has been guided by numerous mentors, notably Professor Aileen Plant, a legend of infectious disease epidemiology. Professor Plant died in 2007, but had been Professor MacIntyre’s PhD supervisor. Professor Michael Lane, an American epidemiologist was also a significant mentor, as was Professor Graham Brown, Head of the Victorian Infectious Diseases Service.

As for her advice for young people? Whether you’re in research or not, follow your own path, and don’t get caught up comparing yourself to others.

“I’ve noticed in my career that a lot of people spend a lot of time watching others and coveting things that they don’t have. It’s just a waste of time. There’s no point looking at other people and coveting; that’s not the pathway to success.

“Follow your own pathway and stick to your guns in terms of what you believe in.”

Hear more from Professor MacIntyre on this week’s episode of The Leadership Lessons, a Women’s Agenda podcast made possible thanks to the support of Salesforce. You can listen here, or subscribe via iTunes or Spotify.

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