Professor Catherine Bennett is innately drawn to public health challenges; the more important the problem, the more satisfying it is to solve.
The (very) public face of Deakin’s COVID response
If it seems Professor Catherine Bennett has been ubiquitous across the news during the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s not solely because she is one of the most eminently qualified epidemiological experts in Australia to provide expert commentary on the virus.
The face of Deakin University’s COVID-19 response, widely sought for her clear presentation and ability to strip away misinformation about the virus, Prof. Bennett is also drawn to the challenge of responding to one of the greatest public health crises of the past century.
'Problem-solving is innately fulfilling to me, and the more important and relevant the research question, the more satisfying it is,' she says.
'There is no way to describe the satisfaction that comes with getting an answer to a question that might change clinical practice or allow us to prevent people from becoming ill. It’s something you can only fully understand once you experience it as a researcher.'
‘Don’t take observations at face value’
Prof. Bennett is the inaugural Chair in Epidemiology within Deakin’s Institute for Health Transformation, and was the founding Chair and President of the Council of Academic Public Health Institutions Australia. A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD, Biological Anthropology) from La Trobe University with a Master in Applied Epidemiology from Australian National University (ANU), she joined Deakin University in 2009 and was Head of the School of Health and Social Development from 2010 to 2019.
This extensive experience informs the methodical demeanour that has made her one of the most sought-after and trustworthy sources of analysis during the COVID-19 response. 'As an epidemiologist, you’re constantly exercising a structured analytical approach to the new information that you absorb. You don’t take observations at face value, but probe deeper to see through the data, or behind those first impressions,' she says.
'No doubt I take this into the way I view and interact with the world, but perhaps I was always that way inclined and just do it with more efficiency now, after all these years in research. It’s quite handy when researching to buy a car or house but may also be irritating to those who want to enjoy the intrigue in a movie without someone pointing out inconsistencies!'
People are the most important part
She hopes her team’s research into COVID-19 can continue to build understanding about the virus and its origins and spread, as well as the vaccine rollout. “People are the most important part of our public health response in a pandemic of this kind, so it is critical that they have access to the information and the interpretation needed to allay fear and help focus on the joint effort required to contain transmission,” she says.
While COVID-19 has justifiably been a focus for the past 18 months, her team’s ongoing research into the epidemiology of Staphylococcus aureus – also known as Staph or ‘superbugs’ – has significant public health applications. 'Through collaborations with clinicians, we’ve assessed the risk of household contacts getting infected if a discharged patient takes a superbug home from hospital, and what can we do to prevent further transmission,' she says.
'Or what puts one person more at risk (than others) of becoming colonised with a superbug, or getting an infection, and how we can use that knowledge to lower infection incidence. We also document the patterns of antibiotic resistance that then informs clinical decision on what antibiotics to prescribe for community-onset infections.'
A diverse body of work
Prof. Bennett’s list of accomplishments and interests extends well beyond transmissible diseases. After studying population genetics and biological anthropology in her honour’s year as an undergraduate student, she delved into forensic identification of human skeletal remains, leading her to 'very rewarding' work with Aboriginal communities to tell the stories of their ancestors’ lifestyles and determine custodianship of unprovenanced remains.
Her diverse body of work has also included putting training in applied statistics to use in studying football injuries at the Royal Children’s Hospital. She is currently engaged in several other projects including working with Prof. Sonia Grover at the Murdoch Research Institute on a large longitudinal cohort study looking into pelvic pain and treatment outcomes among female adolescents, plus a Deakin-led project with Dr Carolyn Holbrook to examine societal attitudes to the Medicare system.
Prof. Bennett is also a key contributor to the newly established Graduate Certificate in Epidemiology Intelligence at Deakin, is widely recognised as a leader in curriculum reform, and has received awards for teaching excellence at university and national levels.
Powered by passion
Her seemingly indefatigable accomplishments are powered by a passion for finding answers. 'Find those areas that fascinate you, where you will not even be aware of the effort you put into finding answers to important questions,' she advises prospective students looking towards a career in public health research.
'Passion helps you maintain the energy, focus and determination that research demands, and rewards you in droves with the immense job satisfaction that comes when you get your research funded, contribute new knowledge, and watch the world change for the better.'