Image: Professor Joan Cunningham (L) with Associate Professor Gail Garvey (R).

A social epidemiologist, with a core focus on equity in health and health care, Professor Joan Cunningham celebrated 25 years with Menzies this year.

In 1993, Joan first visited Darwin and Menzies from Boston for a short stint as a visiting doctoral student. She remembers working out of Block 4 on the Royal Darwin Hospital campus, at a time before the John Mathews Building housed the growing research cohort. Then in 1994, after completing her degree, Joan moved permanently with her now husband, Professor John Condon, to work at Menzies.

“The emphasis at Menzies when I arrived was on infectious diseases, ears and kidneys which I didn’t quite fit into. I was more interested in equity and health, and social and system determinants of health rather than a specific disease,” Joan said.

Her main role in her first year was to help develop and teach the Public Health Coursework Program.

“We had a very small teaching staff and 10-20 students in epidemiology, including a past Menzies director, Professor Jonathan Carapetis AM, who was a PhD student at the time.”

Joan’s career at Menzies has been wide-ranging. She has been involved in research topics such as interpersonal and institutional racism, the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in urban areas, the care and experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander end-stage kidney disease patients, socioeconomic gradients of various chronic diseases, cervical screening participation and outcomes and cancer epidemiology.

In addition, she has a long record of success in building research capacity, mentoring and developing emerging research leaders, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers.

Her work was recognised in 2011 when she was awarded the Australasian Epidemiological Association’s Mentoring Award.

Joan credits her mentoring role as a highlight of her career at Menzies - Menzies Director, Professor Alan Cass, and Associate Deputy Director Indigenous Leadership and Engagement, Professor Gail Garvey, are just two of the PhDs she has supervised.

“I love being involved in developing people, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers,” Joan said.

“I want to do myself out of a job. My foremost inspiration as a researcher is improving outcomes but secondly, is the opportunity to work in partnership with and help mentor and promote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers and leaders.

“The current Centre for Research Excellence I am involved in, the CRE TACTICS, is a prime example of this, with the leadership model pairing an Indigenous researcher together with a non-Indigenous researcher.”

Now based in Melbourne, Joan and her husband John have been working ‘remotely’ for over 10 years. Joan claims Menzies’ core ethos of trying to make things better, through collaboration rather than competition, for the inspiration to continue, despite no longer living in northern Australia.

“There is a sense of purpose at Menzies, and the importance of the work means people want to collaborate,” Joan said. For more information about some of Joan’s current projects, visit the CRE TACTICS and What Matters websites.