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Gail Kelly applauds top Woman of Influence

08 November 2013

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Professor Adele Green (above) QIMR Berghofer Senior Scientist, is Head of the Institute’s Cancer and Population Studies Group. She is the 2013 Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence overall award winner and Queensland’s Australian of the Year.

 

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Professor Adele Green’s work as QIMR Berghofer’s Head of the Institute’s Cancer and Population Studies Group has had long-lasting effects on the health of Australia.

The epidemiological research scientist – she was one of the first to blaze the trail in public health research into melanoma and skin cancer in this country back in the 1980s – is Westpac and the Australian Financial Review’s top Woman of Influence for 2013.

According to Westpac CEO, Gail Kelly: “Professor Green is truly an inspiring woman whose work on understanding the causes of cancer and how to better prevent and manage melanoma is of great importance, particularly for Australians. She is internationally recognised not only for her achievements in medicine but also in the wider academic community.”

One sunny Friday morning, recently, Adele was seated in her office with 13 or 14 resaerch manuscripts awaiting her attention. She had put aside the time to speak to Ruby about her work for the past 30 or so years researching populations and cancer, most specifically to understand the causes and so prevent melanoma and other skin cancers.

Adele Green’s work is why you and I (if we are being sensible) wear sunscreen. She is also why sun beds are on the “total fire ban” list.

Adele's 20-year Nambour Skin Cancer Prevention Trial, following more than 1000 residents of Nambour in Queensland, has produced more than 100 scientific papers and is the basis of much of our understanding of skin cancer and proven sun-protection behaviour.

Her team’s research provided the health facts to establish that daily sunscreen use can prevent melanoma and, the more common, squamous cell carcinoma. The research findings put the bang into Australia’s ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ sunscreen campaign, which is one of the most successful public health campaigns ever run in this country.

How did Australia, and more specifically Queensland, get the dubious title of being the world record holders for skin cancer?

Adele believes it is a combination of shifting cultural attitudes towards having a tan, coupled with being the largest European population living in a country near the equator. UV radiation is at its most intense as you near the equator, and bathing ourselves in the rays of a cancer forming agent, the sun, presents fair skin with major problems.

From the 1940s or so, people began taking their clothes off and baking themselves to a crisp. The old cultural mores - suntans denoted labouring/outdoor work and modesty required people to wear as much clothing as possible - were falling away under the weight of the modern world. Tans became glamorous, a sign of health and wealth. However, the skin cancers that accompany exposure, and which take time to develop, didn't begin to show in any serious way until the 1980s.

A world-wide phenomenon, the rise in Australia was frightening. Equatorial proximity combined with the population’s European genes was to lead to skin cancer being the highest cancer diagnosed in Queensland, and the third highest in Australia.

As a young registrar, training to be a physician in 1970s Brisbane, Adele was becoming more and more interested in preventative medicine and saw research as the key.

“I chose to do a PhD on melanoma in Queensland and thought I’d try and map out what was happening and what was really driving the sudden very rapid climb in the disease,” Adele explains.

Cancers don’t happen overnight and what Adele thought would be a "short detour into research" wasn't to reach its stunning conclusions for 20 years. 

“My overriding goal is to prevent disease and suffering,” Adele says, going on to explain her very particular choice of the verb “prevent”.

“I say prevent, not treat or cure, because to cure is marvellous but imagine how marvellous never to get the disease in the first place.

“I work in cancer prevention, specifically skin cancers. If we could achieve my goal to turn the tide and prevent skin cancer, the most costly cancer in Australia by a country mile, imagine the consequences: millions of extra dollars saved every year to spend on aged care, for example, as well as the reduction in human anguish and suffering.”

Banning sun beds and being a scientist

"The perfect storm" for Adele is sun-bed use combined with the UV radiation to which we are already exposed. Turning the tide on this lethal combination comes back to banning sun-bed use, she believes. The ban comes into effect in Queensland in 2014 and Western Australia is soon to follow: “Australia will soon be sun bed free.”

In Adele’s eyes, there are some necessary qualities for a successful career in research science and they can be successfully applied to any career.

Firstly, there is a need for an absolute sense of ethical propriety, what she calls “integrity”.

Research requires you to be “scrupulously honest, because ultimately you are dealing with something greater than just you and your career. You are trying to discover what makes people and nature function and tick and many times that work is funded by the community you serve.”

Hard work is another requirement, without it you won’t be “competitive”, the most important consideration if your career in research is to be a success.

It’s also very important, Adele adds, to have an appreciation of your place in a team, to appreciate where, how and why you fit, and to value each other.

Finally, she believes, as a research scientist you need loads of persistence because the discouragements, such as "missing out on funding by a percentage of a point in a grant review committee", can mean the difference between your career progressing, stalling or worse.

“I read the other day," starts Adele, "about a woman who went to the gym between 4 and 5.30am. It was the only time she could fit it in when her husband didn’t mind having to look after the children,” she finishes, using the anecdote to explain how important getting away from work is.

For Adele, the escpae is "physical activity, in nature, bush walking. It’s also important to build that relaxation into my daily routine because the passion can very easily take over. I have been in that situation where the days get longer and longer, where you’re driven to rise earlier each morning and return home later each night.”

Too often, people think of researchers as introverted, operating behind walls in white coats. It’s a stereotype that may have some truth to it, believes Adele, which is why she champions the process of community consultation and the need for researchers to engage in wider public communication of research findings and bring their influence to light outside the comfort of the area they know. It can be daunting for a researcher, she agrees, but giving back to the community is key. Most importantly, it means you are seen, providing others with role models and mentors.

“Mentors prove someone cares,” says Adele. “They pave the way, and, set the precedent, provide others with immediate confidence. The fact someone cares also gives you added incentive.”

Imagine, asks Adele, operating in a vacuum or going out on a limb without mentors? The incentive to keep going would quickly diminish.

“We are such social creatures. To drive us on we need companionship, peer review, feedback, the approbation that comes from others. Collegiate interaction is so very important. It’s all such a two way thing. We learn as much from those we mentor and teach as they do from us.”

Of the firm belief that scientific findings trapped in the dusty pages of a journal are useless, and that it is imperative that scientists be able to translate their message into simple, easily understood, easily read actions, Adele remains optimistic that if the communication is clear the public's motivation to act will follow.

Adele's wide reaching sphere of influence is why she was chosen from among more than 500 Westpac Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence nominations as Australia’s most influential woman. Her research and mentoring work has had a huge impact on our health and wellbeing and will do for generations to come.

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