PLEASE TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF

Dr Meru Sheel is an infectious disease epidemiologist at ANU Research School of Population Health. Her passion lies in improving health outcomes for marginalised populations amid a rapidly changing global health landscape.

For her, the most rewarding part of the job is being out in the field, responding to infectious disease outbreaks and emergencies.

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“I’m interested in how we can improve preparedness and response to infectious diseases outbreaks and public health emergencies – and how we can contribute to work happening in the Asia-Pacific region,” Sheel told Women’s Agenda recently.

Her impact as a leader in global health research was recognised earlier this year, when she was one of two scientists awarded the prestigious Westpac Scholars Trust.

“The fellowship itself provides me with 3 years of salary support and a professional development fund that I can use at my own discretion.”

In the below Q&A, Dr Meru Sheel tells Women’s Agenda about her upcoming research plans and why she says ‘yes’ to leadership opportunities.

WHAT DID YOU STUDY?

I did my BSc in Biotechnology from Manipal Academy of Higher Education followed by PhD in Life Sciences from Queensland University of Technology. I also did my MPhil in Epidemiology from Australian National University (ANU).

HAVE YOU ALWAYS KNOWN THAT YOU WANTED TO STUDY SCIENCE AND HAVE A CAREER IN THE FIELD? HOW DID YOU END UP IN SUCH AN OFFBEAT AND UNCONVENTIONAL CAREER?

Yes sort of. I’ve always wanted to work in infectious disease and health. I grew up in India, seeing what the benefits of being able to access good health care had, and saw first-hand the disadvantages of when you can’t access ‘good’ health care because of access issues, poverty, living in remote parts of the country or not being educated enough to understand the benefits of good health – just to name a few.

I knew people who had polio and tuberculosis. I was lucky to have a family and network of people who valued education and were huge advocates of studying science.

I started my career in basic sciences studying vaccine development and immune responses to tropical infectious diseases at the Queensland Institute of Medical Research and Queensland University of Technology, and then became interested in public health and field epidemiology – and slowly transitioned across. I now research infectious diseases at the population level; and my favourite part is being in the field.

CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT THE RESEARCH YOU ARE CURRENTLY WORKING ON?

I am an infectious disease epidemiologist, which means I study disease patterns at a population level. My main research interests lie in understanding infectious diseases transmission, particularly those that can lead to epidemics including vaccine-preventable diseases. Increasingly,I am also interested in how we can improve preparedness and response to infectious diseases outbreaks and public health emergencies – and how we can contribute to work happening in the Asia-Pacific region.

I am about to complete the first 90 days in my new role at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the ANU – so I am still finding my feet and setting up new projects. Funding is essential to progress your research. I’ve just submitted my first application for a major grant as lead chief investigator. I am keeping my fingers crossed, and even if I don’t get the grant – I have learnt an incredible amount about the process of applying for grants. The start of each new role is always tricky, and you feel the time slipping away and the research clock is ticking away…

CONGRATULATIONS ON WINNING THE WESTPAC SCHOLARS TRUST EARLIER THIS YEAR. WHAT OPPORTUNITIES DOES IT AFFORD AND HOW ARE YOU PLANNING TO USE IT?

Thank you! I was pretty excited when I received ‘the call’ – I was in a meeting when the Scholarships Program Director called – I’ve probably never felt so queasy in my stomach – nervous and excited at the same time.

The Westpac Scholars Trust is really fantastic for several reasons. I really enjoyed the selection process. It made me learn a lot about myself and what kind of leader I wanted to be. The foundation really embodies the principles of generosity and integrity, which is so wonderful. The fellowship itself provides me with 3 years of salary support and a professional development fund that I can use at my own discretion.

I am hoping to use those funds for overseas travel and undertake short sabbaticals to establish some collaborations with other international organisations working in the area of emergency response. The fellowship also gives you access to the fabulous W100 Scholars Network – I had the opportunity to meet the 2019 cohort and few Scholars from the previous years at the Annual Scholars Summit in April. I had two most amazing days – so many driven and inspiring people under a single roof.

The fellowship also provides leadership opportunities, which is something I am very excited to take on. Saying ‘yes’ to leadership opportunities is very important.

And finally, the opportunity to meet and work with the amazing team from Westpac Scholars Trust – in a short span of time, I have already made close connections, and learnt several non-research skills that I think are incredibly useful in research. I am a huge proponent of public-private partnerships because they hold so much potential.

WHY DOES THE GLOBAL HEALTH RESEARCH FIELD APPEAL TO YOU?

It really is my ‘cause’. Growing up in India, I always have wanted to work in this space – I am passionate about improving health outcomes for marginalised populations – whether its here in Australia or internationally – and I want to be able provide leadership in a sustainable manner.

I also love all things infectious diseases – and while we know globally we are improving at preventing and controlling infectious diseases, there is still so much work to be done. There is a changing landscape in global health too, we need to do more work at understanding socio-economic and environmental drivers of health and not to forget the increasing burden of non-communicable diseases.

WHAT ROLE HAS MENTORSHIP HAD IN YOUR STUDY AND CAREER TO DATE? DO YOU THINK THIS PROCESS IS IMPORTANT FOR ENCOURAGING AND RETAINING WOMEN IN STEMM?

I think mentorship is incredibly important for everyone working in STEMM – both men and women. What is also important is to have sponsors who will provide opportunities and provide a launching platform and recommend your name. Sponsors can be difficult to identify as they need to be familiar with your work and attest to the quality, but not feel that they are in-competition with you.

I think most people would agree that researchers who have strong mentors and sponsors have a ‘better’ career progression resulting in higher retention.

My key mentors are not people I directly work with but they have all throughout had immense faith in me and been generous with time and opportunities! Dr Sue van Leeuwen has been a central figure for me. She has a background in business and leadership and has continually empowered me to do things differently and to try and be a change-maker.

I also rely on my peer-network – some of my peers who are colleagues and close friends have been incredibly inspiring. We all always take pride in each other’s achievements.

I personally mentor a few early career researchers – and some of my happiest moments are when they share their successes with me. I try and connect them with others working in the field to expand their networks.

WHAT WORDS OF ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE OTHER WOMEN WHO ARE THINKING OF STEPPING INTO A CAREER IN STEMM?

I am not sure about advice – but there are few lessons that I have learnt along the way –

There are so many cool and amazing things you can do if you have a STEMM career! Research is just one of them, and even if you are in research there are various different pathways you can take. It may not always be easy to identify them but it’s important to have your eyes open to opportunities.

Find your passion, carve your own path  (it is all about the journey!), and build your inner-circle of trust. There will be many people along the way who will empower you and some who will doubt you, undermine you, ask you to push harder or don’t work too hard – try not to get bogged down with negativity.

Take on opportunities when they arise and say yes to leadership positions! There are such few women in leadership positions.