Healing the nation
Almost 10 years on from her final year at Brisbane Girls Grammar, Dr Geordan Shannon (alumna 2002) shares her experiences investigating the ever present indigenous health divide, studying in magical Cambridge and bearing witness to confronting stories during her time at Human Rights Watch.
Medical courses are notoriously difficult to get into, when did you make the decision to pursue medicine as a career?
I was pretty unsure about what to do when I left school. I did a year of science first and I was actually living in London (on a working holiday) when I decided to apply for medicine. I was inspired by my aunt who is a GP. She participates in a variety of work from General Practice through to forensic medicine―the variety and flexibility of her work really interested me. I also really liked the concept of integrating science and humanities and I guess medicine is a sort of a middle-ground when it comes to that. I wasn’t really sure where I wanted to study and applied everywhere I could, but I was lucky to get into Newcastle University which had a great medical course, with a relatively small size and a strong rural/Indigenous focus.
You took part in the International Young Physicists’ Tournament in Year 12, did it prepare you in any way for problem solving during your medical degree?
I guess that trip away to the Ukraine inspired confidence in the whole group of us. The young women who I went with were Sherhara Mendis, Lucy McKenzie, Priya Cherian and Julie Sze and interestingly, four of the five of us ended up in Medicine! Problem solving is a huge part of medicine and is a skill that can be translated into many parts of work and life (but of course this doesn’t just apply to medicine). As part of the competition, we publicly debated our research findings and this experience certainly helped me to learn about public speaking, communicating scientific results in a cohesive way, and the value of teamwork.
At School you were both academically and sportingly inclined, did you continue that balance into University?
I love both aspects still and I think maintaining balance is crucial throughout study and working life. I was really involved in sports throughout university including netball, softball and soccer. Unfortunately I gave up representitive-level softball after leaving school which was a really hard decision and something I still wonder about… However I think it was the right decision as it allowed me to spend more time with friends/family, more time travelling, and focus on my studies. Also, softball is not very well funded compared to many other sports and it would have meant ongoing financial outputs – women’s sport in Australia is not as well funded as men’s, as you know!
What drove your interest in Indigenous Health and subsequently Public Health or are the two entwined?
I was fortunate to have a really good friend all through my childhood who is Indigenous and through her I was able to meet her family and community and began to understand her background and some more about Indigenous culture. I got to visit her community and although I was very young at the time I was quite shocked at the injustices and inequities Indigenous people faced (and still face!). Since then I have been trying to learn more about Indigenous Australian issues and have been motivated to work with Indigenous people. Fortunately, health provides a really powerful medium for working with Indigenous people in Australia.
You recently graduated from Cambridge after completing your Masters of Philosophy in Public Health and won the Tom Davies Prize for Public Health for being the top of your year. Do you plan to use this new knowledge to continue your work exploring Indigenous issues?
In my mind, both Indigenous Health and Public Health are closely related. Whilst it is reported that the health “gap” is closing between Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians, there are still a huge number of inequities which exist. These are apparent when working in the healthcare system, especially in places such as the Kimberly. Poor health is part of a vicious cycle, it can affect all areas of life such as decreasing attendance at school and work and impairing social cohesion which subsequently have detrimental downstream health effects. Conversely, good health can have really positive community effects. Public health research, programs and policy are instrumental in achieving better health outcomes for Indigenous people in Australia; public health enables people to understand some of the causes of health inequities and identify ways in which to make positive changes to individuals or communities.
Did you find studying at Cambridge as magical as it looks?
Yes it was amazing! Even after spending the year there, we still felt enchanted by the place. Sometimes we felt like Harry Potter! On a more serious note, it was a very intense experience, and I was constantly challenged academically. Fortunately I made some amazing friends (from all around the world) which enhances the experience.
During your year in the UK you worked at Human Rights Watch, what did you find the most eye opening during your time there?
I found it quiet confronting hearing the many personal stories of human rights abuses from around the world. Putting a “face” to each human rights issue makes it a much more personal experience. I was also moved by how brave people could be in order to communicate their story, for example, recounting war crimes during a conflict situation. Also it was sometimes quite frustrating knowing that our work couldn’t have a more immediate effect and sometimes couldn’t protect everyone!
On a more positive note, I was really inspired by the people who I worked with and the courage of their convictions. People who would place their self at risk both physically and mentally in order to explore human rights abuses in out on the field. Finally, it was great to see some of my team’s research translated into meaningful outcomes for women’s health.
You have just returned from studying in Cambridge, followed by three months exploring Europe and Asia with your partner, what’s next?
I’m in the process of completing my Advanced Certificate in Human Rights and Health from the University of Geneva, Switzerland.Currently I am working in Emergency Medicine and Obstetrics and Gynaeoclogy in Broome, Western Australia. I love it there but next year I will be starting as an Obstetrics and Gynaeoclogy Registrar at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital where I plan to do further speciality training in Obstetrics and Gynaecology. I also hope to be able to continue my research in Indigenous health and reproductive health and actively participate in Public Health in Australia.
Our Year 12s have just finished school, do you have any advice for those going into the field of medicine?
Take time to learn about the career before choosing, do some work experience and ask around. Medicine provides such a variety of options, from clinical work through to research and public health, so think laterally when choosing a course of study! Enjoy the learning experience and participate in as many rural and Indigenous health opportunities as possible!