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This March, to celebrate International Women’s Day, Sydney Vital is highlighting women at every stage of their careers, from PhD students to professors, and asking them to share their experiences and successes with us. We are immensely proud of the many female researchers we support and employ and whose work is essential in bringing better treatments to patients faster.

Madeleine Juhrmann is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, the PhD fellow of Sydney Vital’s TCE 7 and a pain and palliative care research assistant with HammondCare. Her research focuses on broadening the role of paramedics in facilitating community preferences for home-based deaths and improve at-home palliative care for patients with late-stage cancer and other life-limiting illnesses.

Sydney Vital: When did you decide you wanted to go into science and what inspired the decision?

Madeleine Juhrmann: As a child, I had a fascination with the way that things worked and enjoyed participating in science fairs. From the age of about 10, I knew that I wanted my work to contribute meaningfully to society. I also realised the universal nature of health and the experiences that everyone goes through from birth to death, which fascinated me from quite a young age.

SV: And how did you ultimately get into palliative care and cancer research?

MJ: My undergraduate degree was in paramedicine. However, during my time as a student paramedic out on the road, I frequently encountered patients who were not necessarily experiencing acute medical emergencies, but rather exacerbations of chronic illnesses. These patients were predominantly older Australians, many of whom had a diagnosis of cancer in its end stage, amongst other comorbidities. I quickly realised the limited scope of practice a paramedic had to respond to these types of patients, as our traditional role focuses around emergency care and hospital conveyance. This is how my fascination with improving health systems started, which caused me to move away from paramedicine and into public health.

After completing my master’s in public health, I began working as a policy officer for a not-for-profit health provider, HammondCare, where I met Professor Josephine Clayton. We realised we had a lot of mutual interests in improving systems of care for people living with cancer in the community and facilitating home-based deaths. More than 70% of Australians want to die at home, but only 17% currently have that wish granted. Improving systems of care to facilitate those community preferences is the focus of my PhD, and this goal is what ultimately led me to working alongside Sydney Vital.

SV: What have been the most exciting milestones or achievements in your career thus far?

MJ: Being accepted into my PhD was incredibly exciting and thrilling. I believe you really have to appreciate those small milestones at the beginning, like submitting my first paper to a journal. More recently, I’ve been invited as a guest panelist for the upcoming Rural Australasian Paramedicine Health Conference, which will be a great opportunity to showcase my research and engage in fruitful conversation with experts. Another key accomplishment to date has been successfully establishing a Community of Practice, which acts as an advisory group for my PhD, incorporating representatives across all Australian and New Zealand jurisdictions’ ambulance services. The reception that I’ve received from this initiative has been very encouraging.

SV: And what are some of your future endeavours or hopes that you wish to achieve in the next 10 years of your career?

MJ: In my role as a research assistant with HammondCare, I’m currently working alongside a wonderful team on a government-funded, wide-reaching project that addresses the National Palliative Care Strategy. These projects are practical and translation-based, which is absolutely where my passion lies. In 10 years’ time, I would love to be an investigator on such a project and be able to translate my own ideas into practice. More short term, my goal is to have my PhD thesis accepted in the next few years, but also to establish strong networks within the oncology community as well as in palliative care, paramedicine, public health, and health systems research communities.

SV: In your experience, are there any advantages or disadvantages to being a woman in cancer research?

MJ: I haven’t personally felt any significant disadvantage in my current role. However, on the clinical side – particularly in paramedicine – it’s certainly more male dominated. There is a move to integrating more women into this profession, but due to the nature of shift work in clinical roles, a lot of women do have short lifespans in these workplaces as they start families. I think it’s worthwhile acknowledging that globally, less than 30% of public health leaders are women, despite us making up the majority of the health and social care workforce. But within Australia, 50% of our chief medical officers are women. Reflecting on the success of Australia’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, I believe it’s reasonable to suggest that having this greater gender balance has contributed to our positive outcomes to date.

SV: Do you have any female role models or mentors in cancer research who you particularly admire?

MJ: I’m have had some incredibly accomplished and wonderful women mentors throughout my short career. Both of my PhD supervisors are women, Professor Josephine Clayton and Professor Phyllis Butow. I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by esteemed colleagues of theirs, many of whom are also women. Recently, I connected with Professor Liz Lobb from Calvary Healthcare, who has been extremely welcoming and keen to collaborate in the future. I must also acknowledge a very early mentor from my paramedic placements during my undergrad years, Stephanie Simmons from the South Australian Ambulance Service. Stephanie recognised my strong interest in improving broader population health, and she encouraged me to embark on a public health and research pathway instead of paramedicine. I am very grateful for this astute observation and excellent advice so early on into my career.

SV: Speaking of advice – do you have any for young women who are wanting to go into cancer research?

MJ: I think the barriers for women entering STEM workforces are coming down day by day. I’ve been surrounded by wonderful, accomplished and multidisciplinary women who’ve inspired me each day to broaden my goals and chase my dreams. From my experience as an early career researcher, the cancer research community is very warm and welcoming to young women. Additionally, I think that if you are interested in science, going for a generalist approach to begin with is advisable – don’t worry about having a specific job in mind immediately upon entering university. Be open and flexible with what you’d like to do and achieve, because there’s many different pathways, and there’s no reason why you can’t start one role and chose an alternative pathway later down the track.

SV: Thank you so much for your time.

MJ: It was my pleasure.

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