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.
Professor Melanie Lovell is a palliative medicine physician and researcher with a wealth of experience in caring for patients with life-limiting illnesses. She is the Medical Head of HammondCare’s palliative care services in Northern Sydney and maintains appointments as Clinical Associate Professor at University of Sydney and Adjunct Professor at University of Technology, Sydney, where she teaches medical students about palliative care, cancer pain assessment and management, and spirituality.
Melanie’s love for science started early with a fascination for astrophysics and evolved from there. Upon completing high school, she enrolled in med school, where her interest in palliative care was first piqued.
“In my first year as an intern, I came across a number of people who had life-limiting illnesses, and it was always those people that I found I was drawn to,” she says.
“There’s a lot of difficult ethical decision making and a consideration of the whole person – it’s psychological, emotional, spiritual as well as physical, and involves the whole family and the entire context that this person belongs to. This is what attracted me to palliative care.”
Melanie hadn’t expected to be involved in research when she decided to study medicine, but she kept finding gaps in clinical practice that she felt needed to be filled through research. “In my very first research project that I undertook during my training, I looked at two tools to detect psychological morbidity in people with cancer and compared them, which got me interested in measuring the patient experience and the tools we have to do so,” she says.
“Then I did a Research Fellow year after finishing my advanced training, which, in turn, led me to a Master’s project developing a tool to close the gaps in the information needs of patients. To analyse this tool, I decided to conduct a controlled trial, which became my PhD,” Melanie adds.
As a physician and researcher, Melanie stresses the crucial link between research and clinical practice. “You can’t actually practice medicine unless you’ve got a research culture that’s always asking questions and examining things, be that on an institutional, national or international scale,” she says.
Melanie fondly remembers some of the milestones of her journey, like passing the physicians exam, completing her advanced training in palliative care as well as the publication of her first paper. “It’s important for researchers to know that sometimes it takes a while to get your first paper published,” she says.
“My first main publication was a randomised controlled trial in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, and from there things started to flow.”
More recently, she was the lead on the development of the National Cancer Pain Management Guideline, a process that she likens to “having a fifth baby” – with her PhD being the fourth.
On the topic of her three children, who were born during her advanced training and PhD, Melanie says that while her career progression has sometimes been at a slower pace due to her working part time, “parenting is a big priority for both me and my husband”.
“I grew up with the idea that you can have it all, but you actually can’t – at least not at the pace that you’d like to,” she admits.
“But I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’ve been very blessed that I’ve been able to maintain a clinical and research career while also having the privilege of spending time with my family.”
She emphasises that “gender has not been an issue in terms of how I’ve been treated – I’ve always been treated with respect and encouragement.”
This supportive environment is also reflected in the long list of female mentors, role models and colleagues that have guided and accompanied Melanie throughout her career. First and foremost, she names Fran Boyle and Phyllis Butow, who were her PhD supervisors, whom she has collaborated with extensively in the years since. She goes on to talk about Josephine Clayton as well as Meera Agar, Jane Phillips, and Patricia Davidson, all of whom she describes as “amazing, humble and gentle mentors”.
In her own role as an educator, Melanie in turn acts as a mentor and role model to young researchers. She sees mentoring as part of the responsibility of researchers to “share their skills and knowledge, whether that be in formal supervision, in an advanced training project or PhD or just through encouragement”.
At HammondCare, there are a number of postgraduate research fellows, and Melanie makes a point of checking in on them regularly and ensuring that they have everything they need to succeed.
She has many words of advice four young researchers, most importantly that “you can best conduct research with an excellent team”.
“You always work in a team, and there’s lots of ways in which you can approach a clinical problem,” she says. The right team, according to Melanie, has a mix of skills as well as mutual respect, and is essential to the success of researchers no matter where they are in their careers.
While a young researcher may develop a primary interest early on like she did, Melanie says that this does not mean that they are confined to this forever. “There are so many different areas that complement each other and overlap,” she says.
“Spirituality in health care is a real interest of mine, and so is dementia care. There is huge need in these areas for further research.”