Professor Louise Baur is a paediatrician and an internationally renowned childhood obesity researcher, whose work has been instrumental in raising the profile of childhood obesity as an issue of clinical and public health importance. Her body of research has helped define management efforts around childhood obesity and improved our understanding of the factors that help prevent obesity in the first few years of life.
She completed her training in medicine at the University of Sydney, followed by paediatric specialist training primarily based in Sydney. After completing PhD studies in paediatric nutrition at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children in Sydney and postdoctoral studies in obesity basic science and clinical physiology at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, she took up a Senior Lecturer position at the University of Sydney in 1994. She has been an academic clinician at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead (CHW) since then.
She is currently the Professor and Head of Child & Adolescent Health at the University of Sydney, based at CHW, where she is also Head of the CHW Clinical School. She is also a senior paediatrician in (and former Head of) Weight Management Services at CHW.
Prof. Baur is the Director of the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in the Early Prevention of Obesity in Childhood, and is an active member of The Prevention Research Collaboration, a specialised research group within the Sydney School of Public Health. She is a Founding Fellow and Council Member of the Australian Academy of Health & Medical Sciences.
She has received numerous awards recognising her many contributions. In 2010 Professor Baur was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) ‘for service to medicine, particularly in the field of paediatric obesity as a researcher and academic, and to the community through support for a range of children’s charities’.
What led you to study medicine?
My sister had a significant illness during her teens, which required several years of at times quite aggressive treatment and numerous hospitalisations. Thankfully, she recovered, has thrived and is now a wife, mother, grandmother and veterinary surgeon. Our family was very aware of how important good clinical care, based upon new research, was to my sister’s good outcomes. I was intrigued and excited about the possibilities of doing medicine.
What led you to specialise in paediatrics?
It’s simply the best! It’s wonderful to work with children and young people – it is stimulating, fun, and rewarding. The health problems of this age group are fascinating. You get to work not just with the child or young person, but also with their parents, siblings, grandparents and other family members. You are always reminded of the need to consider the broader psychosocial influences on the child’s health. I knew I wanted to do paediatrics from the time I was a medical student.
One of the greatest aspects about medical training is that we are constantly learning from our colleagues. What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from fellow doctors as well as non-medical colleagues?
I have had wonderful mentors and colleagues throughout my career. Emeritus Prof Ann Sefton was my BSc(Med) supervisor in 1977 and the first such mentor who has supported me in many ways over the decades. Other wonderful mentors include Emeritus Profs Margaret Burgess, Kim Oates and Stephen Leeder, and Profs Ian Caterson and Len Storlien. They are also now my friends.
I had always experienced great camaraderie and collegiality with my fellow students, residents and registrars during my years training in medicine and in paediatrics. I continue to work in a warm and supportive environment with a range of academic and clinical colleagues, administrative staff and students. It is indeed one of the wonderful aspects of this career we have and a great privilege.
What advice would you like to pass on to medical students and junior doctors?
- Spend time getting to know people and learn to share some of yourself with them too. You should really enjoy working with your colleagues
- Ask for help early on when you need it
- Apologise if you make a mistake
- Be generous in sharing your knowledge and skills with others, and in return be prepared to learn lots from others
Sometimes great opportunities arise when we are not expecting them. Can you provide any examples of a time where an opportunity arose and you initially hesitated taking it on?
This has happened to me many times! For example, when I was a student and paediatric trainee I had almost no training in the issue of obesity, which is now one of our major health problems. As a PhD student in the early 1990s, working in undernutrition, I had just an inkling that I should learn something about obesity. Maybe it might be important?
I made what seemed an enormous decision at the time to leave the confines of the friendly and familiar children’s hospital – my comfort zone – and pursue postdoctoral studies in what seemed like the big, bad world of adult medicine – at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital! I started working with a very talented group of scientists and clinicians – Profs Len Storlien and Ian Caterson especially – investigating the underlying physiology and biochemistry of obesity. This 3 year position ended up being – professionally and in many other ways – one of the most critical and life-changing periods of my life. My husband loves reminding me how ill-prepared I was for it. I said to him, shortly after starting, “I’ve made a really bad decision. I shouldn’t have left the Kids Hospital. I don’t know what people are saying. They use acronyms I’ve never heard. They know so many things I don’t. I feel like I am starting over again!” And my wise husband encouraged me to hang in there. Well, in just a few short weeks I was out-jargoning everyone and was fully immersed in that wonderful research environment! I learnt a great deal, and my whole career trajectory changed.
I am often reminded that good and exciting things happen when you get outside your comfort zone and take on new opportunities. My work occurs across many traditional discipline boundaries, including health promotion, anthropology, health economics, multi-site clinical trials, health service delivery, policy analysis, and complex systems. If I didn’t step outside of where I was comfortable, I wouldn’t have been able to undertake the sort of research and work in the area of obesity that I have done.
What were medical culture and gender roles like when you began your medical training? How have you seen these change during your career? How you would like to see them change further?
I graduated in medicine in 1981, at that time more women were doing specialty training, including in paediatrics. However, surgery had very few women in training. In fact, one of my fellow 1981 graduates was the first woman in Australia to undertake orthopaedics training. Despite having obtained first class honours, she couldn’t get a training position in Sydney, but did so in another Australian state.
I recall that when The Children’s Hospital at Westmead opened at its new site in 1995 there was only one female Head of a medical department. This has changed considerably since, there are now many senior female medical leaders in many aspects of the organisation, although some areas of surgery do remain very male dominated.
I have been mentored and supervised by some excellent male and female clinicians and research leaders, who were essentially gender blind in their interactions with others. These individual people have had a big impact in changing the cultures of their organisations around opening more opportunities to women, and indeed to people from a range of different backgrounds.
In addition, I think systems also need to change. The current SAGE initiative in many of our academic institutions is very, very welcome as it brings the spotlight to a need for system-wide change to support gender equity. University culture has changed for the better over the years, although the University of Sydney is yet to have a female Vice-Chancellor or Dean of Medicine.
In the future, I would love to see more diversity at senior levels throughout both the Health and University sectors, as diverse workplaces tend to allow many people to thrive.
What work have you done in promoting gender equality in Medicine?
As Head of The Children’s Hospital at Westmead Clinical School, my responsibilities include the oversight of the professional development of academics and research students. SAGE issues are a high priority for our School Executive, and I am also involved in a range of University committees incorporating SAGE activities.
I am a Founding Fellow and Member of Council of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences. In that role, I am involved in the mentorship program, which includes workshops for mentors and “mentees”. The forthcoming 2017 workshops are focussed on gender equity issues. How can these up and coming clinical academic leaders be supported to be champions of SAGE principles in their organisations?
In my own research work, I work with many early and mid-career researchers (EMCRs), the majority of whom are women. The NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in the Early Prevention of Obesity in Childhood, of which I am the Director, has a range of strategies to build capacity for EMCRs and to give them opportunities for academic leadership (see: www.earlychildhoodobesity.com)
I also provide formal and informal mentorship for a number of women, as well as men, in their academic careers.
Have you ever experienced or witnessed examples of gender-based discrimination during your career?
Yes, I have seen gender-based discrimination over the years. Fortunately, this is now much less common than in the past.
For example, when I was a medical student one of our senior professors was known to only have tutorial groups with male medical students, and would refuse to have female students in his groups!
In addition, female doctors are often mistaken – by other doctors, health professionals, administrative staff and patients/families – for other health professionals or parents, an experience very rarely encountered by male doctors. While this may seem a minor example of discrimination, if you experience this several times a week for many years, what might be its impact on your sense of being a doctor?
What advice would you like to pass on to young doctors interested in a career similar to yours, with simultaneous involvement in clinical practice, research and education?
Being an academic clinician is a very rewarding career. But it can be challenging. The advice I would give is the same I would give for any young person embarking on a career. Overall, I would encourage you to:
- Follow your passions and interests. If you love paediatrics, or nutrition, or surgery, or genomics, then just go for it!
- Seek advice from wise people along the way. Some of these may become long-term mentors. Others will be in the right place at the right time.
- Work with inspiring people!
- Get out of your comfort zone, that’s where interesting things happen! Don’t be afraid to take on risks that make sense.
- Continually keep on learning new skills
- Have people in your life who love and support you, and make sure you are someone who loves and supports others.
- Know why you are doing what you are doing. What are the core reasons for your actions and decisions? Always ensure you know these.