InFocus: Professor Catherine Bennett

Many women scientists are at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic response. One of them is epidemiologist Professor Catherine Bennett, who began her career in a grocery store and says she still finds learning ‘the most fun’. She talks to journalist Will Brodie.

Professor Catherine Bennett is in great demand. Name a media outlet and she’s there – in print, online, on radio and TV – answering questions from anxious Australians about lockdowns, COVID outbreaks and vaccinations.

Professor Bennett made time for IE because she’s passionate about education, in particular promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects to girls.

Bennett is the inaugural Chair in Epidemiology at the Institute for Health Transformation at Deakin University in Victoria, and she was the founding Chair and President of the Council of Academic Public Health Institutions Australia. She has a Master of Applied Epidemiology from Australian National University (ANU) and was Head of Deakin’s School of Health and Social Development from 2010 to 2019.

All that achievement began with parents who valued education and invested in it “above all else” – and insisted their children help pay for it.

“They worked so hard to provide me and my four siblings the best education opportunities,” Professor Bennett says.

“We were all put to work in a licensed grocery business my parents ran so that we could collectively afford a good education for all five of us.

“We watched a rented black and white TV at home when my friends all owned a colour set, but it was the best lesson in life – education first, a solid foundation for our futures – one that would open up options throughout life.”

Early inspirations

Professor Bennett’s first scientific interest, archaeology, was fostered by documentaries she watched on that humble TV featuring the famous Leakey family discovering ancient human skeletal remains in Africa. Ground-breaking paleo-anthropologist Mary Leakey starred in these documentaries, but Professor Bennett says she didn’t think of becoming an archaeologist as a child because she’d never met an archaeologist “in real life”.

“Professor Julius Sumner Miller also fascinated me with his TV science when I was a kid, but I don’t think I realised girls could grow up to be professors either,” she says.

In real life, her most important educational impetus was much closer to home.

“While I had mentors and other positive influences, ultimately I think it was the academic expectations of my parents that motivated me most, and the inspiration I found in their valuing of education and how, through education and professional growth, you could give back to the community,” Professor Bennett says.

This environment nurtured the formidable curiosity of a young Professor Bennett, who became a “vacuum cleaner of facts and knowledge”. At school, she enjoyed the “challenge and wonder” of science subjects, but biology was her first love.

“There was something amazing about studying life, evolution, diversity, from the amazing detail of plants and animals through to the phylogenetic trees that connect species,” Professor Bennett says.

“Human biology was the most intriguing to me, understanding how our bodies work, how varied we are and what we can learn from our past to help map our future.”

Professor Bennett’s formative educational mentors also included another family member.

“My aunt, Joan Pietzsch, was a science teacher and a leader in encouraging females into the sciences,” she says. “Her good friend, Val Stewart, was the science teacher at my secondary school, Loreto Mandeville Hall Toorak, and another inspiration to me. She also fed my hungry appetite for knowledge.”

At home, Professor Bennett’s penchant for science was encouraged. “My sisters weren’t into science, but I had two brothers who were [one is now an engineer, the other a vet], so it was normalised at home,” she says.

“I liked school and was ribbed for being a bit of a smarty pants at times, but I wasn’t a bookworm either. I was into sport and socialising so that probably helped keep me from being too much of a nerd, and no doubt helped me grow up a little more rounded.”

Connection and communication

Professor Bennett says this ability to connect with others eventually helped her communicate with the students she taught, the researchers she collaborated with and the members of the public who took part in her research. Of course, effective communication is also central to her current role relaying vital public health messages via the media.

As a teenager, Professor Bennett devoured pure knowledge. But as a kid, she’d also loved reading detective novels. She enjoyed problem solving. When medicine beckoned for the high achiever, she already “instinctively” knew research was her passion.

“For me, the science behind the medicine seemed more alluring from the start.”

She revelled in her “broad science degree” at the University of Melbourne before settling on physical anthropology, microbiology and epidemiology.

Professor Bennett admits she still squeezes multiple careers into her life, but she learnt early on not to spread herself too thin. To be “useful to the world” you need to “master knowledge and skills in focused areas at a sufficient depth”, she says.

Uncovering Aboriginal ancestry

This sense of public service has been a foundation of Professor Bennett’s career. She says she quickly learned that science and policy “often sit side by side”.

“When I left uni after completing a degree in population genetics and microbiology, I began working with the police and Aboriginal communities in Victoria when unmarked human burials were accidentally disturbed,” she says.

“This was paleo-forensic work as we had to determine whether this was more recent or pre-European contact and, if more recent, the ethnicity of the person.

“The public policy had changed through my time as a university student with Aboriginal communities recognised as the custodians of the remains.

“It was a significant time to be working in this space – to be utilising science to support the return of ancestral remains and working with Aboriginal communities who were interested in what could be revealed about past lifestyles and customs from the burials.”

Young leader

Such work cast the young epidemiologist into a leadership role, a formative learning experience. Before she had turned 25, she was appointed Victoria’s State Physical Anthropologist.

“I didn’t aspire to be a leader, but the nature of my study and work interests meant I had to be pretty independent all through, and then would find myself alone and standing out front, representing the Victoria Archaeological Survey where I worked at that time,” she says.

“I do remember being pretty overwhelmed when I was appointed into that role as State Physical Anthropologist and trying to absorb so much so quickly. I remember feeling some relief late on my first day when the person showing me around my lab offered me a document, the Guidelines to Managing Human Remains. I let out a sigh of relief. An instruction book!

“But as it was handed over, I was told ‘you will want to review and rewrite this’. I made a small whimper inside. But it turned out they were correct – I rewrote the guidebook, found my feet in the process, and the rest is history.”

Teaching is learning

That history includes a lot of teaching, which Professor Bennett says was among her most valuable learning experiences. “I have a great respect for knowledge, so take that very seriously, but I also think learning is the most fun and energising thing in the world,” she says.

“In teaching you are immersed in this wonderful space where you can be in awe and laughing at the same time. Research is like that too at its best. Contributing new knowledge and growing others so they gain that knowledge is an extraordinary thing.

“I actually remember the day I had set my first exam as a university lecturer. I was mortified that I might have asked an ambiguous question or made some embarrassing typo despite my many checks.

Then, as I watched the students open the exam books, I worried that I may not have taught them well enough, and they might not do so well on my exam. But then, as I watched them scribble away in earnest when writing time started, I realised I was watching them process and make their own all the teaching and learning we had shared in class.

“I was actually quite overwhelmed. It was at that precise moment, I think, that I became a teacher.”

Technological change

Professor Bennett says technological advances have had a massive impact on science teaching. “It has changed so much, it’s like all the great things about the best teachers in my time are now rolled up into new teaching methods and technology,” she says.

“Access to the entire world via the internet has changed learning resources. I can only imagine how my training would have changed with computer simulations in class.

“But I think more significantly the move away from didactic teaching to more experiential, student-centred learning is quite profound. That, along with the emphasis on learning, not just teaching, encourages those engaged, shared experiences that draw people in.

“It’s much easier to get excited about science if you are in a group with a teacher discovering things together. There, you can learn about the joy of discovery itself, not just what is discovered. That is the best of science.”

Women to the fore

Professor Bennett says her public role during the pandemic is encouraging young women to engage with science – one of the “great silver linings” of the crisis.

“Women have been prominent in leadership roles in this pandemic response,” she says. Casting an eye around Australia, we see leading epidemiologists Professor Raina MacIntyre and Professor Marylouise McLaws; and Chief Health Officers Dr Kerry Chant (NSW) and Dr Jeannette Young (Queensland). Then there’s Professor Sarah Gilbert in the UK, co-creator of the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine.

“Young women now know what epidemiology is, that it’s a career option that can only be more in demand from here, and that there are female professors,” Professor Bennett said.

“I have had the chance to speak to many groups about both epidemiology and leadership and chatted to many about careers individually as well. The interest has grown month to month.”

Pandemic publicity

An untiring source of information in the media and social media throughout the pandemic, Professor Bennett says this work is an extension of her research and teaching.

“This is in terms of the skills I have developed over the years that I use 24/7 now, but also in the extraordinary opportunity to communicate with the media as extensively as I do, and with people from all walks of life: the public, industry, academics across disciplines, lawyers and policy makers.

“This has been about unpacking apparently simple but actually quite complex numbers and taking people through the extraordinary world of epidemic dynamics – while being surrounded by it.

“It is another form of sharing knowledge and, as always happens in teaching, learning more about yourself in the process. Therein lies the secret reward.”