On the job with … Dr Cath Latham

EMCR Forum interview with Cath Latham
Policy & Project Officer,
Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes

What is your current occupation or position?

I work at the peak body for medical research institutes, the Association for Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI) where I am the Policy and Projects Officer. AAMRI represents the interests of 47 medical research institutes Australia-wide in various capacities, including government relations and policy issues. Specifically, my role involves keeping up to date with policy issues that could affect the sector, liaising with member institutes about how best to represent them in these issues. I also work on a couple of different projects at once, which can be about anything that could benefit our member institutes or the medical research sector. For example, we are currently investigating the impact of the new Medical Research Future Fund on how we do medical research in Australia.

How did you get into the area?

I was awarded my PhD in biochemistry from the University of Queensland in 2005, and I’ve been a medical researcher working in Australia and the US ever since. I got into the policy area when I was working as a senior postdoc at the Burnet Institute in Melbourne after returning from overseas. I was working on some great research projects in infectious diseases, and in a great lab with a fantastic boss and mentor. I love research and the group I worked with at Burnet, but I had also started to think about a possible change in career direction that I hoped could still be heavily linked to medical research.

From then on, I put a lot of energy into investigating other activities that might lead to a role where I could really use my research training and make a contribution to research in other ways. I had no idea what this role would be or what it would even look like. I did all sorts of things alongside my research, an internship in commercialisation, a course in intellectual property, and had LOTS of coffees with people who had a variety of roles in different research-related industries.

As someone who always has one eye on current events and politics, I became interested in the policy space. Burnet is one of AAMRI’s member institutes, so I had heard of AAMRI’s activities. In particular, I was impressed at the huge amount of work they’d put in to make the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) a reality. I took on a 1 day a week position at AAMRI to work on a project aimed at capturing a snapshot of the medical research institutes sector. This move meant surrendering a full-time research career, and it was the biggest move away from research that I had taken to that point. The project was a huge success, and after about a year and a half of coordinating 4 days/week of Burnet research and 1 day/week at AAMRI, I accepted a full-time position at AAMRI.

What do you enjoy most about working in the area/position?

I feel very lucky as I love my new job and it is a role where all my (career) passions seem to have converged. I used to fit my interest in current issues and events into my spare time, but now it’s part of my job! I love problem solving, and a lot of this role involves talking to colleagues and experts to develop strategies that address complex problems. I love writing and communicating, and I spend a lot of time writing in different styles and for diverse audiences about a variety of topics. I also love talking to people and this job requires a lot of that—engaging with key staff in our member institutes, other peak bodies, government, high profile experts and the public. As well as all these great aspects, I am still able to contribute to medical research by improving conditions in the research environment, leaving researchers to get on with their amazing science.

What are the most challenging aspects about the area/position?

I think the most challenging aspect of this role, and peak bodies in general, is balancing reactive work and proactive work. On any given day, a new government announcement could turn your nicely planned week into mayhem. Suddenly, the team needs to drop everything and work out a strategy to see a way forward. These reactive situations sometimes make it difficult to progress proactive projects with open-ended timelines when dealing with an immediate crisis. Juggling the reactive work, the daily operations and proactive projects can be very challenging.

One other challenging aspect is that most issues and projects require us to grab tiny snippets of time from experts and stakeholders who are often incredibly busy people. This means you get very little opportunity for clarification or to elaborate on details. Filling in these gaps relies on your own knowledge, research, or a certain level of intuition! I don’t always get it quite right the first time.

Describe a typical day in your job?

A typical day usually starts by checking for any new announcements, usually by looking through email alerts of all health-related press releases and relevant stories in the mainstream news. Depending on the magnitude of the announcement, we might tweet about it, write a press release describing how it affects medical research, or we might decide to devise a full response strategy. A typical day also usually involves a scheduled teleconference with any number of different groups, depending on the project or issue. It might be a panel of experts advising on a project we’re doing, or our member institutes advising us on the subject of a government consultation. I am mostly responsible for the project work, so I’ll spend quite a bit of time collating all of the advice and literature into clear, digestible documents for distribution.

Any advice for EMCRs wishing to pursue a career in this area?

How about giving me a ring or dropping me an email? Simply the best way to find out what different roles and careers involve is by making contacts and getting personal perspectives. If you don’t know someone directly working in the area you are interested in, then chances are one of your friends or colleagues does. Don’t be afraid to start a conversation with people around you about what you’re thinking, it just might surprise you what networks could open up.

What's exciting about your job?

As well as being a challenge, the most exciting part of the job is never quite knowing what tomorrow will bring. In some ways this is what I love about medical research, but the timelines were a lot longer. In policy, you could wake up to a press announcement that means we suddenly have to learn about a whole new area that we previously knew nothing about. That may sound like a nightmare to some but I love learning and new challenges so I think this is pretty awesome. The other exciting aspect is the opportunity to have a big positive impact on a lot of people, which is really the reason I became a scientist in the first place. It’s great to be able to take that philosophy forward into a new career.

How did your PhD or postdoctoral research assist you with a career in this area?

This is my favourite question so I’m glad we’ve saved the best for last! To some degree the answer to this question should be self-evident. How could a career working in medical research not be beneficial when representing medical researchers? One of my niggling worries when searching for a new career was that I had been a researcher for so long. At the time I joined AAMRI I’d been a postdoc for more than 10 years, whereas most of my colleagues who were transitioning out of research were in their first 5 years post-PhD. I felt very self-conscious about this fact. As it turns out, the experience, knowledge and broad skill set I gained as a researcher is a huge advantage in my new role. I understand how researchers think and what they need, which makes representing their core interests second nature. I am incredibly proud of the valuable (and extensive) time I spent as a researcher, and I am absolutely delighted that I can put my experiences to use towards something I love and know so well. 

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