Interview with Dr Imogen Mitchell

Fifty50 interviewed Dr. Imogen Mitchell for International Women’s Day 2017

To celebrate International Women’s Day, Fifty50 talked to Dr. Imogen Mitchell, the Dean of the Medical School at ANU. Dr. Mitchell is an extremely impressive doctor and scientist; her publications and achievements are world renowned, and some of the protocols she helped implement have become world standards. She has won many awards, nationally and internationally, for her research and contributions to protocols such as COMPASS and PRONTO. As such a successful individual in STEM, we hope that she inspires you all as much as she inspired us!

  1. What do you do as Dean of ANU Medical School?

It is the oversight and running of the Medical School. And my own view is that I need to set the vision for the school and then develop the strategy for realising and achieving that vision. We have mastered the first phase of the school, which is producing successful and skilled doctors, and it is my belief we need to move to a second phase of the school, the research phase. I am trying to put the building blocks in place to allow clinical research to occur at the school. We even want to engage with external bodies such as ACT Health to bring them along with our vision.

  1. What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

I see the day as a trigger to celebrate how much women have achieved, and as a way to think about how much further we have to come.

  1. What drew you to your course of study?

I started off wanting to be a cartographer, but my school didn’t know exactly what that was, so I was sort of pushed down the science road and thought physiotherapy would be good as I was quite interested in sports, biology and chemistry. My school then sort of gave me the tap on the shoulder and suggested medicine, to which I very traditionally replied, ‘No you can’t be a good doctor and mother’ which was how socialised I was. Anyway, I chose medicine predominantly because I was interested in the subjects. I moved from being a pathologist, neurologist, a surgeon, and finally ended up in intensive care (my specialty). It is an immediate form of satisfaction, you do something and it either fixes or doesn’t fix. I also really appreciate it now because you are with families during very difficult times in their lives, and are able to help and support them. So I feel incredibly privileged to be afforded that job.

  1. As a receiver of internationally renowned rewards (such as the Senior Fellowship of Higher Education Academy and Taoiseach Public Service Excellence Award) and fellowships (Harkness Fellowship for Health Policy and Practice); do you feel as though you have broken the ‘glass ceiling’?

Not really. I suppose one can always achieve more. I don’t sense or feel as though I have broken a glass ceiling, I feel like I’ve just achieved what others might have achieved. I guess I appreciate that I have been becoming more of a role model particularly as a woman. When I went to the States I had more of an opportunity to think, and I suddenly realised that I was getting to an age and stage where I had to start stepping up and start promoting women. I looked to my own college where only 20% of the fellows are females (only just ahead of the surgeons), so second worst in terms of gender equity as a Fellow. I started making some noise on returning to Australia, and to be honest the reaction was a bit disappointing. In 2015 the sexual harassment in the medical arena came to light and at that point I realised I need to step up.  So obviously I made some noise in the Medical School in terms of sexual harassment and that we really needed to intervene in some way. The second aspect was getting gender equity up in my own college. It was a bit disappointing again because I heard replies such as “Maybe intensive care just isn’t for women”  but now I’m working with three women also in the intensive care area to start some policies for an Intensive Care Society. Nothing will happen overnight but we will chip away little by little.”

  1. As head of the Intensive Care Unit at Canberra Hospital for 15 years, what is the most important lesson you learnt?

I walked into that job at a very young age, I had only been a specialist for a year at Royal Prince Alfred. I then moved to Canberra and was just very inexperienced, but one learns quickly, and one realises that you need to bring people along with you. I am someone who sees a problem and just wants to quickly fix it. It wasn’t until years later that I realised ‘oh people aren’t with me’. I would hear feedback like ‘you are stretches ahead, you need to stop and bring everyone with you.’ So I need to listen and engage, and be a part of the team. I’ve always been pro team, it’s not just about the doctors, it’s the nurses and physios, and pharmacist. In my eye they are all equal. So boiling it all down my lesson is, it’s much better to work in a team and that everyone has a voice. Another thing I learnt probably too late was that as a very focused person, I would walk down the hall with a serious face and people would interpret that as me being cold. So coming into this job I realised as well that I need to stop and ask people how they are, just to make them feel a bit more human. One of my mentors, the Chief Medical Officer of the Federal Government Chris Baggoley really embodied this, even though he had the highest and most serious medical position in Australia. So I strive to be a bit more like that.

  1. What inspired you to focus your research in improving end of life care at acute hospitals?

My original focus had been recognising and responding to patient deterioration. I found that people weren’t really able to recognise this rapid deterioration and so were unable to respond. So we put a system in place to try and help people recognise this decline. But about 30% of patients that are deteriorating are actually dying, and really only getting that active intervention as they are dying. And the later intervention means that you don’t actually get comfort care. And I thought, gosh you can figure out that these people are dying a bit more in advance and help appropriately. So I came into this through research but also clinically through working and seeing this happen. I’m trying to work with national policy now in improving end of life care at acute hospitals.

  1. Your firm anti-bullying stance in both University and the workplace is very inspiring. What does your vision for a harassment-free college look like? Do you think the measures the Medical School has taken need to be extended to other STEM colleges, especially those with sizeable gender disparities?

It was triggered by the vascular surgeon in Sydney and her comments in 2015 regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. (  So I do feel very strongly about it. You hear about instances through the grapevine that these things are happening so I needed to encourage these people to come and talk and write things down. So it really stemmed from sexual harassment but as a school we decided it needed to focus on bullying and discrimination in its entirety. We were lucky that we had two very sensible equity officers in the Medical School Society who were great in terms of writing the book. As for my vision, I would like to see people acknowledging, being aware, calling it up; and people feeling safe enough to speak up about it. For other STEM colleges, I definitely think this kind of policy has a place. Just listening to some of the students in ANU and their experiences in other colleges- you know on field trips and other occasions, it was terrible. It’s just as bad if not worse, so the answer is definitely yes. The sexual harassment is definitely gender specific, but I don’t know about the other bullying. There is men to women bullying, but also there is woman to woman as well.”

  1. Why you are passionate about gender equity?

I think it’s just about fairness. I’m big on fairness. I mean my juniors will say I’m firm but fair. And I’m all for equality. Plus I do actually think as women we have a lot to offer.

  1. What has been your experience as a female in a STEM area?

I genuinely don’t think I’ve been impacted by my gender. Now that’s not to say that I haven’t had experiences, but I don’t know whether that’s my gender or whether that’s just me. I don’t feel as though I’ve been stopped specifically because of my gender. Probably because my feisty determination and has helped in surmounting such obstacles.

  1. What advice would you give to others who identify as underrepresented genders in STEM (female, transgender) in succeeding in their chosen course?

It’s hard to know how to answer this question. I’ve never really seen myself as an underrepresented gender, I’ve just sort of got on and done it. For me I must admit, mentorship is really critical, I mean there’s never been a female who I’ve been able to look at and decide I’d like to be like them. I’ve had mentors, but not a female to admire. So my advice would probably be finding a mentor and ask them for guidance and help along the way.

  1. What advice do you have generally for all University students in Medical Science and STEM courses?

I think you can achieve anything you want to achieve. You just have to be determined and persistent.

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