A rising star on a taboo subject

By daring to bring the taboo subject of genital body image distress into broader discussion, Dr Gemma Sharp has established herself as a rising star in psychological sciences and mental health.

PhD research by Dr Gemma Sharp (BBehavSc(Hons) ’13, PhD(ClinPsych) ’17) has found that genital concerns are very common among all genders and can lead to a range of negative health consequences, including pursuit of risky cosmetic genital surgery and poor sexual health.

Her pioneering research in this field was rewarded with psychology’s highest PhD in 2017 and Early Career Research with honours from the Australian Psychological Society in 2020. In the past three years Gemma has amassed an impressive 23 awards and prizes, along with more than $1.3 million in research grant funding.

Gemma’s recent work is inspirational – partnering with Australia’s national body image and eating disorder support organisation Butterfly and Facebook to design a world-first positive body image ‘chatbot’ therapist (AI-based conversational agent). Launched in 2020, ‘KIT’ the chatbot therapist has conversations with people via social media where they feel most distressed about their bodies, and encourages them to seek treatment.

Currently an NHMRC Early Career Senior Research Fellow, plus Senior Lecturer and Clinical Psychologist leading the Body Image Research Group at Monash University in Victoria, Gemma reflects that her choice to study psychology at Flinders University, after several years spent working and studying overseas, proved a pivotal decision in her career development.

In 2013 she won Flinders University’s Three-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition, talking about female genital self-image, and became a Top 8 finalist in the Asia Pacific region.

“This was considered a very sensitive issue, so I was proud that the judges at Flinders, led by Professor Jeri Kroll, gave this topic the airtime it deserved, to begin breaking down the shame and stigma,” says Gemma.

Gemma’s profile as a science communicator further evolved in mainstream media, leading to her prestigious TED talk in 2017, being named by ABC Radio National as a Top 5 Under 40 Scientist in Australia, winning a Young Tall Poppy Science Communicator Award in 2018, and selection as a finalist in the 2020 Celestino Eureka Prize for Promoting Understanding of Science.

She says her achievements can be linked to self-belief and determination fostered by her mother.

“I told my mother as a three-year-old that I wanted to get a degree from Cambridge University,” says Gemma. “She told me that if I worked hard, I could achieve anything – in 2010 I received a Masters from Cambridge.”

Her ambition to excel in scientific endeavour continues. She says, “The world of digital mental health is rapidly expanding, particularly as a result of COVID-19. My goal is to be at the forefront of these important mental health initiatives, both nationally and internationally.”

Dr Gemma Sharp was awarded a 2020 Early Career Alumni Award for her significant contribution to psychological sciences and mental health research, advocacy and clinical practice within the field of body image and eating disorders. 

Read more about the Flinders University Alumni Awards

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