In touch with … Justine Smith

With her article having recently become the most read piece published on The Conversation by a Flinders University academic, Professor Justine Smith has had a busy few weeks sharing her research. We caught up with her to ask about the importance of communicating with the public and how research wasn’t always on the cards for her ophthalmology career.

What is your role and what does your work focus on? 

By title, I’m a Strategic Professor in Eye & Vision Health and a Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor in the College of Medicine and Public Health. I’m also Deputy Director of the Flinders Health and Medical Research Institute (FHMRI) for Clinical Translation and a senior consultant at the Flinders Medical Centre.

My primary job is leading a research team that focuses on inflammatory eye disease in the broadest sense, including infections, non-infectious inflammatory eye diseases and masquerading cancers. I also supervise students, which includes placements in my lab for Honours through to PhD students, as well as teaching medical students.

I’m also Editor in Chief of the journal Clinical and Experimental Ophthalmology. It’s the first time a woman has ever led a Q1 journal in my field of ophthalmology, so I’m very proud of that role.

Can you briefly describe the journey that took you to this point in your career? 

I don’t think I can describe it briefly! I started my academic role at Flinders in 2012 but I did my PhD here before that, and I took an interesting path to get to where I am.

While I was doing medicine in my undergraduate years, I had little interest in doing research. Others would do it in their holidays but instead I spent my holidays working in John Martins (the now defunct department store) to earn some money for travelling.

After I finished my ophthalmology training, I had the opportunity to meet Keryn Williams (now an Emeritus Professor) and by then I was quite intrigued about the possibility of doing research. But I didn’t have the research track record that others had, and I wasn’t very competitive for a scholarship – and without one I wouldn’t have been able to pursue a PhD.

Thankfully, Flinders Foundation offered to support me and they generously provided a scholarship for the first year of my PhD at Flinders. I was later awarded an NHMRC postgraduate scholarship. So, I have a lot to thank the Flinders Foundation and philanthropy in general for, because if I had not got that scholarship, chances are I wouldn’t have gone ahead with a PhD and be here today.

What is something you love most about your work? 

Working with lots of different people is a real highlight of research. Being able to work with, collaborate with, supervise, be supervised by, teach, learn from people of different ages, different genders and different cultural backgrounds.

It is a real privilege in my work that I have so many opportunities to interact with so many different people. I also have a wonderful research team and I just love coming into work each and every day.

Your recent Conversation article is now the most read by a Flinders University author – why do you think it’s important to communicate research to a wide audience? 

The taxpayer funds our research and it’s our responsibility to share it with them. We owe it to the public to tell them about our research because they’re paying for it.

It’s also really important to educate people about STEM and how STEM impacts their lives. In my area in particular, we can actually make people’s lives better if we can educate them about health-related matters and directly influence their health behaviour. Also, there is an opportunity to attract a wide range of people into STEM disciplines.

It’s also fun to talk to the media! You get asked really interesting questions and it makes you think about your science differently. That’s something I find quite enjoyable.

What do you do with your spare time?

I have a partner and a 14-year-old who’s absolutely delightful, plus a very cute dog who’s about 8-years-old. So, if I’m not working I’ll be spending time with them. We like going to cafes – although now we have to be a bit more careful! – and just having fun and enjoying the simple things really.

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