Dr Alana Gall will join the Public Health Association of Australia Board as Vice President (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) in September 2023. She describes her career to date and discusses her new role.
Q: How did you start your career in public health?
I originally developed an interest in health when my daughter became sick with recurring tonsilitis that wasn’t responding to antibiotics – I turned to natural remedies and soon after I commenced a degree in naturopathic medicine. However, two years in my financial situation changed and as a single mum I had to abandon my degree and return to work.
My studies had led me to realise that by doing public health research you could help lots of people at once. Rather than becoming a naturopath I decided to pursue a research career and started at the Lowitja Institute, then the Menzies School of Health Research as a research officer for Professor Gail Garvey. While working with Professor Garvey, I completed my Bachelor of Health Science (Nutritional Medicine), a Masters by Research, and then my Doctorate. My research has spanned cancer, wellbeing, traditional medicines, measure development, telehealth, infectious disease and methodologies including co-design and Think Aloud Yarns.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your current work?
I’m working as Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the National Centre for Naturopathic Medicine at Southern Cross University, building a research program focused on Indigenous Traditional Medicines.
Growing up as a Pakana woman in Tasmania, my father hunted for bush tucker but I didn’t have access to traditional Aboriginal medicines. One of the reasons for this is there isn’t good protection of Indigenous knowledge in Australia, and our community is often scared to share information outside of immediate family groups.
There have been examples of traditional Indigenous medicines being patented and commercialised and in my current role I’m exploring how can we protect Indigenous medicine knowledge.
My other interest is how we can embed First Nations traditional medicine into health policies. My research shows that there is a stark lack of guidance for health professionals on what they should do if a First Nations patient tells them they are using a traditional medicine. This leads to culturally inappropriate responses and a reluctance to disclose traditional medicine use.
I’m also part of the Indigenous Working Group for the World Federation of Public Health Associations and was privileged to recently travel to India for the World Health Organization’s (WHO) inaugural Global Traditional Medicine Summit. I joined in a dialogue with WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. The dialogue reinforced the importance of equitable sharing of benefits from traditional medicine, protection of knowledge, and embedding Indigenous traditional medicines into health policies.
Q: What part of your role do you enjoy the best, and the least?
I love the autonomy in my new role. Working under Prof Garvey I learnt how to conduct First Nations research. Now I’m taking this knowledge and applying it to a topic I’m passionate about.
I like the workload the least. Most academics are under pressure to do lots of extra work – peer reviews, grant applications etc, resulting in extra hours. As an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander academic, there is also a cultural load to carry.
Q: Who in public health inspires you?
This is going to sound cheesy – but the current Vice President Associate Professor Michelle Kennedy. We have always been on the same career trajectory, but Michelle is more deadly than me. We are always on the same podiums, at the same conferences and applying for the same awards. She inspires me because she does everything for the First Nations community. She’s there for the right reasons and does very robust, excellent research.
Q: Why did you nominate yourself for the board role?
Because Michelle asked me to and I admire her. I have been a PHAA member for three years, and agreed with Michelle that this was a crucial and influential role.
Q: What are you most looking forward to when you join the PHAA board?
Increasing engagement with First Nations members – existing and new. Dr Summer May Finlay, A/Prof Kennedy and myself have developed proposal to establish an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Collective that could be consulted on any PHAA policies or submissions relevant to our people. The proposal would give Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander PHAA members a voice in an authentic way and be mutually beneficial for PHAA. It will be tabled at the upcoming Annual General Meeting and I’m hopeful will provide a legacy beyond my board tenure.
Q: If you could get Heath Minister Butler to fix one health problem, what would it be?
Stricter rules around Government funding for Indigenous research to ensure that research is being legitimately run by the community. I see too many grants that aren’t genuinely co-designed. We need a top-down stipulation to fix this.
Q: What’s the best advice you have ever received?
My manager at Menzies, Jenny Brands, once said to me “Alana, I love how you do everything so perfect the first time, but just so you know in this research world you are going to have to get used to drafts”. This advice has ended up being fundamental to my understanding of how research should be developed. You never get it right the first time and no one person has all the knowledge. You need iterations, co-design, and lots of drafts.
Q: The Voice referendum is on 14 Oct. Is there anything you would like to add about that?
People need to be mindful that this is a very hard topic for us, there are different views within the community and it’s emotionally taxing. If people are unsure what the community wants then I would recommend that they refer to the polls that say that 80 percent of First Nations Australians support the Voice, rather than burden their Indigenous friends with questions. It’s a really difficult time.
Image credit: Portrait of Dr Alana Gall from SBS/SciMex (used with permission).