This is the first in our series profiling winners of the PHAA Awards for 2022.
Brahm Marjadi was named Mentor of the Year, and also was awarded a PHAA Fellowship. He is an Associate Professor in Community Engaged Learning and also Associate Dean for Engagement at the School of Medicine, Western Sydney University.
What was your reaction to winning the PHAA award?
It was a massive surprise for me, because I didn’t know I was nominated. The five dear colleagues who prepared my nomination (including one non-PHAA colleague) were pretty good in keeping me in the dark! I love them all to pieces.
Why did you choose a career in public health?
Can I be brutally honest here? I never meant to. When I was at Year 12 back home in Indonesia, I always wanted to be a pharmacist or a chemist, but life took me to med school. Upon graduation I started my teaching career in medical microbiology while practicing as a GP and a Health Promoting School doctor, and volunteering in the Indonesian Catholic Healthcare Association PERDHAKI (it is customary for doctors in Indonesia to have multiple jobs).
It was at the HPS Office and PERDHAKI that I met two amazing mentors, the late Fr Johannes Sastropranoto CM and Sr Maria Francisca SSpS, who opened my eyes to ‘public health in action’. They demonstrated to me how the dry, often boring PH lectures I received in med school pan out in real life.
In the meantime, through my medical microbiology works I fell in love with healthcare-associate infection prevention and control. I wanted to undertake Master of Infection Control at a prominent Australian university, but I wasn’t allowed because I wasn’t a nurse. That’s when I met Prof Mary-Louise McLaws at UNSW who offered me the golden opportunity to study infection control through the UNSW Master of Public Health (MPH) course.
The two-year MPH training led to a four-year PhD which well and truly cemented my love in public health. At the end of my PhD, I joined the PHAA, first quite selfishly only to join the NSW Branch Mentoring program, but it sparked further my interest in public health in general.
In 2014 I took on the lead academic role in Community Engaged Learning at Western Sydney University School of Medicine. My hundreds of encounters with community-based service providers across Greater Western Sydney developed my interest in diversity, intersectionality, equity, and inclusion. I now weave my experiences and insights from all corners of medicine (laboratory benches, general practice, hospital-based practice, medical education, and public health) into a neat little packet which opens up to a practically endless net to analyse health problems – something I passionately teach to my students.
What do you enjoy about the day-to-day aspects of your job?
Its variety and endless string of challenges. It suits me very well because I get bored very easily. I also thrive on bouncing energy back and forth with like-minded colleagues. I am blessed to have found those who I endearingly call ‘the crazy people who are happy to take on crazy ideas’ – or at times, ‘the troublemakers who sit in the naughty corner’. We are sometimes seen as troublemakers because we refuse to sit on our comfortable cushiony seats while other people are still suffering, mainly from social injustice. We like to challenge the status quo with its set of privileges in order to share those privileges with those who are not so positioned.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Every academic degree, organisational role, project established and completed, and recognition of my work brings me a sense of achievement and satisfaction, much like everybody else. But as a teacher and a mentor, nothing beats the thrill from seeing the ‘ah-ha’ moments in my students and mentees.
What public health issue do you think does not get the attention it deserves?
Health equity for all. It may sound cliché, but I often see the three concepts (health, equity, and universality) not being fully understood in their entirety. Worse, they are often skewed to meet one’s agenda, or people pick-and-choose the easier components. In health, the physical and mental aspects are well discussed but not so much the social aspect and certainly not the spiritual aspect. In equity, the binary health inequity between cis-gender men and women is much easier to discuss than including trans and non-binary people. In universality, certain groups – even when they are minority groups – are better served, or at least more often discussed, than others. Sometimes the least prominent groups are those who need the most health service. Think about small minority ethnic groups who may not have any healthcare interpreters, or people who experience homelessness while also having multiple other adverse health risk factors.
The true health equity for all is a radical aspiration. There are great and many temptations to compromise and settle with a limited interpretation/version of it. “We cannot rock the boat too much.” “We need to compromise.” “Let’s focus on this group first, and only after they are well-served, then we move to those more difficult groups.” “We have limited resources.” You name it, the end result is the same: We are not addressing the complete health, we allow inequity to continue, and we are leaving certain people behind. It takes great courage and commitment to fight for health equity for all and it is certainly needed, and worth it.
What lessons do you think we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic?
We learned to redefine our boundaries. So many things we thought were essential pre-COVID turned out to be non-essential. We learned about incredible human resilience. We learned about how selfish and narrow-minded some individuals and governments at various levels can be. We obtained new perspectives on some ‘familiar old friends’ such as epidemiology, health literacy, evidence-based decision-making, and digital divide. But most importantly, we learned about the centrality of the human person in health. All we strive for – disease control, economic stability, and so on – will only make sense if we put the human person front and centre.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in public health?
Enter with your eyes and mind open. Public health is like an elephant. Blindfolded, you may think the elephant is like a hose when you touch its trunk; like a tree when you touch its leg; like a wall when you touch its side; and like a spear when you touch its tusk. Only with open eyes you can see the full creature, and only with an open mind you can appreciate how all those different parts make one majestic animal. And it’s absolutely fine if you dedicate your professional life looking after the elephant’s ears or eyes only, so long as you never lose sight of the whole creature.
Was there anything else you wanted to add?
I have been involved in mentoring activities since 1989 as a first-year medical student – that’s 33 years ago – starting as a mentee and a year after as a mentor. I owe my personal and professional development to numerous mentors along the way. My longest mentor has been guiding me since 1992 to date. Mentoring is not just a transfer of knowledge, skills and networks; it is a gift of self and a gift from the heart. My activities as a mentor is my way of paying forward the tremendous generosity of all my mentors. I thank the PHAA for recognising my mentoring work – it goes to a very special place in the pool room!
Photo: Brahm Marjadi, (left), accepts one of his two honours from PHAA President, Tarun Weeramanthri, in Adelaide in September 2022.