PHAA congratulates our Mentor of the Year, Prof Sharon Friel

Professor Sharon Friel smiles and looks at the camera. The background features trees.

Jeremy Lasek – PHAA


The great film director, Steven Spielberg, perhaps best summed up the crucial role of a mentor when he said: “the delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.”

The additional pressures put on the public health workforce by the COVID-19 pandemic has seen the role of mentors come to the fore like never before. Mentors across the nation have – and continue to provide – guidance, motivation, emotional support and role modelling. Each, in their own way, offer a sounding board, a listening ear, and at times a shoulder to cry on.

To this end, for many public health workers, their mentors have helped get them through this extraordinarily difficult time. The PHAA places significant stock in the role of the mentor and its annual Mentor of the Year Award is both highly competitive and very highly regarded.

The award is made to a senior member of the PHAA who has made a significant contribution to mentoring early career professionals/practitioners/students and to formally acknowledge the importance of mentoring in career development while recognising the time commitments and other sacrifices that are involved for mentors.

The 2021 award also helps shine a light on the successful emergency mentoring program for Victoria’s COVID response workforce, established by the PHAA and the Australasian Epidemiological Association.

Congratulations Prof Sharon Friel

This year’s recipient is Professor Sharon Friel, who is Chief Investigator on several major research collaborations in governance, public policy, and the determinants of health inequities through her role as Director of the Menzies Centre for Health Governance at The Australian National University (ANU).

Sharon was among the 200 experienced public health experts from around the nation who volunteered their time to help the hard-pressed Victorian public health staff cope with the personal and professional challenges of the long 2020 COVID lockdown.

“We were delighted by the willingness of so many senior public health figures to step up and volunteer their time to help support colleagues in Victoria. The list of volunteer mentors really was a ‘who’s who’ of public health in Australia,” said PHAA CEO, Adjunct Professor Terry Slevin.

In her nomination, “Sharon builds capacity in the public health sector by providing exemplary mentorship to a number of early career researchers outside of the program requirements. As a mentor…Sharon provided career development opportunities in the form of guidance on networking in addition to assisting with job, fellowship and committee applications, of which all submitted have been successful.”

Let’s hear from a mentee

One of Sharon’s mentees, PhD student, Susannah Ayre, offered these comments.

“Sharon’s contribution to the PHAA Mentoring Program is outstanding. With her wealth of experience in the public health sector, she offers invaluable mentorship to a number of early-career professionals and students. She is committed to providing mentees with ongoing encouragement and support to think creatively when positioning themselves as researchers within the public health sector, which has led to greater networking and professional development opportunities. Sharon is generous in the expertise and advice that she offers on navigating the daily challenges of working in academia, and delivering and communicating research in impactful ways. Her thoughtful, kind, and approachable nature makes Sharon a highly regarded professional and mentor among many.”

Sharon’s Q and A responses

In support of our recent focus on the diversity of our public health workforce, Sharon was kind enough to provide the following responses to our questions.

Why did you choose a career in public health?

I grew up in a neighbourhood where people died much younger compared to people in more affluent parts of the city. They also had much higher levels of physical and mental ill health. That didn’t make sense to me, nor did I think it was fair. I wanted to understand and change these inequities in health. Hence my career in academic public health, focused on the social determinants of health inequities.

What part of your work gives you the greatest satisfaction?

Researching issues that matter for social and health equity and mentoring the next generation of academics who care about improving societal problems.

How has COVID impacted your life and your work?

Loss of incidental creative chats in the corridor/tearoom; everything is very transactional now.

To whom would you like to give a shout-out?

My fantastic mentees in the PHAA program – Courtney Thompson, Susannah Ayre and Alexandra Chung.

What’s coming next for you in your career?

Starting my ARC Laureate Fellowship on governance for planetary health equity – a five-year program of work looking at actions to address the social, commercial and planetary determinants of health inequity.



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