PHAA recognises our 2021 Emerging Leader, e-cigarette expert, Dr Michelle Jongenelis

Dr Michelle Jongenelis

How often do we hear this response? When we asked the winner of the PHAA’s Emerging Leader Award for 2021, Dr Michelle Jongenelis, why she chose a career in public health, her immediate response was “public health chose me!’’

Michelle’s public health journey began in 2014, but what she may have missed through her “late arrival”, Michelle has more than made up for with a stellar contribution over the ensuing years.

Her nominators were unequivocal in their support: “Michelle’s contributions to public health leadership in Australia are extraordinary for someone at her career stage.”

This is borne out through her impressive work for the PHAA alone, where Michelle serves on the executive committee of the Health Promotion Special Interest Group. She is working with others on an event that aims to provide early career public health professionals with expert advice on career planning. Michelle also represents the PHAA on the World Federation of Public Health Association’s Tobacco Control Working Group, and was a mentor in the 2021 PHAA National Mentoring Program.

As a result of her strong work ethic, leadership skills, and growing profile in health promotion and cancer prevention research, Michelle was promoted to Deputy Director of the WA Cancer Prevention Research Unit at Curtin University within three years of PhD completion. Two years ago, she was appointed Director of Centre Operations in the Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change at the University of Melbourne.

Her PHAA Award nomination says: “To achieve successful research outcomes, Michelle has built and maintained effective working relationships with multiple and diverse stakeholders who share a common goal: that of improving population health and wellbeing. She has led several research teams that have been successful in receiving research funding. To facilitate the translation of research into policy and practice, Michelle ensures the research teams she builds feature key public health representative from the NGO sector (e.g. Cancer Council WA, Cancer Council Victoria, Ngala).

“Her range of contributions include those across research, advocacy, training, and practice domains, making her a well-rounded public health leader who brings a comprehensive understanding of the field to all her endeavours. Michelle’s steeply progressing leadership skills have been recognised with an NHMRC Emerging Leader Investigator Grant.”

Michelle is considered an expert on e-cigarette use in Australia, with her work in this area drawing substantial attention from health authorities (including Australia’s Health Minister and Chief Medical Officer), advocates, and the media.

“To ensure research outcomes reach a non-scientific audience, Michelle communicates her work frequently to the general public…providing commentary on important issues,” her nomination continues.

“She is registered with the Australian Science Media Centre as an expert in tobacco and alcohol control and regularly responds to requests for ‘expert reactions’ to breaking news. Her work and commentary to date have attracted more than 420 media mentions, reaching a cumulative audience of around 7.3 million.”

As a mentor, Michelle has supervised or co-supervised six honours students and one PhD candidate.

Michelle’s Q and A

We thank Michelle for providing a little more insight into her career in public health by responding to a series of questions.

Why did you choose a career in public health?

Public health chose me! After finishing my PhD, I began looking for work as a clinical psychologist. While job scouting, I was offered a casual position working on a research project in the area of alcohol control. Long story short, that casual position became a full-time position and I am still working in public health eight years later.

What part of your work gives you the greatest satisfaction?

Seeing my work being applied to policy and practice, and not just sitting behind a paywall.

How has COVID changed your life and your work?

I didn’t think work could get any busier but then COVID hit and it turns out that yes, you can have a 10 second turnaround between meetings! A lot of important prevention work has been put on hold to manage the COVID crisis, so although my work hasn’t stopped, it is being considered less important in the midst of the pandemic. I am hoping that greater attention will be given to prevention ASAP.

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

Professor Simone Pettigrew. Simone has been a mentor of mine for over a decade and everything I know about leadership in public health has come from her. I am incredibly grateful for her guidance and friendship.

What’s next for you in your career?

I am the recipient of an NHMRC Fellowship so the next five years will be focused on extending my research in the area of e-cigarettes. I also look forward to continuing to advance public health in Australia and globally via research, teaching, and engagement.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Just a thank you to the PHAA for the recognition!

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