Doctor Simon Graham is an epidemiologist in the Department of Infectious Diseases at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, University of Melbourne. He received the 2021 Sandra Eades Investigator Grant Award (Emerging Leadership) for his research which aims to increase opportunistic sexually transmitted infections (STI) testing to identify asymptomatic infections early so treatment is provided to prevent poor health outcomes.
When I applied for an Investigator grant, my thinking was ... please be good enough to make the benchmark! I would be happy to be the lowest ranked winning application.
This approach has served me well as l don’t have a huge expectation that I will succeed at everything, in my career or life.
Before research I worked in international development starting with the Department of Foreign Affairs. Then I got a job in Bangkok working for a Thai non-Government organisation delivering HIV training to large multinational companies across south east Asia. Companies such as Nike, Sony, Addidas and General Motors. We would visit large factories to conduct HIV training sessions for staff and meet with executive board members as part of a Global Fund and CDC funded project. The project advocated companies to change human resource policies, deliver HIV training to employees to decrease stigma and discrimination within the factories, promoted the distribution of condoms for staff and access to ART medications and caesarian section births for mothers living with HIV.
However, I wanted specific skills to conduct evaluations or test an idea. So, it was a natural journey for me to stay in the field of sexual health but gain specific academic skills. I applied to enter the Master of Applied Epidemiology at the ANU and was accepted. So, I sadly left Bangkok and returned to Australia.
The bit I enjoy the most is the field work. Not surprising since one of the components of my master’s degree was investigating outbreaks. Whether its sweating my way through a factory in south east Asia, to visiting Aboriginal Health Services to visiting prisons in regional Victoria. I have always felt the real work is out in the field connecting with others and listening to people who live in the local area about what they think could be a solution. My brain starts ticking at that point in how I can team up with that local community and test that idea or measure what that community just spoke about.
I hope that my greatest contribution is to listen, connect, and deliver on what l promised. I aim to design things that communities can own and lead and most importantly keep after the project ends. For me the writing and statistics comes second to the ability to listen and connect. The COVID-19 pandemic has really highlighted this.
Although l have won fellowships overseas, I have never planned for my work to have national or international relevance. I am focused on the relevance of the intervention for the communities I work with. Sometimes we are successful at highlighting that this intervention or program made a difference and then we can share it with other communities so they can succeed.
Professor Sandra Eades presented the Investigator Grant Award (Emerging Leadership) names in her honor to Dr Graham in March.
My advice for early career researchers is to build GRIT and get used to failure. GRIT will always get you further than being smart or having great writing or statistics skills. If you set a plan and keep applying, you will win at some point.
The first time I applied for a NHMRC early career fellowship I received a letter saying, ‘of all the applications you finished in the bottom 10 per cent’ – a complete fail! I can laugh at this now but at the time l was wounded. But then my GRIT kicked in and l built a plan to win. I spoke with winners, a professor who sat on the review panel that year and looked at winning applications and their outputs. I wrote a list of the outputs under each assessment criteria heading: research, leadership and teaching. I then spent the next two years working towards this list. When I failed at my first application I was lucky to win a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Melbourne so this gave me two years to work on my list. Two years later I won an NHMRC early career fellowship and moved to London.
Build GRIT and set out a plan.