Friday, 30 January 2015

Researcher Profile: Penny Robinson

Biostatistican Penny Robinson has provided us with fantastic insight into her role with the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine and the journey of how she got there. Have a read of her many accomplishments and her goals for the future. 

What’s your current position? How long have you been in this position?

I’m an Assistant Lecturer (previously Research Assistant) in the Women’s Health Research Program at SPHPM. I’ve been in this full time position since 19 April 2010 - just after CCS and SPHPM moved into The Alfred Centre. (I started my Honours year in March 2005, as the old visitor’s car park was starting to be dug up for building the lower floors of The Alfred Centre!) Before I started working full-time, I was a sessional tutor from 2006 to 2009 in DEPM.

Can you briefly describe your area of research and what you’re currently working on?

I’m the principal biostatistician within the Women’s Health Research Program - so I do whatever analysis is required. I've been primarily analysing data from our breast cancer study, that had a follow-up of 5.7 years, since I started in WHRP. I also crunch numbers for various hormone studies. My current project is looking at the number (and frequency) of pap smears in women who have received a lung transplant.

How did you come to being interested in your current area of research?

I've always followed what has been interesting at the time. As a young child, I was interested in “medical stuff”, but doing medicine didn't interest me. After finishing Year 12, I studied Biomedical Science at Monash University. I enjoyed the biostatistics and epidemiology subject (BMS1042) in 1st year, as well as physiology. I then did Honours in DEPM in 2005, with Chris Reid and Karin Leder. I found that I enjoyed and was good at data analysis, so I then decided to do a Masters of Biostatistics, starting in 2006. I started sessional tutoring (first online, then face-to-face) in 2006. It was from networks made through my tutoring that I got my current job, which is a mixture of teaching and research.

Tell us about your recent award?

My award (joint with Dr Thach Tran) was the Early Career Researcher “Best Paper” award. According to the criteria, the award is for a “novel idea or concept that has the potential to effect a paradigm shift in policy or practice”.

The 1st author paper I self nominated was the 23rd paper from the Breast Cancer study. We looked at self-reported minimal trauma fracture in women who have had BC. Our novel finding was that rib fracture (eg. after coughing or sneezing) was the most common fracture in this group - over wrist, ankle/foot, which is more common in the general population. So we recommend that clinicians are aware of fracture prevention in this group.

Did you have any key mentors or people who deeply influenced who you are, what you believe in and what you’re committed to in your work and life?

My dad, Geoff Robinson, is a mathematician and statistician at CSIRO (approaching retirement). Dad took me to university open days while at school, and has been a sounding board while at university (he even came along to career information nights, and we’d discuss stuff on the way home.) My interest in “medical stuff”, plus being good at the maths/stats stuff means that I’ve followed in his footsteps, but with my own slant. I normally introduce myself in my own right - but if I’m at a statistics event, I’ll introduce myself as Penny, Geoff Robinson’s daughter!!

The “biostats crew” - especially Andrew Forbes, Baki Billah and Dean McKenzie have been good sounding boards over the years. Whether it be “how to” stats, or discussion at the end of my Honours whether to do a Masters or PhD, etc.

My 94 year-old Grandma, Joyce Fuller, has been a huge part of my life. She moved into the granny flat out the back of “Hampton” (mum and dad’s place), in August 2005 whilst I was doing my Honours year. She took great pleasure in paying for her grandchildren’s university fees, and also helped me with my house deposit last year. Grandma has been my “rock” especially over the past few years when I wasn’t coping with changes at home (younger sisters moving out/travelling). Grandma’s place is my “refuge”, where I spend many hours talking with her, and showing her stuff on her iPad. We've even had a James McCormack music video YouTube-athon! To celebrate Grandma’s 94th birthday recently, I made this video to thank her for all of her support.

Do you think your Asperger’s has helped or hindered your career in any particular ways?

Aspergers syndrome (I was diagnosed in Year 9, at the age of 14 ½) is part of who I am. I think that the strengths that being on the spectrum gives me (attention to detail, my memory, great with numbers, and the “walking calendar”) far outweigh the deficits that I’ve gradually learnt to deal with (anxiety, panic attacks, trouble with change, and more recently - sensory overload.)

I was a high achiever at school before my diagnosis, and this didn't change after the diagnosis. I think doing things in my own time (like Year 12 over two years) helped me, because I was more aware of myself when I finished school. I was bullied during lower secondary school, but I felt accepted for who I was at university - this included disclosing about my panic attacks (as a coping mechanism) during my first year.

I started by disclosing my AS to just people who needed to know - like my supervisors. This changed when Grandma gave me the picture book “All Cats have Aspergers Syndrome” for my 28th birthday - the book was the tool to help with many disclosure conversations at work, and in the cycling community.

I’m one of the founding members of the I Can Network, which is a rethink on autism: making autism mean “I Can”, not “I Can’t”, and focusing on the strengths on the spectrum rather than deficits. This has enabled me to share my experiences of Aspergers and higher education, as well as Working successfully with AS. I also shared my journey to becoming Assistant lecturer (and overcoming panic attacks) in July this year. I was also featured in The Age, which was extremely well received by everyone I’ve spoken to since! I’ve recently been made an I Can Network Ambassador for Women and Girls on the spectrum, which is exciting.

What are you most proud of in your time with SPHPM, and what do you love most about what you do?

I love the social media aspect of teaching - #sphpm conversation on Twitter, and creating videos in PowerPoint and uploading them onto YouTube for the students (putting the flipped classroom knowledge from the Graduate Certificate in Academic Practice, I finished this year, to good use.) Dr.Darshini Ayton, Dr.Basia Diug and I even managed to get noticed by Four Corners with our twitter conversation during the “Seduction of Smoking” and “Obesity Epidemic” programs!

I also like the collaborations with others - both teaching and research. I often have to explain the stats I have done in a research context too - so I’m often in “teaching” mode.

What are the goals you most want to accomplish in your work?

1) To be a successful leader.

2) To continue doing biostatistics analysis for the womens health group.

3) To continue taking small steps to increase my teaching responsibility - this is happening, slowly. 

Where do you think the future of biostatistics and epidemiology is going, and what do you see in your current students?

Probably more research focused on data linkage, rather than actual long term studies - as data linkage is cheaper, and there is lots of data available (if privacy laws permits it!)

More registries - DEPM seems to be the home for Australian registries.

Terry Speed spoke about “big data” at the 50th anniversary of the stats society Victoria branch meeting in April, so it will be interesting to see if that eventuates.

Current students?

Its hard to engage all students - especially in statistics. Some students are really engaged. SPHPM offer a “Prevention Science” block for 2nd year medicine students now, and the Semester 2 intake was higher than Semester 1 this year - so that shows that interest is growing.