PhD profile: Embracing science and technology to assess a health hazard

Amanda JohnsonAmanda Johnson had spent a number of years working with large private consultancy firms in IT system development, off the back of her undergraduate economics degree. After a career break for family reasons, she returned to study, completing a Masters in Geospatial Information Systems (GIS), computer systems for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on Earth’s surface.

Such systems have a wide array of applications, including town planning, locating minerals for mining and mapping patterns of disease by location. It can be particularly applied to health issues arising from exposures to highly mobile pollutants, such as those in toxic smoke driven by wind.

It was an interest in using GIS for public health purposes that drove Amanda to conduct her PhD within our Monash Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health (MonCOEH). Team members take overall responsibility for the Hazelwood Health Study, a longitudinal study monitoring health outcomes among people exposed to smoke from the 45-day long Hazelwood Mine Fire in Victoria’s La Trobe Valley in 2014.

Under the supervision of planetary health researcher Professor Yuming Guo, respiratory and public health physician Professor Michael Abramson, environmental epidemiologist Dr Martine Dennekamp (now based at Environmental Protection Authority Victoria), and landscape ecologist/spatial scientist Dr Grant Williamson (from the University of Tasmania), Amanda conducted a series of projects looking at associations between smoke exposure and health.

Spatial data provided by CSIRO was used to underpin estimates of smoke concentrations by location, which was in turn mapped against a location diary completed by study participants, and a variety of health indicators collected by the project team. Amanda was able to link exposure with self-reported symptom data from participants, as well as drawing on MBS and PBS data indicating level of engagement with health services for respiratory, cardiovascular and psychiatric complaints and medication dispensing respectively.

Amanda says, “One of the loveliest things about doing my PhD with this team was bringing such broad and disparate specialty areas together, as you can see from my supervisor’s backgrounds. It really was a novel and unusual experience, and one that I’m glad has generated some good for the impacted community. The importance of teamwork is one of the most valuable things I learnt from my studies.

“My supervisors were also remote from one another, and I was in regular contact with people via Zoom long before the pandemic made it du jour. The high-spec AV facilities at MonCOEH’s Melbourne offices made this so easy for me, so I learned an unexpectedly valuable skill just in time!”

Since graduating, Amanda has found a use for her skills working with the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services on their COVID-19 response.

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