Career Profile

Dr Melita Giummarra

Director of Research Programs at the National Disability Insurance Agency

Course: PhD

Graduated: 2011

Passion: To identify, generate, and apply evidence to bring about changes that will improve social, economic, justice, health and disability outcomes

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Melita graduated with a PhD looking at phantom limbs, and embarked on a varied academic career that took her from psychology and pain research, through to epidemiology of road trauma outcomes, and most recently working within the newly-created research portfolio for the National Disability Insurance Agency. Big data analysis has often featured in her research. Melita was always comfortable with maths, although initially found statistics a bit dry and technical. It wasn’t until she began applying statistics to real-world problems that she realised their potential to help solve fascinating and urgent health problems.

Tell me about your education and career background.

I think it’s fair to say when I first enrolled in Uni I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my career. I completed a Bachelor of Arts majoring in psychology and criminology, but took a few unusual turns along the way, including gender studies, philosophy, media and maths units! After I graduated, I found a research role in a public health team, looking at ways to reduce or prevent falls. But since completing honours in Psychology I always knew I wanted to do a PhD, I just needed to find the right topic.

So what was your PhD about?

A slightly unusual one – phantom limbs! I always found the idea of phantom limbs fascinating, and wanted to understand more about it. There’s a lot of overlap with pain medicine in that topic, and after I graduated from that, I worked in pain research for quite some time. This included an NHMRC Early Career Fellowship that allowed me to explore empathy and pain.

And how did that feed into your more recent career choices?

From there I ended up back in public health research, working in the Pre-hospital, Emergency and Trauma research team at Monash Uni. I did a lot of work using data from the trauma registries, which is where I got a real taste of big data management and analysis. I also received an ARC DECRA Fellowship, which enabled me to take on projects exploring road trauma outcomes, especially looking at outcomes and fault attribution. There are some really interesting differences in outcomes from road trauma that are influenced by whether another person is believed to be at fault.

In 2020 I moved away from Monash and joined the National Disability Insurance Agency and am currently the Acting Director of the Research Programs team. I oversee quite a mixture of research, that provides evidence for policy decisions or identifies evidence to improve how the scheme operates. Our branch also collects or analyses data to evaluate the success of programs, and evidence synthesis projects. Most of the work we do supports the Agency’s key priorities, and aims to support improvements to the scheme.

As this position is new, it’s still very much a work in progress. But I’m hopeful that we’ll soon be able to work with large linked national datasets that will help us generate advice on how people with disability can be supported to achieve their goals.

I am also still working with Monash casually, and work part-time in the pain clinic at Caulfield Hospital. I supervise PhD students, and I’m finishing off an evaluation of an early intervention trial as well as projects examining health service use using data linkage with the Victorian Transport Accident Commission (TAC). We know surprisingly little about health services use following road trauma, other than some self-reported data and medication compliance data. I’m helping better quantify interactions with health services by people recovering from injury, and we’ve already found that it’s possible to identify who may be at risk of poorer outcomes based on their patterns of health service or treatment use. The nice thing about this is that because we used TAC payments data as our basis, it means that going forward the TAC will be able to use their data to identify at-risk people and intervene to improve their outcomes.

You often deal with large datasets in your work, like clinical registries, the TAC dataset and now NDIA records. Were you always good at numbers?

I always enjoyed science and maths, and learned early in my undergraduate degree that I preferred maths over traditional arts subjects like philosophy! While I initially found learning statistics quite hard and dry, when I had the opportunity to apply it to real world situations, I realised that incredible possibilities open up and make them a really interesting and valuable tool. They can yield really important insights into all manner of important health questions.

What would you say to someone considering going into a health data type career?

Like I said, it’s the application of stats and purposeful use of datasets that makes it a really rewarding and diverse field to go in to. Combining health data with statistics and even technology is a hugely interesting intersection that I believe will drive big changes in health care. Even if you don’t go into it as a career, being able to confidently understand where to source large data sets, and how to interrogate or interpret data is an incredibly desirable skill, across governments and the private sector.