New Director brings wide-ranging research passion to McCaughey Centre
When Professor Billie Giles-Corti scoped her PhD research on environments and health outcomes at The University of Western Australia, she weighed up two choices. “I was looking at diet or
physical activity. Diet looked too hard. I thought I’d do something easy – I’ll do physical activity.
” Twenty years later, the new Director of the McCaughey Centre at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health says her choice led to pioneering work that was exciting, challenging, complicated, forward looking – but never easy.
It ignited a lifetime’s passion that inspires other researchers from diverse fields to apply their expertise to preventative health research. Geography, landscape architecture, planning and civil engineering are some of the sectors that now ask the question: how can our work create good health? This question drew Professor Giles-Corti’s research focus out of the health sector right from the start. ”If you want to change the environment, you have to step out of health to look at all the sectors where the policy environment and built environment that support people’s health are created.”
This has meant Professor Giles-Corti publishes across five fields. What links them? “Public health and sports science are about behaviour,” she says. “And geography, landscape architecture and sustainability are more about the environment so this research brings together people’s behaviours and the environment in which they live.”
One of the benefits of being an international pioneer in this field was having the luxury of making mistakes as part of the learning process. “Whereas now, the tools and technology we use are becoming incredibly sophisticated, and we can measure the impacts of the built environment,” she says.
“For example, geography is providing lots of incredible tools, such as Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, which allows us to locate things spatially to develop measures of the built environment.
“This really exciting field has taken off, involving lots of work to free up datasets that allow us to predict people’s behaviours. This includes the Australian Research Infrastructure Network – AURIN – a $20 million Super Science project funded by the Federal Government and led by Melbourne University. This project will try to make government datasets accessible to urban researchers.”
Professor Giles-Corti was buoyed by the timing of her arrival in July 2011 to head the McCaughey Centre in 2011, which coincided with the State Government’s inquiry into the impact of the built environment on public health. “It showed that people here in Victoria really understand why it’s important – not every jurisdiction around the country thinks like that.”
The inquiry also enabled her to quickly meet State Government department staff who could translate her research into policy and practice. “The inquiry also allowed me to foreshadow some of the work we’ll be doing at the McCaughey Centre,” she says.
Her introduction to Melbourne has been facilitated by a key partnership between the University and the Department of Health’s north-west region. This area’s rapid population growth is throwing up enormous health challenges that are recognised by the State Government, she says.
The partnership has produced five projects for the Place, Health and Liveability Program she has jointly established with Associate Professor Carolyn Whitzman, from the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning. One project she hopes will start in 2013 will involve a major survey of people in the north-west region about how to increase the livability of their environments to improve their health outcomes.
The project team for the Place, Health and Liveability Program involves researchers from the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, the Melbourne School of Engineering and AURIN (Australian Research Infrastructure Network) and much of the work will be facilitated by the Department of Health Victoria. In addition, four PhD students, a research fellow, Dr Hannah Badland, and a new GIS team will be harnessing and enhancing Community Indicators Victoria (CIV) as a tool for measuring the impacts of the built environment on health.
“The McCaughey VicHealth Centre is a great environment for my work – it offers an incredibly broad program covering major social determinants of health,” she says. “We have a very important program of work underway here and our job is to ensure that we do research that can influence policy and practice.”
Caption: Professor Billie Giles-Corti