Dr Ellie Paige was always interested in science. From a young age, she would confidently tell people she would be a biomedical scientist when she grew up. She also wanted to explore the world beyond the small country town where she lived; going to university was the perfect opportunity to combine these two passions.
“As a child I looked up to my sister, Kristy, who was seven years older than me,” Dr Paige recalls.
“I saw her go off to university to study aeronautical engineering and establish her life. Seeing what she'd achieved was a driver for me to also pursue science.”
It turned out that Dr Paige wasn’t the biology lab whizz she imagined she would be, but through her studies was introduced to epidemiology. This piqued her interest and she dedicated further study to the field, completing a Master and PhD in epidemiology and population health.
“I'm passionate about using large scale data to improve health, and particularly interested in prevention of chronic diseases,” says Dr Paige.
“Studying population health provides an opportunity to make change and positively influence health and quality of life – not just for a few individuals but whole populations. I’m particularly interested in disease prevention as we can save many lives and minimise suffering by preventing disease from occurring in the first place.”
After completing her PhD, Dr Paige jumped at the opportunity to undertake a postdoctoral research position at Cambridge University. There she worked closely with Drs Angela Wood and Jessica Barrett, developing methods for using electronic health records to identify people at risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD).
“By improving how we identify people most at risk of developing CVD, we can better target effective preventive treatments and thus reduce disability and death from CVD, the leading cause of death in the world,” says Dr Paige.
“Although at times it felt like Angela and Jessica, both leading biostatisticians, spoke a different language to me, I learnt so much from my time working with them. I marvelled at how they were able to thrive in the fast-paced and pressured Cambridge environment while raising young children.”
While working in Cambridge, Dr Paige did a little digging into the Australian CVD situation as well.
“I realised there were quite a few gaps, and we could improve the way we assess risk.
“This brought me back to ANU as a Research Fellow with the Research School of Population Health. Here I work with some very talented CVD leaders, including Professor Emily Banks and Associate Professor Rosemary Korda.
“I have also been able to continue to collaborate with Angela and have had the opportunity to collaborate with Professor Rod Jackson from New Zealand, a rock star of CVD risk assessment.”
Dr Paige and the team are currently generating evidence to improve how we assess and manage heart disease and stroke. Initially they aim to statistically update and adjust the risk scores used to estimate the likelihood of a person developing CVD to ensure it is appropriate for the Australian population.
The team has a track-record of producing high-quality policy-relevant evidence and working with stakeholders to translate these findings into practice. In early 2020 the team co-authored a consensus statement with guideline developers to update recommendations on the assessment of CVD risk in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
When asked about why she pursued a career in academia, Dr Paige laughs:
“I didn’t plan on studying at a PhD at ANU,” recalls Dr Paige. “I remember interviewing for a research assistant role with Rosemary and Emily, and we chatted for an hour. When it came to five o'clock we had to abruptly end the interview so they could pick up kids.
“I knew immediately that was the team I wanted to work with. Rosemary and Emily are fantastic role models for women in STEMM. They are research leaders in their own right, and also balance their work and personal life.
“I put in a PhD application overnight, and it changed my life.”
Now a working mum herself, Dr Paige has a newfound respect and appreciation for all the women and men who combine a working career with raising children.
“I am very lucky to work with a supportive team and in a school that encourages work-life balance, regardless of whether someone has children or not. Throughout my career I’ve been lucky enough to work in teams with strong female leaders and have never felt limited in what I could do based on sex or gender. I hope my daughter, and all little people growing up today, have that same experience and feel supported to achieve their dreams.”