14 March 2023
When Emma McMahon was a child she adored logic puzzles – they were “interesting” and “exciting” and made her mind tick in a way that gave her whole body energy.
Fast forward a few decades and the Queenslander grins when she shares that her daily work is a ‘grown-up’ version of her childhood joy: working with data to track impact and inform change for strategies related to improving population health.
It’s an area many shy away from, she says, but has proved a perfect fit for her.
“There’s a whole bunch of little tasks in research that really tickle my brain and they’re really useful to a project because others don’t necessarily like to do them, but for me they’re so enjoyable,” she explains.
“I love that what fits as a natural aptitude for me complements others well; there are those who are great at the big picture, but I love to do the detailed stuff.”
However, Emma’s journey into the academic research field wasn’t always clear – she completed three years of a primary education degree before a nutrition elective sparked a detour. The following semester she transferred to biomedical science at Griffith University, then continued her studies with a Master of Nutrition and Dietetics.
A short-term position at the Princess Alexandra Hospital led to a PhD scholarship with the University of Queensland to progress the work. The project looked at the impact of salt intake on cardiovascular risk and risk for kidney disease progression for those who already had the disease.
“I probably wouldn’t have guessed a year before that that was what I would be doing (a PhD) but I just felt so lucky – I was basically being employed to learn and do something interesting.”
Emma says her good fortune continued after her PhD when she was offered an opportunity to work with RE-FRESH Chief Investigator Associate Professor Julie Brimblecombe in Darwin in mid-2014 on a nutrition trial – the beginning of a close working relationship and a focus on Indigenous community health that continues today.
This has included a co-funded NHMRC/National Heart Foundation Fellowship related to feedback on diet quality to support decision-making to improve food supply and access in remote Indigenous communities.
Emma is now working for the Menzies School of Health Research on a project with The Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation (ALPA) which aims to support community health through informing the health and nutrition strategy for the stores they own and run.
Emma’s role in the project has focused on developing a data system that allows real-time store sales data to track drink sale patterns, see which products contribute most to sugar intake and identify opportunities to increase fruit and vegetable sales. The data allows the ALPA Board to make evidence-based policy decisions on behalf of their communities to support their health – something Emma finds particularly rewarding.
“I love being involved with work that supports people in the community to have input on decisions that affect them,” she says.
“It’s a novel concept to have nutrition reports integrated into a sales data system and it’s very exciting to work on a project when you can see the impact happening immediately.
“ALPA has been able to maintain these reports independently; I love the fact that it’s sustainable long term.
“Another large store group has also approached the project team about nutrition reports for their organisation…it’s exciting to think of doing it again – the fun puzzle – and of the impact it could have, especially showing that it can be done again in another store group – it really is achievable.”
Emma’s research in 2023 is also set to take her into the local government realm, having been named as a Chief Investigator on a recently funded NHMRC grant which will trial healthy food retail initiatives in Victorian local council-run settings.
Emma says she is certain she has found her long-term career in research and hopes she can continue to work with the great team she is part of, “keeping my brain interested and engaged”.
“That has been one of the best parts of being part of RE-FRESH – the connections I have made…the people,” she says.
Emma’s close colleague and mentor A/Prof. Julie Brimblecombe said it was “a privilege” to have Emma as part of the team working to address inequities in the food supply in remote communities.
“Emma is an awesome gem full of energy, joy, fun, wonder, honesty and with a brain that doesn’t stop!!” she said.
“She’s a beautiful person who is amazing to work with, with a problem-solving ability, attention to detail and commitment to methodology that I really admire. She is so passionate about what she does and she takes it to the ‘nth’ degree, and she stays very focused on what she’s working on.
“Her ability to problem solve to build data systems to capture point of sales data is incredible; she also contributes an amazing energy and people just love working with her.
“She has an invaluable role in data modelling to build the evidence needed for long-term public health benefit and I think she can play a part at a national level to address nutrition outcomes.”
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