Women of MSPGH: Carolyn Nickson

You couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination call Carolyn Nickson’s youth misspent, but there were some detours before she felt sure enough to bet on her childhood passion for mathematics.

Carolyn Nickson: Epidemiologist
Research area:
breast cancer screening
Centre for Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health | Cancer Council NSW

“I was from a working-class family, the first to go to University,” Carolyn says. “At that point, the idea that you would go to uni to become a mathematician was just bizarre. You went to uni to do something useful, like become a radiographer. So that’s what I did.

In her late twenties, following teaching studies and a stint in the public service, she finally enrolled in a maths degree. “Just maths – that was me having to assert myself.” Working a side gig to get her through her studies led her to epidemiology. “We need more numbers people like you in public health”, said her boss, who proved his point by sending her to do postgraduate studies in epidemiology and biostatistics.

Carolyn is now an epidemiologist working in breast cancer modelling. She leads the breast cancer group in the research division of Cancer Council NSW, evaluating breast screening programs with the ultimate goal of optimising screening. This includes looking at options for offering screening protocols based on personalised risk. She is also researching better ways to measure breast density, and collaborating with BreastScreen Victoria to work out how routine risk assessment might be done. Her professional interest in cancer was triggered by her boilermaker father’s death at age 60 from Non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

As researchers, it’s important that many of us get involved in translation ... if we want to shorten the time lag between discovering and their translation

What does Balance for Better mean to you? I have a four-year-old and I help care for my partner’s two boys, who are in their late teens. Balance for better is about how I can manage my job against those family commitments, which are inherently unpredictable. I still play down those interruptions when they arise, and feel a certain shame or failure about them. Most days I feel like I have to choose between letting down my job or my family, while at the same time feeling like I’m some sort of Wonder Woman. What I’d really like to see in the future is a culture where it’s just understood that that’s a common part of life for both men and women, that we work around our roles in terms of our contribution to society, whether it’s through our work or families. That carers are not some diminished form of people who aren’t in carer roles. . There’s only so much of that you can control by social standards – you’re always going to be stretched.

What has surprised you in your career?
It’s amazing how the things that you learn along the way can come around and be useful later on. My studies in radiography, theatre, teaching, logic and maths, and skills from various hand-to-mouth admin jobs through my 20s: I use all of those things in my current work, on a weekly basis. At some point I decided I would just do what I loved and do it well, and if that didn’t work, then I’d take a more cynical approach to how I earn a living. And I suppose what surprised me is that that seems to work.

What myths have you busted or would like to see busted? In my field, there's a myth that translating evidence into practice is an end point that someone else will take care of. As researchers, it’s important that many of us get involved in translation, working with the relevant agencies and health services. That’s often slow and complex work and it can get a bit frustrating on all sides, but it’s hugely rewarding and really important if we want to shorten the lag time between discoveries and their translation.