Our “Five Minutes With” series seeks to discover what are the habits, inspirations and obstacles that have shaped the careers of leading cancer researchers and influencers.
Professor Kirsten McCaffery, BSc Hons Psych, PhD Psych, is a Principal Research Fellow at the Sydney School of Public Health, the University of Sydney and currently holds an NHMRC Principal Research Fellowship. She has a national and international reputation in shared decision making, health literacy and the assessment of psychosocial outcomes, and has had four successive NHMRC fellowships. She is Director of Research at the Sydney School of Public Health and Director of the Sydney Health Literacy Lab. She is co-founder of Wiser Healthcare – a research collaboration of over 30 researchers across three Australian institutions (Universities of Sydney, Bond and Monash) and Node Leader of the Charles Perkins Centre, Health Literacy Node. Her research focuses on psychosocial aspects of overdiagnosis and overtesting, health communication among vulnerable populations and behaviour change research. Her work uses quantitative methods such as randomised trials and experimental studies as well as qualitative research. Professor McCaffery has received over $40 million in competitive research funding since 2000 and has over 220 publications including papers published in the highest ranked general medical journals including Lancet (3 papers), BMJ (24), JAMA (3), MJA (4).
When do you get your best research ideas?
At the strangest of times. It has to be quiet and peaceful. Sometimes that is when I am exercising. Sometimes it’s the middle of the night or a plane journey. You need time to digest information and to string new ideas together. I find travelling for conferences a good time to pick up new ideas. Lots of new information presented at the conference then lots of travel time to do some blue sky thinking.
What is the best piece of advice (work or life) you’ve been given?
Persistence is key to success
Which failures changed you the most?
In my 20s I failed to get what was essentially an administrative job working in an international aid agency in London. At the time seemed the most exciting role ever and I was hugely disappointed not to get it. I now I realise it was a lucky escape. This led me to look to health research where I found a research assistant job with Professor Jane Wardle. This changed everything for me. I had no plan to do a PhD or to work in research until I met Jane….
What’s your top life hack? (trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method that increases productivity and efficiency)
Starting anything from scratch can be daunting. When writing a grant or paper – do the easy bits first, title page, headers, methods, tables etc. This can give you some momentum to get into the more challenging task of writing the intro and discussion. For these section I would always start with bullet points and discuss them with your co-authors before you write a full draft. Discussing the arguments and logic first can save you hours of time writing beautiful paragraphs which then get deleted by a co-author (grrrrr).
I’m inspired most by…
People who think outside the box and bring together disparate disciplines, theories and ideas to address a problem.
I’m passionate about…
Understanding whether removing the cancer label in low risk conditions that are unlikely to cause harm if left untreated may help reduce overdiagnosis and overtreatment.
What advice would you give to someone starting their first research group?
Be fair, be empathetic, lead by example and build the capacities and credentials of your team. When your team members succeed – so do you.
What’s the first thing you do after a grant rejection?
Swear, take a deep breath and then think where can this go next.
What can the UK learn from Australia in terms of cancer research?
Don’t take yourself too seriously and collaborate as much as you can!
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