Looking to the Future: Professor Nancy Baxter

Having joined the MSPGH at an incredibly significant time for global public health, Professor Baxter is now looking towards the School’s future.

When Professor Nancy Baxter took over at the end of 2019 as Head of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health (MSPGH), she had no idea her first act would be making the School virtual. But by March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic made the decision for her.

“It's been incredible that we've been able to continue our function – continue our education, research and cohesion – virtually.”

“The fact that we were able to accomplish this is a testimony to all of our educators and students and all of the support staff at the school. It's a terrific group of people – committed, talented researchers and educators – who definitely rose to the occasion of the massive move to online.”

“We’re now working on the next steps of our online education to give students the best education possible, consistent with our face-to-face delivery.”

Professor Baxter, who is a clinical epidemiologist, general surgeon and health services researcher, first arrived in Melbourne from Toronto, Canada in February 2020. There, she was a Professor in the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and Professor of Surgery in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto.

Having visited Melbourne previously, she was attracted to both the city and the role with the MSGPH. And while 2020 hasn’t gone quite how she expected, Professor Baxter is keen to harness the online learning momentum to create a far more flexible Master of Public Health.

“We are the number one public health school in Australia, and we're 17th in the world. We want to be able to attract people from around the world and provide the opportunity for anyone who wants to study Public Health to study at University of Melbourne.”

“In the future we aim to deliver excellent content to people completely online, so that professionals who really can't come to Melbourne and people who want some flexibility are still able to benefit from our fantastic programs.”

“What's clear is that we need a well-educated public health workforce. We need more now than we've ever needed, and we need them from all walks of life.”

“Public health is so broad, and this flexibility will enable us to give high quality education to a large number of people who don't have to necessarily be sitting in Melbourne and be available from nine to five. When you think about the next five years, public health is going to be a growth industry.

Professor Baxter’s own career has taken several unexpected directions, and she urges MSPGH graduates to approach their professional lives with open minds.

“If someone had told me after graduating, that I would end up in Australia as Head of one of the best schools of public health, and no longer working as a physician, that would have been a surprise to me. It would have also been a surprise if they told me when I started medical school that I'd become a surgeon.”

“Some people have a very linear view of their career and their path. That’s never been the way I've worked.”

“Students graduate from the Master of Public Health with a lot of skills they can apply in a number of different settings. You're well-skilled to be able to get a job in a health-related discipline, but you will also have a lot of skills that allow you to get jobs in other areas.”

“It’s a fantastic degree in terms of training people to be critical thinkers, to be able to solve problems, to be able to deal with incomplete information and make decisions that are the best decision possible, to be able to evaluate programs effectively communicate and understand data.”

“Those are skills that are needed in a large number of industries, so I think it's really important that graduates follow their passion, but also don't sell themselves short because it trains you for so many things.”

Whilst the first six months of Professor Baxter’s leadership has been anything but straight forward. She hopes that the changes that have successfully been put in place will serve the school well into the future.

“I am very much looking forward to getting to know Melbourne (once lockdown is over) and connecting with students and alumni from the school to learn more about their career journeys and successes.”