Women in STEMM

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Dr Michelle Bovill on her unintentional research career.

Women standing with arms cross
Dr Michelle Bovill is a proud Wiradjuri woman, conducting health research in partnership and co-ownership with Aboriginal communities supported by NHMRC ECR Fellowship.

​​​​​​​I’m a Wiradjuri woman, but I grew up on Worimi land. I’ve mainly worked across the Hunter-New England region: Worimi and Awabakal land, Darkijung on the Central Coast, and west to Gomeroi land.

In 2003 when I was finishing high school, I was poached to be a teacher. At that time there was a real push for Aboriginal people to become teachers, and I was offered a scholarship to do so. I didn't really want to be a teacher, but we didn’t have people role-modelling careers. I watched my mum go to university when she was older, so decided I'd go without really knowing what I wanted to do.

I studied an arts degree and did a range of courses to try and find my place. I did Honours in Community Cultural Development, working with my community to build a public artwork. I liked empowering Aboriginal communities, and through that process, I learnt qualitative research methodologies that would later become important to my career. I then completed a Masters degree in social science majoring in social work, where I was able to apply my cultural knowledge and my connection to community.

As a social worker, I developed Aboriginal Cultural Support Planning, including the model of care for Aboriginal children in out-of-home care. Working for Life Without Barriers, I had the opportunity to build their frameworks for cultural support planning at a national level. I was able to travel and consult Aboriginal communities across the country and use my experience to gain understanding of different cultural processes, protocols and considerations.

My research career started unintentionally. I’d lost several family and community members who were in their 40s - young even for our shorter life expectancy. I needed an outlet to distract me from that grief. My first research assistant role was to collect Aboriginal women's stories. My knowledge and experience working with the Aboriginal communities, consulting and co-designing projects, had an important place to play in Aboriginal health research. I remember explaining the process of recording stories to one of the first participants. She said "What? You're gonna go and tell them doctors what I say? That's DEADLY. You go and tell them my story and what I think!” That was a ‘wow’ moment.

I was in – am in – this privileged position where I have the education and opportunity to amplify communities’ voices and experiences that probably wouldn't have been heard before.   

I started to notice the type of research that was conducted for Aboriginal people, and the way Aboriginal people were written about in a deficit way. I thought that it might be useful to do a PhD and be able to change the narrative. I didn’t know anyone with a PhD, but my grandfather always asked me to do one. For him, an Aboriginal man who had primary school education, the thought of his grandchild getting the highest level of education was amazing. He was the only person that ever mentioned a PhD – I don’t think I knew what I was getting myself into when I agreed!

My PhD was on smoking cessation during pregnancy. There was a growing need for Indigenous-led evidence for smoking cessation. A lot of the evidence we have is derived from the general population and tested in an Aboriginal setting, rather than being derived from what Aboriginal people want or are interested in. These wants and interests were becoming clear to me from what Aboriginal women had told me in formal research, and from yarning in the community. Before I completed my PhD, I was awarded an NHMRC Fellowship, so I was able to continue the work that I wanted to do.

Growing up, my grandfather instilled in us that that we have to give back to Aboriginal communities. My work is wholly collaborative. Everything I do is co-owned with Aboriginal communities: it's our research.  

In all the communities I’ve been in as a researcher, there's a lot of trust. I've had great elders and senior members of the community teach me a lot about respectful ways of working in Aboriginal governance. There's always going to be non-Indigenous people conducting research with Aboriginal communities, but when Aboriginal people are delivering that research it's conducted differently, and communities engage differently. This has implications for research implementation, success and design. There isn’t great understanding of this, and there's not a lot of literature to tell us whether Indigenous methodologies are appropriate in an Aboriginal setting. I'm working on developing some literature around health research methodology.

When I was at school, if a non-Indigenous person came up and spoke about STEM, I wouldn’t have identified with it. People that come from completely different backgrounds to us don't face the same level of challenges that we do. Only Indigenous colleagues understand the impact of some of the things we face.  

Once, I was at work and I got a phone call saying that I had five children being dropped at my doorstep because a community member had been put in prison. I had to drop everything and deal with that. The roles and responsibilities we have as Aboriginal people are enormous. In addition to the expectations on me as a researcher, I need to ensure that I'm being reciprocal in my relationship with communities. That’s the sort of thing non-Indigenous researchers wouldn’t necessarily have to do. It’s meaningful, and I know that's what my grandfather would want me to be doing, but it can be a lot to carry. During my PhD, my family experienced incarcerations, deaths, cancer, divorce. I see the result of trauma because it’s the lived experience of my children. It can be really challenging working in this space, because we spend a lot of time writing and reporting on our data, and our data is never good news. For me, that data has a face, a name: it's a family member.

For me as an Aboriginal woman in research, the key to making things easier is getting more Indigenous women working in this space. Sometimes you just need to debrief with someone who understands. 

I'm committed to offering opportunities to Aboriginal people – particularly women, because the research I do is women’s business. Our Indigenous Health Unit participates in the Aurora Internship Project. Any Aboriginal student interested in research, particularly health research, can apply to do a 6-8 week internship here with me. We have systemic barriers for Aboriginal people in universities in general. I'm trying to build capacity by making opportunities and offering support and mentorship for the next generation.

Success in my work means intergenerational success. Success will be when Aboriginal mums who quit smoking have healthy babies, and those babies grow up to be healthy people who don't smoke, who may then have their own healthy babies. In the short-term, success would be a trial in Aboriginal communities with statistically significant results, which doesn't always happen in our settings. Success is more Aboriginal people with PhDs and working in this space. Success means my children won't have to go to funerals of 40-year-olds.

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The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.