Dr. Alexandra Martiniuk is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Medicine of the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney, an Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, and a Senior Research Fellow at the George Institute for Global Health. Prior to pursuing a career in research, Alex worked for the Trillium Childhood Cancer Support Center. She received her bachelor’s degree in psychology and life sciences as well as her master’s degree in community health from Queen’s University in Canada. Alex was awarded her Ph.D. in epidemiology and biostatistics from the University of Western Ontario. Over the course of her career, Alex has received numerous awards and honors, including Fellowships from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the National Health and Medical Research Council, the University of Sydney, and Merck. She is also the recipient of the Saturn Commitment to Excellence Award, a Rotary Paul Harris Fellowship, and the Australian Chamber of Commerce Young Outstanding Person of the Year Award. In addition, Alex was named a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Rising Star in Health Services Research. In our interview, Alex shares some of her experiences in both life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:54)
Beyond spending her time doing science, Alex loves hanging out with her husband and two young children. She often travels internationally for her work, to visit family, and to attend a variety of events. In addition, Alex enjoys the outdoors, sports, and long-distance running.
The Scientific Side (4:10)
Alex is an epidemiologist, and her work involves applying mathematics to answer questions in health and medicine. In particular, Alex is interested in better understanding and improving child health, global health, and the health of indigenous people.
A Dose of Motivation (5:11)
“Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.” – Mark Twain
What Got You Hooked on Science? (7:58)
When Alex was four years old, she was in the hospital for treatment, and this sparked her interest in health at an early age. In elementary school, she asked her parents for a medical dictionary for Christmas, and she was delighted to receive the Merck Manual as a gift. Alex read this book every night, and her fascination with health and medicine grew. However, she wasn’t really sure what career options were out there. During college, Alex took a course from an immunology professor that involved attending her choice of lectures across campus. This experience changed her mind about research and helped her realize how exciting research could be. After college, Alex began working with the Trillium Childhood Cancer Center before deciding to return to school for her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. During graduate school, she realized her passion for the global health research she continues to conduct today.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (20:28)
Much of Alex’s work is based on real-world data collected internationally from people in different communities. Many of her studies involve implementing good, evidence-based practices and/or tools into areas that aren’t currently using these gold standard methods in their health systems. To do this, there are many different challenges. For example, Alex is studying childhood cancer in India in one of her studies. In developed nations, about 80% of children will survive their cancer and live into adulthood. However, in some developing countries, only 30-40% of children with cancer survive. This is frustrating and disheartening because the medical knowledge and tools to save many of these children exist, but they are not available or accessible to everyone. The current project in India is examining what diagnostic and treatment options exist, how much they cost, and whether health systems and families can afford the treatments for their children.
A Shining Success! (24:53)
Recently, Alex has been working as a research and strategy advisor for the research office at the University of Sydney and other universities. Her role involves reviewing research ideas and proposals and providing feedback for the primary investigators and their teams. This is an exciting success for Alex because she is using her skills in rigorous methodology in medical science to have an impact on research across many different research groups and areas. In some cases, the questions she asks change the way researchers think about their project or how to approach their line of inquiry. It is rewarding to see how thankful researchers are and to potentially have a broad and meaningful impact in science.
Book Recommendations (27:32)
The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing, Genius, and Autism by Kristine Barnett
Most Treasured Travel (30:35)
When Alex first came to Australia as a Rotary Scholar to do postdoctoral research at the University of Sydney, she was invited by Rotary Club members to accompany them on a volunteer trip to the Solomon Islands to help them build toilets for a hospital there. This first trip was the beginning of a decade-long research partnership with the Ministry of Health of the Solomon Islands, and she has visited the Islands many times since then. It is a remarkable place that is made up of many small, relatively isolated islands with different tribes of people who speak a variety of different languages and have unique cultures. The country is also interesting from a historical perspective because some of the major battles of World War II were fought over the Solomon Islands. You can even see John F. Kennedy’s downed plane when snorkeling or diving. The snorkeling and scuba diving sites in the crystal-clear waters of the Solomon Islands are amazing.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (34:37)
Towards the end of her master’s degree, Alex published her very first academic paper in a prominent epidemiology journal. Her supervisors were very proud, and she was excited to receive an invitation to present at a United Nations Health Promotion Conference held in Paris. At the time, Alex didn’t appreciate how big of a deal this was since she had never presented at a conference before. Her presentation went well, and afterwards, someone asked her a question about how her study was funded. She was relatively new to research, so she didn’t have an appreciation of the cost of most large-scale clinical research trials. At this stage in her career, she hadn’t really thought about it or asked anyone how research was normally funded. When Alex told the audience that she funded her study by selling hot dogs outside the student pub, the audience broke out in laughter. She thought this mode of fundraising was normal, so she didn’t really understand why everyone was laughing. Looking back now, it was pretty funny.
Advice For Us All (39:44)
Just do your best. Don’t forget that you can ask for special permission. There have been many instances in Alex’s life where she couldn’t afford something, she didn’t exactly fit the eligibility criteria for an opportunity, or there were other circumstances that seemed to prevent her from achieving what she really wanted. It doesn’t hurt to ask and explain your situation. Often, there is an ethical and good solution to these kinds of problems, and people may be willing to help.
Alexandra is an epidemiologist who conducts research in health systems, as well as neurological and mental health research in disadvantaged populations. Her research aims to improve the health and well-being of people worldwide. In particular, she focuses on improving equity in health for indigenous communities as well as low-income and middle-income countries. Through a wide variety of research projects, Alex collaborates with researchers and organizations across 16 different countries. She applies her expertise in cohort and cluster randomized, controlled trials in an effort to better understand and improve health in numerous communities worldwide.