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Spotlight on women in STEMM: Professor Catherine Elliott

Every 15 hours in Australia, a child is born with cerebral palsy, a physical disability that affects movement and posture. For most people diagnosed with cerebral palsy the cause is unknown, however targeted and timely early intervention can significantly improve health outcomes. Professor Catherine Elliott, School of Occupational Therapy and Social Work, is a researcher in the area of neurological impairment, and is determined to get intervention for cerebral palsy right.


Professor Catherine Elliott is determined to get intervention for cerebral palsy right.
Professor Catherine Elliott is determined to get intervention for cerebral palsy right.

What sparked your passion for science and when did you decide you wanted to build a career in this area?

I have always been passionate about improving the outcomes for babies and children who have neurological impairment. From working clinically in this area for over a decade, I became curious about the evidence behind the interventions we delivered to children and the impact of these interventions to the child’s brain and long term outcomes.

I am determined to make sure that we were doing the right intervention at the right time. To do this we need research that identifies cerebral palsy earlier, then fast track children to neuroprotectants, better rehabilitation to optimise neuroplasticity and improve health outcomes.  Research is needed to support new international clinical practice guidelines to ensure that new knowledge is translated into clinical practice.

Describe your area/areas of research. 

I have two main areas of research interest. The first is supporting clinicians working in the hospital and the community to use the latest science in their clinical practice. By using the latest science in clinical practice, clinicians can improve the outcomes of children and their families.

My second area of interest is generating new research to improve the outcomes of children with cerebral palsy and other neurological conditions. This is looking at new evidence based treatments, and how these impact on neuroplasticity and the child’s functional outcomes.

Professor Elliott believes its it is important to be inquisitive, creative and determined.
Professor Elliott believes its it is important to be inquisitive, creative and determined.

How long have you been at Curtin and where did you work/what did you do prior to joining the University?

I have been the Chair of Allied Health at Curtin and Child and Adolescent Health Services (CAHS) for three years. CAHS includes Princess Margaret Hospital (PMH), Child Development Services and Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. Before that, I worked at Princess Margaret Hospital as a senior occupational therapist and Director of Research  in the Department of Paediatric Rehabilitation.

What have been your biggest challenges in your career, specifically as a woman in STEMM, and how did you overcome them?

The biggest challenge for me has been the move from clinical practice at PMH to clinical research at Curtin. It was through the support of both clinicians and academics that made this possible. Having successful role models in academia, such as Professor Lorna Rosenwax, was essential. The generosity of these role models, with their wisdom and time, provided the support to make the transition successful.

What have been your biggest successes/successes you are most proud of?

I am most proud of authentically and actively engaging consumers in all of our research programs. Consumers are engaged from the inception of the research project, and their lived experience guides the research process. This ensures that the research is a priority for the consumers, and also promotes the translation of the research into clinical practice.

I am also very proud of our PhD program where Higher Degree Research students are supported to conduct high quality research within the clinical environment of CAHS. This promotes the translation of their research into clinical practice, as well as ensuring the students have high level research and clinical skills.

Every 15 hours in Australia, a child is born with cerebral palsy.
Every 15 hours in Australia, a child is born with cerebral palsy.

What has assisted you in developing your career – for example, a mentor, supportive work environment, family support?

Having role models, Professor Lorna Rosenwax and Professor Garry Allison, has been fundamental in providing the vison for career development. Mentors in science throughout my career have enabled me to learn from their vast experience and helped me define my career  goals and objectives.

What makes a successful scientist?

Making sure that all key stakeholders are engaged throughout the research process including consumers, clinicians, policy makers and managers. I also think it is important to be inquisitive, creative and determined, and to be prepared to take risks.

What would you say to young girls and women who are interested in developing careers in STEMM?

Go for it. Find a mentor who can support and encourage you.

On reflection, is there anything you would change about your career?

It would have been easier to have a more direct/traditional  path to research – honours, PhD, postdoc – however having a strong clinical background has made it easier to conduct research that is clinically relevant in collaboration with key stakeholders.

Could you please list any major awards/grants that reflect your professional success?

  • WA lead and chief investigator on 2016 NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence AusCP-CTN (Australian Cerebral Palsy Clinical Trials Network).
  • WA lead and chief investigator I on 2016 NHMRC Project Grant REACH Randomised trial of Rehabilitation very Early in Congenital Hemiplegia.
  • Award Innovative Practice 2016, Zero Project, United Nations, Vienna.
  • Research Excellence Award 2016, Occupational Therapy Australia (WA).