Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your work pre-COVID-19?
As Head of the Discipline of Medical Imaging Science, my pre-Covid work activity would generally consist of 4 days spread across the Camperdown and Cumberland Campuses and 1 day working at home. From my house, this would mean a 45 minute drive to each campus, and often I would drive between campuses at some point of the day. I would make sure that I was always available for face to face, not previously being a big fan of Zoom, especially for my HDR meetings, as I felt it reflected that I was making less of an effort. My research work was largely outside campus, and was spread in very interesting environments such as the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne, conference workshops in Australia, China and the USA, and at local institutes such as Cancer Institute NSW and Breast Cancer Institute, Westmead. I loved to travel around for my job, whether that be education, research or service roles.
In five words or less, what was your reaction when you heard of the restrictions put in place?
How, when, why and WOW!
Working in health, and also having lived in China during SARS, I have a “healthy” respect for virology. I knew we were going to have to restrict the physical contact and travel so my Discipline embraced this early and we had a peer-upskilling day where we helped each other learn about Zoom, Canvas function, virtual reality software, and the art of running Q and A sessions. I also had the added stress of helping my two teenage sons navigate remote learning, which was not easy as screen time also equal fun times for them.
How did you overcome the challenges of COVID-19?
Often I was anxious, thinking “how can I possibly run this meeting remotely, or redesign a practical assessment”. But collectively my School of Health Sciences, and the Faculty of Medicine and Health were there for each other. Sharing small wins became a way of work and life, but I also think it is important not to gloss over how much work this really meant for each of us. For those high Semester 1 teaching loads, it was crazy trying to rewrite assessments or develop multimedia resources on the fly. Some of my team have been negatively affected more than others and have drifted into a quiet space without the social interaction we enjoy at work. Personally, staying home was very hard for me and I found that I enjoyed using Twitter more to connect with my broader academic network, and my cat and dog are social media regulars. I learned that even with more time on my hands of an evening, I am still not a great cook. For the Discipline, I hosted regular Covid-Catch staff meetings, and together with a smaller team, we presented our re-imagined assessment (a virtual, remote OSCE) and Q&A interactive tutorials at two international conferences to keep morale afloat.
Did you find many positive aspects/outcomes?
The USS scores were amazing in semester 1, 2020!! I would like to think it was because we made an enormous effort to be “present” for our students. That sounds strange in the new world of physical distancing but I know my colleagues (shout out to Amanda Punch who was acknowledged by the VC for her Covid Teaching in S1), did a hundred small things to make a difference to student learning. There were Covid Coffees and Covid Chats (and maybe even Covid-Cocktails between staff). We shared our homes, our pets, our family and our time with the students. Successes in their education, resilience and gratitude was evident and I am confident they make fine health practitioners and great USYD alumni.
What surprised you about your work during the pandemic?
I have never been a fan of Zoom as I wear bilateral hearing aids and fear missing verbal communication. I rely on non-verbal cues too, and that can be trickier with meetings on a screen. But I am getting much more comfortable with this medium, and I have found I am enjoying working from home more than I used to. My research is also multidisciplinary and multi-site and hence our phase contrast imaging for breast cancer work has been negatively impacted due to the lockdown sessions in Victoria. Sometimes I fret about this but I have used this downtime to become more focused on writing new grants in areas that I might otherwise have felt was too left of field. So in many ways I have been braver than previously, and have also used the break in travel time to upskill in the area of Artificial Intelligence in medical imaging. My online meetings have also brought teams, and new members/experts closer together, as previously people may have been reluctant to collaborate due to their inability to meet face to face.
If you had to build a health service from scratch knowing what you know now, what would that look like?
That is a hard question. The lessons learned from the devastation the virus has caused through the aged care sector must be front and centre in any health service reform. I feel tears and anger when I think about the inequality for the value of our elderly citizens’ lives. Allied health has really shone during this period of crisis and the great initiatives and strategies in restructuring of telehealth, new scope of practices and synergies with big data must feature prominently in future plans. For my own field of Diagnostic Radiography, as front line workers, we deserve greater professional autonomy and a greater focus on practitioner-led research.
Is there anything that you would like to add?
I won’t pretend it has been sunshine and oranges, but I have seen amazing efforts in higher education to put students first, and I hope that continues. Student life and patient care is at the heart of what the Faculty of Medicine and Health stands for.
A huge thank you to Sarah for all of her time and sharing her story!