Meet Professor Emily Banks (AM) – an epidemiologist who describes what she does as the ultimate team sport.
Professor Emily Banks didn’t start her career with epidemiology and research in mind. As a medical student she found herself frustrated by the focus on the treatment of diseases, and not the underlying cause. This view was compounded when she began working in hospitals.
“The one thing you find when talking to people with an illness, is that they wish they had never had it in the first place,” says Banks.
“So I thought prevention was where I should put my efforts – prevention at scale. I wanted both intellectual stimulation and the ability to make a difference, so I pursued epidemiology and public health.”
And it’s a good thing she did.
Banks has made an incredible contribution to the improvement of individual and population health in Australia and around the world. Her work with Professor Valerie Beral at the University of Oxford on breast cancer and menopausal hormone therapy for example, led to immediate changes in prescribing policy in the UK and Australia. Reductions in use of menopausal hormone therapy from this and other work was accompanied in Australia by an unprecedented fall in breast cancer incidence, amounting to 600-800 fewer cases of breast cancer annually.
Banks and her team also focus their attention on tobacco smoking, including the first in-depth data for Australia, demonstrating even greater harms than previously thought. This more accurate evidence is now supporting action across Government and non-Government Organisations with greater recognition to the harms of smoking, including in legislation increasing tobacco tax rates, information for people trying to quit and in anti-smoking campaigns. The most recent evidence from the team has shown that smoking is responsible for more than one in three deaths in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Banks has also contributed to other leading studies, including as the Scientific Director of the 45 and Up Study, working closely with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers and communities to contribute to a better understanding of Indigenous Health, and leading a World Health Organization study of female genital mutilation and obstetric outcomes.
“Public health has been responsible for some of the greatest improvements in health and wellbeing that humanity has ever experienced, from the benefits of clean drinking water, to vaccination, to screening for cancer, to better control of blood pressure and reductions in tobacco smoking. It is something where every member of the community plays a part and the benefits to individuals and communities are exceptional. It is an enormous privilege to be part of it.”
Banks’ work doesn’t end with study and policy advice, however. Banks helps build the next generation of researchers, and is an award-winning educator and supervisor.
“Public health and epidemiology have achieved a huge amount but there is so much more we need to do, particularly in ensuring the benefits are experienced more equitably within and across nations. The only way to do this is by building teams and supporting up-and-coming researchers to apply their brilliance to our greatest challenges.”
Most recently Banks and her team, led by A/Professor Kamalini Lokuge, have been among the most influential public health research group nationally for Australia’s COVID-19 response. This included providing evidence and design for Australia and New Zealand’s COVID-19 surveillance systems, and spearheading amendments to contact tracing methods.
“I think people have a whole new appreciation of public health due to COVID-19,” says Banks.
“By doing public health properly we have protected the whole population, including the medical frontline. These are unique skills, and it’s not intuitive. And these are skills that are developed over a lifetime.”
Congratulations Professor Banks for recently being honoured as a Member of the Order of Australia, as well as her team of researchers and students who contribute to this research, policy, and advocacy work.
“I am immensely honoured to have received this award and would like to express my gratitude to everyone who has made it possible. Public health and epidemiology are the ultimate team sports and my work is no exception. From the millions of people who have shared information about their health allowing us to understand the causes and patterns of disease, to mentors, funders and institutions who have supported me, to my colleagues and team members who have worked tirelessly to get the answers we need. This award means so much because it recognises achievements that have contributed to public health.”
You can find out more about Professor Banks’ research here.