When anyone asks Dr Jill Guthrie what it means to be an epidemiologist, odds are they’re thinking about COVID-19, Ebola, or investigating chronic diseases. But epidemiology is so much more than this.
“It’s about working with communities to improve health. It’s about people,” says Guthrie.
And for Guthrie, a descendant of the Wiradjuri people of Western NSW, it’s about working with Indigenous Australians to support wellbeing.
“I think of my research as the social science of epidemiology,” says Guthrie.
Starting her career in the Commonwealth Department of Health in the Office of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health, Guthrie saw how research and evidence could influence social policy. This motivated her to return to university.
“I happened to see an ad for the Master of Applied Epidemiology program, and I thought ‘yes, this is what I need to do’. It was quite serendipitous actually,” says Guthrie.
Guthrie was selected as one of eight students in the first Indigenous cohort of the program, in 1998. Here she honed her research skills, and learnt how instigate change. And she has been driving change ever since.
Guthrie now works extensively with Indigenous communities to better understand problems like family violence, and is a chief investigator on the national Mayi Kuwayu study – ground-breaking research that asks what culture means to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and to create an understanding of how culture affects wellbeing including health outcomes.
It is Guthrie’s work in justice reinvestment however, that has brought her into the spotlight recently, where she was honoured with an Order of Australia.
“We want to lead people away from prison, not push them towards it,” says Guthrie.
“Justice reinvestment aims to do this by redirecting funding away from incarcerating people for low level criminal activity and into communities.”
Guthrie’s work has led the way in crafting innovative evidence-based approaches to criminal justice that prioritise the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their communities, including in her hometown of Cowra which redirects funds from prisons to holistic initiatives and services to address the causes of offending and keep those at risk of incarceration from coming into contact with the criminal justice system.
“We work with all levels of government and Indigenous governance systems to embrace community led solutions,” says Guthrie.
Once again, it’s about working with people and communities to improve health and wellbeing.
Congratulations Dr Jill Guthrie for recently being awarded 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.
“It is a wonderful honour to be recognised. I hope this award helps to push our efforts along faster,” says Guthrie.
This article was first published here.