Finding meaning in numbers: Elizabeth Salmon on data, health and hope

Public health has become increasingly complex as practitioners and policy makers grapple to stay ahead of the global COVID-19 pandemic. University of Melbourne graduate Elizabeth Salmon is at the forefront, facilitating bilateral cooperation between Indonesia's Ministry of Health and international aid agencies in their work to protect the health and wellbeing of millions.

We caught up with Elizabeth to discuss how robust data informs better public health policies, the importance of critical thinking, and what it took to tune her ears into the Australian dialect.

Elizabeth Salmon at graduation
Elizabeth Salmon at graduation

Hi Elizabeth. What attracted you to study at the University of Melbourne?

To be honest, I only looked at Melbourne. There was so much going for it; the academic leadership, support programmes, the facilities, a leading program in global health. The opportunity to combine a Masters with my previous studies in biostatistics and epidemiology seemed obvious. And there was the city itself. I fell in love with its gardens, parks and restaurants, long before I'd even arrived.

Can you explain a little bit about biostatistics and its application within public health?

Biostatistics is basically applied statistics in a biological setting, like healthcare, vaccination programs, or nursing. It's designed to help us measure physical and behavioural characteristics that we can use to draw meaningful and conclusive interpretations. These inform effective evidence-based policies. Biostatistics always plays an important role in public health, but it's particularly important in the middle of a pandemic, when we talk about prevalence, incidence rates, reproduction rates. That data is vital to modelling appropriate health measures.

How do you think your University of Melbourne experience played a role in what you do now?

Almost every subject I studied has helped develop a skill that I'm now implementing in my work, especially on issues of leadership, women's health, global health and human rights. The research principles I learned have helped with my analytical work. And I'm still connecting with study peers through my work. One works on an HIV/Aids programme in Uganda, some work for the World Health Organisation (WHO), and one another teaches at the Uni . The networking has extended far beyond my time at Melbourne.

Were there any challenges you had to overcome at your time in Melbourne?

Understanding how the locals speak. You guys talk so fast! I was shocked. As an international student, I'd fulfilled the English study requirements. But living in the community is not a test. It's the real world. In my first semester, I could follow the lecturers but when local students asked questions, I simply couldn't understand them. I ended up recording the classes to coach myself in English. After that, it got better. Making friends with local students helped, too.

Elizabeth Salmon with colleagues
Elizabeth Salmon with colleagues from Bangladesh, Maldives and Bhutan

What is it you do now?

I work as Assistant Deputy Director for Multilateral Cooperation at the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Indonesia. I facilitate cooperation with various UN agencies like WHO, UNICEF and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). I'm currently involved in two WHO working groups – sustainable financing, preparedness and response, and a working group on vaccine manufacturing. It's particularly challenging during COVID because we're so reliant on cooperation, both with UN agencies as well as colleagues from other countries. But I have a great team. We've become good at dividing and conquering.

What's the one thing that has helped you get to where you are today that is not on your resume?

Critical thinking. I was encouraged to question everything during my studies. Now my job is to provide analysis, insights and inputs so that my superiors can make informed decisions that will impact the health outcomes of millions. I think those experiences learned at the University of Melbourne have shaped my work every day since.

What's the most important lesson life has taught you so far?

Don't ask for things to be handed to you on a silver platter, not all people are that lucky. Most of the time, you need to work hard and fight hard to get what you want. Everything I've achieved – my scholarship, my grades, my current position – has all been about hard work.

Unimelb Indonesian Alumni at South East Asia Region Youth Town Hall
Unimelb Indonesian Alumni at South East Asia region Youth Town Hall

What advice would you give to graduating students?

Treat everyone with respect. Everyone has something to offer. If you listen with respect, you can use it as a learning opportunity. It may seem fairly basic life advice, but it's so important; be it schooling or work or personal relationships.

What gives you hope for the future of health care in Indonesia?

Following the initial COVID-19 response in 2020, the government currently developing a road map for a significant health system transformation. We have identified the need to make public health preparedness and response system, as well as pharmaceutical, medical and vaccine manufacturing and supply chains more resilient. Central and local government cooperation to be strengthened. We're conducting more testing, established vaccination centres and are doing everything we can to help us achieve our target of having over 200 million citizens vaccinated by end of 2021 or early 2022. My hope is all of this will feed into more equitable healthcare – that it can be more inclusive for all. I hope we can live up to a principle of leaving no-one behind.

What you excites about your future?

I'd love to pursue global health issues more deeply, and the chance to do that through a Doctoral degree excites me immensely. I'm hoping I'll be able combine more focussed learning with my experience in the Ministry of Health to contribute even more to global health issues. There are so many possibilities, but I'm very excited for that.

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