Catherine Hill on a stellar research career

6 minute read

The 2022 Parr Prize winner opens up about her career, mentoring and how she’s made the pieces of a rich life in rheumatology fit together.

Despite a career of many research highlights, Professor Catherine Hill was a late entry into the research game.

The 2022 Parr Prize winner, and immediate past ARA President, spoke with Rheumatology Republic about her winding career path and endorsed leaning into what you love as the key to a rewarding career.

Professor Hill was first introduced to research as a rheumatology trainee and didn’t attain an MD until nearly a decade later. This was partly due to a new life at the end of her training when she became a mother. So, instead of the conventional choice to do a PhD, Professor Hill chose instead to work to part time as a rheumatology consultant.

“I didn’t have a straightforward track in my career. But I never regret one minute of the time I spent with my kids when they were younger,” Professor Hill said.

“There are times when you may think, ‘Gosh, when will my career ever happen?’ Just know that you’ve probably got a 30-year career or more. So, if it takes a little bit more time, don’t worry about it.”

Alongside this family focus, Professor Hill also kept a keen eye on opportunities to pursue her growing fascination with epidemiology.

With the help of mentor Professor Lyn March, she applied for the AFA-ARA Heald Fellowship. Winning the fellowship led Professor Hill, her partner and their toddler to pack up and fly to Boston.

There she joined the Boston University rheumatology unit for “two, truly fantastic years” with the now highly esteemed Professor David Felson.

“David’s approach wasn’t a PhD-type approach. He really wanted to give me epidemiology training in a few different areas,” she said.

Professor Hill ended up doing three different research projects.

“One of them was a fantastic project for my master’s thesis which looked at cancer and myositis. I also did coursework as part of my master’s in epidemiology and biostatistics,” she said.

When Professor Hill returned to Australia, she focused on getting grants to build up her research. In 2009 she was awarded an MD by the University of Adelaide through a program that allowed students to submit a compilation of their research as a doctoral thesis.

“It counted as a higher degree, actually higher than a PhD, at my university. A PhD has its advantages but what I did also had its advantages. It really suited my lifestyle, because after we came back from Boston, I had two more children. It allowed me to work part time when I had my kids,” Professor Hill said.

With a higher degree, Professor Hill was able to start supervising PhD students which led to an expansion in the research group. As a new supervisor she took her cues from Boston University colleague David Felson.

“As a young researcher, I learned the most from David. He took mentoring of his research students extremely seriously. We would have weekly meetings and he was always available. He was a very good role model for what good mentoring can look like,” she said.

Professor Hill said that taking time and being transparent are central to good mentoring.

“If I’ve agreed to take PhD students on, I have also entered a pact to be open and supportive to them: regular meetings, having an open door, being supportive when they need it. That might mean reading papers on time, helping with grants, asking them ‘What could I do better?’ if they are struggling. What could we do, as a team, to help them?” she said.

Professor Hill says taking the extra time to grow early-career rheumatologists is worth it.

“Mentoring trainees and PhD students is definitely the most rewarding part of what I do now. I absolutely love that – watching their skills grow, watching them have their papers published, watching them start to write grants and start to get independent research careers,” she said.

Writing papers and grants is something Professor Hill is extremely familiar with. Between 2019 and 2021 she was published 95 times. Although many of these papers were collaborations, Professor Hill is well placed to encourage research as a career choice.

“In Australia, there’s always issues about funding streams. But I feel very positive about research. I’m learning a lot from the young rheumatology researchers coming through and I’m really excited about the research that they’re doing. And a PhD is never, ever wasted – even for people who choose to go into private practice. It helps with interpreting new evidence coming through and thinking about how to treat the patient. And then getting involved in research in other ways,” Professor Hill said.

The ARA now has a research strategic plan for the first time and the ARA Research Trust is well funded. Professor Hill said there are likely to be many future research opportunities.

“I feel very positive about it. I would never deter anyone from choosing research,” she said.

For early career rheumatologists, Professor Hill has some other sound advice; find something you’re passionate about and build on that.

“Do things you love in your career,” she said.

Many mid-career rheumatologists also ponder what the next stage of their career looks like. Professor Hill suggested initiatives that can enrich and advance the work of mid-career rheumatologists such as the new ARA private practice research grant, quality improvement courses and connecting with a local university to explore teaching opportunities. She also encouraged self-reflection with a mentor and thinking about life priorities.

“It may be that you actually want to concentrate on some other things in your life, like coaching a football team or spending time with your elderly parents, for example. But if you want to raise focus on your career, find a colleague that you can sit down with and have an honest conversation.

“I still have mentoring myself because I need it sometimes as well. I think mentors are necessary through your entire career,” she said.

The Parr Prize is offered once every three years to an ARA Member (full or associate) for the best contribution to rheumatology research for the preceding three years. The award is given for a body of productive research and selection is based on the quality of the science and its impact.

End of content

No more pages to load

Log In Register ×