Susan Hillier is Professor of Neuroscience and Rehabilitation and Dean: Research in the Division of Health Sciences at the University of South Australia.
She has produced over 100 publications in the area of clinical neuroscience as well as conducting clinical trials on the impact of rehabilitation.
She maintains a clinical practice and has contributed her expertise to the development of best practice for stroke recovery as Chair of the SA Stroke Statewide Network.
My research comes out of my clinical background as a physiotherapist working in neurological care and rehab. Everything that I do in my research is centred around the people that I've been working with for more than 30 years. Predominately stroke and brain injury, and particularly working with people who have goals around learning to walk again, learning to move, learning to look after themselves and be more independent.
Together with my colleagues, I have realised in recent years that research is moving ahead in leaps and bounds but it's not happening in the clinics. We are trying to bridge the evidence-practice gap by taking what we've researched ourselves that we know works and implementing it in clinical settings. I still run a clinical practice and see patients as well so l have that connection that keeps me honest.
This may sound trite but research always happens as a team effort and pride is often more an individual thing. What I do feel proud of is the network of people here committed to stroke care. It’s funny to say you are proud of a committee, but we had a multidisciplinary Stroke Network that was so functional, so productive, and we really changed things!
Our work has really changed the hyper-acute care of stroke, which I’m proud to have been part of. But we didn't stop and feel proud as we knew that we had only got the first three days of stroke care sorted. But then there's the rest of the lifespan.
What challenges me the most in research is the competitiveness – it’s killing it. I'm a high achiever and I have really high standards but I'm not particularly competitive. Australia is worried about not being productive in research, and yet we still buy into processes that force researchers to be competitive.
Someone said to me recently that the way research is funded at the moment makes us all “sole operators”. And research shouldn't be solo; it doesn't happen well with that mentality. It only happens well when there's security and collaboration. At the moment getting the money is rewarded, not having the impact. People need a little bit of career security to answer key questions rather than choosing research just to get money.
Impact and Legacy
My commitment is to helping people who are suffering because of their acquired disability, ensuring that their recovery is the best it can be. Of course that's a never-ending goal – impacting the life of one person versus five versus however many. This is why we’ve switched to a systems perspective.
For example, we've just put in for a grant about equity of care. While we might have achieved almost perfect stroke care for a small percentage of the population in South Australia, it’s only those in certain areas. It’s certainly not the case if you live in the rural area or if you're Aboriginal and living the APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) lands. Our goal is that everybody gets access to the same best-practice quality care that will maximise their recovery.
I don't know that I will have made much difference as an individual, but collectively, the people I work with have raised the profile of rehab. At the moment 40% of people get access to rehab. Now, translate that into people with cancer. If only 40% of people got access to chemotherapy that would be front page news. But we've got 60% of people possibly not accessing rehab and no-one gives a crap! I’d like my legacy to be about raising the value of rehab in everybody's eyes, and to raise the profile of the needs of people with disability.
A couple of my high school teachers were fantastically influential. My art teacher taught me how to look at things differently. I had a drama teacher who really opened my eyes to inequities and activism. Also influential was the professor I worked with on my first grant. He was a tough guy! He had me put on the grant as an Associate Investigator, not a Chief Investigator. He said we can’t do the project without you, but you can’t be a CI because frankly your track record is a liability. That’s harsh feedback, but it didn’t make me angry either because it was fair enough - I had a PhD but I was a technician.
I've used that story a lot to tell people that you have to recognise what your role is. You also have to recognise what the game is. This is all code and there's little funny rules. And don't think about it being fair because it's not!
Advice to Younger Researchers
Find some confidence to have a go and know that not everything is going to work. In developing that capacity to have a crack at something, think about your impact. If your impact is having a great CV, generally speaking people will end up not being interested in you. But when you've got a vision, a clear kind of impact in mind, it's very compelling. Importantly too for young women, remember that you don't have to do it on your own. You don't have to be the sole trader. Women are really good at working together, but we think to be successful we have to be sole traders.
If I Wasn't a Researcher...
If you google “Susan Hillier” there's a Cornish artist with the same name. If I could live anywhere else in the world and have another job, I'd be her. Cornish artist: how cool would that be?