When there’s an infectious disease outbreak or global health crisis, it’s people like Dr Meru Sheel who are on the front line.
There’s no part of her job Dr Sheel finds more rewarding than being out in the field - whether it's responding to an infectious disease outbreak or helping prevent the spread of disease after a natural disaster.
She’s an epidemiologist who describes her role as a “disease detective” and has responded to health outbreaks across the globe.
“If it’s an unknown disease and before you have confirmation of what a person may have - so they’ve had diarrhoea for two days for example - and you don’t know what’s causing it then you are really looking like a detective for what has maybe been causing the disease,” she said.
“Then you need to identify the pathogen, with or without a test, and put interventions in so the outbreak doesn’t spread.”
Dr Sheel, a research fellow at the school of population health at the Australian National University, has recently received a $500,000 grant through the Westpac Scholars Trust.
She wants to improve global health security, particularly among marginalised populations, and strengthen operation responses to outbreaks in Australia and the Asia-Pacific.
Her passion for preventing and managing infectious diseases comes from growing up in India and seeing the effect of Polio and attempts to eradicate it.
“One of my close family friends had polio,” she said.
"I was told she had missed a dose of the vaccine - that’s what got me interested in vaccines.
“I’ve been working in infectious diseases for more than 10 years now.”
Her recent field work has included travelling to Bangladesh dealing with the Rohingya refugee crisis and responding to natural disasters like Cyclone Winston in Fiji and Hurricane Maria in Dominica.
Through her grant she will be looking to figure out ways to improve responses to similar health emergencies in the future.
"These emergencies often have greater impact in settings with limited resources, vulnerable public health systems and a high population density, where I believe there is an opportunity for greater coordination and collaborative leadership between key partners, responders and multi-lateral agencies," Dr Sheel said.
“Natural disasters and outbreaks don't really respect boundaries.
“It's an emerging area of research.”
She is also passionate about improving female representation in science and creating the next generation of leaders.
While there are plenty of female population health researchers, there is usually an obvious gender imbalance out in the field.
“We know there are lots of female researchers in health and medical research but they tend to be more in earlier to mid stages in their careers," Dr Sheel said.
“But fewer in higher positions - that’s something I’m a very strong advocate for - seeing more females in leadership positions, because you can’t be what you can’t see.”