In her own words: Professor Maree Teesson AC

Image - In her own words: Professor Maree Teesson AC
Date Published:
15 Feb 2018

This article first appeared in Edition One of Inside UNSW.

UNSW had a remarkable number of representatives in the 2018 Australia Day Honours list, including Professor Maree Teesson, who was announced as a Companion in the General Division of the Order of Australia. In her own words, Maree shares her journey from rural NSW to world-leading research.

I set off on the path that led to the AC award almost by chance.

I grew up in a rural community on the NSW Central Coast. There were fewer than 30 children at the local primary school in the town of Holgate. I was keen on learning and my parents valued education, but no one in my extended family had been to university. When I went to the local high school I knew I was keen on science, but I was unsure of quite where to go with it.

I was fortunate to have incredible high school teachers and a supportive peer group who loved learning. When I finished my exams I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and I happened to be talking to a medical specialist at the time and asked them: if you had your time over, what would you do? That's what led to me applying to study Psychology at UNSW.

Looking back, I can see how fortunate I was to have access to free excellent education. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but I would simply have not been able to afford to go to university, or even finish high school, if that education had not been freely available.

Finding my calling

At UNSW, Scientia Professor Barbara Gillam taught me how to design and undertake high quality research, and UNSW Professor Gavin Andrews and Scienta Professor Helen Christensen taught me how to use those skills to help people. Psychological research can change people’s lives for the better, and that is what attracted me.

I was hooked on finding ways to prevent and cure mental disorders. The challenge is significant: over 4 million Australians will have mental disorders this year. These are disorders that affect young people most significantly. Indeed, 3 in 4 people with a substance use or mental disorder will develop it before leaving school. Critically, substance use disorders, depression, suicide, anxiety, and psychosis frequently co-occur, share common risk factors, and interact. 

Every year substance and mental disorders conservatively cost the Australian community over $40 billion. Effective prevention and early intervention can significantly reduce disease burden by halting, delaying, and interrupting the onset and progression of disorders. A new cohesive and integrated approach to substance use and mental illness is critical; one that capitalises on a range of advances in technologies and new models of causes.

Driving a cultural shift in Science

I am both a scientist and a woman, and it remains a challenge to balance an academic career and family. I have been very lucky to have support throughout my career. My husband, Professor Andrew Baillie, an academic at the University of Sydney, and my two daughters, Lily and Kate, are my foundation.

I recognised early that there was little formal, structural support for young researchers, including young women and those with children. In my team, and in medical research in general, I am looking for ways to deliberately address this deficit. This has meant taking risks with my own career along the way. In my team I work to ensure junior researchers are fully credited for their work, including placing them first on published papers. Flexible work arrangements are available to senior staff of the Centre of Research Excellence I established in 2012, with colleagues Associate Professors Cath Chapman, Tim Slade, Nicola Newton, Katherine Mills and Frances Kay-Lambkin. The money and infrastructure that enter the centre filter through to researchers from top to bottom. I also work at instilling self-confidence in my staff, my role is to be both “highly competitive and compassionate” at the same time.

Placing the names of junior staff high on published work and encouraging their autonomy can be risky in science. Science and its metrics are dominated by a winner-takes-all mentality. It’s not traditional to build a community of researchers and there is the possibility that I would not receive grants, fellowships or promotions because people wouldn’t recognise me as the leader. With complex challenges like mental disorders and addiction, we need a community of researchers to drive the innovation.

By doing it this way, my team is bigger, stronger and more passionately creative.

Research excellence

My research started, at 22 years old, with understanding how many people in inner-city Sydney were homeless and also experiencing schizophrenia. Only 500 metres from my office, a young man named Jonathon died alone from a drug overdose in a refuge for homeless men, having lost his battle with schizophrenia. That man’s mother, Anne Deveson, wrote the book Tell me I’m here about Jonathon’s life. That book changed the way I thought about the research I was doing. Jonathon and my research taught me two important lessons: that drugs, alcohol and mental disorders often occurred together with devastating effects; and that we will always be playing catch up if we do not focus our research on prevention and early intervention.

In 1997, I joined NDARC and the Faculty of Medicine at UNSW and expanded my drug and alcohol research knowledge. NDARC provided me with international research training and the opportunity to develop my leadership skills as deputy director. In 2012, I established my own centre, the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Mental Health and Substance Use (CREMS), containing 100+ multi-disciplinary academic and clinical researchers spanning nine national/international universities.

My team’s research is at the forefront of prevention and treatment of mental and substance use disorders, having led to numerous "firsts" in the field. We have pioneered innovative treatments and e-health programs focusing on the prevention of alcohol and drug-related harms using internet-delivered, school-based technologies for students in Australia, the UK and the US.

Looking forward

Today, my vision and achievement has been to build the world’s leading, dedicated translational research program for the prevention and treatment of comorbid mental health and substance abuse. Whilst recognised for many years that there is significant comorbidity in these two areas, they have traditionally been approached in isolation - making significant inroads virtually impossible. My research has sought to increase our understanding of drug & alcohol and mental disorders, prevent these where possible and improve treatment responses. I have led 100+ competitively-funded grants (>$47m), including 12 large, world-first prevention and early intervention trials. I have contributed 250+ publications to the peer literature (7000+ citations).

Our research is at the forefront of improving the evidence regarding the prevention and treatment. It integrates mental health, substance use, psychiatry, psychology, clinical trials, preventive medicine and epidemiology to ensure the science is rigorous, innovative, and truly world‐class. 

I am honoured to be recognised with an Australia Day honour and hope it increases awareness around mental health, substance abuse and our important research. Australia and UNSW is at the forefront of this important area of research. Our "can do" attitude, cutting-edge science and passion for a fairer society help us lead the way. To find out more about our ground-breaking research, I encourage you to visit the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Mental Health and Substance Use.

Professor Maree Teesson is Director NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Mental Health and Substance Use (CREMS) and NHMRC Principal Research Fellow at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), as well as a Professorial Fellow at the Black Dog Institute, UNSW. She is also a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences and also of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences.