Interview with Maree Teesson

The psychologist talks about jumping ship, putting junior researchers first and why online gaming promotes abstemiousness

August 30, 2018
Maree Teesson

Maree Teesson is director of the Centre of Research Excellence in Mental Health and Substance Use at the University of New South Wales, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council. She is also an NHMRC principal research fellow at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre and a professorial fellow at UNSW’s Black Dog Institute. In January, she was named a Companion of the Order of Australia, the country’s highest civic honour. In June, she revealed plans to take her entire 60-strong team to join UNSW’s cross-city rival, the University of Sydney.

Where and when were you born?
Holgate, on the New South Wales Central Coast, in 1965. I grew up on a little hobby farm where my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother grew up. I’d been to Sydney only twice before I started university.

How has this shaped you?
Both my parents left school at 14 and worked. But they really wanted to make sure that their kids had access to education. I happened to see a medical specialist when I was 13 or 14. I said, “If you had your time over again, what would you do?” The specialist said, “Psychology, so you can understand where people are coming from.” I thought, that looks great. If that medic had said “urology” or “car mechanics”, I don’t know what I would have done.

Did psychology agree with you?
I loved how the science could answer questions, but there wasn’t an assessment process for the tutors. So we created our own. We got all the students to measure and rank the academics, wrote it up at the end of the year and made it available to everyone. I still can’t believe I got away with it. I think I got my first job because [UNSW psychiatry professor] Gavin Andrews decided that if I could do that and still get a degree, I could probably do research.

How did a psychology researcher end up working in drug and alcohol treatment?
My first job was to interview men in inner-city hostels for the homeless, assessing how many of them had schizophrenia. Just up the road, [investigative journalist] Anne Deveson’s son Jonathan died of a drug overdose. He had both schizophrenia and drug use. That started my interest in the interplay between the two. There are 300,000 Australians living with both significant mental illness and significant substance use, but they get treated separately because medicine has become so specialised.

Can you treat them together?
One of my first research projects looked at 600 people who had entered treatment for heroin dependence and the problems associated with it, like depression and trauma. Documenting it isn’t enough; you’ve got to show that you can fix it. If you try to treat the trauma, their drug use will go out of control. We designed a treatment based on re-experiencing trauma within a controlled environment – a tough cognitive behaviour therapy called prolonged exposure treatment. We brought in multiply traumatised people with drug and alcohol problems. We showed that the post-traumatic stress disorder could get better, and that drug use didn’t go out of control.

How is social media affecting alcohol use?
In Australia, young people are delaying the age they first drink from 14 years in 2001 to about 16 in more recent data. Meanwhile, there is evidence that rates of anxiety and depression in young people are getting worse. Social media can be fantastic, but has it also led to so much more personal scrutiny that [people] become more vulnerable to anxiety and depression? The other side of it – this is speculation – is that there is less socialising, and therefore less drug and alcohol use.

Why leave UNSW after 21 years?
I feel loyal to my existing institution. But you’re looking for where to build your next bit of science. I want to make a global impact on mental health and substance abuse. To do that, I need to join the expertise. I’ve got wonderful connections at UNSW. The only way for me to build newer connections – for example, with Sydney – will be to shift, make those connections and hopefully bring together the expertise of UNSW and Sydney. Australian universities are very tribal. If we want to play on the world stage, we need to work out ways to build bridges across universities.

Several Sydney research centres have recently changed universities. Is this an unhealthy trend?
I think it’s healthy. It potentially builds collaborations across universities, and it allows for freshness. You have to work out ways to regenerate, rejuvenate and do exciting new research. That can be building new collaborations. It can also be changing institutions.

The cynical view is that it’s all about money and research assessment rankings – you don’t agree?
There’s an aspect of that. We are commodities in a way. Academia is highly competitive. It’s important for universities to get the best people to align with their visions. It comes down to how much infrastructure or support they’re prepared to offer – a bit like which football club wants to pay the most for a striker. But it can’t just be about infrastructure and money. Your vision trumps the money.

You always list junior authors first in your research papers. Why?
I’ve done it all through my career. Now I’m far enough up the hierarchy [to not be concerned], but I worried at the beginning that I was going to ruin my career. We’re driven by metrics. You’re ranked and assessed by how many first-author papers you have. But it’s often the bright junior people who really challenge you. You’ve got to allow them the space. That doesn’t always work with the uber-chief who won’t let young people have a voice.

If you could change one thing in academia, what would it be?
To have better metrics around team science. We have great metrics around what can be a toxic culture of the superstar researcher. We do not have good metrics around mentoring.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Patricia Thornley is joining Aston University as director of its European Bioenergy Research Institute. She joins the Birming­ham institution from the University of Manchester, where she was based at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. She has been the lead researcher in the SuperGen Bioenergy Hub project, which brings together industry and academia to address bioenergy challenges, and she will bring the initiative, which has won more than £5 million in research funding, with her to Aston.

Neville Wylie is to join the University of Stirling as deputy principal (inter­nationalisation). He is a former associ­ate pro vice-chancellor at the University of Nottingham, where he led on global engagement and directed the university’s relations in the Americas. From 2010 to 2014, he was seconded to Nottingham’s Malaysia campus as its first dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Stirling’s principal, Gerry McCormac, said that Professor Wylie’s appointment would “help further enhance our inter­national research and teaching profile and deepen our collaborations with partners around the world”.

Paul Coulthard has been named dean for dentistry and director of the Institute of Dentistry at Queen Mary University of London. He joins from the University of Manchester, where he has been head of its School of Medical Sciences, dean of its dental school and professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery.

Pookong Kee will become the new BHP chair of Australian studies at Peking University. Professor Kee, who has been the director of the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute since October 2010, will move to Beijing early next year.

Amanda Lotz is to join Queensland University of Technology’s School of Communication and Digital Media Research Centre as a professor in early 2019. The US media studies expert is currently professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan.

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