Meet Adjunct Associate Professor Jo Mitchell
“A childhood friend’s mother was a home science teacher who loved all food-related stuff, so I was able to see that there was a science to what we ate and the health implications of what we consume.
“That and the healthy lifestyle of a Northern beaches upbringing – surfing, swimming and Saturday sport – and eating well was an important part of that. It made me realise that healthy was a nice way to live,” says Dr Mitchell.
This led to her first degree, in science, at the University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney), majoring in biochemistry and physiology.
“I’d always been good at science at school so this seemed like a natural progression. I wasn’t quite sure where it would lead but I had an idea that I’d move into nutrition and indeed I did, taking the postgraduate course in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Sydney after the obligatory year of waitressing and travel – including London and New York,” she said.
It was during a clinical maternity leave placement at Gosford Hospital as a dietitian that Jo realised that there was a distinction in how we talk about and use food in a clinical setting.
“For me, the hospital environment illustrated that I felt more comfortable working from the position of using nutrition to achieve good health, rather than nutrition to treat illness, or the effects of an unhealthy diet. The distinction is a fine one but one that can’t be unseen,” she said.
That there was a way to work with nutrition to avoid chronic illness – rather than to treat lifestyle risk factors once they were entrenched – was a dawning realisation learnt while working in the hospital. On her return from a time abroad, she then worked in community health in South Western Sydney on a project working with Vietnamese and Italian community groups to address heart disease.
“It was exciting to be working directly with communities and education programs to bring about change in heart disease rates. We worked closely with communities to show that traditional recipes were healthy or could be adapted to achieve a better diet. I was also learning about different food habits and different recipes. I worked with some remarkable people during this time with remarkable, and sometimes tragic, stories. It was an amazing job,” said Jo.
It was during this time that Jo enrolled in the Master of Public Health at the University of Sydney, with another realisation; the importance of policy in changing the way we build nutritional outcomes in whole-of-poulation.
“I had the brilliant Professor Dorothy Mackerras as my supervisor. She encouraged both me and my work and I felt that I had a great mentor, something I’ve tried to continue throughout my career, both having great champions and being a mentor to others.
After eight years at south west Sydney, and a further twelve working in management roles on a wide range of programs, Jo moved to the Ministry of Health NSW where she finished in the role of Executive Director, Centre for Population Health.
“With my professional doctorate, under the wise guidance of Professors Fran Baum and Colin MacDougall, I saw the impact of working directly in policy but it was important that I had my clinical, education and program experience before moving to the Ministry. I was ready for something new and challenging and all of my experience informed the shift.
Jo brings her vast experience and wide range to her new role at the Prevention Centre as Senior Adviser.
“I’ve known the work of the Prevention Centre since its inception and know its wide network well. I’m already immersed in its finer functioning and bringing my policy, practice and research skills to the next stage of the Prevention Centre’s program of works.”
Jo is a back-up singer in a band with her husband – the keyboard player – and friends, the Walking Deads and planning gigs.
“We were in the process of rehearsing and launching when the COVID pandemic hit so we’re biding our time and hope to reschedule gigs at the MoshPit and Gasoline Pony in Sydney once things are clearer. It’s good fun and a great way to get together,” she said.
Cooking – with a big selection of cookbooks but Ottolenghi a current favourite – and reading are other passions and Jo usually has a number of books on the go at once.
“I’ve just read Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers and I’m now reading Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, the Booker Prize winner for 2019. I’m drawn to fiction that has strong women at the heart of the story and I’m interested in their relationships and what matters to people.”
Like her childhood on the northern beaches, Jo still leads a healthy lifestyle with a daily walk and a regular swim at the University of Sydney pool near her home in Newtown.
“My current approach to keeping healthy is not too different from my childhood when my friend and I were part of the first all-girl patrol at the Mona Vale surf club. It just shows that good habits formed early are almost impossible to break!”