Professor Steven Allender

Steven Allender is Professor of Public Health and founding Director of the Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE) at Deakin University, a World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention since 2003. Steve has an ongoing program of research on solving complex problems with a focus on the burden of chronic disease and obesity prevention.

Recent work has seen a particular interest in the burden of chronic disease, malnutrition and climate change in developed and developing countries and the possibilities for using complex systems approaches for community-based intervention.

Professor Allender leads two NHMRC partnership grants on community-based childhood obesity strategies and is a lead investigator for the Centre of Research Excellence in Food Retail Environments for Health, the European Union Horizon 2020 Co-Create grant for healthier policy in Europe.

Read more about Professor Allender’s work here

An upbringing in rural Lake Bolac in the Western District of Victoria instilled a deep sense of community in Professor Steve Allender, and the idea that if a solution needed to be found, problem solving would be done with the skills and resources available.

“Communities get on with it to solve their own problems. While Lake Bolac is not in remote Australia, it is small, home to less than 300 people. There was a real sense that if something needed to be done, you just used the resources and skills at hand – and ingenuity – to find a solution. I didn’t realise it at the time, but it’s something that shaped me and I’ve carried throughout my career.”

Blonde man wearing glasses standing beside a tree arms crossed smiling at the camera
Professor Steve Allender

Now head of GLOBE, the Global Obesity Centre, at Deakin University, Steve completed primary and secondary school at Lake Bolac, a community with a strong emphasis on outdoor activity, particularly sport.

“I’d always done sport of some sort or another and had an abiding interest in human movement which led to study in Human Movement and Physiology” he said.

This led directly to a PhD in Foucauldian discourse analysis at the University of Ballarat, graduating in 2002.

“As most people who’ve done a PhD know, you need a sacrifice and reward structure in place to help you get through its rigours. My reward was surfing; if I reached my daily research and writing target, I’d head to the coast, to Thirteenth Beach, to surf.”

A postdoc at Oxford began with occupational health service provision across the UK and led to studies of the epidemiology of allied soldiers exposed to chemical weapons testing at Porton Down between 1935 and 1985.

“This led to an interest in epidemiology and a role leading the coronary heart disease statistics project based at Oxford. Building on an understanding of the epidemiology of heart disease my interest shifted fairly quickly to innovations in the prevention of heart disease and for heart disease, obesity and lifestyle-related factors are key.

“It was around this time that I met Boyd Swinburn, now Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health at the University of Auckland. Boyd was, and still is, one of the world leaders in the prevention of childhood obesity particularly through community level action.

“I took Boyd punting on the Cherwell river and together we cooked up an exchange scheme. I spent a few years going back and forward and returned permanently in 2013 co-founding the Global Obesity Centre in 2017,” said Steve.

man wearing dark wetsuit surfing in the ocean
Steve on rare downtime, surfing near his home on the Victorian coast

A meeting with Associate Professor Sonia Wutzke established Steve’s links with the Prevention Centre and he’s now an investigator on the Prevention Centre project Addressing complexity in prevention research using systems approaches: systems case studies, working with Prevention Centre Co-Director and project lead Professor Lucie Rychetnik and Dr Melanie Pescud.

“All of the work we do is with teams, whether at the Prevention Centre, at GLOBE or with the WHO. There is heavy emphasis on collaboration and the use of systems thinking. It’s my fundamental belief that if we put the best tools to use systems thinking in the right hands at the right time, we can solve previously intractable problems.

“One of things we’ve learnt working with communities on complex problem-solving is that technology must adapt to the context in which it’s applied. We’re making a mistake over and over assuming that experts are supposed to know all the answers instead we need to give communities the right tools.

A good example of this is the STICKE software Steve and his team have invented to help community members quickly and effectively begin working together in ways that apply the insights available from systems science.

“Recently we’ve come to understand that resilience and adaptability to social and economic shocks are imperative. In twelve months, we’ve had bushfires, industry closures, drought, and now coronavirus.

“Together we need to create more effective means of working together to find sustainable solutions. The Prevention Centre and the Institute for Health Transformation led by Professor Anna Peeters are key agencies stewarding our research and finding the solutions to chronic disease,” he said.

His childhood community still figures highly in his life as does the Victorian coast where he lives.

“Although Coronavirus means it isn’t happening this year, I like to go home to Lake Bolac each year for the annual Eel Festival. A festival where multiple traditional owners and their communities come together with farmers to ‘walk the river’, following the ancient routes of the Wathaurong and Djabwurrung and connecting new and old stewards of the land. It shows me the power and impact of storytelling and community, and inter-connectedness.”

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May 2020 | Profile by Helen Loughlin, Senior Communications Officer @literarycity