19 August 2019

Simone Sherriff, a Wotjobaluk woman, Aboriginal health researcher and PhD candidate, has lived experience in how genuine long-term engagement can transform an Aboriginal community’s attitudes towards research.

As a researcher with the Study of Environment on Aboriginal Resilience and Child Health(SEARCH), she is working toward a stronger focus on a strengths-based approach to Aboriginal research and policy.

“The first quantitative paper for my PhD is on the predictors of healthy weight status in urban Aboriginal children, she says. “Why can’t we look at the protective factors, and not constantly look at the negatives and compare Aboriginal people to non-Aboriginal.”

“In the community, you’re constantly hearing ‘I don’t want to be involved in that, research is bad’. I’m constantly having to explain how SEARCH has been running for 10 years now and is different from other research projects. It’s been developed by the Aboriginal community on the priority areas the community wants researched.”

Simone grew up mainly in Wagga Wagga, a town in regional New South Wales. At 17, after working in several local cafes, she left school to work as an apprentice chef for Neil Perry’s Rockpool Dining Group in Melbourne. But after several years, frustrated with the male dominated restaurant industry and long hours, she switched careers to work in disability support and health.

This career change introduced Simone to the world of research. After working for the local Aboriginal Medical Service, Riverina Medical and Dental Aboriginal Corporation (RivMed), a role on the SEARCH research project was advertised.

“I went for that. People didn’t like research very much in the community. The history of research has been so bad, I don’t think anyone else really wanted the position,” she says.

After working as an Aboriginal Research Officer with SEARCH, collecting data on the ground in Wagga, Simone then made the big move to Sydney to work with SEARCH at the Sax Institute.

The Sax Institute provided her with access to other Aboriginal researchers, as well as mentors such as Professor Sandra Eades who provided the incentive and encouragement to attend university.

After completing a Graduate Diploma in Indigenous Health Promotion, Simone enrolled in a Master of Public Health. She admits the degree took a while to finish, having to complete it while sleep deprived after the birth of her son, however once finished she received offers to do a PhD.

“My mum was so proud. For so long Aboriginal people were not allowed to attend university. I am the first one in my family to go,” she says.

In 2018, Simone started her PhD with SEARCH. She is also researching urban Aboriginal food security as part of a Prevention Centre project.