In recent years, Northside Alumna, Dr Julie Hennegan, Class of 2006, has led and contributed to research across high- middle- and low-income country settings, with a focus on East Africa. The focus of her work has been in the areas of menstrual health, sexual and reproductive health including rights, and gender dimensions of water, sanitation, and hygiene services.

We take this opportunity to catch up and see what motivated Julie to do research on such a complex issue.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your connection to Northside.

Northside Alumna, Julie Hennegan, PhD
Class of 2006

I’m a Research Fellow at the Burnet Institute in Melbourne. My work focuses on how women and girls in low-income countries manage their periods, and how we can make sure that the programs and policies governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) implement to support them actually work. I also study adolescent reproductive health programs more broadly, and the relationship between sanitation (toilets!) and women’s health.

I graduated from Northside in 2006, attending the school since Grade three.

What have you been working on since graduation? 

After graduating I studied a Bachelor of Psychological Science at the University of Queensland. I spent a year teaching English in Japan, before starting research work focused on maternity care. In 2013, I moved to the UK for a Master’s in Evidence-Based Social Intervention and then a PhD at the University of Oxford. It was during my master’s and PhD that I started my research focused on menstrual health, and I haven’t stopped.

After my PhD, I undertook a Postdoctoral Fellowship at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the United States (Baltimore). I also spent many months in Uganda managing my research projects. I was living in Kampala when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. I returned to Australia (March 2020) and was recruited to the Burnet Institute to continue leading my menstrual health research.

I have investigated whether providing menstrual pads and puberty education in Uganda, and across low- and middle-income countries, works to support girls’ education. I’ve worked with organizations around the world to define menstrual health as a public health issue, and I’ve developed measures to assess women’s and girls’ menstrual health needs in different settings.

You have an impressive list of achievements and qualifications since graduation from Northside Christian College, how did the school prepare you for education beyond College? 

I have always been grateful for my education at Northside Christian College. The high-quality teaching, along with teachers’ genuine investment in students, and opportunities for extension and extra-curricular activities provided a well-rounded foundation for my academic career.

There are too many examples to list, whether it was debate in middle school (I regularly get only a few minutes now to make my point), or my science teachers (such as Michael Long, Stewart Smith, Mick Wilkinson) providing opportunities for us to extend our learning, and emphasising the complex reasoning skills that are so essential in higher education

What motivated you to focus on adolescent and women’s health? 

Adolescence is a foundational time in the life-course. It is a real window of opportunity to empower and improve health for the rest of someone’s life. At the same time, female health topics are so often relegated to ‘optional extras’ and not afforded the rigor they deserve. At heart I am a scientist and a methodologist, I want to use those skills to improve the evidence in these underserved topics.

Fact: In India, if water and toilets were accessible to even 1% more girls in secondary school, the country's GDP would rise more than $5 billion.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? 

As an Australian doing global health research, my role is to support the incredible champions who are leading improvements in women’s and girls’ health in their communities.

I’m so grateful to work every day on topics that I believe are important. I’m proud that my research has changed the way we understand menstrual health and that the measurement tools I’ve developed are being used around the world to shape how we judge success in menstrual health policies and programs.

Who has been the greatest influence or inspiration to you? 

Working as a research assistant early in my career I was fortunate to meet my mentor, a senior researcher who exemplifies what it means to do quality science while not losing sight of our character in the competitive world of academia. She has supported my professional and personal development.

What do you hope to achieve through your work?

I have a long wish-list. I want to see effective, evidence-based programs implemented to ensure access to the resources, education, supportive environments, and health care needed for everyone who experiences a menstrual cycle around the world. By improving menstrual health in adolescence, I also hope that we can improve reproductive health over the life-course.

What advice can you give to Northside students who are interested in sciences?

I think science is a blend of analytic thinking, creativity, and persistence. My advice is to look for opportunities to build those skills, even if the subjects are different to what you might be interested in long-term. When I was in school, I didn’t know that the kind of science I do now existed, but I was building skills that would help me later on. 

Practically, build your network (you’ll need it) and learn statistics (may seem boring, but it’s always useful).