Two of Australia’s most high-profile women in cardiology have been recognised for their contributions to the specialty in the Australia Day Honours.
The 2023 honours list included both Professor Clara Chow and Professor Gemma Figtree, each of whom was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).
Professor Chow, CSANZ president from 2020 until late last year, was recognised for “significant service to medicine as a cardiologist, and to research”.
The University of Sydney Professor of Medicine and co-director of Charles Perkins Centre Westmead, she has been a cardiologist at Westmead Hospital since 2009, sitting on the Western Sydney Local Health District board last year.
Professor Chow has also been chief investigator on 17 NHMRC-funded grants since 2003 and held the position of director, cardiovascular division, at the George Institute for Global Health.
The fact that honours have gone to two women will be viewed as significant, given men still make up over 80% of the specialty in Australia, per RACP figures.
Professor Chow stressed that even absent the awards, it was clear there were now more female role models than ever.
“In some ways I maybe had my head in the sand early on, that there were so few women in cardiology, but that may have been a good thing as I didn’t see my sex as a barrier,” she said.
“And I had my mum as a role model. She always told me that if I wanted to do something, I should just do it.”
But Professor Chow said she became increasingly conscious of the gender imbalance over the years, eventually becoming the first female president of CSANZ.
“So I came to the realisation that something had to be done. The more I thought about it, it was crazy that we hadn’t had a female president before,” she said.
“I wondered if we didn’t do this, what would our early career people think? It’s challenging to prioritise that sort of thing, particularly as I still had a child in primary school. But I felt a strong responsibility to make sure the path had been trodden.”
She said a desire to improve care for under-served populations had been a driving force behind her career, leading her to complete a PhD in international public health in rural India.
“Actually a lot of mentors at the time questioned me about whether it would be useful for my career, but I’m proud I went and did that.”
“I’m also happy I followed my passions. It sounds pretty cliched, but it’s kept me happy and it’s always worked out.”
Professor Gemma Figtree said she was surprised and honoured at the recognition “for significant service to medicine in the field of cardiology”.
The interventional cardiologist and Professor of Medicine at the University of Sydney since 2014 said she had always felt incredibly lucky to do a job she loved, combining research and clinical work.
“It’s a great mixture, where I’m a clinical cardiologist at a fantastic hospital working in a cath lab with an amazing team of people, plus a research program that tries to look beyond the traditional risk factors that we understand that drive heart attacks,” she said.
The holder of NHMRC practitioner and career development fellowships since 2014, and a senior investigator grant as of this January, Professor Figtree has more than 240 publications, with research highlighting the immense variability in patients’ susceptibility to developing coronary artery disease and heart attacks.
“We’ve pulled together a global team to unravel what drives both susceptibility as well as resilience to atherosclerotic plaque formation in the coronary arteries, beyond traditional risk factors and that is something I’m very excited about,” she said.
“I’m proud because it goes from the bed right back to the bench and back again, and it’s a very translational piece of work.”
Professor Figtree has also become a regular at government consultations as president of the Australian Cardiovascular Alliance, as well as holding roles at the Department of Health, Northern Sydney Local Health District and Sydney Health Partners. She is also chair of the National Heart Foundation’s clinical committee.
Inspiring this work was a goal of finding the missing pieces in the puzzle of CVD risk, a mission that was looking increasingly achievable with modern technology and Australia’s top-level research talent, Professor Figtree said.
“If we can see a way that we can more positively harness all the amazing energy and talent of Australia’s researchers and clinicians to solve the many unsolved issues of CVD, it would be hugely beneficial. That’s what I’m excited about,” she said.
Her personal work took something of a hit, with a breast cancer diagnosis last July, which Professor Figtree decided to go public with on social media.
Having recently completed chemotherapy, she is now back at work, albeit with a new perspective on life as a patient.
“I’m doing well now, after spending a lot of time with family over Christmas and going through amazing treatment including chemotherapy and surgery,” she said.
But it’s actually been beneficial to talk about it in public as it is something that so many people go through and all the support I have received has been incredible.”
Each year, the limbic scours the lists for specialists joining the Order of Australia honours. If you believe someone has been left off, please get in touch at [email protected]