When Melinda Boss called time on her career as a consultant pharmacist to start a family, she ended up embarking on her first research project: looking to increase knowledge around human lactation.
Melinda grew up around academic life, spending school holidays on the University campus with her father, Emeritus Professor Peter Hartmann, so starting her research journey came quite naturally.
“When I left school, I certainly didn’t dream of working in academia. Although I wanted to work in a health profession and help people, I was squeamish with all the gory stuff - so pharmacy ticked all the right boxes,” she says.
The birth of her first son, however, sparked Melinda’s drive to ensure all new mothers had access to evidence-informed information and support around breastfeeding.
“One of the things women find most difficult when breastfeeding is the conflicting advice,” she says.
“If something is wrong with your heart, you can go to the doctor and have tests like a blood pressure measurement. There are evidence-based clinical guidelines to assist with diagnosis and care. With lactation problems, there are no widely used tests and few guidelines.
“As a result, many women experiencing difficulty with breastfeeding struggle to continue to the recommended one or two year mark.”
Nearly a decade since entering academia, she has begun work on a PhD, leads the LactaResearch Group and is developing an online tool to help doctors and health clinicians diagnose and treat lactation problems.
“Working as a pharmacist set me up for being a researcher by teaching me a lot of small business skills. I’ve attracted more than $1 million in funding from The Family Larsson-Rosenquist Foundation and have three people employed in my research, which is unusual for a PhD candidate,” she says.
Today, Melinda collaborates with her father on lactation research – and even sits in his old office!
“When my dad started at UWA it was the early 1970s and no-one was interested in breastfeeding. Despite this, he had the quiet confidence to challenge accepted thinking and look at evidence, and not be influenced by how things had always been done,” she recalls.
“He always looked very broadly and made connections. For example, when he wanted to measure the volume of the breast before and after feeding, he realised that mining geophysicists used photos to measure the volume of mountains – and so he enlisted their help in his research.
“The unorthodox methodology worked and he went on to collaborate with Professor Robyn Owens. Together, they developed the Computerised Breast Measurement System, which won the UK Rank Prize for Nutrition.
“I believe that all good scientists need to be creative and I find his ability to think outside of established norms really inspiring. I’ve ended up working in the same field as him when I didn’t mean to, so he’s obviously been an influence on me.
“I’m passionate about making a difference and lactation research goes back to why I became a health professional in the first place.”