Sliding doors: from psychologist in Vienna to research leader in Brisbane

Professor Monika Janda has supported Cherish in many ways since it began. Now, she’s preparing to take on the next Cherish Challenge, hiking the epic Larapinta Trail with her husband Professor Andreas Obermair and daughter Nina. Here we talk with Monika about why their family came to Brisbane, how Cherish was born, and why fundraising for research is so important to them.

In 1999, Monika, Andreas and their two young daughters packed up their lives in Vienna, Austria to spend a year working and living in Brisbane, Australia. It started as an adventure, an opportunity to experience another part of the world and extend their career experience. A year turned into two, and then three, and slowly over time, they saw the benefits of calling Australia home. For Monika, moving to Brisbane also changed the course of her career.

“In Vienna, I worked as a clinical psychologist in a hospital radiotherapy department where we mostly treated late-stage cancer patients,” Monika says. “Unfortunately, most of our patients had a poor outlook, with melanoma patients having some of the most aggressive tumours. It was hard to help them. When I came to Australia, I was asked to join Queensland’s first melanoma screening trial as a research fellow. At that stage in my career, I was very excited about the opportunity. I hoped that research into the early detection of cancer would make a big difference and help more people avoid the heartbreak of having to deal with late-stage disease.”

Monika accepted the research position and has been involved with melanoma and other cancer research ever since. “There is a big difference between clinical work and research. In clinical work, you have the opportunity to influence one individual’s life at a time. In research, we’re working on ambitious projects that we hope can positively impact the lives of many people.”

While Monika was involved in melanoma research, Andreas was treating patients with gynaecological cancer. He was increasingly frustrated by the lack of funding for research into the disease and was determined to do something about it. Monika explains that to do research, you always need funding, and there is a lot of competition for grants.

“There are so many useful causes, so it can be very difficult to get funding for research that you’re passionate about. Once you have a grant, the funding lasts for three to five years max,” she says. “But some projects, like the trials that Andreas was doing, take more than 10 years to complete.”

Monika vividly remembers how Cherish began. “Andreas and a few amazing individuals, like Jan Becker and Rob Gils, got together and they started Cherish. It was incredible to see how, if you have an idea and you’re passionate about it, people will come and help you,” she says. Monika has supported Cherish in many ways ever since.

“When Cherish ran The Battle, I always pulled a beach volleyball team together. We fundraised by having cake stalls or barbeques at work. My colleagues were great at baking and selling cakes to help out. It all makes a difference.”

Monika is now a Professor in Behavioural Science based at the Centre for Health Services Research in the University of Queensland’s Faculty of Medicine. In telehealth, the team is reviewing how modern technologies like video conferencing and apps can improve health outcomes, particularly for people living in remote and regional communities.

“It’s such an amazing team. We have people from diverse backgrounds and disciplines – from medicine to mathematics – coming together to solve health problems. Every day, I learn something new from someone on the team.”

Monika is dedicated to her research work, but she also understands the importance of taking time to get outdoors, reflect and spend time with her family. She is excited about hiking the Larapinta Trail in 2021 with Andreas and their daughter Nina because she can do this while also raising funds for gynaecological cancer research.

“As a family, we visited Katherine Gorge, and I’ve travelled to Uluru and the Olgas with my Mum. But this is the first time we will be walking on the red ground, visiting ancient rock formations and watering holes. Of course, there’s also a healthy family competition to see who can raise the most for research!”

“I’d love to gather a team of daring people from UQ to share the experience with us. I know we’ll make some amazing memories while we raise funds for a good cause.”