International Women’s Day: A day in the life of… Sharon Lewin

I am an infectious diseases physician, basic scientist and the inaugural director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, a joint venture between the University of Melbourne and Royal Melbourne Hospital (all Melbourne, Australia). The institute opened in 2014 and has over 700 staff working on improving health globally through discovery research and the prevention, treatment and cure of infectious diseases.

I am a Professor of Medicine, The University of Melbourne; a consultant Infectious Diseases Physician, Alfred Hospital (Melbourne Australia) and a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Practitioner Fellow. I did my undergraduate medical degree and PhD in virology at Monash University (Melbourne, Australia) and a post-doctoral fellowship at Rockefeller University (NY, USA).

My research focuses on understanding why HIV persists on treatment and developing clinical trials aimed at ultimately finding a cure for HIV infection. I have over 250 publications and have given over 100 major international invited talks on HIV and the search for a cure. My laboratory receives over US$3 million a year in funding from the Australian and US governments and the private sector.

I am a co-principal investigator for a US$25 million grant from the US government in HIV cure research and lead a new AUD$5 million NHMRC-funded Centre for Research Excellence on Emergency Responses to Infectious Diseases, which will establish a new network of researchers across Australia.

I am an elected member of the Governing Council of the International AIDS Society representing the Asia Pacific region and a member of the Strategic Technical Advisory Committee for the HIV and hepatitis program at the WHO. In addition, I chair the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Blood Borne Viruses and Sexually Transmitted Infections, which reports to the Minister of Health of Australia.

In 2014 I was named Melburnian of the Year and in 2016 was awarded the Peter Wills Medal from Research Australia.

My alarm goes off…

My alarm goes off at 6:15am and I immediately hit the snooze button. I am not a morning person but have had to discipline myself to rise early – now that I have a longer trek to work than in the past. I generally get out of bed at 6:30am and usually first check my email on my phone. Not good practise I know, but necessary as I often have early morning teleconferences with my collaborators in the US and they have been busy at work all day (my night in Australia) so I just need to check things haven’t changed.

I have a teleconference most mornings with my collaborators that are part of a large NIH-funded grant on HIV cure. I am on the executive committee so the four of us talk weekly to make sure all is on track. In addition, there are investigator calls throughout the week in relation to the science or logistics of specific programs. The calls are always stimulating and fun and are a great start to my day!

I then have breakfast and read the morning paper. I like reading ‘The Age’, Melbourne’s local newspaper. Even though I know I can get the world’s best papers on my iPad, I like The Age because it allows me to keep abreast of what’s happening in my city (Melbourne), the country and globally. Although I have a paper and online subscription, I really like the morning ritual of reading an actual paper – sadly this is slowly disappearing and I fear will go all together. I will just have to adapt!

I then drive to work – usually a 30 minute commute – and will make phone calls to friends and colleagues whom I know are early risers. If it’s too early, I listen to the news on the radio or occasionally a podcast.

I live with my husband and two adult children – now 21 and 24 years – so mornings have become a lot easier and less frantic.

My hobbies have become a little less of a focus for me as my job has become busier and busier but I love traveling, cooking and entertaining. I try and keep fit by running, having a personal trainer twice a week and more recently a weekly yoga class.

I’m responsible for…

I am a clinician scientist and the inaugural director of the Doherty Institute, which has over 700 staff working on infection and immunity; therefore I am responsible for the integration, collaboration and impact of all the departments in the institute.

The institute is home to one of the largest high containment laboratories in Australia – level 3 containment is needed to work on organisms such as HIV, tuberculosis and influenza and level 4 containment for organisms like Ebola and SARS. This is a very exciting aspect of the job given how many emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases we have seen in the last decade.

In addition to my role as director of the institute, I head a large laboratory of over 30 clinicians and scientists. Our work focuses on understanding why HIV persists on treatment and developing clinical trials aimed at ultimately finding a cure for HIV infection. We have also had a long standing interest in HIV–hepatitis B co-infection and understanding pathogenesis and optimal management strategies.

I still see patients once a week at the Alfred hospital, which I love. It keeps me grounded and focused on research that matters to people. For many years, I also did inpatient consulting in infectious diseases but stopped doing this when I took on the role of director of the Doherty Institute. Clinical medicine is a great privilege, I am glad I had the opportunity to do this for so many years.

My typical day…

I don’t have a typical day, which is part of the fun. I usually have a stack of meetings that can range from one-on-one meetings with PhD students, group meetings with a research team, meetings with staff in the institute to discuss strategy, communications, new events or research partnerships or meeting with colleagues in similar roles across the University of Melbourne.

On most days, I will have a teleconference with international collaborators in the US or Thailand or across Australia or in relation to my other roles in the International AIDS Society or the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia. I travel frequently both nationally and internationally. Given that HIV and infectious diseases occur more commonly in low-income countries, I get to go to some exotic places which I love. In the last 6 months I have been to Mexico, Miami, India (three times), Singapore, Malaysia, Amsterdam, Washington and Paris! It’s been a busy period.

The best part of my job…

The best part of my job is the diversity, the opportunity to make a difference through scientific discovery and enabling other researchers and clinicians to succeed and to directly influence scientific thinking or clinical practise or national and international policy. I also love seeing patients, hearing their stories and finding a way to help.

The worst part of my job…

The worst part of my job is juggling multiple competing priorities. The juggle works most of the time but occasionally there just isn’t enough time in one day and I know I can’t give a particular task my complete attention. I find that difficult.

After work…

I usually leave work around 6pm. I have work-related dinners once or twice a week but really try and keep these to a minimum. On the nights I am at home, I always cook at home and my husband and I eat together. If the boys are home they will join us. Eating at home with my family is an absolute treat. The boys always clean up given they can’t cook!

I usually then do a few hours work. Recently I have started doing this ‘’offline’’. In other words, I catch up on email but send it all the following morning. That way I can catch up without people I work with thinking I need an immediate out-of-hours answer. I think this has helped me manage work flow and I do think we all need breathing space away from the people we work with. We need time to refresh and this can’t just be once a year while on vacation. Email and online access has eaten into our personal lives and I think we need to all actively manage this better.

Occasionally I will see a movie with my husband or meet a girlfriend for a drink at a bar nearby. Some of my closest friends are friends I was at high school with, so these are very long and deep relationships. I value having these friendships a lot, they are quite special and one of the great joys for me of living in Melbourne.

I always wanted to be…

When I was younger I always wanted to be an engineer or astronaut but my parents convinced me to do medicine. I am glad they did as I now have the best of many worlds – the thrill and intellectual challenge of research and science coupled with medicine and the related skills that can directly help people. Now, most of my time is taken up with leadership and management, but I like that very much too. I often think that many of the skills I acquired as a physician – around empathy and decision making – are important in leadership.


Who is your female role model/hero/inspirational woman?

My role model and inspiration is Francoise Barre Sinoussi. Francoise won the Nobel Prize in 2008 for the discovery of HIV. She is a brilliant scientist but also compassionate and a humanist and has superb judgement. She is modest but at the same time very tough and a wonderful advocate for woman in science. I am so grateful that I have had the opportunity to work with her and know her so well. She has taught me about what really matters.

You might also like to take a look at a Day in the Life of… Bobbi Pritt, a pathologist and microbiologist who specializes in the laboratory diagnosis of human parasitic infections and vector-borne diseases…

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