Celebrating International Women’s Day

In the lead up to International Women’s Day on Monday 8 March 2021, we are celebrating the some of the remarkable women who are involved with the Spinal Research Institute.

Deirdre Mori, Dr Yumna Albertus, Angie Dickschen, Ingrid Kouwijzer and Maya Dove share their stories and reflect on the women they admire.

Deirdre Mori

Deirdre Mori is the Spinal Research Institute’s Development Manager. She recounts an incredible story about her mother and shares what this year’s theme, Choose to challenge, means to her.

Tell us a bit about yourself

I graduated from Melbourne University with degrees in Music and Arts with Honours and went onto study a Master of History taking on a position as resident tutor at Newman College as I worked on my thesis. My first full time role, working with the Gallery Director, Frances Linsday, was also at Melbourne University. It was a wonderful position, as the Potter museum was just emerging as an idea, then morphed into plans and eventually became reality. It was certainly a baptism of fire in terms of learning about fundraising and philanthropy for that project.

From there, I was lucky enough to pivot into another position working for the enigmatic Juliana Engberg, a genius in contemporary art and arts administration, raising funds for her global projects that filled the City of Melbourne with amazing contemporary art visions.

After eventually leaving the arts world I took on an Executive role with the Department of Premier and Cabinet and raised funds for Victoria’s Centenary of Federation celebrations. In this role I worked with another incredible woman, Mary Delahunty, who I would later work for again when I took up a role at the National Gallery of Victoria as Head of Sponsorship (and she was our Minister for the Arts).

When I temporarily retired from the workforce to focus on two small children I returned to academia, this time completing a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne. It definitely kept me busy and was a great relief to the constant challenges (and joys) of motherhood with two small children to care for. They are now teenagers and keep both myself and my husband Alfredo on our toes.

Tell us about a woman you admire:

I have worked with some incredibly inspiring and talented women, but I cannot look past my 91-year old mother Betty, a remarkable woman who blazed a trail for women in the 60s when a career came with lots of limitations once a family arrived.

Qualifying as one of the top students in her Bachelor of Music degree at the University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium under the tutelage of Russian pianist Yasha Spivakovsky, my mother received teaching appointments at two of Melbourne’s leading schools, Xavier College and Presbyterian Ladies College (PLC). She quickly developed a vocation for teaching and devoted herself to her many students but was faced with the dilemma of having to retire upon becoming ‘expectant’.

Two lovely tweed coats, purchased from ‘Georges of Collins Street’, saved her from these constricting social norms, seeing her through four pregnancies without a colleague ever suspecting she was pregnant! I still vividly recall the surprise when we were introduced to the Principal of PLC as young children as she exclaimed: “Betty, I didn’t know you had children, let alone four!” It’s almost unbelievable to us today to hear of some of the struggles women had to face in order to keep their jobs and careers, which my mother did for many decades after that.

The theme for International Women’s Day 2021 is Choose to Challenge, what does that mean to you?

I have two beautiful teenage daughters who are growing into the most amazing individuals who challenge me daily with my old fashioned thinking with phrases like “gender equality”, “gender neutral” and “body positivity”, which flow so naturally from their mouths. They make me realise how much I still have to learn.

Dr Yumna Albertus

Dr Yumna Albertus is a Senior Lecturer and Researcher in the Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your research

I am one of a few sports scientists in South Africa working in the area of rehabilitation, neurophysiology and biomechanics. My research over the past 12 years has been an amalgamation of neurophysiology and biomechanics in both clinical and injury risk and performance. I study novel rehabilitation interventions and how it affects the human body. The study interventions have ranged from understanding long-term high-intensity training on athletes with cerebral palsy, effect of eccentric cycling on lower leg muscle strength after knee-arthroscopy and most recently understanding the physiological effects of robotic walking in individuals with spinal cord injury (SCI).

What inspired you to work in the field of spinal cord injury research? 

I’ve always been involved in social responsiveness, conducting neuromuscular tests for Paralympic athletes and patients. In 2015, I was approached to conduct these tests on a young gentleman, Brandon Beack, who experienced a SCI during gymnastic training. Working with Brandon, sparked many research questions about rehabilitation in SCI and how neuroplasticity (rewiring for the neural pathways) was possible. Brandon and his foundation (Walking with Brandon Foundation) purchased a robotic suit (Ekso bionics), that allowed for a person with SCI to walk within the suit. I then grabbed the opportunity to investigate the impact this very expensive innovative technology had on neuromuscular physiology, functional performance and importantly, mental wellbeing in patients with SCI.

Conducting the robotic exoskeleton study in South Africa and understanding the impact this technology has on individuals with SCI, made me even more aware that expensive rehabilitation tools are not feasible in my country and other developing countries, it’s never going to be easily accessible to all who need it.

I am now committed to working with our engineers in building low-cost exoskeletons and other rehabilitation equipment that are affordable for our health-care system, as our pilot research does support rehabilitation using robotic exoskeletons.

Tell us about a woman you admire

I admire my mother, she is the epiphany of resilience and strength, she experienced a challenging childhood and never had the opportunity to pursue tertiary education. She always valued education and selflessly raised my three sisters and I without the pressure of being anything but our true selves. She raised us to be independent women and encouraged us to always seek knowledge. She created an environment at home that allowed for this, for which I’m eternally grateful. She has been the rock in our family that always looks out for our wellbeing, I am so proud of my mom and I hope I can be as amazing a mother to my two children … and cook, her culinary skills makes us all want to come over for dinner every night.

Angie Dickschen

Angie Dickschen is Chair of the IOOF Foundation and a former partner in two law firms. She reflects on a remarkable career and challenging stereotypes.

Tell us about yourself and how you became involved with the IOOF Foundation

I graduated from Melbourne University with degrees in Law and Commerce and practised law for over 25 years in the areas of property development and projects, becoming a partner in two leading law firms Clayton Utz and Freehills.

I was a director of the Urban Land Authority and a member of the Salvation Army Advisory Board. I am currently a member of the Development Committee of The Australian Ballet School.

I became involved with the IOOF Foundation when the late Ken Barry, the then Chairman of the IOOF Foundation, asked me to join the board over 10 years ago. I was attracted to the IOOF Foundation because of its charter in supporting charities in the areas of disadvantaged children, disadvantaged families and aged care generally.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day 2021 is Choose to Challenge, what does that mean to you?

When I first started out in the law, it is fair to say, that women were in the minority. I remember when things got difficult on a matter I was working on, the client said “I want to speak to the lawyer handling this matter”. I had great pleasure telling him I was the lawyer handling the matter – not the secretary as he had assumed.

I think it is important to challenge stereotypes. Women need to have faith in their ability to compete and not be afraid to challenge when appropriate. Since I commenced in the law, women have chosen to challenge and now form an important part of the legal profession – as judges, solicitors and barristers.

Tell us about a woman you admire

A woman I admire greatly is Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany. First, as I was born in Germany it seems fitting that I admire a German woman. Secondly, Angela is about my age but that is where I think the similarities end. She is the first female Chancellor of Germany and many have described her as the de facto leader of the European Union. I admire her for her strength, her ability to compromise when necessary to achieve results and her stance on allowing refugees into Germany. She appears to be a no-nonsense leader and as far as I know does not let the fact of being a woman feature in the things she has achieved.

Ingrid Kouwijzer

Ingrid Kouwijzer is a post-doctural researcher at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands.

Ingrid was an inaugural writing prize recipient and her research project ‘The HandbikeBattle’, features in our research publication, Why Research Matters – A compilation of spinal cord research from around the world (read her piece on page 22).  

Tell us a bit about yourself and your research

My name is Ingrid Kouwijzer, I am 34 years old and working as a post-doctoral researcher at The Hague University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. I have a background in Medicine and Human Movement Sciences.

My current research involves a project called: The HandbikeBattle. It is an annual uphill handcycling mountain time trial in Austria among teams of 12 Dutch rehabilitation centers. The total length is 20.2 km with an elevation of 863 m. Each year, more than 100 former rehabilitation patients participate in the event. It is a serious climb and participants train for four to five months to be able to reach the finish line. The HandbikeBattle event is not for athletes, but organised to give (untrained) wheelchair users a mutual goal to start handcycle training (with peers). In this way, wheelchair users are encouraged to start or continue training after the rehabilitation period and initiate an active lifestyle. The training is not controlled by the researchers but free-living. In this way we hope that training is incorporated in daily life and that participants remain active on the long term. The research project focusses on (long term) effects of participation on physical fitness and quality of life, and on training characteristics and optimalisation of handcycle configuration.

What inspired you to work in the field of spinal cord injury research? 

When I first entered a rehabilitation centre, I was amazed by the resilience of the patients. Despite their spinal cord injury and the consequences of their injury on health, activities of daily living, participation and quality of life, they remained positive and were determined to achieve goals that appeared impossible to me. This inspired me to become involved in the field of spinal cord injury research.

Tell us about a woman you admire

A woman that was, and still is very inspirational, is Aletta Jacobs. She was the first Dutch woman that got permission from the minister to enter University and complete Medicine. In 1878 she graduated and became the first female medical doctor in the Netherlands. In 1879 she obtained her PhD. Her determination paved the way for all female doctors and scientists in the Netherlands.

Maya Dove

Maya Dove is a psychology student, freelance model and actress. She shares her story of living with a spinal cord injury and what Choose To Challenge means to her.

Tell us a bit about yourself

My name’s Maya and I’m 21 years old with a t1 complete spinal injury.

My spinal cord injury is a result of tumours that were found on spinal cord when I was born. My spinal cord injury has shaped me to be the person I am, as it has forced me to adapt and persevere.

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day 2021 is Choose to Challenge, what does that mean to you?

To me, choosing to challenge is pushing myself to do things out of my comfort zone. I lived this when I decided to travel Europe completely alone when I was 20.

Tell us about a woman you admire

A woman I look up to is the American politician Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, because every day she advocates for what she believes in, and strives for a more equal world.

Happy International Women’s Day.

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