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To practise as a clinical nurse in Wollongong Hospital, become a world-leading researcher, work as a mentor and tertiary administrator, then return to where it all began at the University of Wollongong’ (UoW) as the new Vice Chancellor is an extensive journey for anyone.

But according to Professor Patricia Davidson, her far-reaching and varied career is a testament to the career versatility that nursing can offer for workers in the field.

“I think that’s one of the joys and benefits of nursing… you have multiple pathways,” says Professor Davidson, who is currently Dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing in the US.

“For an Australian nurse who was a diploma nurse, from Wollongong Hospital, to end up being the Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, it just goes to show anyone can do anything, if you try and you surround yourself with people who support and enable you.”

Speaking to the ANMJ from Baltimore, where she is currently finishing up her tenure at the renowned American university, which began in 2013, Professor Davidson will move back to Wollongong ahead of commencing at the UoW in May 2021.

The new appointment is another significant accomplishment for one of Australia’s leading nurse researchers, whose interests and ambitions have scaled upwards across the course of her 40-plus year career.

Beginning as a clinician in the late 1970’s, Professor Davidson interest in tertiary studies was initially fuelled by an interest in nursing education, which led to her  completing a BA, then a subsequent MA in education at Wollongong.

As she notes now, there simply wasn’t an environment within the Australian education context that allowed for the type of specialist training that is more readily available from universities today.

“There weren’t advanced degrees for nurses, so that’s what you did, a BA or MA, if you really wanted to advance in the field,” she says.

Eventually, a stint as a clinical trials nurse focused on heart failure proved the catalyst for a larger interest in nursing research, and in 2003 Professor Davidson completed her PhD in Behavioural Sciences at the University of Newcastle, the same year she finished working as a clinician full-time.

Since then she has built a reputation as a leading nurse researcher focused on cardiovascular health and disadvantaged populations.

Her research footprint is vast: She has featured in more than 70 sponsored projects, contributing as a co-author or author in more than 500 journal articles and nearly 30 book chapters. She also served as an adjunct professor and professor within multiple Australian universities prior to moving to Baltimore.

While serving at Johns Hopkins, Professor Davidson was named as the World Health Organization’s Co-Secretary General at the Collaborating Centres for Nursing and Midwifery Secretariat in 2018, and she also is currently the Counsel General at the International Council on Women’s Health Issues.

Additionally, her work as a mentor of emerging researchers has also been recognised: in 2016, Professor Davidson was also rewarded the Australian Museum Eureka Prize for Outstanding Mentorship of Young Researchers, which is judged according to the output of students that a researcher mentors.

Overall, it’s a record that Professor Davidson is proud of, but quick to link with the success of other, similarly ambitious, local nurse researchers who emerged at the same time as herself.

“I’m really privileged and excited to be part of a generation of Australian nurse researchers who, I think, really punch above their weight relative to the resources that we get,” she says, noting that Australians in this area don’t have the “dedicated funding stream” that their American counterparts have access to.

It may seem surprising that, with her current CV, Professor Davidson didn’t see herself eventually running a university, but while it is a trajectory she didn’t predict, it is one she sees as linked to her desire to change and disrupt the establishment.

“I never thought that I would be an administrator. In fact, a lot of my career has been about challenging the status quo,” she says.

“But I was really inspired by what you can do if you have the cheque book and you have the power to change ways of doing things.”

However, she also believes her new role at the University of Wollongong will not only require the same levels of commitment she has shown to early career researchers throughout her career, but an ability to survey and appreciate the tumultuous change the Australian tertiary sector has experienced in 2020.

“It’s been heartbreaking to see the decimation of jobs and prospects for many people, and I really think that if we are going to thrive and survive as a nation, we have to be investing in early career researchers, and we have to be investing in innovation,” she says.

“I think there’s going to need to be a period of recovery, reconciliation and adjustment, and for anybody in any leadership position at the moment, it’s a huge responsibility, so I’m just trying to find out as much as I can.”

Regardless of what happens at Wollongong though, Professor Davidson remains steadfast that nursing, and the training associated with it, provides the skills necessary not just to navigate hospitals and healthcare spaces, but tools to navigate other challenges outside of the workplace.

“You need to be able to work in dynamic, unpredictable environments, you need to work as a team, you need to deal with conflict, you need to deal with tragedy [and] you need to deal with joy,” she says of nursing.

“I actually think a nursing degree is one of the best degrees you can get in the world to prepare you for life, period.”