Tara is a professional firefighter with Fire and Rescue NSW, mental health researcher, speaker and author. Tara has many years’ experience as a practicing physiotherapist, graduating from Sydney University with a Bachelor of Applied Science (Physiotherapy). She is now completing her PhD at the University of New England where her research focusses on understanding the impact of suicide on firefighters.
This year Tara was awarded the Australian Fire Service Medal for her work supporting the mental health and wellbeing of firefighters. She is the internationally published author of Standing on My Brother’s Shoulders – Making peace with Grief and Suicide which tracks her personal journey through a traumatic childhood to find a life of purpose and meaning.
I was an international and a mature-age student when I began studying at the University of Sydney, which certainly shaped my experience and made it different in many ways. I had already completed an undergraduate degree and was very focussed on study and wanting to become a physiotherapist. I was waiting tables at the weekends and some evenings to make ends meet so there wasn’t a lot of time for a social life.
I think one of the most significant moments during my time at USYD was during a tutorial on clinical reasoning. The tutor said to me “Tara, if you listen hard enough, they will tell you the answer.” I had no idea at the time of the value of his words, but they stayed with me.
Those words have been some of the most profoundly important advice I’ve ever received. As I went through my career as a physiotherapist, I realised I had to learn how to listen - really listen to what my patients were telling me, and that it was up to me to ask the right questions. Now, working more in the mental health arena, my tutor’s words still sit at the essence of the work I do. Indeed, I used them to open a recent keynote I gave as a way to illustrate how we need to listen to the voices of lived experience if we are to transform our approach to wellbeing.
In so many obvious and more subtle ways. My degree was in Physiotherapy. Many would wonder how my degree has contributed to where I am today given that my primary job is a firefighter. For me, however, my degree gave me a wonderful grounding in health and well-being that has since enabled me to join the dots of all my very broad occupational, academic and life experiences to take a unique integrated perspective of health and well-being and ultimately make a difference in the world. My degree has given me the ability to understand physical health and learn the skill of clinical reasoning. Now, as I work more in mental health and well-being it has given me a sound platform on which to apply many of the skills I learned during my degree in a more holistic sense which incorporates all aspects of health. A sound understanding of how the body works has enabled me to understand the science and physiology that underpins many of the different theories of mental health and illness. It has also enabled me to undertake my PhD and know how to read research papers with a critical eye and understand that not all research is equal. I will always be grateful for the knowledge and skills I learned through my degree even though my work now is not in the field of physiotherapy.
I think my greatest achievement has been to write and publish my book because it was so far out of my comfort zone, and I didn’t think I knew how to write. Also, because of the strength, courage, and vulnerability it took to write it. Whenever I get an email from someone in the world to say they read it and it made a difference to their own journey, it puts a smile in my heart.
Being awarded my Australian Fire Service Medal for my work in suicide prevention and mental health of firefighters was also a standout and incredible honour. For me it symbolised a 30-year journey of dedication to learning and healing that enabled me to use my experiences to make a difference in the world and I am forever proud of that.
I am also incredibly proud of my PhD research even though I have not completed it because I know the value of the knowledge I have generated. It has been an absolute privilege to hear fire-fighters stories and translate them into meaningful change.
“Embrace the learning journey and don’t be in a rush. Learning comes in many forms, so far above and beyond the academic learning. Completing your degree is just the beginning!”
Always be open to exploring new ideas and remember that learning about yourself and how to create connection is a vital part your ability to effectively use your knowledge. Relish the ability to take a broad perspective and look outside the box. Be curious about all aspects of health including relational, social, psychological and spiritual health, not just physical health. Having a broad understanding allows for a truly integrated approach that makes us better health practitioners no matter what area we work in. Finally, have as much compassion for yourself as you do for those you care for.
Since deciding to dedicate her life to helping patients with cancer manage their disease and to help find a cure, Dr Nicole Seebacher has researched new cancer treatments, received over 1,000 citations, and held multiple leadership positions. Earlier this year Dr Seebacher was named a 2022 Alumni Award winner in the category of Outstanding Achievements of Young Alumni.
As you can likely tell, I’ve spent many years at the University of Sydney. I completed my bachelors, honours, Doctor of Philosophy and Doctor of Medicine degrees here (2007-2019). I have so many great memories, it’s hard to select one that stands out.
I have very fond memories of the friendships I made with my colleagues during my PhD. Working late nights to discuss new ideas for anti-cancer agents. Attending conferences with leading members of the research community. Listening to speakers, such as Marie Bashir, talk about their experiences and their motivations. They were all so important in shaping who I am and how my career path evolved.
It is within the walls of Sydney University that I have created my greatest academic achievements, my closest friends and my fondest memories. Over my years here, I have been so lucky to have role models demonstrate great leadership. These are the people who have brought the best out of me. They provided an environment that allowed me to think and create. Not only did they help me achieve my professional goals, but I was able to build skills and achieve outcomes in my personal life.
I would have to say my greatest achievement would be getting accepted into the Australian Dermatology training as a PGY3 and being recognised for my anti-cancer research contributions (Forbes 30 Under 30, Finalist for NSW Australian of the Year, NSW Young Woman of the Year).
Take the time to build friendships and professional networks during your years at university. The hard work will pass, but the friendships will be for life.