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Behind the numbers

Woman smiling at camera

Professor Caroline Finch reflects on the path that led her to becoming one of the world's top researchers in sport injury statistics.

From collecting stamps and organising dolls as a child, a fascination with order and patterns has led Edith Cowan University’s Professor Caroline Finch to rise to the top of the research work in sports injury prevention and recovery, using her mathematics knowledge to codify injuries into datasets that could be used by institutions around the country.

Statistics is a type of mathematics concerned with analysing data to identify patterns in it and answering questions that can only be answered with objective evidence. Throughout my career, I have specialised in biostatistics and epidemiology, which is where statistics is applied to addressing health issues. The important role of epidemiology in monitoring health has been brought to the public’s attention recently through COVID-19 updates in the media and through government and health advisory bodies. But I have done my most important work in sports medicine and the prevention of sports injuries.

Why statistics?

Sometimes I am asked “Why did you become a statistician/mathematician?” To be honest, the question takes me a bit aback because I do not think I ever “became” a statistician/mathematician, rather I always was one – it’s who I have always been. As a child and adolescent, I was very interested in the natural world around me.

I often asked the “why is it so?” type questions and answers came to me naturally by observing what I saw, keeping an eye on the detail, looking for patterns, noticing when things were different to normal, documenting and ordering things. I loved all forms of puzzles, categorising and ordering my prized possession (whether it was my stamp collection or books or dolls or my wardrobe), making and designing clothes, conducting cooking experiments and was an avid reader of the history of science/medicine, especially of the place of women in this.

I think many girls and young women would also have similar interests and hobbies to these – a career in statistics could also be ideal for them!

I went to an all-girls school, where only six of us in Year 12 undertook double maths subjects, so it was a big focus there. While I tended to be better at mathematics than other subjects without really trying, my favourite subject was biology, especially when topics covered what diseases people got, who was more likely to get them and why. All classic questions that epidemiologists ask, though I did not know it at the time.

Finding your path

When I was studying at university in the early 1980’s there was not yet widespread recognition of the value of applying statistical approaches to health. It was only in my final year of study that I discovered there was a whole field called biostatistics, which was statistics especially applied to medicine. I’d found out what I wanted to do!

I went on to undertake a Masters by Research degree that involved using statistical models to describe how cells in the body changed how they replicated themselves to end up making cancers. After that I switched my disease focus to diabetes and for my PhD in Statistics, I applied new analysis approaches to determine when to diagnose diabetes based on the level of sugar in blood when doing large-scale population screening for the disease.

As is often the situation for young researchers commencing their post study career, I needed to change the focus of what topic I worked on to suit where a job opportunity arose. In the early 1990’s, I was fortunate to be appointed as researcher in Australia’s (and indeed one of the world’s) top injury research centres. Very soon, I was sure that I would spend the rest of my career doing injury prevention research.

Adding value to the sports injury field

It was not long before I then identified that my primary interest would be sports injury and its prevention. Personally, I’d had some history of injury associated with my own participation in different types of social sport. But I had not been aware of what I could have done to prevent them or to recover better from those injuries. I now had this knowledge and wanted to pass that on to others to make sure that other people did not suffer musculoskeletal injuries like I had.

But it was also apparent that not much was known about who, other than elite athletes, got sports injuries because there was little or no data readily available. So, this is where my background in statistics was really valuable and meant that I could do something that no-one else had done before. I was the first person to describe the most common types of sports injuries across Australian community sport. I developed new ways to collect sports injury date and to report them in a way that made sense to sports bodies, government agencies, sports medicine professionals and injured people. I established new databases for sports injury and set future standards for how the data should be coded and classified.

I still do this sort of research and am recognised as one of the top people world-wide who does this work. Perhaps the highest recognition of the importance of my statistical approach to sports injury data was the invitation to be part of an expert group led by the International Olympic Committee that, in 2020, published the first ever international guidelines for sports medicine professionals on how to collect and report data on injury and illness in sport.

Advice to my younger self

Looking back over my career, I can see how everything has led to where I am now. Advice to my younger self would be to remain true to your own core values, innate strengths and interests. In my experience, it has been when these have matched well with the area I have worked in, that career success as a statistician was guaranteed. And, do not overlook the power of having strong mentors to support you and positive role models to emulate – you learn a lot from them.

This article was first published in Australia's Nobel Laureates Vol III: State of our Innovation Nation 2021 and Beyond.


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