Meet Professor Tracey O'Brien

As a children’s cancer specialist leading an incredible and internationally recognised team of clinicians and researchers, Director of the Kids Cancer Centre, Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick, Professor Tracey O’Brien has made a career of pushing boundaries; “how else would we discover, develop and deliver more cures and better treatments to children and young people?”

Prof O’Brien is acutely aware of the value of women in health care and the oncology field, and acknowledges that ‘women bring a richness to thinking and decision making that is incredibly valuable to medical research and care.’ Prof O’Brien is known not only for challenging the status quo when it comes to delivering the best care and most advanced treatments for children with cancer, but also seeking people who will challenge her to give the best of herself; “I will actively seek out people who typically disagree with me, have a completely different perspective or I know will stand up to me and test my thinking.”


How are you pushing the boundaries in your field?

I enjoy bringing people together, acting as a catalyst and coach to maximise creative, cross disciplinary discovery across the research and cancer care continuum.

There are always better ways of doing things so I think remaining curious, learning from others, drawing on data, science and behaviour, and looking for synergies are important to help drive maximum impact for patients and the health care system.

Why is empowering other women important?

Women need to be encouraged, empowered and supported to stay in the workforce and rise in their roles as they gain experience. Expectations of balancing work and family is shifting more toward a shared parent model but I think we still have a long way to go.

How are you achieving this?

I am very conscious of leading by example and being a role model for other women.

I am also very open about having conversations with other women about juggling kids and family and balancing life as well as about going after what you want in terms of career and how to have confidence and presence in the room and articulate your ideas.

I wish that someone had been this pragmatic with me.

What is your advice for other women wanting to further themselves and their career?

Find an honest mentor that will challenge your thinking and keep asking yourself honestly “what do I really want”. I think all too often we go down a path because we think it is expected of us or we chose a route to take because it is the next logical step.

There are no rules in achievement – you will succeed if you do what you are passionate about, dig deep and give it red hot go.

What do you think is the most important thing to challenge?

I challenge my own thinking all the time, what biases I bring to the conversation, why do I think I am right? I make a lot of intuitive decisions and are often quoted as saying “my spidey senses are telling me….” but any big challenge I face, I will actively seek out people who typically disagree with me, have a completely different perspective or I know will stand up to me and test my thinking. This is how the best decisions are made and solutions to bigger challenges are found.

What has been the biggest thing that has helped you in your career?

Previous mentors that have seen through my ‘winging it’, called me out on it and pushed me because they knew I had more to give. That and I am resilient and genuine by nature and can mostly park my job at the door, switch off and not be defined by what I do but who I am as a person. That balance is critical and when I get it right, I am better at work and life.

What has been your greatest challenge and how do you inspire other women to “choose to challenge”?

Reframe the challenge as an opportunity and already the situation is more exciting and achievable. Opportunities lead to more opportunities!

What values do you hope to instill in others about women in the workforce?

Women add tremendous value in critical thinking, in team work and in communication in general.

Speak up, be heard, make and take opportunities. If you do this not only will you will be rewarded in your own career but the field of medicine and ultimately patients will benefit because you did.

Who is your role model/or inspiration?  

I love reading about early female pioneers in medicine – Elizabeth Blackwell, Trudy Belle Elion, Franscoise Barre-Sinoussi to name a few. These women were legends, paving the way for so many others women whilst making monumental discoveries that changed the world. I imagine how hard it was for these women to achieve during a much more male dominated time than now. This reflection usually makes me think anything is possible if I just hold on to the vision of what I am trying to achieve and stay focussed on achieving it.

Read more about some of the other inspiring women across our Network in celebration of International Women’s Day.