Never too late to learn

3 October 2017

Li Hua Tong with painting

From hospital scientist to medical journalist to book author, Tina Allen has transformed her career through a passion for lifelong learning.

Asking Tina Allen to identify what she has done professionally is a tricky proposition. She spent ten years of her life working as a medical scientist after completing a Bachelor of Applied Science in Biomedicine degree at UTS in 1985. Today, she calls herself an author, but she feels she didn’t earn that title until the publication this year of her first book, a biography entitled Bill Gibson: Pioneering Bionic Ear Surgeon. In between, she completed a Master of Arts in Journalism degree at UTS in 2001 and worked as a freelance medical writer and editor.

Despite the apparent leap between science and publishing, each of Allen’s career steps have naturally interwoven into each other.

“I can’t really claim to be a scientist anymore,” Allen admits. “It’s been quite a while since I worked in a laboratory.

“However, you could put a clinical paper in front of me from a peer-reviewed journal from any branch of medicine and I would be able to read and understand it."

“What ends up happening," Allen explains, "is that by reading the clinical notes of each patient and performing pathology tests to assist doctors to find the diagnoses, you end up learning quite a lot about medicine by osmosis."

After working for a decade in the pathology labs of several Sydney teaching hospitals, including St Vincent’s, Royal Prince Alfred and Royal North Shore, Allen was head-hunted to become a scientific advisor for the French–American diagnostic healthcare company Sanofi Diagnostics Pasteur.

With the impending birth of her first child in 1994, Allen realised she would not be able to continue to meet the high-pressure demands of her job of two years, which included trouble-shooting the HIV and hepatitis testing for Australia’s largest blood banks. A chance meeting with prominent medical journalist, Melissa Sweet, convinced Allen to pursue a career in medical writing.

“Melissa told me I should join the Australasian Medical Writers Association (AMWA), which I did and ended up becoming the president. She also suggested that I should pitch some stories to the editor of Australian Doctor, which is one of Australia’s leading GP magazines.

Allen returned to UTS and enrolled in a Master of Arts in Journalism degree. She thought to herself, “No, I’m not going to just blunder along without knowing what I’m doing".

Postgraduate study gave Allen the flexibility to take on her degree one subject at a time and even take a leave of absence after the birth of her second child. Even still, the jump to a completely new discipline was not always easy. Having not studied journalism in her undergraduate degree, Allen had some catching up to do when approaching the subject “Advanced Journalism Theory”. Her lecturer helpfully provided an audio transcript of the equivalent undergraduate subject.

“It was absolutely brilliant,” Allen recalls. “The audio recordings even had the students’ questions interspersed with the lectures. Suddenly concepts such as paradigm shifts all made sense.”

The professional transition to becoming a medical writer had its challenges as well, with her first freelance news story for Australian Doctor taking two weeks to write.

Australian Doctor were very good to me,” recalls Allen. “The editors taught me how to write news stories in the pyramid style and I then progressed to writing feature stories for them.”

As Allen built up her portfolio of published stories, she could take on contract medical writing work. She was eventually approached in 2009 by the committee members of the Cochlear Implant Club and Advisory Association (CICADA) to write the biography of their surgeon, Professor Bill Gibson.

Few outside audiology circles were aware of Professor Gibson's career-long efforts as an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist to help the hearing impaired, whereas Professor Graeme Clark had meanwhile become well-known for inventing the prototype ‘bionic ear’. Allen says that fame, however, may not have become a reality were it not for Professor Gibson's pioneering operations using the commercialised version of the bionic ear on adults and children, which in turn made the device a clinical success. Professor Gibson is, in Allen’s words, "an unsung hero".

"CICADA were looking for someone who had the requisite qualifications and experience in medical writing for the project," says Allen. "If they had found a writer who could spin a good yarn, but was not able to describe the medicine and bionic technology for a lay audience, they would’ve viewed the book as a failure."

Soon after taking on the book project, Allen realised that her journalistic skills would not be enough to craft an extended narrative of 87,000 words about somebody’s life.

“I found myself needing to up-skill for the third time,” she says. “There’s one page in my book where Professor Gibson witnesses the death of his tiny daughter in a car accident. Writing that page was very difficult.”

With those challenges in mind, she took up life-writing classes so she could write dialogue, humour and about the sad moments in a person’s life at the NSW Writers Centre in Rozelle.

Allen’s book, Bill Gibson: Pioneering Bionic Ear Surgeon has been well received. Book critic, Derek Parker described her as “adept at explaining the technology”. For Allen, that comment means she has succeeded in her aim of making her book approachable.

Allen, who lives on a farm in the NSW Southern Highlands, is now considering what to write about for her second book.

“One of the things that I like to call myself is a lifelong learner,” says Allen, who is considering undertaking a PhD degree in creative non-fiction writing. “Maybe the challenge is to write about another unsung hero. If the subject of a biography is unknown, it’s harder to find a publisher and be reviewed in large circulation publications. But in the end, it’s worth it to give their story a voice.”

Listen to 2SER's interview with Tina Allen on The Chat

Story and photography by Kevin Cheung