A lifetime of achievement: Alfred Deakin Professor David Crawford, AM

IPAN Co-Founder, Alfred Deakin Professor David Crawford AM, is retiring after an exceptional 40-year career dedicated to improving health outcomes around Australia and the world.

Few people can say they have established a world-leading institute and supported health research that could save and improve the lives of Australians for years to come. Even fewer can say they have produced those achievements at the same institution for 25 years. But Alfred Deakin Professor David Crawford AM, Head of the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, and Co-Director and Co-Founder of the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), is one of them. And he is using 2020 to reflect on his many years of service, as he farewells the University virtually for well-deserved retirement.

David has almost 40 years of experience in public health research. His research focuses on improving the population’s health through promoting nutrition and physical activity. 

Under David’s leadership, Deakin’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences was ranked the ‘world’s best’ Sport Science school or department in 2016 and 2017, and has been recognised as Australia’s best for the last three years.  

A well decorated researcher, David was named a Clarivate Highly Cited Researcher in 2015, 2016 and 2017, and a Member in the General Division of the Order of Australia (AM) last year. He is also a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences and a Fellow of the International Society for Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 

Despite these accolades, David says he is most proud of his long-term impact on people ­­– both the staff he has mentored and the end users of his research.

‘My dad died of cancer and my mum of a stroke, both at a relatively young age, so this – along with genuine curiosity for this interesting work – are what led me down this path. The opportunity to work with key stakeholders, particularly The Heart Foundation and Cancer Council Victoria, and to collaborate and work with such talented people, is something I’ve really enjoyed,’ says David.

‘Lifestyle factors are integral to how long someone lives but also their quality of life. And this has far-reaching impacts for not just that person, but their family, friends and our economy. Those issues are what drive me. To be able to promote public health and provide our evidence base and expertise has been truly fulfilling.’

Finding Deakin and Deakin finding David

After 15 years spent in research support positions at the CSIRO and ANU, David came to a very young Deakin in 1996, as the University’s first ever NHMRC Post-Doctoral Research Fellow.

‘It was a very different university at the time – Deakin was working toward getting research up and running in a meaningful way, and it was wanting to evolve from a primarily teaching university to an institution focused on research. It’s been a really interesting process to be part of and to observe,’ says David.

David on a research trip in 2018 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

While opportunity and the encouragement of a former colleague from Adelaide, Neville Owen, brought David to Deakin, he says it’s the University community that made him stay.

‘Deakin has always been such a friendly, supportive environment, and the University was always hungry to succeed. It has also been willing to take calculated risks and support initiatives that many other organisations may not have,’ says David.

‘Even at times when there was not a lot of resources, there has always been plenty of support, guidance and advice. Deakin never got in the way of projects that could work.’

Deakin has provided David with the opportunity to travel, including research trips to Amsterdam, Shanghai and Copenhagen; to provide leadership and mentorship, and to create lifelong friends. A privilege he will never forget.

‘I’ve also had a lot of support personally and I’ve been lucky to have my achievements recognised through promotions and contributions to my work,’ he says.

‘As a researcher, you have the rare opportunity to set your own agenda – you decide what you want to study, how you go about it, and who you work with. And as long as you can compete for and win resources, you’re essentially your own boss. I’m very grateful.’

The secret to his success? Learning from adversity.

‘In 1980, I had just finished my science degree in Adelaide and was unemployed for about a year due to the recession. It really made me understand and appreciate the value of work,’ says David.

Establishing IPAN

After years spent researching, David enlisted the help of three of his Deakin colleagues – Alfred Deakin Professor Jo Salmon, Alfred Deakin Professor Anna Timperio and Alfred Deakin Professor Kylie Ball – to establish the Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition in early 2000, which became an Institute in 2016.

‘We felt it was time to team up and get more strategic and focused in our research. We have now progressed from a group of four with little or no resources, to an institute with over 80 staff and $4 million in external income per year,’ says David.

Since then, he has mentored and coached Post-Doctoral Fellows and PhD students to build their own teams and develop their own research programs. 

‘We have had lots of success and produced lots of real-world impact. I think it shows the importance of capacity building, mentorship and investing in people. It’s been really fulfilling to watch good people thrive,’ he adds.

Alfred Deakin Professor Jo Salmon, Alfred Deakin Professor David Crawford AM, Alfred Deakin Professor Anna Timperio and Alfred Deakin Professor Kylie Ball.

David admits juggling his own research, Head of School and Director of IPAN positions has been a challenge at times. But he has also enjoyed every minute of it.

‘Deakin has been good to me. On one hand, the decision to retire is a difficult one because I love my job so much. But on the other, it’s an easy decision because I’ve achieved more than I could have ever hoped for,’ he says.

‘I hope my legacy is considered to be a highly successful school and institute, that are genuinely outstanding at what they do. It makes it easier to leave, knowing that there is a strong culture of excellence in both, and fantastic people who will continue to do great things.’

David’s advice for upcoming researchers

  1. Pursue your passion: Research, in particular, is not a job, it’s a career; it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t be half-in.
  2. Have a plan: All researchers work hard – often too hard – but you need to work smart as well. Learn to be strategic and have perspective – work is just one facet of your life. The time you do invest in work, invest wisely.
  3. Collaborate with people you like: Find colleagues who you trust and who provide a mutual benefit but also a mutual respect.

What’s next

While official employment is coming to an end, David plans to continue to bring value to the University through an honorary position and mentoring, where needed. He will also continue his work with The Heart Foundation and Cancer Council Victoria.

‘Apart from that, I have a 14-year-old son and a very busy wife, so I’ll be using retirement to spend time with my family, to fix the holes in my ceiling, to try my hand at woodwork, to drive my 50-year-old classic Mini and to travel (domestically, for now),’ says David.