Equine and community dynamo Dr Catherine Chicken joins iconic rural leadership program


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Catherine Chicken

A stint in a small country town just outside Auckland as a child set Dr Catherine Chicken on a trajectory that would be dedicated to the equine industry, the veterinary profession and thriving and sustainable rural communities. 

 As a self-proclaimed lifelong learner, Catherine throws herself into every opportunity that comes her way with a positivity and zest that is inspiring, something that has benefitted her profession and her wider rural community.

Catherine has been selected to participate in Course 28 of the Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP), sponsored by AgriFutures Australia’s Thoroughbred Horses Program. Kicking off this month, she joins 28 other like-minded leaders across different agricultural sectors for the 15-month program, which aims to build leadership capability in people in rural, regional and remote Australia.

“I grew up in Auckland, New Zealand before my parents decided on a tree-change to a small rural town where I was first exposed to country life; my love of horses was born and from then on I had my heart set on becoming a vet. My father’s job eventually brought us to Australia where I finished my schooling and commenced a veterinary degree at the University of Sydney.”

Upon graduating, Catherine spent a couple of years in mixed practice in rural NSW before she made the shift to England in 1990, prompting a back and forth between two of the most important thoroughbred breeding centres in the world – Newmarket and Scone in the Hunter Valley.

“A lot of young equine vets work breeding seasons across the hemispheres, it’s a nice way to see the world and get an idea of how things are done in different parts of the world within the same industry.”

Career pivot

Catherine and her husband met and settled in Scone, working as vets at the Scone Equine Hospital. With two small children and a busy practice, Catherine decided to step back from clinical work and embark on a PhD through the University of Melbourne, something she says is not for the fainthearted.

“No one was going to tell me I couldn’t do it! It has opened up many different doors and allowed me to concentrate on non-clinical pursuits, but it was certainly a labour of love. Getting through it whilst juggling many other commitments has been my biggest professional achievement.”

Catherine’s PhD looked at a particular bacterial infection in foals called Rhodococcus equi, an endemic problem in horses, most commonly causing a bacterial pneumonia in young horses colloquially known as ‘rattles’.

“I thought there was a role for someone who understood the difficulties and challenges faced by both clinicians and researchers. My PhD has enabled me to be a connector between people on the equine industry frontline and people in research to achieve a valuable end point for the innovative work that gets done.”

Catherine remains actively involved in research and development for the industry. She works on  collaborative research projects at different times and is  the Deputy Chair of AgriFutures Australia’s Thoroughbred Horses Advisory Panel, a role she says has been immensely rewarding.

“There’s great satisfaction in playing a part in ensuring what’s researched is relevant, and seeing it translated and implemented in the real world,” she says.

Rural vet challenges

Catherine says attracting and retaining vets in regional areas is a significant challenge, while the current gender imbalance in the profession, which is heavily skewed towards females, brings its own set of issues.

“The challenges are complex and multifactorial, including a lack of services in the regions–access to reliable internet, access to healthcare–things that are a given in the cities. The profession is relatively poorly remunerated, especially in the initial years, and many people are not prepared to work every weekend, or every second weekend, nor should they have to. We need to change the attitudes of a profession that has allowed that to be the accepted norm in the country for a long time.”

“We’ve got a situation where about 90% of veterinary science graduates are females, graduating at an age that means they could be wanting to start a family, or may already be juggling a career and a family. We have to look at balance in the profession, gender is one of them, cultural diversity is another, and the roles they may play in influencing peoples’ decisions about moving to regional areas.”

Giving back to industry and community

Catherine’s involvement in the veterinary profession extends beyond research and development, and into providing mentoring for young vet graduates, through the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) Graduate Mentoring Program.

“The AVA have developed valuable initiatives to support the profession. We have a significant and worrying issue with suicide amongst vets; pressures tend to come about when people feel isolated with nowhere to turn. The AVA called for experienced vets to mentor young graduates because those first few years can be extremely stressful. Last year I put up my hand to participate; if I can do anything to help, I feel compelled to do so.”

“I haven’t forgotten how stressed I was in my first year of practice, I didn’t have anyone I could really go to and would have loved to be involved in a program like this. Many of the problems are stillthe same; the insecurities, concerns and lack of confidence, and that logarithmic learning curve is straight up in your first year or two out in practice.”

“It’s been interesting revisiting that, saying to a young graduate, ‘you know, I remember that feeling’, and that you still occasionally have those feelings, even as an experienced vet.”

Catherine’s interest in and commitment to her regional community also extends beyond the equine industry. Catherine is involved in the Upper Hunter Where There’s A Will Wellbeing Superspreaders initiative, sits on the Upper Hunter Shire Council Sustainability Advisory Subcommittee, and is a committee member for Scone Literary Festival.

“I’ve always been involved in the community, and I think there’s real fulfilment in connecting with people who also want to get things done; you get a lot more from giving than from taking.

“We have some interesting issues around our region, we have a strong thoroughbred industry, but we also have the biggest open cut coal mining region in the country just down the road. The conflicting land use issues for our industry and our community have been significant.”

“When asked about the ARLP and what I would like to achieve from it, it’s around seeing a sustainable future for our children and their children. I think that’s our responsibility as a generation.”

Adaptive leadership skills essential in a changing world

Catherine says she doesn’t think there has been a more important time for strong, honest and brave leadership in regional Australia, and the opportunity to connect with others who share a similar vision of a thriving and prosperous rural Australia drew her to apply for the ARLP.

“I feel it is up to those of us engaged in rural communities to help map out a future that allows the generations coming after us to enjoy the stable lifestyle we have been privileged to have. That takes visionary and courageous leadership inspired by an optimism for the future. I aim to expand my adaptive leadership skills at a time when adaptation to a changing world is vital,” she says.

“I would like to come out of the ARLP with a clearer view, and set of associated skills, for how to best effect necessary change both in my profession and community to contribute to a bright and sustainable future in regional Australia.”

“When you are a lifelong learner, the big picture things are what drive you. Then it is a question of narrowing down how I can make a difference, how I can actually utilise my skills to make a positive impact on the future. That’s what drives me.”

AgriFutures Australia’s Angela Wakeman, Manager Capacity Building says AgriFutures Australia was proud to sponsor Catherine.

“Our rural industries are dependent on strong leadership, and we recognise how important it is to invest in building the capabilities of people who are passionate about their sector and their communities.”

“Catherine’s contributions to veterinary science, mentoring young veterinarians, and her ongoing commitment to serving and improving the sustainability of her local community and regional Australia in a meaningful way is outstanding. We are confident the ARLP will further enhance her leadership capabilities and she will continue to make a lasting impact and look forward to watching her as she progresses through the course.”

Applications for ARLP Course 29 are now open and AgriFutures Australia encourages participants from its 13 levied industries to apply. For more information, visit https://rural-leaders.org.au/.

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