Adversity comes in many forms and Professor Linda Agnew has overcome her fair share having grown up in rural Queensland, being first in her family to attend university and managing as a mature age student while caring for four children.
Losing her sight to a degenerative retinal condition in the middle of her PhD was not going to stop Professor Agnew from becoming Australia’s first female Dean, who is blind.
“I had a gradual deterioration of sight over 10 years and am completely blind now and have been for 7 years,” Professor Agnew said.
“At the time I didn’t really know what was feasible and I feel blessed to be able to achieve what I have achieved.
Professor Agnew, an immunologist, has been appointed the new Dean (Academic) at Griffith Health after many years in leadership roles at University of New England.
“I’m really thrilled to be at Griffith, especially because Griffith is a values-based institution, aligning with my own personal values.”
Starting a Bachelor of Science by distance education, majoring in biomedical science and already mother of four, Professor Agnew said studying remotely was much harder back in the 90s.
“It was before online learning and the university would send a thick wad of course materials by post and you had to type out your assessment submissions on paper and post it back for marking.
“My parents were £10 Poms and came from hard-working, blue-collar families, none of my family had been to university before, so I was the first in my family to go to university.
Professor Agnew, who grew up in remote Mt Isa and had children in the Western Queensland town, acknowledges her family who supported her career by relocating to Armidale NSW to be close to the University of New England where she undertook her studies.
“I received the diagnosis that I had a degenerative retinal condition when I was in my final year of my PhD, so I needed to make a choice about whether I would continue to pursue my passion in Biomedical science and academia or walk away.
“It was a difficult decision to make because of the unknown but figured I’d already invested 7 years of my life into an undergraduate, honours and a PhD and I didn’t want to walk away, so chose to continue.
“I’ve been determined that my blindness would not impact the quality of my work, so it was about negotiating and navigating that pathway.”
Professor Agnew said her tenacity to succeed arose from the knowledge and likelihood that one or more of her children could inherit the same degenerative condition.
“I made a pact that whatever happened, I would model to my children that anything is achievable, and you can achieve great outcomes and be a contributing member of society despite the challenges.
“For me, it’s about being a role model, not just for my kids, but also for the community of people who are blind or have low vision as well as the general community.”
As well as being actively involved in a number of mentoring programs in the disability sector, Professor Agnew is a non-executive director on the board of Vision Australia and supports the executive leaders on Australia’s peak advocacy group, Blind Citizens Australia.