Global-health researcher, Joshua Vogel, was the winner of the 2020 Nature Research Award for Driving Global Impact (DGI). His work to reduce premature births worldwide is playing a key role in ending preventable deaths of newborns and children under five.
Premature birth is one of the leading causes of mortality in children under the age of five, and brings considerable psychological and economic difficulties to families that are affected. Around 13 million of the 15 million premature births that occur globally each year are in low-and middle-income countries.
As part of his research, Josh and his team have tested a sophisticated treatment protocol using antenatal corticosteroids (ACS) as an effective and affordable preterm birth intervention. He has also looked into the possible negative effects of the improper use of ACS, and has developed guidelines on how they can be used safely by countries around the world. Josh has worked together with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other institutions to collect preterm birth data from across 184 countries to better understand where and why preterm birth occurs.
In this interview Josh tells us what inspired him to become a scientist and why he chose to work in maternal and newborn health. For further background into his research and career path also check out the Nature Careers Q&A here.
I have loved science as long as I can remember. I had great research experiences as a medical student which definitely inspired me, and as a consequence I am a big believer in ensuring undergraduate students have a positive experience with research. It was while working as an emergency room doctor in rural Australia that I really felt drawn to public health research – it seemed like most of the injuries and illnesses we saw could have been easily prevented with good public health measures.
My high school physics teacher Mr. Coghlan was a great inspiration to me. He made science dynamic, exciting, engaging and fun. If I hadn’t got a place in medical school, my second preference would have been studying physics, and I still wonder what that might have been like!
I now work in maternal and perinatal health research, with a particular focus on how we can improve the health of women and newborns in low resource, high-burden settings. My path to this field wasn't set by any one decision, it was shaped by a succession of mentors and “small wins” in research that really inspired me to keep trying. I was able to try things out and see what worked, what didn't and what I enjoyed.
I once read that to be successful in research, you need to work on the big problems in your field. Preterm birth is definitely one of those because it affects over 10% of babies born each year, and is the single biggest cause of child and newborn deaths. If we can find effective ways to prevent preterm birth or mitigate its effects, and get those interventions into practice globally, we can make significant progress in reducing newborn mortality and morbidity. I started working on preterm birth early in my career and have never stopped. The intersection of maternal and newborn health is personally very interesting to me.
We as a global community can end preventable maternal and newborn mortality. As long as my team's research is helping to address those issues, I know we are headed in the right direction.
"Quality first, quantity second". I am often guilty of trying to go fast and do more things than I can handle. But the work we do must be of the highest quality to be trustworthy or meaningful. It's a good thing for a researcher to have lots of exciting ideas – I have more ideas than I can reasonably pursue in one lifetime! But if we get the quality right, then quantity can follow.
Joshua Vogel, principal research fellow (maternal and child health) at the Burnet Institute in Melbourne, Australia, is a medical doctor with a PhD in maternal and perinatal epidemiology. His research work focuses on improving the health and well-being of women and families living in resource-constrained settings. Since 2012, he has co-ordinated and contributed to a number of WHO-led primary research, knowledge synthesis and implementation activities in low and middle-income countries. His areas of professional interest are the quality of antenatal and intrapartum care, stillbirth prevention and preterm birth management. He has extensive experience in clinical epidemiology, interventional research, systematic reviews and guideline development.
Joshua is a lead investigator on the WHO ACTION Trials (Antenatal Corticosteroids for Improving Outcomes of Preterm Newborns), two multi-country randomized controlled trials evaluating the efficacy of antenatal corticosteroids in hospitals in five low-resource countries. He is also the lead investigator on a six-country study evaluating the new WHO Labour Care Guide for labour and childbirth management. He has led the development of several WHO guidelines, and established WHO’s first ‘living guidelines’ in maternal and perinatal health