Pioneering Professor recognised for her lifelong work with Medal of the Order of Australia

Pioneering Professor recognised for her lifelong work with Medal of the Order of Australia

Distinguished Professor Barbora de Courten OAM and Associate Dean School of Biomedical Sciences last month received a Medal of the Order of Australia in the General Division for her services to medical research and healthcare.

With a background in epidemiology, pathophysiology, clinical trials, and public health, Barbora said she was honoured to be recognised, particularly for someone who wasn't born in Australia. 

barbora-de-courten-oam-thumb-1220x732 Barbora says she is honoured to be recognised for her work

A journey across continents and eras 

Born in Slovakia and growing up during the Cold War, Barbora reflected on her journey, which has spanned four continents, five countries and has always included a desire to practice medicine. 

“I was born into a family of doctors, and I wanted to be one since I was four. I always had a fascination with human physiology and a love of learning.” she said. 

Barbora completed her medical degree in Slovakia and began her PhD in the epidemiology of diabetes and heart disease in disadvantaged populations.

“Even after the fall of communism, Slovakia was a difficult place to live. It was very hard to get a job at the University Hospital. One way to get a job there was to enrol in a PhD, and this is how my research journey started. I worked full-time as a clinician and did my PhD research largely in the evenings and on the weekends,” she explained.  

“Being a physician in Slovakia was not a lucrative job, you did it for the love of it. In 1999, I received an opportunity to work in the USA at the National Health Institute (NIH). They were looking for someone more senior and in the end, hired someone else, but they offered me a job as well.  

“They said they liked my energy. It was a steep learning curve, however, at the end of my 3.5 years, I was running clinical trials, doing statistical analysis on large-scale datasets, published 24 papers in major diabetes journals and presented at several international conferences. ” 

In the US, Professor de Courten was at the forefront of research linking inflammation with insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes in humans. She is now ranked #1 in Australia in the area of inflammation, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes and is in the top 1% worldwide by scholarly outputs in insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. 

“Prevention is better (and cheaper) than a cure. If we know what causes a disease, we can prevent it, rather than just treat it,” she said. 

“I started to look at interventions that could achieve this through lowering inflammation – both supplements and drugs.” 

A family with a man, a woman and two daughters in front of a large lake Barbora and her family

Settling in Australia and making an impact 

After meeting her husband in the US, Barbora spent time in Fiji where her husband worked for the World Health Organisation, before finally settling in Australia in 2004. 

In 2010, Barbora was awarded Fellowship of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians after completing the medical specialist exams. Later, she worked at the University of Copenhagen and Monash University before joining RMIT. In 2018, she was promoted to Professor and her contribution to clinical research was recognised by the Australian Diabetes Society award.  

Despite having achieved so much here – and across her entire career – Barbora has greater ambitions for the future.  

“Being recognised through an Order of Australia is a significant acknowledgement but the question is, what can you do with that for the greater good of society and the medical profession?” she said.” 

“Recently, I have completed an Executive MBA at Monash University, which was one of the best things I’ve done in my life.” 

“Businesses approach problems in a very different way than healthcare institutions. There is much scope to borrow from that thinking to tackle wicked healthcare problems more effectively.” 

“Out of MBA came the idea of using design thinking to address patient and health service pain points and to set up a Centre for Health by Design at RMIT and teach design thinking to our health students. Businesses use design thinking to identify pain points along the user journey and to redefine the problems which results in truly innovative solutions.”  

“The Centre would support clinicians and healthcare services to approach problems in healthcare in a more holistic manner using design-thinking and multidisciplinary teams bringing together RMIT’s strong expertise in design, engineering, computing and health to create unique innovative approaches.” 

“Another area of focus which I am very passionate about is supporting the wellbeing of staff and mentoring women. At Monash University, I was a member of the WISDoM (Women in Science, Discovery and Medicine) committee. I also mentored early and mid-career scientists through a formal mentoring framework. Because I benefited from great mentors myself and there is no such thing at RMIT, I would love to set up something similar here."

I believe people are our greatest asset and we need to take good care of them.

Whatever the future may hold, Barbora has come a long way from what looked possible when she was younger, but she’s always had big dreams. 

“When I was about 12, I told my father I wanted to go and study in the United States. I was inspired by the land where everything is possible.” she said. 

“And I remember that he had tears in his eyes because he thought I would never be able to leave Slovakia.” 

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the drawing of the Iron Curtain, change came for Slovakia, and for Barbora. It marked the start of a global journey that has changed many lives for the better. 


Story by: Finn Devlin

06 March 2024


06 March 2024


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Acknowledgement of Country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.