‘Stay safe’: vale Mary-Louise McLaws, champion for the power of clear science communication
Jocelyne Basseal,Sharon Salmon,Sophie Scott,
A calm voice, a trusted expert, devoted teacher. Epidemiologist Professor Mary-Louise McLaws was passionate about engaging with the mainstream media and communicating what she knew.
When the COVID pandemic hit, epidemiologist Professor Emeritus Mary-Louise McLaws AO became the go-to expert for many journalists across the media spectrum. With new research being released daily, access to calm, reliable and knowledgeable experts like Mary-Louise – or “ML” as she was known to her friends – became paramount for them and many Australians.
Her manner was friendly and unassuming for someone so highly regarded in scientific circles. She had a gentle and calm presence on camera and a way of cutting through scientific terms and jargon to get to the heart of what really mattered to viewers, readers and listeners.
Yet she was also not afraid to question whether authorities were making the correct decisions. She expressed concerns that too few measures were being taken to stop the virus spreading through the air and about the time it took for rapid antigen tests to become publicly and freely available.
And when Mary-Louise spoke, the audience listened. Yet, she never resorted to hyperbole or exaggeration. When Australians needed someone to explain what at times seemed inexplicable, she knew all the right words. She had a unique way of taking her understanding of diseases such as COVID and being able to tell audiences exactly what they needed to hear.
Mary-Louise passed away on Saturday aged 70, some 18 months after her diagnosis with brain cancer. We had the privilege of collaborating with Mary-Louise, including on a paper published today about communicating health and science to the public. We hope to continue her legacy of building trust in science, even as it unfolds.
A reputable scientist – she spent 36 years in the University of NSW Medicine and Health Faculty – she was able to adeptly translate research findings into language the public could understand. Mary-Louise had the confidence to work with journalists and the media during a public health emergency. Along with countless interviews, she wrote 180 scientific papers and was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2022 for distinguished service to epidemiology and infection prevention. As she told ABC radio listeners just over a year ago:
My tone should always be – I’m not political but I will tell you what I think as an epidemiologist and as a global epidemiologist as well and what the [World Health Organization] and others are trying to achieve.
She was passionate about ensuring scientists and academic researchers develop public engagement and science communication skills to allow them to become influential champions and to rebuild trust in science.
We mourn the passing of a UNSW academic who was locally grown and became a superstar while remaining tenacious, humble, hardworking and caring. We are grateful for all she did for UNSW and Australia, she will not be forgotten.
Mary-Louise responded quickly to the media, respecting their deadlines. She often said that journalists have a difficult job to do. When she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, she thanked the media for helping her spread knowledge.
We hope her legacy will help pave the way for universities to encourage and train their scientists and academics to work confidently with journalists to communicate their research to the public.
A calm voice
To the Australian public, Mary-Louise was a calm voice who graced our lounge rooms daily via the ABC, sometimes signing off with “stay safe”. She wrote for and spoke to media outlets including The Conversation before and during the pandemic.
To her colleagues at UNSW, on the WHO Health Emergencies Program Expert Advisory Panel and the NSW COVID Infection Prevention and Control taskforce, she was a credible, well-regarded and respected epidemiologist and infection prevention and control expert and extended her expertise globally with many appointments.
To her students, Mary-Louise was devoted and while she demanded the highest quality of work from her doctoral students, she provided much more than just academic guidance – she was gentle, thought-provoking and always available.
To her friends and family, Mary-Louise was a nurturer, a kind, loving mother and devoted wife. Her Jewish heritage was important to her and she embraced diversity, culture and enjoyed travelling around the world experiencing all that it had to offer.
For all of us feeling her loss, there is some comfort knowing Mary-Louise’s life penetrated so many hearts and that her legacy will continue, forever.