Throughout Australia, a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and nutrition researchers from Deakin University come together regularly to collaborate within a culturally safe space. They call themselves the Murnong Health Research Mob.

The mob began with Dr Jennifer Browne, a member of the Institute for Health Transformation (IHT)’s Global Obesity Centre.

After spending 12 years working at VACCHO (Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation), Jennifer made the move to Deakin and joined the School of Health and Social Development within the Faculty of Health.

At Deakin it was important that she sought out and connected with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders working in her field, Jennifer says.

‘Coming to Deakin after having spent most of my career working in Aboriginal community-controlled organisations with Aboriginal colleagues, it was a very different environment,’ she says.

‘Being a non-Aboriginal researcher in Aboriginal health is problematic and so it is important that I find ways to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on the projects I’m doing.’

The Murnong Health Research Mob grew gradually, with members being informally added as connections were made across the Deakin’s Faculty of Health, grants were won, and projects commenced.

‘We weren’t calling ourselves an official name or anything,’ Jennifer says. ‘We were just a group of people working together on different projects and in different combinations.’

Dr Mark Lock, a Ngiyampaa man and member of both IHT and the Murnong Health Research Mob, says there came a time when the question of group identity was raised.

‘We were all doing so much together and with our stakeholders. We started to think “well, how do we talk about ourselves?”’ Mark says. ‘We played around and came up with a lot of different names before we landed upon the Murnong.’

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The Murnong, also known as the yam daisy, was a staple food across south-eastern Australia prior to colonisation, says Joleen Ryan, a Gunditjmara woman, lecturer in social work and member of the Murnong Health Research Mob.

‘It was on the verge of extinction in Gunditjmara country when the land was occupied by farming. Cattle would eat the Murnong, therefore significantly reducing the plant’s availability,’ she says.

‘The Murnong is making a comeback. It has had a resurgence thanks to Aboriginal-owned nurseries, botanical gardens and cooking shows like Master Chef.

‘The Murnong has a yellow daisy-like flower which seeds similar to the dandelion. Its leaves can be used in salads and the tubers can be eaten raw or cooked. Raw Murnong tubers taste a bit like coconut with a nutty texture. Cooked Murnong has a soft texture like cooked potato and tastes like roast potato.’

According to Dr Karen Hill, who is of Torres Strait Island descent and a research fellow with Deakin’s School of Health and Social Development, the name Murnong Health Research Mob makes sense for many reasons.

‘We were trying to think of something that was representative of everyone in the group,’ Karen says. ‘Because we had a lot of people coming and going, and we also wanted something that was related to nutrition and health.’

Together, the Murnong Health Research Mob aims to examine and address the effects of food and nutrition policies’ on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s health, with a focus on commercial determinants of health.

The Murnong Health Research Mobs’s FoodPATH project is hosted in partnership with VACCHO and aims to empower Aboriginal communities in Victoria to determine what actions are needed to promote healthier food environments in their local communities.

Commercial determinants of health are the practices and activities of commercial bodies or industries that influence health and wellbeing outcomes. Commonly known commercial determinants of health include the marketing of products such as sugar-sweetened beverages or tobacco, says Mark.

‘In every shop I go to all the unhealthy foods are at the front of the store,’ he says. ‘Shoppers are assaulted with the whole marketing display of unhealthy products.’

‘That’s a commercial determinant of health because those companies have paid stores to have their products placed in those locations.’

‘And so that’s an incentive for poor health driven by a commercial profit motive.’

Reflecting on their experiences within the Murnong Health Research Mob, Mark and Karen say that it is a safe space for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers to come together and progress their research and careers.

‘I think it’s quite rare to have so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with either a PhD or working towards one who are working in health and nutrition,’ says Karen.

‘It’s created a really nice space for us all to come together, develop projects and share ideas.’

Having a culturally safe space with colleagues who can relate to shared experiences is a significant benefit of the Murnong Health Research Mob, Mark adds.

‘Finding allies in competitive environments, such as universities, can be difficult,’ he says. ‘Because competition isn’t the way Aboriginal people work together.’

‘Working with Jenn and the Murnong Mob, I feel safe.’

Troy Walker, a member of the Murnong Health Research Mob and Deakin University Research Assistant

The Murnong Health Research Mob consists of:

The Murnong Health Research Mob’s work is funded by VicHealth and an Institute for Health Transformation Cat 1 Seed funding grant. Jennifer Browne is funded by a Heart Foundation postdoctoral research fellowship.