Sharon Ponniah: Mender of a Country’s Health

Sharon Ponniah
Sharon Ponniah

Sharon Ponniah knows what it takes to embrace life as a global citizen, while remaining true to her values.

Last year, Ponniah, the director of PwC’s Health and Wellbeing Practice, found her role as a public health professional thrust her into the limelight. The future health and safety of entire populations depend on solutions based on research about patterns of disease and the innate human response. The ever-evolving impact of public health is what captivated Ponniah when she started her career. It continues to inspire her to make a difference in her field.

SEEMA recently spoke with Ponniah about her journey – about where she started, where she is going, and what fulfills her.

“I would describe myself as a global citizen because my parents are from India, but I was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and migrated with my family to New Zealand when I was six,” Ponniah told SEEMA from her home in Sydney. “I grew up in Wellington, also known as New Zealand’s ‘windy capital,’ where I completed all my primary and secondary education before moving to Dunedin (in the South Island), to complete my tertiary education at the University of Otago. I moved back to Wellington to begin my early professional career before moving to Sydney with my husband (then boyfriend). We had always intended to head to Canada, but never made it there. We’ve now set up shop in Sydney, where we live in the east with our daughter, Asher, 5, and son, Finley, 3.”

Throughout school, Ponniah’s family encouraged her to pursue a career as a medical doctor. For many years, she thought that was what she wanted as well.

“Most of my education was designed for me and was centered around mathematics, science and English, to prepare me for the medical profession,” she said. “It wasn’t until I had my first real taste of independence at university [having moved down South to Dunedin] that I began to see things differently and make choices for myself.”

It was a challenging phase of life for Ponniah but it was when she also found the strength and courage to decide the life she wanted to lead.

“One of the hardest choices I … have probably ever made, was choosing not to do medicine,” she said. “It was disappointing to my family, and I had to live with that disappointment for a long time. At the time I made the decision, I didn’t really want to commit to a long life of training without really knowing what I was getting myself into. I had picked up a psychology elective, which I really enjoyed too, and I just wanted to see what else there was to life. I ended up completing a bachelor of science, majoring in neuroanatomy and psychology, with a first class honors in psychology.”

The first few years out of university was a rollercoaster ride, with Ponniah taking on opportunities that forced her to step out of her comfort zone. One of her early jobs was working as a public sector official for New Zealand’s Ministry of Health.

“[That role] was eye-opening; it was sink or swim,” she said. “I was put in charge of managing the country’s public health surveillance monitors, which are essentially a series of surveys undertaken … to inform public policy interventions and resource allocation. My interest in health, and public health in general, grew from there, and I ended up completing a PhD. I did this while working full time on another significant program for New Zealand’s Ministry of Health, the National Tobacco Monitor.”

Ponniah was the lead policy advisor for the National Tobacco Monitor program, which collected accurate information on the prevalence of smoking in the country. It helped the New Zealand government monitor the disease burden of tobacco and to respond suitably to it.

Completing a PhD while working with such intensity was no easy feat, but Ponniah was determined.

“I figured I was analyzing this massive data set and informing policy in real life, so why not get a qualification out of it at the same time,? So I did eventually become a doctor of sorts, but on my own terms,” she said. “I was never interested in an academic career, which surprises people. Part of my motivation for the PhD was the desire to be received credibly as a female in the health sector. It seems silly to say that three letters give you this credibility, but it really does, particularly in health.”

Ponniah’s career placed her in both government and non-government health agencies, enabling her to gain a wealth of knowledge. Her last role in New Zealand (before moving to Australia) was as a program manager for the country’s Pharmaceutical Management Agency (PHARMAC), where she managed national health programs to address the optimal use of medicines across New Zealand.

Since making her home in Sydney, Australia, Ponniah further built on her reputation as a public health specialist by becoming a program manager for a range of programs focused on health and chronic disease in Aboriginal groups and Torres Strait Islanders, Her work placed particular focus on improving access to, and the use of, health care in primary care settings. Her role involved evaluating and managing programs on primary health care to improve chronic disease management in these groups. Ponniah went on to work for a reputed health consulting firm, where she managed a diverse portfolio of projects and clients in the government (state and federal) and in the not-for-profit sector. Projects included developing a consultation framework for models of cancer care, collecting evidence to support the development of appropriate models of care for elective surgery and intensive care units, and putting together a 25-year research framework to identify and prioritize investment and collaboration.

Ponniah is now director of health and wellbeing at PwC, and specializes in public policy and economics.

“As a public health and policy specialist, I lead a range of projects, mainly for government and health agencies that involves research, evaluation (understanding whether things worked in the way they were intended), providing strategic advice and review of policy interventions and understanding the economic impacts of policy reform,” she said. “Last year, my team reviewed and piloted a set of quality indicators to help support quality improvements through the residential aged care sector. This year, we are helping to develop Australia’s digital mental health framework, at a time where there is increased demand for digitally enabled health care and mental health support throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. I love what I do. I love helping to solve big, wicked problems! It is definitely not always a walk in the park, and it is complex work, with multiple layers. But I love feeling like I contribute to and play a part in change that has a real impact on people’s lives.”

So what does the future hold for a public health professional already at the top of her game? For Ponniah, as her career has evolved, so has her understanding of what a successful life looks like.

“I’ve always been determined, self-empowered, ambitious and independent,” she said. “But I feel the weight of these characteristics changing. Every parent who has done it will be able to describe … how re-entering the workforce after two kids is hard. I took two six-month blocks of leave and returned to work full-time. I have an equally busy husband and no grandparent support at hand. Some weeks are challenging and leave us exhausted, but somehow we fumble through and work as a team because we have some really strong non-negotiables in place. I’m 38 now, and though my ambition, drive and enthusiasm continues, the things that are fundamentally important to me are the same. But the weight placed on each (or the order) has changed. I’ve been feeling a strong sense of gratitude lately, reflecting on where I’ve come from and where I am. Though the hard work continues, I feel a stronger desire to give back and to do more to enable and use my advantage for others. I’m not sure how this will play out yet, but diversity and inclusion will be a big part of it.”

Ponniah expressed gratitude to the incredible women and men who advised her throughout her career.

“I definitely have a strong network that I draw from and call upon now and again. I see real strength in having a diverse group of individuals for support and coaching, more importantly to be my sponsors as I continue to grow in my career,” she said. “It’s not something I understood at the beginning, but I realize how important it is now, and how much of a difference it can make. Even in the early days of my career, I’ve never had anyone turn me down for a coffee meeting. Men and women of [various] levels of seniority have always said yes to a conversation. So, I pay this forward by saying yes to the reach-outs I get and always make time to speak to someone looking for guidance or inspiration for their career.”

Ponniah encourages young women seeking a career in the public health sector to embrace the unknown and not be afraid to ask for help.

“I would suggest speaking to people and getting a sense of what people do, as opposed to what specific career paths are available,” she said. “Working in the public sector and health can provide great meaning, but it can be demanding and complex. Talking to people and exploring all the different types of work they do in their respective fields can be really eye-opening and a good way to find out what might be right for you.”