Unlike many scholars, Yindjibarndi woman Mandy Downing accidentally found herself working in academia.

Previously a teacher, she took a temporary job at Curtin University’s ethics office during the school holidays.

Within three months she was appointed the department’s manager of research ethics.

Now, she’s been appointed Curtin’s first Dean of Indigenous Futures in the Faculty of Humanities.

Ms Downing said her time working in research ethics was how her career began to evolve in the first place.

“As someone who was constantly needing to explain the regulations around ethics and institutional processes that link to ethics… it became increasingly frustrating that some of the guidance was from a point of cultural deficit discourse,” she said.

“Which assumes that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are vulnerable based on their race alone.

“As opposed to considering looking at us being self-determined and perhaps considering that vulnerabilities may have been a result of things like colonisation.”

In addition to her position as Dean, Ms Downing is also the female co-chair of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies National Research Ethics Committee.

Ms Downing said her research is concerned with the gaps in research when it comes to ethical research in Indigenous Australia.

“We want to see sustainable and accountable actions through a research proposal, we want to see that there’s going to be impact and benefit for our people,” she said.

“There’s a lot of Aboriginal people now that are working in this space and who can lead research or we’ve got students who are very capable who can be involved in the project.

“Or we’ve got community that are involved in Indigenous governance or research projects.

“So it’s now about no longer us being the object who are being studied, but us becoming the subject expert.”

The best part of her job is her ability to advocate for Indigenous students who wouldn’t have the chance to pursue higher education otherwise Downing said.

“We had an elder in the community apply for entry into a PhD but they didn’t have the required honours level entry or a masters degree,” she said.

“And they’re a community elder so they’ve got this extensive, amazing amount of cultural knowledge and experience which to me would be seen as equal, particular when they’re doing research on a topic which is relevant to their background.

“So being able to justify that to the university and having that then recognised as equivalent to allow them to go straight into a PhD, for me that was an achievement last year which sets a precedent.”

Ms Downing said in order to see more Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people completing higher degrees by research, there needed to be change in mindset of institutions.

“We really need to have priorities set by Indigenous people and then be working towards them as a collective,” she said.

“I think having opportunities for Indigenous people to be in leadership roles when they’re not only sitting at a table but they’re being heard and the words they are saying are being put into practice.

“It’s really the time to start listening to our Indigenous voices so we can navigate these spaces and stand up and say things need to change…it doesn’t necessarily have to be the Westernised, traditional approach.”

Alongside her new position, Downing will also continue her voluntary work with the West Australian Aboriginal Leadership Institute’s Emerging Leaders Program.