The winner of this year's University of Newcastle Alumni Medal, Dr Ruth Lopert, was only accepted into the university's medicine degree at the age of 32 - after applying unsuccessfully six other times.
"It seemed like an impossible dream," she said. "Let alone getting through the course, and doing anything of substance."
The public health physician, who has worked with the likes of the World Health Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development to inform government policy in 15 countries, won the prestigious Alumni Medal for Professional Excellence at the university on Thursday.
Director of the National Gallery of Australia Nick Mitzevich, a 1992 graduate, came away with the Newton-John Award for innovation and creativity in the arts.
Dr Lopert was "completely surprised" by the accolade, saying she did not see herself "up there" with the other two finalists, IVF innovator Steven McArthur and paralympian and MP Liesl Tesch.
Dr Lopert founded the pharmaceutical policy unit of the Commonwealth Department of Health, served as the chief medical officer in Australia's Therapeutic Goods Administration, and was an adviser to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee.
She has lived internationally since 2014 and works as an independent consultant.
"A lot of the work I have done is in middle income countries, many in Eastern Europe, helping them set up pharmaceutical benefit schemes and helping them evaluate what drugs should be funded," she said. "It's politically and technically challenging. Politically because you need strong political support to set up a PBS, and the pharmaceutical industry is very influential."
Dr Lopert's interest in pharmaceuticals began while studying and working in Newcastle between 1991 and 2002. She began her career in the Department of Clinical Pharmacology at the Calvary Mater. Prior to that she worked in IT. Originally, she is from Ballarat.
Her advice to university students was that "opportunities are only limited by your own imagination".
She has recently returned to university herself, studying a Master of Laws at Leiden University's campus in The Hague. She skipped class to come to the awards.
"It was a very big decision to make," she said. "My peers have agreed to record my lectures for me."
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