Hallah Kassem is an Environmental Health Scientist at the BC Centre for Disease Control with the Climate Preparedness and Adaptation Program. Her work uses spatial analyses to identify populations in BC that are highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. She is a UBC SPPH alumna having earned her MSc in Population and Public Health with a thesis examining the effects of extreme heat on child health.
What inspired you to pursue your degree in MSc?
As a woman of colour, the health disparities impacting marginalized communities have always appeared stark to me. My ambition to help address such disparities led me to pursue a BASc in Public Health.
In undergrad, the challenges associated with Epidemiology immediately captured my attention. I loved the idea of using my analytic and statistical knowledge to help uncover the complex causes and consequences of illness and exposure. In particular, Dr. Jordan Tustin, the professor of my first epidemiology course and a former field epidemiologist with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), played a huge role in cultivating my interest in a future in Epidemiology. Seeing her impactful work with MSF and in academia inspired me to follow a similar path. In addition, my undergraduate epidemiologic research with Drs. Eric Lavigne and Anne Harris (a UBC alumna herself) was incredibly exciting and fulfilling, further cementing my decision to pursue graduate study with an MSc. I also found inspiration from literature, particularly from Hans Rosling’s “Factfulness” which dispels misconceptions about the dire state of the world, but (spoiler alert) underscores the impacts climate change will have on health —especially in the regions least responsible for its cause.
Together, these experiences solidified my desire to pursue a career in environmental epidemiology through an MSc in Population and Public Health.
Can you share an accomplishment or initiative during your studies that you are particularly proud of?
One of the proudest moments of my academic journey was not an individual accomplishment but a collective one: fostering community amidst the otherwise isolating COVID-19 pandemic through a variety of student initiatives. This ranged from chairing residence-wide committees at Green College, to co-chairing The Association of Population and Public Health Students (TAPPHS) at UBC, and representing UBC nationally in the Pan-Canadian Public Health Students Network. Receiving the award of “Making a Difference: Most Active Associate Organization” for our contributions in TAPPHS was gratifying and so too was witnessing the tangible impact of our initiatives on students’, my friends’, professional and personal development. These roles were as much an act of community service as they were of personal growth, and they greatly enriched my MSc journey.
How has your education at UBC SPPH equipped you to address significant challenges in your field, and can you share an example of how you’ve applied this knowledge in your professional journey?
My education at SPPH extended beyond theoretical classroom knowledge; I was able to develop practical skills through coursework, independent inquiry, and collective scholarship. The proficiency I gained in data analysis, epidemiologic methods, and coding was immediately useful in my professional role as an Environmental Health Scientist at the BC Centre for Disease Control, which I was offered before graduating. Here, I conduct geospatial analyses to identify populations in BC who are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, directly applying techniques I learned in courses and refined throughout my thesis under Drs. Kate Weinberger and Michael Brauer.
Another critical aspect of my graduate education was the collaborative environment of my research lab, the Environmental Health Research Group (EHRG). It was a vibrant combination of theoretical discussion, practical guidance, and peer support that provided the type of learning that is not typically part of formal curricula. In addition to sharpening technical skills, in these conversations I learned things like how to curb nerves before my first conference presentation, field-specific networking strategies, and how to navigate the complex terrain of academia. Ultimately, the holistic education I received throughout my program gave me the expertise to conduct the most comprehensive study to date in Canada on the impacts of extreme heat on pediatric health.
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