Observed annually on March 8th, International Women’s Day is a day to celebrate the achievements of women in all spheres and serves as a call to action for gender equity and women’s rights. The Government of Canada’s theme for 2023 is “Every Woman Counts,” reminding us that women from all ages and all walks of life are valuable members of the Canadian society and have an important role to play in every community.
We consider ourselves fortunate to have an abundance of talented women across all levels at SPPH. In honour of this significant day, we extend an invitation to you to meet some of the remarkable women who form the backbone of our School and are dedicated leaders in the field of population and public health, Dr. Amanda Slaunwhite and Dr. Rachel Murphy below.
Faculty feature: Amanda Slaunwhite
Amanda navigated university with a lot of uncertainty, while carrying the weight of being a first generation student and coming from a family deeply affected by mental health, and substance use. She followed her interest in policy and government to a BA in Political Science at Dalhousie University, worked on Parliament Hill for a year doing research for the Senate and House committees, before completing a master’s in urban and regional planning at Queen’s University, followed by a PhD at the University of Victoria where she studied the design of communities and the social determinants of health. During her time at Parliament Hill, she was trying to understand her unstable family dynamic, reflecting on her father’s history with homelessness and substance use, and navigating her own struggles with substances and mental health. These experiences coalesced into personal motivation, guiding Amanda’s work within the field of public health.
Do you have advice for students who may also have uncertainty along their academic journey?
My number one piece of advice would be to reach out for help. Reach out to faculty and TAs if you are having issues in any way. If you’re trying to figure out what you’re going to do when you’re done, you’re trying to get career advice, or you might be having issues with mental health, housing, whatever, know that there are people who are available to support you. There are a tremendous number of resources available for students that I wish I had during my undergraduate and graduate career.
There are people here who want you to succeed, we want you to do great things in the world. Asking for help is probably the biggest step that you can take in terms of getting some assistance with that.
What do you find special about UBC?
I feel that UBC is a very supportive institution. I feel very supported as an early career investigator that all of the resources are there for me to succeed. SPPH is a real hub in terms of innovative research, especially with administrative health data and working with people with lived experience, I really appreciate being able to be part of that environment and be part of those teams that are working in this area.
I used to come over here every week on the ferry, to take Michael Law’s classes and some other classes on research design, because I wanted to work with admin data, but other institutions don’t offer those types of programs.
UBC has a lot of researchers, especially working in the Center for Health Services and Policy Research (CHSPR). Michael Law, Steve Morgan, Jason Sutherland and others, they can kind of see ahead of everybody else, they knew admin data was going to be the big thing years ago, and now everybody’s caught on. I’m very grateful to be in that environment, because I feel like now I’m at a stage where I can also see what’s coming. Its really nice to be able to propose things or try out new ideas!
What do you hope to accomplish as the new co-director of the Canadian Collaboration for Prison Health and Education (CCPHE)?
I think CCPHE is a fantastic opportunity to bring together all of the work we’re doing in provincial and federal corrections at SPPH under one umbrella. My personal goal with CCPHE is to make it an international hub for corrections research, or research with and for incarcerated populations.
CCPHE has a long legacy, because of the work of Dr. Ruth Elwood Martin, who really pushed this work for decades at UBC. We have a really firm foundation, so my hope is over the next five years we can build partnerships with international organizations, because some of the things that we are doing in Canada and in BC are very innovative.
Its my hope that we can also partner with peer organizations and people with lived experience. I just had a call with Unlocking the Gates Services Society (UTG), which is a group of people with lived experience who support people leaving custody. So, when you get out, they are literally at the gate waiting for you and that’s an incredible service.
What’s the link between substance use and people leaving the prison system? How is this impacting the overdose crisis?
The research that we’ve done on this has shown that overdose is the leading cause of death for people leaving custody. So many of the people who have died from overdose, were recently in the prison system. This is a critical time: when people get out, they don’t have anything. We want to provide them with resources and support them in navigating life after they come out to prevent overdose wherever possible.
I don’t think people realize how little you have. The peers at Unlocking the Gates (UTG) tell me this all the time, that you’re given the same clothes when you get out that you wore in. If you were picked up downtown when you were intoxicated, and you were wearing soiled clothes, you get those when you get out. It’s very dehumanizing.
Working with UTG right now, we’re talking about what we can do to get people clothes, get people fed, and get people into reasonably stable housing.
What kind of messages are you hearing from people with lived/living experience with substance use on how overdose prevention should be approached?
There’s a lot of moral distress and a lot of frustration among people with lived experience, and understandable so. They’re constantly seeing loved ones, friends, family, and colleagues who are passing away from overdose, while things kind of just stay reasonably constant. A lot of what they say is we need more of what were doing, like we need more access to safer supply, needing more access to treatment, and a lot more investment into people with lived experience run organizations like UTG who struggle with year to year funding.
Tying it back to UBC, I’m hoping with my new position I can provide access to educational opportunities and training opportunities.
We need to change how we conceptualize what “good research” is and think about how we can create and more inclusive and equitable academy and research institution.
If you could impart one message to SPPH students, what would it be?
It’s okay to not necessarily know what you want to do and try new things that make you uncomfortable. If you are more quantitatively oriented, try your hand oat getting some training in qualitative work and working with people with lived experience. I think it’s really important to push yourself and encourage your own personal growth. See if this is something that might inspire you or lead you to a different direction.
Faculty feature: Rachel Murphy
Rachel started her academic career focused on nutrition until her PhD when she decided to delve deeper into working with larger administrative health datasets and took an interest in health on a broader scale. During her postdoctoral fellowship, she pursued training in epidemiology and found a new calling as her quantitative mind was drawn to the statistical side of things. Rachel spent three years in the U.S. training in epidemiology, before returning to Canada. A position opened at UBC seeking somebody with training in modifiable risk factors for cancer – an ideal opportunity to blend her training and interest in nutrition and epidemiology – which is how she ended up at SPPH.
What’s a common misconception about the field of Public Health?
There are so many public health emergencies right now that we often think of public health as being infectious disease management, the opioid crisis, or mental health. These are all at the forefront of many peoples thinking of what public health is, but I think chronic disease prevention, which is the area I am in, is still incredibly important.
There needs to be a balance between being responsive to public health emergencies, but maintaining our efforts in prevention as well.
Prevention in general gets less funding, especially with respect to research funding. In the cancer realm, I think less than 15% of research funds go towards prevention. This is for several reasons, one being that it’s hard to research preventing disease, especially when it takes many decades for cancer to occur. So, it can be difficult to show the impact of your work when it is so long term and big picture. That’s a challenge for the prevention of many chronic diseases.
How has your perspective changed since working in public health?
The one thing that I have really taken from being in nutrition in public health is a change in perspective on diet. I started off always referring to diet as being modifiable, and then kind of potentially modifiable. Now, I’ve moved to the opposite end. With the exception of a few, I don’t think diet is modifiable. We have these broad structural environments and a lot of policies that really make it difficult for people to change their diets. So that’s one area that I’ve been moving a bit more into lately is trying to understand more about the social and built environments and the influence that has on dietary intake. Moving away from putting the onus on the individual, and start thinking about broader structural support.
What is the key for people in making healthy choices?
A lot of the people that are most at risk of nutritional inadequacies and chronic disease are people who have lower socioeconomic status and lower education. It is not as simple as saying, “these are Canada’s Food Guide recommendations, and this is what you should be consuming.”
We need policies and programs that make the healthy choice, the easy choice.
Without supportive environments, without the cost of healthy food being similar to the cost of nutritionally poor foods, we’re not going to move the needle enough to make a significant impact.
What is your approach to knowledge translation of nutrition evidence?
That’s an area I’m passionate about because there’s a lot of misinformation out there about diet and nutrition, and it really undermines the credibility of the field in general. It’s hard not to go on social media and see all kinds of things and go “oh my gosh, please, no!”.
It’s important for us who have training in nutrition to be vocal around what the evidence is. We always try to include knowledge users in our projects right from the get go. Sometimes that will look like somebody who’s a patient with cancer, a physician, or somebody who works within the healthcare system. We’re all trying to shorten that gap between the generation of evidence and the implementation of evidence into practice and care.
If you could impart one message to SPPH students, what would it be?
Getting involved in the community sounds very cliché but it’s a great thing to do, and something I wish I did more when I was in grad school. Talk to your professors, they’re not that scary! There are also lots of student clubs, ways to get more involved, and really put yourself out there. This is the time to build those networks and pursue your interests.