By Andrea Lucy, Experiential Learning Program Lead
To celebrate this year’s Science Odyssey, Canada’s biggest science and technology festival, we are highlighting amazing scientists from across the country! Young adult staff members at Fresh Roots interviewed inspiring individuals contributing to science, to learn more about their personal and professional journey, career, and what advice they have for youth. These scientists surprise and delight us with their unique topics and backgrounds, and the unexpected ways their work connects back to healthy food systems and a healthy environment.
Interview with Dr. Hasina Samji
Dr. Hasina Samji (she/her) is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University and a Senior Scientist at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control. She is an epidemiologist trained at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Dr. Samji leads the CHART Lab’s Youth Development Instrument (YDI), an interdisciplinary study measuring predictors of positive youth well-being, mental health, and development in high school students in collaboration with the Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP-UBC), community, clinical and policy partners, and youth themselves. The YDI will identify skill-development and structural supports for mental illness prevention and positive trajectories for young people. She is also the co-Principal Investigator of the Personal Impacts of COVID-19 Survey (PICS) study in partnership with Anxiety Canada and BC Children’s Hospital to measure the population-level mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The PICS study is currently open to anyone over the age of 8 interested in participating.
We have a tradition at Fresh Roots of starting our conversations with this question: What vegetable do you feel like today?
Well, I feel like today I’m channelling a beet, basically because I’m wearing a bright purple shirt. I chose to wear bright purple today because it’s been a little rainy, and I wanted something bright and fun.
Can you describe your work as an epidemiologist?
[laughs] I laugh because up until last year, I used to get a lot of, “Oh, you’re an epidemiologist, that’s like a skin doctor, right?” I see how you got there, like epidermis? Yeah, okay, close. But now with the COVID pandemic, I don’t have to explain what an epidemiologist is as much. Broadly, it’s a person who looks at the distribution and determinants of disease in a population. What I like about epidemiology is it doesn’t just stop at measuring risk factors for disease, but also what can be done to improve prevention and control of these. This applies to not just diseases, but any kind of health outcomes.
With the CHART Lab, what we’re looking at primarily is among young people, what are some of the positive factors that promote lifelong health? What are resilience factors for youth which protect against adversity? What are the experiences and resources that we can build upon to help youth thrive? To answer these questions, we look at individual-level factors such as emotional and social intelligence. I’m also very interested in structural factors. I’ve found youth to be quite underserved in services, especially mental health services. We do focus groups with young adults, and they say “We’re basically ignored unless we’re in crisis mode, and then people kind of pay some attention to us”. And I thought that’s really not fair. With the CHART Lab team, we work to improve access to services for young people, earlier in the lifecourse.
What was your path to becoming an epidemiologist and working in public health?
Initially, I wanted to work in international health, to go abroad and do international development work. Right after my undergraduate degree, I went to Karachi, Pakistan, where I initially knew no one, to volunteer at the Aga Khan University. One of my projects was to work with a community health center located in an urban slum environment, called a katchi abadi, where we held a cleanliness day. When we visited the slum there were bottles and plastic bags everywhere in the streets, but when you got invited into people’s homes, they were spotless. Keeping your home is important, but you also don’t want your kids playing in the garbage right outside your home. Kids were playing in muddy puddles that were not just mud. So, we held the cleanliness day in partnership with the community and local schools and we walked through the streets and cleaned them up. What was really positive from that experience was the mayor and community organizations were able to come together, not only to clean up the street. They were also able to negotiate a water pipeline that previously hadn’t gone through because it needed cooperation from many different partners. The cleanliness day event helped bring people together at a table and build that kind of community support. My experience in Karachi was really pivotal for learning about community engagement.
I later did my PhD in infectious disease epidemiology and was really passionate about HIV at that point. I had volunteered after coming back from Karachi to Vancouver, on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside at an organization called Vancouver Native Health Society that provides HIV services for people who are Indigenous. That was incredibly eye-opening. I remember I went to a talk at BC Children’s Hospital about international and global health, and they said, “You want to do international health? You just need to look in your own backyard”. I thought, “Ah, yes, you are absolutely right.” There’s work that has to be done here as well and huge disparities in our local populations.
There were lots of amazing experiences that shaped my path into working with underserved populations, including people living with HIV, people using drugs, and now with a focus on upstream prevention with children and youth.
What motivates you to keep doing what you do?
I’m always amazed at how there are such immense health inequities, even here in the context of tremendous wealth in comparison to other places., There still are huge gaps and people whose voices are not being heard. I’m lucky to be in a position where I can work collaboratively to make a difference.
How does your work relate to food systems or the environment?
We have a lot of interest in our team in looking at the climate crisis. We started with a paper that was a call to action looking at the mental health impacts of the climate crisis for young people. We followed that up with questions in our survey, the Youth Development Instrument (YDI), asking young people about the impacts of the climate crisis to their mental health. We asked them to rank problems in the world, and in Canada, and certainly, pollution and the climate crisis come out on top for young people.
We’re also really interested in food security for young people, because no young person should go hungry. No one should go hungry, frankly. We also ask about eating habits, asking about whether they eat breakfast? Do they have five servings of fruits and vegetables daily? We want to know how young people are eating because that is one of the things that really sets people up for success, along with good sleep and positive social connections. It also makes you feel so much better when you’re eating well, exercising, getting outside. Do young people get a chance to go out in nature? Because we know that’s such an important coping mechanism.
What advice would you give to your younger self, or to youth today?
I can answer for both young people and myself. Your job or your career is not going to be linear, and you shouldn’t expect it to be. Imagine you got your dream job right out of undergrad, or high school, or whatever your training may be, would you really want to do that for the next 50 years of your life? No, that would be incredibly boring! Remember, it’s not about getting to the end, it’s about what you learn along the way. When I was doing my undergraduate degree, Ruth Simmons, the first black female President of an Ivy League school, said “learning should be uncomfortable,” and that always stuck with me. If you’re not being challenged, you’re not growing.
I would also highly recommend young people to volunteer in different projects. For me, that was really invaluable in terms of learning what was it that interested me. Which populations do you want to work with? The planet is sort of a population [laughs]. Getting a sense of what motivates you is important to know, and you need to expose yourself to many different avenues. Talk to people. If there’s something that seems of interest to you, most people will be very open to meeting with you for coffee or a quick chat. My advice would be to start thinking about those things earlier. What’s next? What am I interested in? There are so many different career paths out there.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
One of the reasons I’m so excited to work with young people is I’m constantly inspired by young people. We have a Youth Advisory Committee of 15 youth from across the province for the YDI, and I look forward to those meetings more than any other meeting I have. They bring so much energy and they know, in many cases, what challenges there are and how they should be addressed in such a straightforward way. One of the joys of my job now is getting to work directly with young people in our province, and getting to learn from them and collaborate with them.
Sky, Sun, Seasons & Shadows: On May 11th 3:30-4:30pm PST, join Fresh Roots and Susan Gerofsky online to learn how we can use schoolyard farms to promote science education. Register at https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/sky-sun-seasons-shadows-tickets-152781001087