When did you graduate from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health?
What additional degrees or training do you have?
BSc in Health Sciences (Brock University)
MSc in Applied Health Sciences, focused on Epidemiology and Biostatistics (Brock University)
How did you become interested in your field?
I was born in a small rural district in Nangarhar province of Afghanistan during the 1980s Soviet invasion and my family fled to neighboring Pakistan to escape war. In 1989 we immigrated to Canada, leaving behind extended family and a torn nation. I have since had strong desire to return and help rebuild the country in whatever way I could.
When I started my public health career as an adult, I found in it an excellent opportunity to do so. I was mentored by Professor Zulfiqar Bhutta at SickKids for my PhD dissertation for which I studied the health and contextual challenges of Afghanistan, particularly as related to maternal and child health. We held a “Call to Action” for Women’s and Children’s Health in Afghanistan in May 2015 where my work was directly used for policy/advocacy with funders, policymakers, and other influential stakeholders in the country! I was extremely privileged to experience my research being used for critical decisions and impact.
Since then, I developed a strong thirst for conducting high-impact research and advocacy – and subsequently, I’ve extended this to other low-and-middle-income countries (LMICs) that suffer from similar health and developments challenges. Now I work in global maternal and child health and nutrition and conduct studies in Africa, South and Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America.
Tell us about any interesting projects you are working on.
I have led several large scale studies on child, adolescent and maternal nutrition in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other LMICs. Most recently (since 2017), I have been the project lead of the Global Exemplars in Child Stunting Reduction studies that are funded by Mr. Bill Gate’s private office. These mixed-methods comprehensive studies examine the current burden, trends, determinants, and success factors/barriers of under-five child stunting reduction in a set of ‘exemplar” countries i.e. those that have managed to reduce child stunting beyond expectations from economic growth alone over the past 15-20 years.
Thus far, we’ve completed case studies on Peru, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, Senegal and Ethiopia. As the technical and project lead, I designed the quantitative methods (Oaxaca-Decomposition, Difference-in-difference linear mixed-effect regression), qualitative inquiry methods (focus groups, in-depth interviews), nutrition -specific and -sensitive policy/program analysis, and systematic literature review inclusive of meta-analysis. In addition, I am overseeing the day-to-day project tasks, supervising the research team (including research assistants, data analysts, project coordinators), writing expansion grants, leading manuscripts, among other tasks. In November 2018 – during a private update in his office – Mr. Bill Gate’s overwhelmingly positive impression of our work led to his support to expand the Exemplars project to five additional countries.
I also am fortunate to have the opportunity to publish my work in diverse journals. In the past four years, I have published more than 50 peer-reviewed papers, with the majority in high profile medical journals such as The Lancet, The Lancet Global Health, The BMJ, JAMA, and the Annals of the New York Academy of Science. Through my PhD dissertation work at DLSPH, I published three high profile papers. Most notably, two of the manuscripts have been published in one of the leading global health journals globally (The Lancet Global Health).
Recently, I first-authored a landmark study on “Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health in the Islamic World” which was published in The Lancet in January 2018. The Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations also commended and endorsed my team’s publication. In 2018, I was identified as a Canadian Women Leader in Global Health jointly by The Lancet, Government of Canada and Canadian Society for International Health.
What do you enjoy most about your current career position?
I enjoy the diversity of experiences I get as senior research staff in a large research program of more than 50 team members. Given my unique methods training (Epidemiologist & Biostatistician) coupled with an inquisitive mind and leadership drive, I have prime opportunities as the “lead” on several large-scale projects in our Centre. In this capacity, I am generally leading the project design, evaluating data sources, calculating sample size, designing and conducting the advanced statistical analysis, supervising a team of research assistants/analysts who supported the projects, drafting report structures, writing the final results as lead author, and generally overseeing the project’s progress and day-to-day work planning. I am fortunate to have an immense but very rewarding and productive portfolio!
In what ways has your experience at the School had an impact on your career and who you are today?
My experience in the DLSPH Epidemiology PhD program has provided me with strong epidemiologic training and a curious mind to try to understand and solve public challenges. DLSPH’s holistic approach to public health, including consideration of social determinants, environment and equity– have been incredibly important to my work in global health as so often, these very dimensions frame the low-resource contexts that I work in!
What advice would you give to younger alumni or current students who aspire to follow a similar career path?
Having passion and commitment to your cause is extremely important to success in this field. Find what you love, for example, that which drives you and gives you a sense of accomplishment, and work towards that! Whether it’s delivering health interventions to children in rural Africa or applying complex algorithms to develop health outcome prediction models – in my opinion, the key to success is doing work that stimulates you every day.
Additionally, finding the right mentor, one with whom you can grow and share mutual respect, is invaluable to attaining successes as a young professional. For those who are interested in global health, one advice I have is to travel internationally! This could be in a volunteer capacity, as a student, for leisure, etc. Whatever the reason, in my experience, observing and becoming part of the on-the-ground realities in those contexts is the best way to humble oneself, and to spur the curiosity and morale required for a productive global health career.
Links to some recent work: