Feature: Pandemic adds new dimensions to health systems research

By Jennifer Parraga, BA’93

“You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.” This adage describes how Dr. Faiza Rab has modelled her academic path and research. And it just happens to come from one of her favourite authors – Rabindranath Tagore.

After charting a course of discovery, education and training for many years, today, Dr. Rab finds herself in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic completing her PhD focused on the fragility of health systems.

Trained as a physician in Pakistan, Dr. Rab’s drive to learn more led her on a path to research and graduate training. She came to London to pursue her second master’s degree and began working with Dr. Amardeep Thind.

Diving back into community work in Toronto, she shifted her skills and focused on reducing the stigma of mental health illness in South East Asian communities. With a desire to learn more and make a difference, she wanted to expand her knowledge. It was then that she returned to Schulich Medicine & Dentistry to pursue her PhD in epidemiology and biostatistics.

Dr. Rab is grateful to Dr. Thind’s mentorship throughout her graduate training. She says that his support has helped her to focus her energies and guide her successful application for a Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) – Health Systems Impact Fellowship.

“My doctoral studies have opened up so many different opportunities to collaborate and work in different environments,” Dr. Rab said. “And receiving the CIHR fellowship changed the course of my training and my life. It pivoted me in a new career direction.”

As part of her fellowship and subsequent internship with MITACS, a non-profit national research organization, Dr. Rab started to organize and build the research capacity at the Global Health Unit and the CRC.

Since March, Dr. Rab has been working alongside her colleagues focused on the pandemic. Initially, the team provided information and support to Canadians abroad and travellers coming into Canada. As the months passed and the pandemic took hold in Canada, the role deepened to provide evidence-based support to CRC’s COVID-related operations.

For the past several months, Dr. Rab’s work has ranged from developing resource allocation tools for PPE for the Red Cross to developing a COVID-19 technical hub that serves as a repository for evidence summaries, synthesis, tools, presentations and ongoing research.

“The pandemic has definitely added another dimension to my exploration of the concept of fragility of health systems, as the innate weaknesses in health systems have been exposed worldwide,” she said. “As a student of epidemiology and biostatistics, experiencing the pandemic and looking at it through the epidemiological lens during this time provided an unprecedented learning opportunity.”