Feature: Public health graduate focuses on big picture

By Crystal Mackay, MA’05

Context matters.

Shabi Ullah, MPH’20, says these two words were her biggest takeaway from the Master of Public Health program at Western. Being able to take a step back and look at the bigger picture is key to gaining deeper understanding and finding solutions. This is true in all aspects of her life, from an interest in mindfulness and meditation, to her family life and her work in public health.

“It sounds so simple, but it's so important, because if you aren’t considering all of the different factors at play and how they interact, you are not going to find a solution that works,” she said. “Not everything is black and white. There are multiple shades of grey that are interconnected, and understanding those deeply is what really matters.”

Ullah recounts the surreal experience of being thrust head first into the biggest public health crisis of our time while completing her master’s degree in public health. “Suddenly everything that we were learning about was unfolding in real life,” she said. “We’ve never had anything like this happen before, so to watch as things started to shut down in March, it was shocking. Every day was a surprise.”

She recalls Program Director Dr. Amardeep Thind leading the online class through a critical examination of the current state of affairs at the time, and continually getting the class to slow down, back up and consider all of the different contexts that were driving the epidemiology of COVID-19, policy and decision-making. He wanted them to consider all the different angles including things like social and economic factors, population demographics, geography and health care capacity.

Following this unconventional and enlightening end to her coursework, Ullah went on to do her practicum at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) this past summer, and is now working full time at the agency as a policy analystfor the COVID-19 response team, working with the latest COVID-19 data and disseminating situational reports to PHAC and government officials across the country. Even in that work, while extremely detail-oriented, Ullah says she has to be able to step back from the numbers and the data and make sense of what it means and how it fits into the Canadian context.

Part of what inspired her to pursue a career in public health is a drive to make an impact on the wellbeing of her community and contribute to something outside of herself. This passion was influenced by her father, who was a general surgeon in his home country of Afghanistan – a career he had to give up when he immigrated to Canada with his parents and family before Shabi was born.

“My dad had to take an alternate route with his career when he moved to Canada in order to be able to support my family. He still had that passion and was always explaining health care related things to me. He also instilled in me this desire to want to do something for the betterment of people’s health and wellbeing,” she said. “He’s always been there for me, always supporting me and cheering me on in every path I took.”

Living through the added stress of a global pandemic, Ullah turned to journaling, meditation and mindfulness as a way to regain perspective and come back to the big picture. “For me, mindfulness was a way to become more aware of my thoughts, and how those thoughts can influence how you live.”

Looking to the future, Ullah hopes to influence public health decision-making on a national level someday. “I’m shooting for the stars – maybe I’ll have Dr. Tam’s job one day!”