Small but mighty

Jennifer Parraga, BA’93

There is a Jamaican saying –“likkle but talawah,” which translated means “small but mighty.”

It’s how Shamara Baidoobonso, PhD’13, describes the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. 

Baidoobonso says that while the program is smaller than some at the School, the training is exceptional. Not only that, she says the culture fosters co-learning, camaraderie between students, extensive mentorship and huge opportunity for its students – all of which have made a difference to her career and her role as Provincial Epidemiologist for Prince Edward Island. 

“The program provided me with excellent training and allowed me to grow. I could talk to any faculty member and they would be willing to share and help, and my classmates and I worked together, studied together and celebrated each other’s successes. I really felt supported by the entire university,” she said.

Growing up in Kingston, Jamaica and Phoenix, Arizona, Baidoobonso became an active community advocate at a young age. It was through her involvement with various volunteer intiatives that the seeds for her interests in public service were first planted, as she became involved with clothing and food drives, mentoring students and volunteering in hospitals and nursing homes. 

The activities nurtured her desire to become a physician and when Baidoobonso headed to Dartmouth to complete her undergraduate studies, she filled up her day with classes in genetics, cell and developmental biology and chemistry. But as she neared the end of her four years of study, something changed for Baidoobonso, and she no longer saw herself in medicine.

After a conversation with a professor and the completion of a sociology course focused on health care policy, Baidoobonso committed to a one-year graduate certificate in public health and discovered epidemiology. She was captivated by its richness and the opportunities it offered in solving health care problems.

With her family planning to move to Canada, Baidoobonso set her sights on undertaking her graduate studies at an Ontario university. It was after speaking with Greta Bauer, PhD, that she knew Western was the right fit for her.

“I had a conversation with Dr. Bauer and we talked about our values, our research and personal interests, and we just clicked,” Baidoobonso said. She immediately accepted her offer to complete her training at Western.

The young trainee had originally planned to work on the Trans PULSE project, however after participating in a summer institute, Baidoobonso learned of a need for HIV research in the African and Caribbean communities. Bauer was enthusiastically supportive for Baidoobonso to pursue a project in this area.

Her thesis title was “An Exploration of the Relationship between Markers of Social Status and Position and HIV Risk in African, Caribbean and other Black Populations Using a Mixed-Methods, Interdisciplinary, Community-Based Approach to Epidemiology.” For this project, she partnered with the London Cross-Cultural Learner Centre and the Regional HIV/AIDS Connection. Various members of London’s African and Caribbean communities also volunteered as research assistants throughout the course of the five-year project.

The goal of her project was to better understand health status, health behaviours and health service used within the community and learn more about how social determinants of health affected health behaviour, particularly those related to HIV. 

It was very important for Baidoobonso to engage with the community throughout the project, which in turn built capacity, and to ensure information was left for the organizations to use well after the project was completed.

“For me, ethically, it was imperative to go beyond the project itself and for it to be actionable and of value to the partners in London,” she said.

Throughout the project Baidoobonso was able to build skills beyond what is normally expected – from writing grants to building a team, designing the study and finding mentors from across the country, the experience equipped her with the skills she has today in her role as a strategic epidemiologist for the province of Prince Edward Island.

Working with a team of four and reporting to the Chief Public Health Officer, Baidoobonso says that although the days are long – the work is fascinating and very rewarding.

“We look at everything from chronic disease and health promotion to opioid surveillance,” she said.

Baidoobonso is also sitting on provincial committees and working with the federal government, which provides her with the opportunity to get involved in strategy and policy work. It’s also helping her to be even more connected to her former classmates from Schulich Medicine & Dentistry.

“To this day, I still see my classmates sprinkled throughout the epi field and working on strategic initiatives,” she said. “The training at Western is so good, and the School is developing a reputation of producing strong epidemiologists to meet the changing health care needs of the community and country.”