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Improving knowledge translation in public health: Ben Umakanthan, Class of 2019

Ben Umakanthan is pursuing public health to help address the knowledge translation gaps between research, policy delivery and clinical practice. He says the Master of Public Health (MPH) program’s case-based approach helped him apply concepts and theories to real-world scenarios. “The opportunity to work out solutions to cases in class while drawing upon the experience of colleagues helped me learn how to tackle challenging situations.”

Completing his practicum at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, he spoke to us about his experience in the MPH program and the important lessons he will carry forward into his career.

What is your educational and professional background?

I completed my undergraduate degree in neuroscience and physiology at the University of Toronto – St. George Campus.

I have always been interested in the intricacies of the brain and the bridge between biological functions that keep us alive and the brain’s ability to form consciousness and complex thought. I served as a clinical assistant in a community practice focused on consultant neurosurgery. This provided me with an opportunity to obtain patient histories and assist physicians in charting patient management. Because the brain is such a complex organ, I was exposed to a range of clinical conditions that patients faced, but the one that intrigued me most was concussion. This type of damage to the brain causes patients cognitive, physical, emotional and sleep-related symptoms. It could take up to three months to recover, with approximately 20 per cent of patients developing post-concussive syndrome, where symptoms may persist for years.

This experience led me to seek out the latest research in therapeutic treatment and as a result, I joined a research-based company called Bodhi Research to help manage clinical trials for drug development in concussions. I developed experience drafting applications for research ethics board approvals, designing study protocols and performing statistical analysis. I was also exposed to the business aspect of operating a biotechnology company by helping our team prepare for due diligence meetings with investors.

My background has helped me understand how important published scientific research is as an evidence-based foundation for improving patient outcomes. As a result, I was able to gain experience as an editorial assistant for an international medical journal called Current Research: Concussion. In this role, I recruited medical professionals from across North America to submit papers for peer review.

On an international level, I had the unique experience of leading initiatives for global policy changes in Zambia and India through a company called KONKUSSION. I worked with a research team in directing and drafting policy proposals and guidelines in regards to this injury. I encountered the cultural challenges that often arise with these global projects, but this helped me to adapt and gain confidence when learning from and communicating with various stakeholders and federal ministers in the areas of sport, public health and policy planning.

Why did you choose the Master of Public Health (MPH) program at Western?

The case-based teaching methodology of the MPH program drew my attention. When presented with lecture material during my undergraduate degree, I often found myself asking, "so what?” There was no context, no real-world application that could help cement my learning.

The case-based approach turned out to be a great tool to apply the concepts and theories of the class readings to an actual situation. The opportunity to work out solutions to cases in class while drawing upon the experience of colleagues helped me learn how to tackle challenging situations.

What have been the highlights of your experience in the MPH program?

The learning team experience has been a highlight. The program establishes a small team for students to work with that brings together diverse backgrounds and experiences. The individuals on my learning team provided me with different perspectives that I would have never considered. They're a great group of people who are kind, knowledgeable and understanding. The discussions we've had have been instrumental to my learning and problem-solving approaches.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the MPH program?

Since public health deals with population-level problems, there are often multiple systems that interact with each other. This results in different perspectives and opinions on how to solve problems.

The biggest lesson I've learned is that although some issues may appear to be unsolvable, we must strive to make the situation better and approach it with an open mind. You may disagree with a perspective or opinion initially, but that shouldn't stop you from listening to understand why the perspective exists. It may help you in thinking creatively beyond your own current capacities.

Where are you completing your practicum and what does your placement entail?

I am completing my practicum at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto. Specifically, my placement is at the ELLICSR Health, Wellness & Cancer Survivorship Centre. The organization’s vision is to better understand the cancer and survivorship experience and close the gap in knowledge translation to promote health and wellness.

I am working with a team to assist in the development of a training program for family and caregivers of cancer patients. This includes a comprehensive literature review and environmental scan to determine what is known about the skills required of family and caregivers to best prepare them for this situation.