Unique program attracts grad students

Nov 03, 2005, vol. 34, no. 6
By Carol Thorbes

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There was no shortage of students lining up to get into western Canada's landmark graduate degree program in population public health, which kicked off in September 2005.

Of 68 applicants to the master of science in population and public health program in the faculty of health sciences, just 19 were accepted. The program prepares established health professionals and recent university graduates for leadership roles in health research and professions.

“Outside of this program at SFU, the next closest similar graduate program in public health is at the University of Washington in Seattle,” says Gurjeet Sivia, a Maple Ridge father of three who was accepted into the program. A population health researcher with the Fraser Health Authority for the last 11 years, Sivia has a bachelor of science in health information sciences from the University of Victoria.

Sivia says: “I now want to enhance my knowledge base and depth in order to accomplish more advanced research and analysis in the area of population health.”

Like Sivia, other graduate students have chosen SFU's population and public health program because of its breadth. They were also attracted by the practicum's potential to cultivate their research, data analysis, diagnostic, communication and project management skills.

Richmond-born Zahra Hussein, who holds a BSc in dietetics from UBC, worked as a research assistant on a heart disease study at Toronto General Hospital before pursuing her graduate studies at SFU. “I hope to eventually work in health promotion and program planning with diverse population groups and various health issues,” says Hussein. “I also hope to travel abroad and use my knowledge to address health concerns in under- developed countries.”

Steve Gaspar of Surrey, who has just finished his BSc in kinesiology at SFU, is returning to pursue graduate studies after participating in a major infectious disease project.
Funded by UBC and the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the project evaluated the worthiness of the Vancouver downtown eastside's medically supervised injection site as a public health strategy. While Gaspar wants to obtain a master of science to pursue research on the molecular and genetic epidemiology of cancer, his courses are broadening his appreciation of population health problems on a global scale. “Learning how to help people is the essence of this degree and it's amazing to be a part of it,” says Gaspar.

“The focus of this graduate program is not clinical,” explains SFU statistics professor Charmaine Dean, one of the architects of the program and a member of the faculty's hiring committee. “The focus is on determinants of health, health promotion, global health and health information systems. The emphasis is less situational and more on safeguarding the health of populations through policy development. Concerns relate less to emergencies or time-limited events and more to chronic diseases, to long term measures affecting populations and communities as a whole.”

Students can fulfill their degree requirements through coursework and choose between producing a thesis and fulfilling a three-month practicum. The practicum provides a novel opportunity to analyse the effectiveness of cutting edge technology in a specific working environment.

“The student weaves all opinions and insights into a final practicum overview, which integrates what was learned in a common conceptualization of the relevant health theory and methodology,” says Dean. “Overall the learning objectives of this major component are very comprehensive, including being able to conceive, plan and manage a research project, define deliverables and disseminate research.”

Like the professors, students are excited about the development of a data warehouse in the faculty's future home. The warehouse will increase health research capacity for students, faculty and the province at large in special epidemiology, social epidemiology, virology and immunology.

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