Saara Thakur in front of the United Nations Office at Geneva.

WHO practicum preps MPH grad to tackle global health issues

June 18, 2020

By Clement Woo 

Working at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters had always been a childhood dream for Master of Public Health (MPH) graduate Saara Thakur. Her dream became a reality last summer, when she had the opportunity to work with WHO's Violence Prevention Team and the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children during her MPH practicum.

Working closely with her supervisor, she participated in various projects and meetings that helped to expand her knowledge of current global health issues, especially issues pertaining to violence against children, a topic that is often overlooked.

One of these projects involved helping to organize, and then attend, the first INSPIRE Conference in Uganda. INSPIRE is a compilation of seven strategies developed by WHO, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and eight other international agencies to end violence against children. While in Uganda, Thakur also accompanied her team to various refugee schools to discuss violence prevention amongst children and evaluate the impact of various violence-prevention interventions.

A number of her SFU courses proved very useful during her practicum.

“I was able to apply many theories from Epidemiology (HSCI 802) directly to my research and use my learnings to understand the data and terminologies present in many resources,” she noted. “I also used a lot of knowledge that I had gained from classes such as Biostatistics (HSCI 801) and Qualitative Research Methods (HSCI 803) while designing monitoring and evaluation tools for my team.” 

During her internship, Thakur also attended many high-level events, such as the 72nd World Health Assembly. She met with prominent global health leaders and activists, including Dr. Theresa Tam, the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada and Zoleka Mandela, Nelson Mandela's granddaughter.

In addition, she was elected as a member of the Intern Board (IB). As part of the first all-female IB in the history of WHO, Thakur advocated for various intern rights, including monthly stipends for interns. In this role, she frequently interacted with WHO's Director-General Dr. Tedros to discuss intern initiatives and activities.

The most rewarding aspect of her practicum experience? The new connections and friendships she made.

“It was amazing to be part of a community which comprised remarkably diverse, yet like-minded, individuals aspiring to create a positive impact on the world.”

Recently, the University of Oxford hired Thakur as a project consultant to work in partnership with WHO, UNICEF and the CDC on the COVID-19 Playful Parenting Emergency Response Project. It focuses on providing evidence-based COVID-19 resources to improve the health of children and their caregivers during the pandemic.

“As a new public health graduate, I feel honoured to join the workforce, especially during the pandemic, and use my MPH knowledge to make a difference.”

Thakur describes SFU’s MPH program as “one-of-a-kind,” as it is a practice-based graduate degree that equips students with core public health knowledge and trains them in a breadth of research and practice intended to improve population health.

“As an international student, my experience at SFU has been nothing short of amazing,” she says. “Ever since the beginning, I felt right at home. I always felt welcomed and supported. I am very grateful to have engaged with exceptional faculty members and a vibrant community of colleagues— most of whom are now lifelong friends.”

Her advice to current and future students:  make the most of your time at SFU.

“FHS does an amazing job of providing a broad understanding of various public health competencies. It’s in the hands of the student to tailor the coursework to align with one’s own passion. Since my interest mostly lies in the area of violence-prevention and social inequities, I chose to explore these topics further through my capstone and also through each class assignment,” Thakur explains. “This allowed me to focus on my interests while learning how to best utilize the theories presented in class. I believe, because of this, I am better equipped to translate the knowledge acquired through my degree directly into my work.”