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Interview with Dr. Shamara Baidoobonso

Dr. Shamara Baidoobonso: Lead and Step into a Leadership Role!
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Q&A with Dr. Shamara Baidoobonso

Dr. Shamara Baidoobonso is Prince Edward Island’s Chief Public Health Officer. As provincial epidemiologist, she holds a PhD in Epidemiology and Biostatistics from Western University. Her team is responsible for disease surveillance, population health assessments, applied public health research, disease surveillance, outbreak investigations, and program evaluation.

What did you want to do when you were younger (just starting your educational career) and how did you go from that to who you are today?


When I was younger, I actually wanted to be a pediatrician, because everytime I went to the doctor’s office, the doctor would have candy. I thought I'd like to be the doctor so I could have candy all the time! 


As I grew older, I became really interested in the disparities in health, and HIV. I didn't know anything about epidemiology at the time, so I was thinking if I wanted to do health and study HIV, I had to be a physician. It wasn’t until I was in university - probably in my second year - that I heard about public health. I took a class with a professor with three letters behind his name, “MPH” ... I wanted to know what that meant. I spoke to him and he said it was a “Masters In Public Health” : that's when I was introduced to public health. 


I discovered what epidemiology was and started reading in that area. After I finished my undergrad, I decided I didn’t want to go to medical school: I wanted to study public health. I also thought I wanted to be an epidemiologist, but I wanted to have some exposure first. I did a graduate certificate in public health and then I really loved epidemiology, so I decided to do a PhD in that area. I was always interested in social determinants of health and also HIV, which I found was the perfect topic for combining all of my interests and looking at complexity - it's a chronic infection that people are living full lives with. It also has social dimensions, especially in the Canadian context, with the groups of people that are most at risk. The risk in the Canadian population is quite low. When you look at certain populations -  Indigenous populations, Black populations, men who have sex with men, injection drug users - the risk is much higher. 


How did you come to be the main epidemiologist in PEI?

I was living in downtown Toronto and … I wanted to move to the ocean. While looking into a position in Vancouver with a private company, a recruiter from PEI contacted me. I was working in the public sector, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to leave the public service entirely.  This job in PEI is within the government, and I had never worked in government before, but it is public service which I really liked. A provincial epidemiologist has a broad scope and is able to impact health policy. So that was a major plus, and the ocean was a major requirement. When I told one of my previous bosses  I was moving to PEI, she told me I was very adventurous. I have to say it has been one of the best adventures I've been on. It's a beautiful and magical place. Now that I have a little one, it is an amazing place for him to grow up, so I think it was a fantastic move. I have an incredible epidemiology team also within the Chief Public Health Office here.


What would you consider your biggest achievement or one that you are most proud of in your career?


My biggest achievement was completing my PhD. That's the achievement from which all kinds of leadership opportunities have come, and I found that as a woman of color, you need it if you want to be in leadership. It’s strategically beneficial to have the highest degree you can attain in your field, because then you have the credentials, you have expertise and you are speaking with authority in a certain area.


Did you encounter any barriers to your success or growth as a black female leader?


Yes, I did. I can remember there was an incident, while I was working with an organization. I was the most senior epidemiologist as well as the only person of color on a project team. At one point, we had a methodological disagreement, with 4 people vs 1 -  I was the “1”. My colleagues and I decided we would reach out to other well-versed epidemiologists and see what they say. We reached out to three - an uneven number to ensure a tiebreaker. We crafted an email together: I wrote the email, the rest of the team reviewed it, I revised it based on their review and we sent it out. We had our decision criteria laid out. 


Two of the three epidemiologists responded and agreed with the approach that I suggested. They wrote lengthy explanations as to why. However, one epidemiologist responded with a one liner - he didn’t agree with my approach. It was interesting, because the team chose to reach out specifically to three older, White male epidemiologists. Our decision rule was that we would go with what the majority said. Two had agreed with me... the team then said there was something wrong with the email. This was an email we all reviewed and approved before sending it out. So, here we are, changing the decision criteria, moving the goal post. That was an instance in which I found discrimination was a barrier to my leadership within a team. It's also interesting that they chose to reach out to three older white male epidemiologists and I was a young, black female. 


Being able to gain the respect that was required: I found that to be one of the biggest barriers. I ended up leaving that organization and spoke to the head of the organization explaining why. I told him “I'm not sure if it's because I’m black, female or young. Maybe it's a combination of these identities. Why does the team feel as though I’m not qualified to speak on these topics?” It was definitely not my education. I’ve been educated by top ranking institutions, including Ivy League institutions in North America. I have a PhD, so it's not that I don't have the credentials. I’ve worked in this area for years so I have the knowledge that's required. So on those objective factors, there is no reason why my credibility on this topic should have been questioned. 


This was a position that I played a role in crafting. I had left another organization that I really loved to take on this other role… so for me, it became a detour, career-wise. In the end, I left this organization, and ended up taking another role where I had less autonomy, which for me seemed like a step back, but I was adamant about not staying in that situation, an organization where I was not being respected. 


In what ways can fellow Black female leaders that are encountering these barriers, break the barriers and be able to reach that next level?


I think mentorship and allyship are really important factors. 


Very often, we are in organizations. If we are in a leadership position, we are probably 1/1, in terms of women of color, Black women specifically, being in those positions. I was in a large health organization of over 1000 employees. There was one Black woman who was in a leadership position somewhere else in the organization. I was the other Black woman who was in a leadership position and there were no other Black women, but there were a few other women of color that I could reach out to. In my situation, I had a manager - the person I reported to who - was a very strong leader and excellent mentor. She was a white woman and she was an ally. She helped to make sure that I was getting the opportunities and recognition I needed to move on to the next level. She made me feel comfortable in having authority and she said it was my ship to sail, my group to lead, and she would support me. I learned immensely from her.



From the fellow mentors that you had in your career, what are some of the key attributes or qualities that you think are important for women in leadership, and for Black women in leadership, to have?


For each woman, her experience with leadership is going to be different and very often, it has to do with her lived experiences, her social location in relation to the team that she's leading, and many other factors. What's helpful is to have a network of supporters; people from whom you can gather advice. No two women's experiences are exactly the same, but if you're able to get various perspectives and people willing to share their own experience with you, then at least you have a collection of ideas from which to choose what's most appropriate for you. Instead of our mentors being very directive, they can help us to gather information so that we can make the best decision for us. I think uplifting each other, supporting each other, and promoting each other are important. 


I can say that in my career, I have been supported and uplifted and promoted by other Black women who are more senior in their careers. There are opportunities that they would recommend that I would take when someone was invited to speak or to facilitate a dialogue and they were not able to do it. They would ask me if I would be willing to do it and that would help me to gain exposure, gain that experience. There are other women who have championed me; who have seen me in action and have championed me and said, “Shamara should be nominated for this.” Or even recently on one of my research teams - on my main research team, there was a woman who was a full professor. Very quite senior in her career. We had a principal investigator who was stepping down and she put my name forward saying that I should be selected to replace that principal investigator. It's that practical support that also helps.


What do you think is the current situation with Black women’s health and research and how are they being taken care of by the health care system and represented through research?


Very often we are underrepresented. There's a lot that we don't know about Black women's health at all. And it's important because we aren't collecting data. We aren't collecting details associated with the demographic data that gives us information about race, and that gives us information about other dimensions of equity that intersect and impact our health. We don't have good data on social determinants of health even though we've said those are priorities. We still don't have good data in those areas. 


The lack of data makes it really difficult to speak definitively about what the issues are. But some of the issues that we know of are, for example, cancer screening for black women, and how our outcomes when it relates to cancer are not as good as for white counterparts: our screening rates are not as high. We know that in maternal mortality and infant outcomes as well, black women aren't faring as well. We have data from the US and the UK - we do not have Canadian data that is disaggregated by race. So, we're not able to stay definitively in Canada, but what we do know is very often when we've seen trends in other countries, and we finally take a look in the Canadian context, we see those trends here as well. So it doesn't mean that those trends don't exist, we're just not looking at those trends, because we don't have the data. 


When we look at obesity and diabetes within black communities, among black women, we don't have good data. Reproductive care issues,  gynecological issues like uterine fibroids,  are more common among black women, but we again don't have a lot of data, especially our race specific data. A lot of the conditions that affect other populations of women affect black women as well and there are some conditions that are more prevalent or even less prevalent among black women. But again, we don't have good data. 


I would say even HIV - an area where I spent a lot of time in the past two decades working in. I chose HIV as the area I would work in because when I was reading those epidemiologic reports, I saw that the face of HIV was Black women. Especially young Black women and I thought, I belong to that demographic group and I need to do something about this. That scenario where we do have some data, we've been able to see the disparities and identify that Black women are facing a disproportionate burden of HIV and then we can do something about it. We have organizations like Women's Health in Women's Hands Community Health Center in Toronto: they have a program focused on HIV, and they do research on HIV and on black women. 


If you have the data, then you can advocate and through advocacy, you can have programming and policy changes, and you can have organizations dedicated to addressing these issues... but without the data, we don't have the evidence that we need to make decisions.


What advice would you give to someone that wants to pursue a similar career path to yours?


Do not shy away from leadership roles. I used to be very quiet. I wouldn't say shy, but quiet and reserved and probably still am. But when I'm asked to lead, I step up and I take that role seriously. 


In the beginning it felt overwhelming because I hadn't led before, but once you start leading, once you start raising your hand and you start volunteering to do things, you start taking on leadership roles - it becomes easier and easier and easier because then you start building that confidence, and confidence is so important. We have to believe in ourselves and our abilities. We have to be confident that we can achieve our goals and we have to step into those leadership roles - not shy away from them. If you're asked to give a presentation, step into that opportunity and give that presentation. The first time, maybe it won't go as well. Maybe you're a little nervous and your voice is a little shaky - that's happened to me before. But with time it becomes second nature. You become more comfortable. You start to shine as a leader. 


It's important to lead. Take every opportunity you can to lead. And I would also say connect with other women, because sometimes you'll have experiences and you’ll just want to scream out of frustration. Or you've experienced blatant discrimination and you need to speak to someone. Sometimes you experience blatant discrimination when you're not in a position of power and maybe it's from someone, who's more powerful, who's an authority figure and sometimes you just need other people that you can speak to get it off your chest and get ideas about how to move forward. It helps if you're connected with other women, other black women, other women of color, other white women to be able to share those experiences. 

Also, be an ally for others. If you see an injustice and you're able to, speak up: by just speaking up, we’re all able to be allies. It's important to give as much as we receive - not just always being the group in need of support from allies, but being allies ourselves and supporting others. If you see another woman or you see another person who is being mistreated and you're in a position to, speak up, Speak up.


What strategies did you take to continue moving forward even as your ideas or personal goals were told to be impossible by others?


I’m not very good at taking no as an answer. When I hear a no, I see that as a problem that needs to be solved and a situation in which I need to persuade someone so they would say “yes”. For example, when I started my PhD, I was supposed to work on an entirely different project and I decided that I was going to work on a project focused on HIV and Black communities. And I was told, all of the barriers to working on these projects: you have to get your own funding and all these different things. And I thought, well, I guess I'll just have to figure my own funding out. I'll write the grant applications. That's having that attitude of “Okay, this is a problem to be solved. Let's see how this problem can be resolved and then we can move forward and do this project”. I think that persistence has been really important in my career, because it has helped me to achieve everything that I have achieved today.


[As well], finding good collaborators, because sometimes you have a problem and someone else has that same problem, and you can exchange ideas, build on each other's ideas and work together to solve the problem. Persistence and collaboration are two key things.


If you had to choose one take away from today that they would carry with them going forward in their lives and careers, what would it be?


We have an opportunity to change the face of health and change the face of  Health leadership. We know that there are now more women who are coming out of school with health degrees. We know that there are more women of color coming out of school with health degrees. And so it's up to us to keep pushing. Keep supporting each other, forcing doors open. Not politely knocking on the doors, but forcing doors open, making sure that we are prepared and ready to take on those leadership roles when they do arise. Continue your education. Go as far as you can go, as far as is reasonably possible for you, so that you can get as much experience as you can, so you are ready when that opportunity arises. You're ready to raise your hand and say yes. As you step into that leadership, don’t forget other women who are coming up behind you. Mentor someone. Always try to pay it forward. Mentor someone and bring them along with you. Open doors for them and pass on opportunities to other women.

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