Navigating a career in public health has its challenges. I sat down with Zoha Anjum, the co-founder of Public Health Connect, to talk about her journey in public health, the challenges she faced in graduate and dental school, and her experience navigating the health sector as a woman.
Please tell me a bit about yourself, your educational background, and interests.
I’m a first-generation immigrant who came to Canada around ten years ago with my family. I completed my undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto in the Life Sciences program, where I did a lot of biomedical research. I wanted to see more of an impact from the work I was doing and that is what brought me into the public health sphere. I pursued a Master’s in Public Health at McMaster University, which is where I found my love of public health and dentistry after completing a project in dental public health. Currently, I’m in my second year of the dental surgery program at the University of Toronto. Outside of my academic endeavours I am passionate about mentorship aimed at students who are going through a similar experience to me and about dental public health.
Looking back, what advice would you give your younger self or what do you wish you had known when you started your education?
This is a question I've been thinking about a lot. When I was in high school, I was that kid who never spoke in class and was always quiet. Over the past few years however, one of the things that I've realized is that no one will create that space for you. By not expressing your opinion, you may be taking away your valuable perspective. Learning how I can create a space for myself to contribute when others may not do that for me can sometimes be challenging and I wish I had known this sooner or earlier in my career. Being in dental school was what triggered this realization - that if I want to be involved in dental public health, I’m going to have to say what I need to say to be heard.
What aspects of your career turned out differently than you expected, positively and/or negatively?
I never thought I would end up in dentistry, that’s the biggest difference. In high school I had a rough idea that I wanted to work in service but wasn’t too sure doing what and even during my masters I had no idea I would end up in dentistry. Many know they want to be in dental school before they even start and have the time to build on their fine motor skills, I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t expect building fine motor skills in dental school would be as challenging as it is.
Through your journey navigating graduate and dental school, what are the most valuable things you have learned?
There are three things I would like to share that I learned the hard way but are valuable to know earlier on in your career.
1. It may be tempting to sign up to every opportunity you come across thinking you may never
get it again, but the reality is you’ll always find something better. You’ll always find something
similar. Don’t be afraid to say no.
2. It’s important that you plan your time strategically. Be strategic in the type of opportunities
you apply to or put your time into. It may be easy to sign up for a lot of this to fluff up your
resume and not really have a valuable outcome in all those experiences you’ve had.
3. Always remember that you come first. Always consider whether something is feasible for you,
don’t just follow someone else’s path. Everyone’s timeline is different. Remember you're on your
own journey and don’t beat yourself up about ‘falling behind’.
Another piece of advice I can give is to pick your battles carefully. You may find yourself in a conflict of some sort, and you can’t figure out if you should let it go or fight for it. It may be tempting to think “I’m not a quitter” or “I’m going to fight for it”. I used to have this mentality. But over time, you get so drained living that way, and you have to reflect, “is this worth my time?” “is this something I value?” Sometimes it’s okay to give up, it doesn’t mean you’re a quitter, it just means you're being strategic with your time.
How do you think being a first-generation immigrant woman affected your educational and work experiences?
It seems so long ago, but I remember in high school when I was learning about functions. I had asked my parents for help with my homework because my dad was a math genius and they looked at my questions and said they’ve never seen this before. I think that was a moment where I realized that I may be alone in this journey. I know my parents are there to cheer me up and support me but I have to take responsibility for my own education and my career because my parents might not be able to help me as much as they’d want as they grew up in a completely different environment. I think that was an important point in my life where I became an independent learner and a pivotal point in me understanding that the responsibility of my education and career was on me. It was also challenging for me early on, as I didn’t speak English as well as I could write it but over time, as I got involved in more extracurriculars, the challenge went away.
Has networking played a big role in furthering your career?
For this question, it’s a yes and a no. Contrary to how I appear on social media, I’m a very shy person. Earlier on, I would say I didn’t benefit from networking at all as I didn’t go to those type of events. However, now that I have a wider social network, it gives me the confidence to get to know more people. One thing I’ve noticed is its easier to make connections one you’ve known a certain number of people already, as they can connect and introduce you to others. I would say that at this time, I am benefiting from my network and making use of my existing network to help find new opportunities as I pursue my career.
How else can aspiring young women professionals improve their networking skills?
One of the things I actively do is keep in contact with those I have met, people I have worked with, people I know of. I keep a list of my contacts in excel and for those I’m closely connected with or worked with previously, I send them an annual update or a hello email around the holidays to keep that relationship alive. I think it’s important to keep older connections alive and to personalize each email depending on your relationship with the person.
Another tip is to connect the dots when expanding your network. If you want to get in contact with someone and you have a mutual connection, don’t be afraid to ask them to introduce you. It is more effective to go through a connect rather than a cold email that may get ignored.
Step out of your comfort zone and build your personal brand. I noticed I was getting more opportunities coming my way when I put myself out there on my LinkedIn or Instagram page and my work was getting noticed. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Take the step and create a professional account and keep it up to date, have a professional head shot, have a summary of the work you do and your interests because it can help you get those opportunities you’re looking for.
What motivated you to start your organization? What gap did you feel you were addressing?
There was a lot of things that went into creating Public Health Connect. When I was applying for grad school there were so many things I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to write in my personal statement, I didn’t know who to ask for a reference, or I didn’t know if I needed research experience or not. I just figured it out on my own and got into a program. When I started my graduate program, I felt that I didn’t have access to many opportunities in regards to professional development. A lot of the programs I know of put a lot of focus on technical skills but very few focus on soft skills and professional development. You can teach anyone how to use software like R, but how do you teach someone how to show up in a team? How do you teach them facilitation skills? How do you teach someone effective communication or writing professionally? A lot of these questions lead me to co-founding Public Health Connect and to focus on skill development. More recently, we also felt there was a certain need to educate people more about public health programs so that they could decide if this field was for them. We also realized there is no community to turn to. If I am wanting to apply to a program, how would I connect with someone currently in the program? Not all the schools have this available, so we wanted to help fill this gap.
I also felt this was the next step in my leadership journey - I needed to step up and do something of my own and really learn what it’s like to oversee an entire organization.
In your experience, how can young women take steps to gain leadership roles and/or succeed in the health fields?
1. I think the most important thing is figuring out what motivates you. What is something you are willing to spend the rest of your life working towards? That should be the first step, sitting down and reflecting what you feel passionate about and how can you turn that passion into a service or impact in your community. For me it was both dentistry and public health. So just figure out what will drive you and make you want to go to work every day.
2. If you see that there is no opportunity for you, create it. As women of colour, we already face so many barriers and a lot of times we will be left out of the rooms where the important decisions are being made or have the doors closed on us. But we are not here to let people do this to us. If the door isn’t opening, we’re going to create another one for ourselves. For me, I wanted to do research in global oral health however I couldn’t find anyone working in this field at University of Toronto and I knew this was what I wanted to do. So, I reach out to a lot of people outside of Canada and found an opportunity working with someone in the UK.
3. Tapping on your network. You’ll have more resources in your network than you were aware of.
4. Find mentors, whether it’s your professors or someone you want to work with. Reach out to them through email or LinkedIn.
5. Brand yourself. Let people see you and the work you do. Use social media as a tool to market the work you do and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.
6. Remember that these leadership roles are not only for your CV. Yes, they will help you gain opportunities in the future, but also remember each role you take on helps you grow in different ways. Sometimes it may end up giving you a skill you never thought of, other times it may end on a negative note. But remember no matter what kind of experience it is, it’s not just for your CV - there’s more of an impact on you.
I am personally an advocate for not just uplifting my own career, but also working to open that path for other women of colour who are interested in starting a similar journey for their career. Make sure to extend that hand to other women of colour when you reach where you want to be.
Any final advice for young women starting their journey in a health-related career?
I would like to end of saying, if you are looking for an easy path, this field may not be for you. It’s important to understand there may be times you may have to skip out on sleep or on a family dinner or a wedding because you are busy working towards your career. Know that you will have to make sacrifices and come in knowing you will do what you can to make the best out of it. However, I’m an advocate for also maintaining that work/life balance. Don’t skip out on important milestones in life and people you care about, find time for yourself and those in your life. I want to conclude with a quote from a professor who is a mentor of mine:
“nothing thats worth it comes easy, you just have to know what you’re willing to fight for.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. EWIH would like to thank Zoha Anjum for her time and wisdom.
You can find Zoha at: