SEPH students get a taste of field conditions

Posted on Wednesday, June 24, 2020

By Jessica Sinclair
Research Writer

As COVID-19 approached Ottawa this spring, Dr. Melissa Brouwers, director of uOttawa's School of Epidemiology and Public Health (SEPH), knew that the city's public health agency had a large volume of work to do. And her students were eager to help.

That eagerness led to volunteer placements for SEPH students at Ottawa Public Health (OPH) — which led, in turn, to a unique hands-on learning experience.

“It began with volunteering, and then it morphed into creating a course, because we’re not paying students for their contributions," said Dr. Brouwers. "This way they can earn credit.”

Starting in May, five students in the Master’s program in Epidemiology, who had already been volunteering at OPH, formally enrolled in the course: Current Issues: COVID-19—Online Applied and Public Health Research Experience.

The class grew to a group of nine graduate students, who researched the question of how to create effective messaging to encourage physical distancing, among people aged 16-29.

“Youth are more susceptible than other age groups to wanting to socialize, and not wanting to lose contact with their friends,” said Irina Podinic, a student in the course. “We came in to look at what messages are out there targeting youth.”

They began with an environmental scan, looking at the websites of public health units across Canada and in some international locations.

“Surprisingly, there wasn’t much stuff targeted at youth. Some of the work we could find was target to parents or guardians of the youth, at least the younger section of our target population,” said Arum Han, another student in the course.

The class came up with some recommendations, including their own perspectives as members of the target group themselves. Humour was seen as an asset to any messaging targeting young people, such as posters they found from the Northwest Territories urging people to stay one caribou—or two huskies—apart.

“This is an excellent collaboration that examines the issue of physical distancing among youth during the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings will help Ottawa Public Health develop more targeted communication strategies with an aim of promoting good practices and reducing viral transmission,” said Jason Haug, acting program manager at OPH in Communications, Knowledge Exchange and Municipal Relations.

“We appreciate the thoughtful approach and support of students and faculty members from the School of Epidemiology and Public Health. At the same time, the students are gaining a phenomenal learning experience at an unprecedented time in the history of public health.”

From Dr. Brouwers’ perspective, there was an invaluable lesson for the students in understanding what real-life, real-time research involves. Fieldwork under pressure doesn’t present perfectly-controlled conditions, especially when the findings need to be applied within a matter of weeks.

“It has been a good blend of the activities they learn at school and applying them to real life. It’s not pure, and you don’t have unlimited time. We sometimes have to make compromises in how comprehensive we are or some of the ethological steps,” she said.

The close collaboration between SEPH and OPH is set to deepen in the fall. With the help of Medical Officer of Health and SEPH adjunct professor Vera Etches, uOttawa’s new Master of Public Health program will include more experiential learning with Ottawa Public Health.  


Image: Arum Han


Dr. Melissa Brouwers


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