In this episode, Sujani sits down with Alice Simniceanu, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the World Health Organization. They discuss Alice’s career journey and current work, the importance of mentorship, and advice on how to land your dream public health job.
What You’ll Learn from this Episode:
- How Alice became interested in the field of public health and more specifically, infection prevention and control
- Alice’s career journey from working in a hospital setting to a global setting
- How reaching out can help you find your passion and open doors
- Tips on how to sell yourself in interviews even if you may not have extensive experience
- What a day in Alice’s life looks at
- Alice’s experience working in infection control during the COVID pandemic
- The biggest challenges Alice has faced through her career
- The importance of finding good mentors in your career
Alice Simniceanu is a public health professional in global public health and epidemiologist in infectious and emerging diseases, outbreak preparedness and response at WHO. She has experience in hospital epidemiology and infection prevention and control in diverse health care organizations working at international, national and sub-national levels. She holds an MPH from Queen’s University in Canada and is currently doing her PhD in Global Health at the University of Geneva.
Featured on the Show:
- Follow Alice on LinkedIn
- Read Alice’s blog post: Public Health Vs. Infection Control
- Learn more about OpenWHO
- Learn more about GEM
Reach out in any way you can, whether it’s a cold email, you know, LinkedIn obviously is great for that. Try to see who they know, see if you have any connections, reach out to people that know them and just say, hey, quick introduction. So I can, you know, talk to this person about their career and stuff like that. Don’t be shy, you have nothing to lose.
Hey there, this is Sujani. And I know you can’t wait to get into today’s episode. So I will make this very quick right now and tell you more about it at the end. Up until now, you’ve been hearing about our career program at the end of our episodes. While those career programs were super successful, our community members found a ton of value through them, we decided to put a stop on it. Because after running a few of those pilot cohorts, and having a lot of discussions with our peers in public health, the participants of the program, schools of public health as well as other changemakers in the field, we are excited to let you know that we’ve taken the career program and have expanded it into a much more exciting offer that doesn’t just last few weeks. So if you’re listening to this episode, when it’s going live, I’m super excited to let you know that next month in October of 2022, we’ll be opening up the doors to one of our most exciting offerings called the public health career club. And you can find out about it at pHspot.org/club. And if you stick around till the end of this episode, I’ll be telling you a bit more about it. But for now, here’s today’s episode.
Hi, Alice, and welcome to the PH SPOT podcast. It’s so nice to finally I guess, you know, see each other virtually and speak with you. Like before we started recording, I was saying how we came in, I guess we got in touch with each other through a friend of yours, just through PH SPOT and you and your friend Madison, you guys had written a great blog post for the platform. And we’ll certainly link that up in the show notes page. And so you know, with all of that history, and just knowing the exciting journey that you’ve taken since, I’m just thrilled to get into a conversation about your career journey today.
Hi, Sujani. Thanks so much for having me on your podcast. And you actually had to remind myself when we did that, because so much has happened since then I think it’s been like over three years that we wrote that piece. And we should definitely do an update to that as well.
Yeah. For anyone curious that when- that blog post was called public health versus infection control. And it’s a two part series that Madison and Alice, you both wrote, and yeah, I think it was a really popular one. Because at the time, I think your post may have been the only one kind of touching on the area of infection prevention and control. And I know a lot of your career has kind of revolved around that topic and also epidemiology. So really curious to hear how you kind of went from one role to the other? And I’m sure we’ll get into that. But the first question that I love to ask all of my guests here on PH SPOT is how they discovered public health. And you know, a lot of them have told me that it was an accidental discovery, myself included, you know, I went into the sciences and through elective courses just figured out that there was this field called public health and epidemiology and I went on to pursue a career as an epidemiologist, so curious to hear what your journey has been like, because I think you had a bachelor of science, in human kinetics and health. So there was kind of that element of health that you were already starting off your education. But I wonder, was there something much earlier that kind of triggered that interest or that made you discover public health?
Yeah, sure. So yeah, I guess going back to the early ages, so as you mentioned, so I did a bachelor’s in Health Sciences and Human Kinetics, and also my mother’s a physician. So from early early days, she was pushing me into the healthcare field. And actually, I really enjoyed it. So I did, you know, I looked at her and her job, but also her friends and people around us that had similar roles in different health fields. So I knew I wanted to go into health, and I just didn’t know exactly what it was that I wanted to do, of course, you know, the medicine was, was pushed on me by her, but I, I don’t know, for some reason, didn’t want to go that route. And I was really attracted to the public health field because of the wide variety of roles and jobs that I heard from people that there were in this field. So I kind of started off into that health world, not knowing exactly where I was going, but I knew I wanted to stay in health. And so I did my bachelor and then my first job I worked as well throughout my bachelor’s in Health Canada, actually. And so that I guess, gave me a little bit more of an insight into the public health world and I really liked it. So my first job actually was my serious job was a research assistant at SickKids Hospital in Toronto. And it was working with this phenomenal and an orthopedic surgeon, and we did injury epidemiology together, so he he did a lot of work on car- He doesn’t like to call them accidents, but collisions for children. And you know, of course, then they ended up in having needs for orthopedic surgeries, or unfortunately, some of them are fatal. So we ended up doing some studies together. And I got into the whole world of research and epidemiology through that role, and also through him, and he was really a fantastic mentor for me. We’ll get back to that point later. But that was really how I got into that world of research and epidemiology and public health. And so he really recommended that I do a master’s in public health. And so I took his advice, and I applied to wherever I could, so Toronto, Queens, I ended up at Queens and I, so I did my masters of public health and epidemiology at Queens. And that was really the start of my career.
That’s interesting, because I kind of heard you say that, even before you started your Bachelor’s you knew about the field of public health was that because like your mom and her friends or colleagues, were talking about public health, kind of as they were doing medicine? Or is that something that you kind of discovered on your own as you were looking into programs to get into?
it, it was a bit of both. So I guess it was also from the world that I was in with my family and my mother’s circle, because they were always talking about the different kinds of work that they did in their jobs. And I was always asking questions about like, oh, is this part of your job? Is this something that you normally do so you know, when- Can’t remember in high school, what it was each one and one or whatever, one of the bigger viruses was around, and we went and got vaccinated. And so my mom was working at Health Canada at the time, and she was explaining all of the vaccination strategies to me. And I was just fascinated. I said, wow, like, is this what you know, you went to school for? And she said, Actually, no, her job had evolved from being a physician and being a specialist to then working at the government on like high level policies and strategies and working on these vaccine kind of strategies and post market approvals of drugs and pharmaceuticals. So she was explaining to me kind of like the different wide variety of roles and jobs and all these things that you could do with health. So that was kind of how I went in, like, I know, I really want to do something in this field, I just need to discover what it is that I like.
That’s great. What a great mentor right from the start.
Yeah, but actually, like I, I want to touch on this later. And I think you had a question for me on this later. So we’ll get more into that later. But mentorship, I think, is one of the big pieces that we should talk about today. And actually, some of my biggest and greatest mentors, were not my mother. Ironically.
Yeah, we’ll definitely get into that. And I think that is a very important topic, just having a great, you know, support group or a network of public health professionals that you can lean on. You know, just going back to your early years and that journey that you had, and most recently, I got this question, I think I get this question. Like, if not every other day, then maybe every week is like somebody emailing us saying, I have a bachelor’s degree or you know, I don’t have a master’s degree yet, and I can’t find work. But it sounded like you were able to explore different opportunities right out of your bachelor’s degree, before even pursuing your master’s degree and kind of like were able to work in in epidemiology and research and get an understanding of public health a bit more where your interests lie. And, and I think that’s so important. So for anyone listening, who’s debating whether they should go right into their masters, because they can’t find work with their bachelor’s degree, I don’t know if you have any advice based on your experience in terms of how you were able to kind of land these different opportunities?
Yeah, definitely. I have actually really good advice for this, because I’ve thought about it a lot. And people, of course, also approached me, often now, especially with my job and asked me, Hey, how can I get a job there? You know, how can I get a job at WHO and they’re just graduated from their degrees. And my advice to these people is always like, early in your career. So whether you’re done your bachelor’s, or you’re done your masters or whatever stage you’re in, but you’re in early, I would say explore all the possibilities that you see out there, talk to people who are in these different kinds of careers and see what kind of public health careers are out there because so I eventually did this. And I found out about infection prevention and control, but I had no idea this even existed and it actually ended up being my career and I loved it. And I was super interested in passionate about it, but I would have never known about it just from reading online, you know, public health careers. So I would recommend that you reach out to people, people that are current professionals in public health, ask them for coffee or ask them for a quick phone call and understand what their jobs entail, how they got there, what the different roles they had to get there and try to find your true passion because you’re not going to find this by jumping into a job or jumping into your masters right away. You have to try all these different pieces. And I did as well. Right I worked in, I mean, don’t get me wrong. My first job in Health Canada was like a records management like assistant, I was helping someone arrange files have their health folder. So it was not anything great. But it was me being there in the meeting rooms at the tables and listening to people talk about their jobs. And I was really fascinated. And I learned a lot. And I met a lot of interesting people, who then gave me advice to go talk to this person, that person and find out about this field or this program. So I think it’s to kind of like shop around see what it is that you would like, like, do you like health promotion? Do you like working with numbers? Do you want to maybe do implementation work and work in the field or in a hospital, I would do those things before you jump into a master’s because even your masters like it’s quite specialized. So you go in there, hopefully, knowing what you actually have to write a letter of intent, like hopefully knowing what you’re going into once you go into your masters. So if you do a whole masters and you don’t like it, it’s going to be a problem and a waste of time.
Yeah, the process of finding what you like, and your passion is also knowing what you don’t like so, you know, not not being so stuck on this is the one dream job that I need to land like, immediately after my Bachelor’s, right. I think exploring being open minded, and just seeing what other experiences you can kind of have under your belt and and you’re gonna learn something from everything. Like I’m sure your data management work at Health Canada that you had done during your Bachelor’s that was kind of like a foundation for your epidemiology work, right. So there’s a lot that you always carry from past experiences.
Yeah, for sure. And, you know, I also had jobs, which I didn’t really love, or at the time, I thought they were super boring, and I just wanted to leave and go do something else. But I look back on those jobs and those experiences and the people I met. And actually, they really helped shape me and shape the kind of ideas that I wanted to move forward with or those that I didn’t want. So you know, you have to shop around once you kind of figure out which direction you go to, you never know the kind of opportunities that will come up. When you’re in a role. As long as the role is in the field that you want to do. Like, definitely don’t take a job working at Starbucks, if you want to work in public health, like take any public health related role that you can find early on, to kind of learn about different fields and see what it is that you’d like.
And any tips kind of for those early applications like you know, you’re- you’re coming right out of your bachelor’s degree, or maybe you’re just right about to graduate, and you may not have paid work to show on your resume, but you’re really interested in like getting your foot wet and working in public health. And all of the postings say you need like one to two years of experience like how can someone just based on your experience of working I guess it was at the Hospital for Sick Children in that clinical research assistant role? Like how were you able to sell yourself to the researcher to say like, yeah, I can I can do this role. Well, even though I may not have had X amount of experience.
So you write a CV, you don’t have a lot to put on it, but you write what skills you have. And also you you can write about your passions and your interests, like getting that first introduction to someone and getting that first chance to speak with someone who has a job may or may not be for you. But you can at least tell them about you tell them why you’re interested, tell them why you’re passionate, let those things actually show through whether it’s you know, you’ve read books about a certain topic, or you research that person and their work, and you have something to discuss with them. For me, although like I may not have always had like the highest grades, or I may not always have had like the greatest experience when I was starting off. But I worked hard. I worked hard to show that I was there, I was going to work hard, I was determined. I left every interview that I had in those early days with job offers. And this gentleman who offered me a job to work at SickKids he was offering someone who had no- no experience whatsoever, a job in the hospital working on research projects that were you know, like hundreds of 1000s of dollars worth and big stuff. But I had that call with him. I remember even like long distance I was in Ottawa at that time. And I convinced him that I was going to be a hard worker and I was going to do all of the things that he needed anything he needed for that job just so that I could get this experience and learn from him so that I could move on in my career. It’s not so much about the experience and I really encourage people even if you do see you know like 10 years of experience on there. Obviously not when you’re young and early on but even if you do see you know requires so and so experience just apply make sure your CV and everything is great. You know it’s as much as you could put on there for what your experience but just apply. You never know who’s going to call you and you never know the opportunities that may come up. Don’t be shy and you have nothing to lose by applying.
Yeah, I think that that enthusiasm that you kind of share and I hear it in your voice, you’re explaining how that interview went, it’s probably something that your mentor felt right from you. Did he at any point, you know, tell you this is the one reason that I hired you for or are there any, like just reflections that he shared with you?
Yeah, it was definitely that like, we obviously worked together for a while, I think two years. And then later, we became friends. And I would run into him from time to time and update him on my career progression. I always said to him, Hey, you were, you know, the reason I got into public health and epidemiology and thanks for that. And then he always said, you know, I knew you had it in you because you were hard working and you were passionate, and you showed up every day on time to, to do the hard work. And it was really hard work. Like I sat in the bottom of a coroner’s office reviewing hundreds of files of, of children who had passed away in car collisions. It was not easy work. And you know, I was quite young at that time. So yeah, I did whatever was asked to me, I did what I could, and I worked as hard as I possibly could. And, you know, if it wouldn’t have worked out, I would have walked away being okay, and happy because I worked my hardest. So that would be my recommendation to those people starting out, like, work hard when you’re young. And then you still have the energy and the passion and everything in you because it gets harder later, for sure.
Now, that’s that’s quite encouraging to hear just even, you know, right out of your, your undergrad that you were able to land such a great job, and that you were able to communicate your passion, enthusiasm, and that kind of the the employer was able to see that I think that’s great encouragement for any of our listeners, who may be thinking like, How in the world am I going to land my first job with with like, kind of, you know, quote, unquote, the perfect lineup of experience on my resume or CV. So that’s, that’s great. Thanks for sharing that, Alice. You kind of mentioned, you know, throughout your journey, you discovered this area of work and infection control by speaking with, you know, a lot of people kind of getting to hear what was out there in terms of different career opportunities within the field of public health. And I noticed that you kind of went into epidemiology, I suppose, like throughout your master’s, you, you studied a concentration in epidemiology. You worked as an epidemiologist for a couple of years. And then you went into infection control at Mount Sinai, and you kind of continued that area work for almost five or six years. And then I see that more recently, you went back into epidemiology. So I’m personally curious about how that journey took place. And what was your thinking around, you know, working for a number of years in infection control. And then moving back into epidemiology. I’m sure the kind of experiences are complementary to each other, especially knowing that you are working in like infectious disease related epidemiology work now. So yeah, if you could take us through that journey. That’d be I think, really fascinating to hear.
So maybe I’ll take it back from from the midpoint of doing my masters. So my masters of public health in epidemiology, we had courses there. And we had a professor I really liked and a course on infectious diseases. And I remember sitting in that course, being like, wow, this is it, this is what I’ve been looking for. This is my passion, this is what I like. And I spoke with her after the course and her and I also ended up becoming friends. And she ended up becoming a good mentor and recommended me to look into these kinds of different careers, because I had asked her, you know, this is what I want to do, where do I go? What do I do? And she told me, okay, there’s two different fields now that you should look into. One of them is infection prevention and control. And the other one is antimicrobial resistance. And she said, these are still, you know, at their beginning stages, but they will blow up. And obviously, she knew what she was onto because these two fields have clearly not just, you know, even before COVID have clearly taken off, and they’ve taken off in quite a big trajectory. So she was the first person that mentioned it to me, so because I liked infectious diseases, there’s quite a number of routes you could take, but one of them you know, was to look into the hospital aspect of infectious diseases. So, infection prevention and control is a department and every Canadian hospital but I wouldn’t say every hospital around the world, although we’re trying that deals with infections that can be passed around from patients to patients or patients to health workers and back and forth. So these are called nosocomial infections. And there’s the job of these hospital epidemiologist to put in measures in the hospital to prevent this from happening. Of course, you know, you cannot do everything and you cannot always prevent them and so from time to time, there will be nosocomial infections that spread. There will be outbreaks that happen in hospitals, and it’s these people’s jobs. They’re usually called infection prevention control practitioners or personnel or specialists or hospital epidemiologists. So that’s the role that I had and that you heard from my colleague Madison Moon as well he had as well in the hospital I worked for university The Health Network for several years. So when I got out of my masters, literally my first like person that I reached out to was the head of Mount Sinai infection prevention and control department. She’s a huge name in this world. And she unfortunately retired. But she was really like, I looked up to her and she was, she was a big name. So I thought, You know what, I’m just going to shoot my shot, and I’m gonna go for it. And I asked her for a meeting, and she had a meeting with me, and I told her, you know, I really want to get into this field. And she said, you know, I don’t have a job for you. But why don’t you come on Monday, and I’ll find something for you to do in this field, so that you can kind of see what it’s like and see if you like it. You know, that was one of my advice to everyone out there reach out to people, like I reached out to Allison McGee, or she was like, the biggest top level person I could. I was like, Okay, if she doesn’t respond, she doesn’t respond. Many others didn’t respond, don’t get me wrong, there have been a lot that didn’t respond or didn’t respond favorably. But she was very kind. And she responded, and she said, come. So I came, I showed up, she gave me a short contract to work with her team. And I did you know, just the most basic work that I could just to get my foot in the door. And while I was there, I started applying to jobs, and I applied to jobs everywhere. So infection prevention and control is this field of hospital epidemiology. And it’s very specific to hospitals. But of course, then you have at our levels, you have the law, I guess, where you are as well, public health Ontario, which was the provincial level. So I had actually done my practicum there. Actually, that was, that was also a good example. I applied for something in infectious diseases for the practicum. I didn’t get it. And then I applied for other ones as well. I got one in chronic diseases, and I took it and I just said, Okay, it’s not infectious diseases, that’s okay. It’s epidemiology, the skills will be transferable. And I took it and I met lots of people. And actually, the woman who didn’t hire me for the infectious disease, practicum ended up becoming again, a friend and I stayed in touch with her and learn from her over the years. And actually, I ran into her at who a few years ago, and she’s here and you know, we had coffee together and just, you know, the world somehow comes back around. But my recommendation out of this is just reach out to people reach out to even the people that you don’t think will respond, what’s the worst thing that they don’t respond? It’s fine. So I started out at Mount Sinai did a few months, and then I was applying to jobs. So one of the jobs ended up being at Public Health Agency of Canada. It was an epidemiologist, job, but it was an infection prevention and control at the federal level. So I took that it was a short six month contract. And just to get the experience, and while I was there, again, I was applying to jobs when that was ending to go back to Toronto where I lived. And I applied to hospital jobs. And actually, the job I got was not the infection prevention and control job I started off with it was a job in risk management. But they worked with infection prevention and control. So when she offered me the job, I said, Absolutely, I got in within a few months, I made sure I was connected to the infection prevention and control projects and doing work with them. You know, again, I reached out to them, and eventually they offered me a job. So it’s always like getting in there reaching out to people networking. Somehow, the things that I wanted worked out for me, but it wasn’t by luck. I really worked for them. I reached out, I worked hard, I made sure I was directing my experiences in the way that would build the CV that I have today that it got me to who like got me into this dream job that I had always wanted. So I made sure my experiences were strategically tailored towards that.
Yeah. And I can kind of like see, or at least hear that you were kind of connecting the dots as you are looking for these opportunities, right? Like, your first job at the University Health Network wasn’t as an infection control specialist, although I’m assuming like that’s what you’re aiming for. But you you probably entered in with that other role as a patient safety data analyst. But you knew that you know, that kind of, I guess experience and the learnings that you would have from that role was going to be like quite important when you move into an infection control job. And I love that you said like there was a lot of like strategy around the people that you were reaching out to the roles you were applying to, even though it wasn’t your dream role at that point in your career.
Yeah, exactly. And, you know, I found myself sometimes thinking, I don’t like this, I don’t like this work. It’s not what I wanted to be doing. However, looking back later, it brought me to those people. So it introduced me to people who were actually one of them was the director of the infection prevention and control Department. I worked with her on some committees on some projects, and then I reached out to her and I said, Hey, actually, you know, this is my passion. I really want to get a job in your field. I don’t have any experience. And she took a chance on me and she hired me And she taught me everything that I knew at the time. And I went from there, you know, speaking with her years later, she she said, Actually, I always knew you weren’t going to be a good hire like, I could see that you had that passion and that you were going to work hard.
I’m curious, and I’m sure a lot of our listeners are too when you’re reaching out to these individuals. Obviously, we heard when you reached out to Mount Sinai, you had no previous connection with her, but the individuals that you’re reaching out to within your the organization that you’re working within, did you have kind of like a pre existing relationship with them? Or was it kind of like just hearing about them or seeing them do some work that really piqued your interest? And then you reached out, I guess, I want to give people confidence that, you know, sometimes reaching out to people, where you have an established relationship, obviously, that’s going to get you the results that you want much faster, but individuals who are acquaintances or they know of you, or they’ve seen some of your work, those are still some promising people that you can reach out to within your organization?
Yeah, I would say it’s a it’s a blend of both, like, there were people definitely that I reached out to that I didn’t know and I had no connections to and then there were people that I knew of them, but I didn’t know them. But I knew someone who did. So I went through those routes. And I said, Hey, can you send a quick email introduction and introduce me to this person, I’d really love to talk to them about their career or whatever. Obviously, you don’t start off with being like, I need a job, like, Do you have a job, you’d start off with small stuff and just, you know, talk about your field and stuff that interests you, and, and then you go on from there. later in my career, I had people do the same to me and, and I always told myself, if someone was going to reach out to me to help them, whether it’s with career decision making advice, or mentorship or anything, I would try to help them as much as possible, because I did it a lot. And of course, I didn’t know what the percentage would be. But some, of course, didn’t respond favorably. And I always found it so strange, especially with older women who are in these high level careers, why wouldn’t you help someone out not with a job just with advice. And anyways, I made that one of my like, personal things that I was going to be, you know, I mentored high school girls, when I was in Toronto, there’s a great program called gem, where you can be a mentor to a high school girl, like who’s applying to universities in the field of STEM, and help them through those kinds of decision making things. I’ve mentored people off the anything professional or just casual stuff, as well. And I really think it’s important, I think our culture in our generation is maybe more willing to help those who are younger than maybe our older generations. So I would say to the listeners, like definitely reach out, reach out in any way you can, whether it’s a cold email, you know, LinkedIn, obviously, is great for that, try to see who they know, see, if you have any connections, reach out to people that know them, and just say, hey, quick introduction. So I can, you know, talk to this person about their career and stuff like that. Don’t be shy, you have nothing to lose.
Yeah, I love the guests that have been coming on the PH SPOT podcast, similar to yourself, just the willingness to want to share their journey and just like, take an hour or so out of their time to like, sit here and talk with me, and then share all of that knowledge with our listeners. And, like, I must say, like, almost all of them are, are always saying like, to our listeners, reach out if you if you want to chat more. And I think there’s a great group of people that are going to respond to you. So if maybe like five out of the seven don’t respond, like having hopes on the other two that are going to because there are going to be people who are more than happy to spend a bit of time to just tell you about their journey and give you some advice.
Yeah, for sure. And that goes for me as well. If if there’s anyone interested in infectious diseases, Epidemiology, infection, prevention and control, please reach out.
Yeah. And I always I guess the advice I do always give is like, read up on the person, there may be like some great resources already. And like maybe they’ve written blogs, or maybe they’re they’re writing on their LinkedIn, and then go with questions that they haven’t already answered, because that’ll show that you kind of looked into them, you are knowledgeable about the individual. And then now you want to have kind of like a meaningful conversation about your personal experience and what you could gather from them. Because if they’ve already written quite a bit, or talked quite a bit about their career journey, maybe that’s not the best use of their time. And there’s something more like, I don’t know, just something more that you could gather from a 30 minute conversation with them, right.
Like I said, I have some people that reach out to me mostly on LinkedIn and stuff and young people in their careers. And I tried to always say, Yes, I tried to always do this, but one of the things that does frustrate me a bit is when people are like, Oh, wow, you work at WHO like how do I get a job at WHO? And my answer to this is always the same. There’s different ways obviously, sometimes people know someone and they help them and they they get them jobs. This is not the way that most things work in life and for me at least I applied many times, I applied to many roles that weren’t suited for me. And I was still, you know, kind of young in my career. And I thought, Okay, I’m going to get to WHO when I’m 50, when I have, you know, 20-30 years of experience, but eventually I found a role that was a quite an entry level role, it was a consultancy. And it was right in my field of infection prevention and control, and antimicrobial resistance. And all of the experiences that I had kind of built into this one role. And I applied to it again, just like the others, not really having high hopes. But I applied, I got an interview, I did really well at the interview, I prepared, you know, for weeks, I did as much as I possibly could. And if they weren’t going to take me, they weren’t going to take me because it was outside of my control. But I did whatever I could. And then they offered me the job. And I came here and I worked my butt off, and I moved around. And I eventually got to the role I am in now. And I will never say it was easy, because it was really, really difficult, especially because it spanned throughout the whole pandemic. But just to come back to the point of how do you get a job at WHO it’s not by luck. So I would say once you figure out what your passions are, you start building and you build those career opportunities, you take them, you build on them, you work very, very hard at them, you do the work so that you can gain that wide range of experiences so that whenever you are at a level and you can apply to a high level professional job, you will be prepared. So one of my favorite quotes, and I’ve thought about it many times over over these past few years. When people say oh my god, you’re so lucky, whether it’s about work or something else. And I always think about this quote that says, luck is when preparation meets opportunity. And honestly, I think like, I’m going to put this on a wall somewhere in my house, because this was me, like I worked very hard, I prepared a lot. And one day, there was an opportunity that matched my CV. And yes, the opportunity was there, but had I not had the preparation, those two things would not have come together. And vice versa. You know, you can be prepared all you want, but you haven’t had that opportunity yet. So it’s when all the hard work you’ve done, the preparation meets an opportunity, and you’re ready for it. And then those two things will align if they’re meant for you. Trust me, I applied to many jobs, even jobs in infection prevention and control that I didn’t get. And I was so upset at the time. And now looking back, I you know, thank God every day that I didn’t get them because it led me to have another opportunity like the one I have now and I’m really happy with and feel satisfied with. So also that like don’t be upset at the opportunities that don’t come for you. They didn’t come for you for a reason. It will redirect you to something else. And one day you will be in a place that it works out for you. Whether it’s what you thought it was going to be at the beginning or something different, but it will work out and you’ll look back on your experiences. And you will thank God that those didn’t work out for you.
When you say do you have a favorite quote, I was already like saying in my head, I’m pretty sure she’s gonna say the one about opportunity and preparation, because that’s exactly what I’m hearing throughout your journey is like, you were really kind of like, lead an excellent strategy, if you will, for you know, landing this dream role that you are currently in. And before I ask you a bit more about kind of what a day in the life as an epidemiologist at the World Health Organization, I believe you’re in the health emergencies program kind of looks like I gotta say, I just love your confidence, Alice for when you’re reflecting back on the interviews that you’ve had, like, whether it was right out of your bachelor’s or the one that you had, for WHO more recently, I guess I don’t know how many years later this is but that confidence that you’re kind of sharing with us to say like, I did my absolute best. And if they don’t give me the job, then that’s okay. You know, I’ll go on and look for something else. But yeah, like I don’t know, if you have anything more to share about that just confidence and knowing that you did your absolute best you prepared and you showed up the way you wanted to, you’re proud of yourself. And then everything else is not in your control. And just like that mindset of telling yourself that everything else is not in my control. And all I could control is how I perform today at the interview.
I was this at 20 or 21, or 25. It obviously comes with I’m gonna say age, but it comes with experience, but also age because these experiences obviously taught me all of these things and don’t get me wrong. I was very upset many times when things didn’t work out for me and I would go home upset, like visibly upset or crying or something. And I remember you know, just speaking to people about it, and they were like, you know, did you prepare? Did you know what you were doing? Did you show up and you you said everything you could possibly say you had the experiences you could possibly have. It’s not like you can change your experiences. You can only make sure you are prepared as possible. And I said yes. And then they would say Okay, so you did everything you could and over time this really stuck with me and I really wish people would also take that mindset also in other parts of their life as well, sometimes you do everything you could possibly do. Okay, we all make mistakes. But let’s say for the most part, you do what you can do. And things don’t work out. And it’s okay, we just have to come to terms with the fact that you cannot control the outcome of anything. You can only control how you show up, how you show up and what your reaction is. And trust me, this has come with time and experience. I haven’t always been like this. But now I know what I bring to the table in terms of career stuff, but also personal stuff, right? Like, I know who I am, I know what I bring to the table, my strengths, my weaknesses, of course, I tried to work on them. And I tried to make sure they’re as optimal as possible. But if sometimes things don’t work out, they don’t work out, and you can’t sit there and just be upset about it for a long time. For interviews, especially in for jobs, especially do the work that it requires. And then you know, you’ve done what you could do and everything else outside of your control, you know, there will always be that one nasty colleague, there will always be a nasty boss, potentially, I’ve had those as well. Same with the colleagues, I think every job I’ve had, I’ve had a colleague where you know, you just don’t get along, no matter what you do. It’s not your fault. It’s not their fault, you just don’t get along. And that’s okay. And you have to come to terms with you know, I’m being the most mature, responsible, but you know, nice person I could be and sometimes it doesn’t work out. And that’s okay.
The kind of saying that’s helped me with those kinds of situations is that I’m not responsible for other people’s feelings, and just knowing that it’s not a reflection on yourself, and maybe they’re going through something but not to take it personally.
Yeah. And for you like, as an individual, you learn and you grow. And trust me, there have been times where I didn’t react well. And I tried to learn from them. And I always try to ask for feedback. Like if something went wrong at work with a colleague, and I always try to ask other colleagues like, Did I do something that would have sparked this? Did I contribute to this? How did I contribute to this? Like, what could I have done differently? I think that self reflection for yourself and also from others, like ask those people, the feedback, if you’re comfortable with asking even those colleagues, like ask them for feedback, but later, and try to learn from those experiences, because that’s what will help you grow as an individual. And honestly, we were all growing all the time. I think even in our you know, end of our careers, people are still growing. It’s not that I have this confidence naturally, I think I built it over time. And I also, at some point, you know, you can spend your time being upset or overthinking or over worrying, you have to just take it for what it is and move on and think that you’ve done the best you could sometimes you didn’t do so well. And you know, it happens and then you move on and try to do better next time.
No, I completely agree. Okay, let’s talk about a day in the life of your current role. As an epidemiologist with the World Health Organization, I believe you’re in the health emergencies program for health operations on COVID-19 response. And, you know, I’m sure you’re going to talk about this like move that you had to do across different continents you were living in like North America and Canada specifically. And then you moved over to Geneva. So maybe you can tell us a bit about what your day looks like. And then how this move and transitioning over to a new country has been for you and just any other reflections that you’ve had. And before we started recording, we also kind of touched upon this, like, what’s some of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced professionally, but then we got into more of the personal challenges of also kind of having such a huge move. So let’s start with what your role kind of entails first.
As I mentioned briefly before I got hired in 2019. So I started off as a consultant. And so the consultant role was quite different. And then of course, the pandemic started in 2020. So the first two years of the pandemic, I worked as a consultant in the infection prevention and control. Well, the emergencies part of it. So it was a pillar under the COVID response. The work that that entail, I don’t even know if I have a list of it somewhere for everything we did. But so it was a lot of taking what I had done at the hospital and trying to write guidances of what we expect other hospitals to do and an outbreak response in the context of infection prevention and control, which, as I mentioned, focuses on health worker protection and focuses on the prevention of nosocomial spread within these health care centers. So now we’re not just talking about, you know, your your big hospital in downtown Toronto, you’re talking about little health clinics in the middle of a village somewhere in, you know, in a remote country where they don’t have money, they don’t have PPE, they don’t have masks, they don’t have cleaning products, they don’t even have water to clean their hands. And so going through the processes of developing these large guidance documents, which if you’ve worked in this field during COVID, you may have read at some point was really eye opening for me and for the teams here as well. While we were all learning about what it entails. So a large part of my job was to support the coordination of a group of experts from all over the world that came together and had these discussions on every single one of these topics that infection prevention and control entails. And to come out of these discussions, of course, looking at research, but it wasn’t there in the beginning for COVID. And come out of these discussions with some sort of recommendations. So one of the most common ones you I’m sure we’re all familiar with is the recommendations that came out about masks. So we worked on those masks guidance documents for, we would say, months, if not years, and we kept having to renew them as more evidence came out or as the pandemic unfolded. And so that was a huge, huge part of the job. Another part of it was to provide technical support to country offices. So WHO for those of you who don’t know, so it has its headquarters here in Geneva, where I am, it has regional offices in six regions of the world, and then it has country offices in many countries that are not able to have their own capacity. So WHO people in those offices help the country kind of implement these guidances. And so for COVID, a good example of this for hospitals was that some of the country offices needed help with outbreak responses in certain hospitals. So what we would have before done is go to the countries and actually help provide that support. But now we were doing remotely, it was quite challenging, but also very, very interesting. So we worked with, you know, many, many hospitals, many countries, many governments to try to provide this technical support in this field. A large part of that was to develop training material. So actually, that was one of the biggest parts of my job. And it still is now we developed videos, presentations, you know, like putting on PPE videos, won’t tell you to go look at them, because they’re horrible. They’re out there somewhere in the world, WHO has a platform called Open WHO, where we provide training videos on specific topics. So if you’re interested, definitely go have a look, they’re a great resource. And we did this all throughout COVID. And we’re continuing to update these as we go. I was obviously there for Ebola and monkey pox, for example, and many other diseases as well. So we did a lot of that we developed, you know, briefings for actual personnel that were going out to the field, we eventually ended up going to the field, sometimes, I don’t even know what else we did, we did so much other work, we did campaigns for hand hygiene, which was really interesting, I never thought of it as such a big thing. Because in the hospital, it was just a part of our normal world, but you come outside of that world and you you go to the international sector, and you see that actually no hand hygiene is probably the most important measure, you need to start with because without it, you know, you have so many preventable diseases and infections and these everywhere in the world, including, you know, big Toronto hospitals, they have nosocomial infections that are preventable by simple hand hygiene and cleaning. And we still have them, which is unfortunate, because then you can, how can you tell countries who don’t have the resources and small remote health centers that they need to do these things which big hospitals can’t even do. So it was really interesting also, to put it into that perspective. And of course, working in Canada was very privileged, I never got to experience the other side of the world where people have to work with very lower no resources and do the same kind of work that we’re telling people to do at these big institutions. That was a really big challenge and, and developing these guidances. And anyways, so last year, I moved out of that immediate response group, and I’m now working for the head of the COVID response. Her name is Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove. If any of you have followed WHO’s COVID response, you would have seen her on all the press conferences. She was phenomenal. And she was one of the people I looked up to the most throughout the pandemic. And eventually she had some job openings. So I applied to them. And I, again, you know, I worked really hard I did work before I applied to them. I made sure I was you know, the most prepared I could be and when those opportunities came up, I jumped on them. And I worked really hard to make sure that I had one of those jobs. And I did I ended up getting one of them and I’ve been working in her team for the past year. It’s a bit different, it’s a bit more higher level. So I’m not doing so much more of the operational stuff that I was doing last year, but I’m still working to support the response but doing other stuff other than just infection prevention and control. So there’s a lot of other guidance documents that we helped develop, we review we provide technical input into I coordinate the- this group that’s now looking at the called the scientific advisory group for novel pathogens.. It’s looking into the origins of COVID but also other pathogens that will arise. Super interesting to work with international experts. These are people at the top of their fields. They are really like the utmost specialists and various topics and so bringing all these people altogether and trying to coordinate them to have these discussions on what needs to be done, what studies need to be done, what has been done, what’s missing, and how to move forward, what documents and frameworks need to be developed. That is also quite a learning of diplomacy and political pieces that I didn’t really have before, but I’m learning. So yeah, a lot of interesting work a lot of variety in the work, you can never, ever have a boring day. If you don’t like something, you can be put on other projects that you will like, if you want to go to the field, you can ask for it you. Do you want to work in an office, you can do that. Like there’s a large variety of things that you could work on here. So one of the reasons why I love being here is I don’t think I could ever get bored. I don’t think I’ll ever go home at the end of the day and be like, Oh, I don’t want to do this anymore. I haven’t had one of those days yet. In the three years I’ve been here. And I really just speaking with peoplewho have been here their whole lives and their whole careers. I just don’t think it’ll ever happen. And yeah, that’s why I was so passionate about this job. And I finally got to a place where I was so happy. And I I don’t see myself leaving for anytime soon.
That’s really wonderful to hear, before your time with the WHO to now is it kind of living up to what you had hoped kind of working in such an organization would be like?
So I have- I have these like instances in my memory of when I used to talk to people about things I wanted. So I remember being at the hospital and speaking with some of these people, I had asked for career advice. And I was telling them, I’ve had this great, you know, a few years on infection prevention and control. But I really want more, I want more I want more dynamic roles, I want to do more, I want research, I want this, I want that. And I didn’t know what to expect when I came here. And then I got way more than I bargained for, of course due to the pandemic. So not to say that it wasn’t horrible for the world. And it was but for me for a career. In this field, it was phenomenal to sit here at these tables with like some of the most like amazing people in the world who have worked on you know, every outbreak and emergency that’s ever happened. And they’re sitting around the table talking about outbreak response, and you’re sitting next to them like this young person, and the beginning of their career with my mouth open being like, wow, it’s more than I bargained for more than I thought. And it was it was definitely exceeding my expectations. But also went over the top of it as well, right. Like, I can’t say it was just amazing. And in you know, it was rainbows and butterflies, it was a lot of hard work. And it was very, very challenging. I didn’t know I had it in me to work this hard to have, I knew I could work hard. And I always told people I’m a hard worker, even if I’m not the brightest or the smartest person in the room. I am definitely a hard worker and I will work as hard as I possibly am physically capable. I didn’t know I could actually push myself beyond that. So-
That was COVID. For us, we we worked around the clock. You know, I’ve never seen people work as hard as they do in this organization. During the pandemic. I’ve never seen anything like it the determination, the dedication, the passion, like people didn’t go home for weeks, they just worked.
We were here morning, nights, weekends, just working.
Yeah, as much as the pandemic was awful for the entire world. I think just seeing how public health organizations and like the public health workforce, the amount of dedication, passion, regardless of like how they were being treated, I think that was just phenomenal to see. And almost like mind blowing to see that a whole, like nation, and even the world came together to kind of see what they could do in the midst of this whole pandemic.
Yeah, it was really that it was just looking around, you know, these tables, at least, and just being amazed at how- how much people dedicated their lives to this. And when it’s finally happening, when it’s finally a big thing. Everyone drops what they’re doing, you know, a lot of people drop their family lives, their personal lives, their their own mental health. And they just worked hard at this to make sure that this was not getting worse, it was not going further than it it should. They worked as hard as possible. And I don’t think we could have done more. I think we did as much as we could. And of course, you know, it wasn’t up to WHO to control the pandemic. It’s up to the countries to do that. But I think on r&r And from what I’ve seen, I think people have worked as hard as they could. I don’t know that there was more that we could have done. Yeah, I
believe that. Looking at the clock, and I want to be respectful of your time. And I just have so many other questions about your journey so far. But, you know, maybe we can wrap up today’s episode, and I’m sure if you’re willing, we can have future episodes and just reflections on your career. But I think there were kind of two important topics that you did want to cover and maybe I’ll leave it up to you to see how you want to spend the last kind of five minutes chatting and that was either some of the biggest challenges that you faced on your journey so far. Just as you’re reflecting this, like 10 plus years of your career today, what are some of the biggest challenges that come to mind? And also mentorship? I think you also wanted to touch a bit more on that. So maybe as some final career advice for early professionals, but even those who are kind of established, I think we have a mix of listeners. Yeah. What’s something that you’d like to leave us with? On either one of those topics?
Yeah, so I think those two go hand in hand. So maybe I’ll start with the challenges first, I mean, I touched a bit about it just now. But I would say like, the biggest challenge of my career, professional journey was definitely this one, it was jumping from working at a hospital, to working at the international scale, working on a pandemic, the largest pandemic, hopefully, the last one that I’ll have in my lifetime. But it was really challenging. Like, I knew I had it in me to work more and work hard. But like I said, I didn’t know I could work this hard. And I had this much and also to, you know, to manage, then the personal side, where you have to manage your health, your mental health, you have to manage, you know, your personal life. So I moved here alone, and I my whole life was in Toronto. So my family, my, you know, partner, everything was in Toronto. So managing that part, when you’re working, you know, 20 hours a day on a on a pandemic, that was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’m not sure I did it, well, you know, I maybe could have done a better job at some things. And it is what it is, I walked away with a good experience. So that was it. And then other challenging pieces throughout the years, I would say actually going back to that mentorship piece in the beginning, like I wasted a lot of time not knowing what to do. And I reached out to people who weren’t so helpful and who weren’t responsive and weren’t willing to give up a few minutes of their time to just help a young person kind of figure out what they’re supposed to be doing or what you know, just give them some information. So I like I said, I always told myself, I ever get to a level where I’m in the place to give advice, I’m always going to say yes, because it’s not a material piece of help, but it’s the most like valuable help that you can get as experience. So learning from someone else’s experiences, is I think the greatest thing that you can receive from someone. And even if it’s, you know, asking someone, hey, I have these two job offers, what do you think? And that person can ask you those questions and try to help you figure that out. And try to help you make the best decision for your career and the kind of job and career that you envision. So my biggest recommendation to people at any point of their stage would be to find and reach out to people that you admire, and that you like their careers and ask them questions, ask them to not mentor you for five years, even short term mentoring, have a phone call, Hey, these are my immediate concerns or immediate decisions I have to make. Can you help me like talk through them in terms of career what I should do? If it’s, you know, a short term mentorship, you’re applying to school or you’re, you know, applying for jobs, try to find those mentors, because you don’t need a lot of them, you just need one or two few good people. And those people are going to change throughout your- your stage and throughout your career and in life stages. But find those people because there will be invaluable to your life and your experiences. And they will be able to share their experiences. And you know, you can ask your parents, but your parents obviously have different ideas for you than you might have. So I don’t think the parents are necessarily a good mentor, it has to be someone external and someone who is not bias to your outcome. So like I said that that is my I think my biggest piece of career advice, find them. You know, wherever you find them try to always get advice. I always try to ask people who are older and or at the end of their careers, you know, what, what do you think I should do? What’s the best like, pathway for me? Should I take this job? Should I do something else? Should I leave my current job? These kinds of questions. And I think like I said, just just try just reach out to people even if 99 don’t reply, there will be that one person who replies and that person’s experience will be probably one of the most important things you get from someone.
Thanks so much, Alice. This has been such a wonderful chat. And I’m sure like all of our listeners are going to take something so valuable away from this I know I have I’m leaving this conversation super motivated, inspired by your journey.
Thanks again for having me. And happy to chat anytime. If you have more questions just reach out and for anyone listening, if you also want to reach out and you have questions or need advice you can reach out to me on LinkedIn, I think is the most easiest way. You’ll have my name and probably information on this post as well.
Hey, so before you go, as promised, here’s a bit more about the public health career club. So when I think back to the successes that I have had about the almost 70 or so guests that I’ve interviewed who have discussed their successes, or when I think about the hundreds of professionals that I’ve interacted with a lot of the reflections circle back to having had the right people around us, right. And so knowing the power of this, whether we call it community, or we call it support circle, or your Public Health Network, essentially, we’re talking about the people we surround ourselves with, who lead us to success. And so knowing this, we are launching the public health career club with the vision of building the largest global public health community. So essentially, we are building the space, rooted and community to become the number one hangout spot dedicated to building and growing your dream public health career. And in addition to being able to connect and build meaningful relationships with other public health professionals from all around the world, the club will also offer other great resources for career growth and success, such as mindset coaching, job preparation, clinics, career growth strategy sessions, in the form of workshops, seminars, and talks, all delivered by experts and inspiring individuals in these areas. And so you can learn more about how to join the club by visiting phspot.org/club. And we officially will be opening the doors in October of 2022, with perks for founding members. So be sure to get on the waitlist for more information. That’s where we’ll be communicating all the information. And so to kind of wrap this up, I want to tell you that, you know, as I built the PH SPOT community these past five years, and now, as we are working to build up the public health career club, this one quote from Oprah always comes to mind. And it’s this, surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher. And that’s exactly the space we are creating. As a space that’s being intentionally curated to bring together like minded public health professionals from all around the world, who will not only push themselves to become the best versions of themselves, but also each other. And I can’t wait to see how this will have a ripple effect in the world as we work to better the health of our populations. And I hope you will be joining us.