Fuelling your leadership drive in public health with Nadia Akseer

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Show Notes

Leadership is fascinating. From the way movements are formed by a single individual to how that single individual is able to inspire change amongst others. Undoubtedly, we can argue that leadership is very important in public health. 

In the context of public health, a definition of leadership can be found in the Core Competencies for public health in Canada document:

“In the field of public health [leadership] relates to the ability of an individual to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of their community and/or the organization in which they work. It involves inspiring people to craft and achieve a vision and goals. Leaders provide mentoring, coaching, and recognition. They encourage empowerment, allowing other leaders to emerge.” -PHAC (2007)

In thinking about how we, as public health practitioners, can ensure that leadership is a skill that we constantly think about building, PH SPOT is having conversations with peers so that we can not only be reminded of our roles as leaders, but also to learn from and be inspired by them.

In this episode, Sujani speaks with Dr. Nadia Akseer, an Epidemiologist-Biostatistician who has spent over 10 years leading research and analyses of clinical and population health datasets in the areas of reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health, as well as nutrition in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ethiopia and other low- and middle-income countries.

In 2018, Nadia was identified as a Canadian Women Leader in Global Health, and in March 2019, she was awarded the 2019 Emerging Public Health Leader Alumni Award from the Public Health Alumni Association of the University of Toronto. 

We speak about the leadership drive Nadia possesses, when she decided she wanted to become a leader in her space, and whether you need to be in a management position to be a leader, amongst other topics. And of course, I couldn’t let her go without asking about her multiple meetings with Bill Gates, to present and collaborate on some of her work.

You’ll Learn

  • The leadership drive, and what it is
  • What leadership means to Nadia
  • How and when Nadia decided that she wanted to become a leader in this space she was passionate about
  • Whether one needs to be in a management position to be a leader (hint: absolutely not)
  • Natural born leaders versus people given the right opportunities to become a leader
  • How Nadia goes about seeking new opportunities (as she is someone who thrives on being challenged and stimulated)
  • A glimpse into the career path she took: from Biostatician at SickKids, to Global Health Research at SickKids, then to Harvard, and now at Gates Ventures
  • How her view of leadership has changed over time
  • Verbal Communication and its importance in good leadership
  • A leader Nadia looks up to: Dr. Zulfiqar Butta
  • Reflections from her meetings with Bill Gates to present her research and work together on countries that have managed to reduce child stunting

Today’s Guest

Nadia Akseer

Dr. Nadia Akseer (MSc, PhD) is an Epidemiologist-Biostatistician with 10+ years experience leading research and analyses of clinical and population health datasets. Dr. Akseer’s research interests and publications generally span reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health (RMNCAH) and nutrition in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ethiopia and other low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). She has published over 50 peer-reviewed papers, with the majority in high profile medical journals such as The Lancet, The Lancet Global Health, The BMJ, JAMA, and the Annals of the New York Academy of Science. In 2018, Dr. Akseer was identified as a Canadian Women Leader in Global Health jointly by The Lancet, Government of Canada and Canadian Society for International Health. In March 2019, she was awarded the 2019 Emerging Public Health Leader Alumni Award from the Public Health Alumni Association of the University of Toronto. Dr. Akseer finished her Masters in Science (Biostatistics and Epidemiology) from Brock University (St. Catharines, Canada) and her PhD in Epidemiology from University of Toronto (Toronto, Canada).

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Episode Transcript

Nadia 0:00
I was super nervous. I wasn’t sure I’m going to delegate. So I wasn’t sure you know, who can go do these with our work, was he going to think that it was garbage, I wasn’t sure what the tone was going to be, or just even what he was like as a person.

Sujani 0:18
Welcome to PH SPOTlight, a community for you to build your public health career with. Join Us Weekly right here. And I’ll be here too, your host Sujani Siva from PH SPOT.

Hey, what’s up everyone, thank you for joining me today on another episode of PH SPOTlight a space for you and me and everyone else in public health to share our stories and inspire each other. My name is Sujani Siva, the host of PH SPOTlight, and I’m here to help you build your public health career. Let’s talk about leadership today. So I find leadership fascinating from the way movements are formed by a single individual, and how that single individual is able to inspire change. I think of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement that he was a big part of. Or Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance to bring independence to India. And then I also think about some of the young leaders in today’s time, like Malala, and Greta, who are fighting against education for girls and the climate crisis. Undoubtedly, I think we can argue that leadership is very important in public health. And so while planning for this episode, I came across a number of great articles on the topic of leadership in public health. And I’m going to include those links in case any of you are interested in reading them. And in these readings, I was able to find a definition of leadership specific to public health. And it comes from the core competencies for public health in Canada document. And it reads, “In the field of public health leadership relates to the ability of an individual to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of their community, and or the organization in which they work. It involves inspiring people to craft and achieve a vision and goal. And leaders provide mentoring, coaching and recognition. And they also encourage empowerment, allowing other leaders to emerge.” So I ask you this, how many of us got into public health thinking that I’m going to be a leader in my field of work? I know I didn’t, maybe until recently, despite having reviewed the core competencies during my MPH program. Being a leader in public health, I can’t say that it was top of mind for me.

And seeing that leadership is one of the seven essential knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary for the practice of public health. I wish I had put more thought into that. So you know, thinking about that and thinking about how we as public health practitioners can ensure that leadership is a skill that we constantly think about building as much as we think about building our technical skills or software skills. I want to have conversations with individuals who are in public health, and those I feel we can learn from and be inspired by. And so in this episode, I’m speaking with an individual I have been following for some time now all through Twitter. And her name is Nadia Akseer. Dr. Nadia Akseer received her Master’s and PhD in Ontario, Canada from Brock University in the University of Toronto. Nadia is an epidemiologist, biostatistician, and she spent over 10 years leading research and analysis of clinical and population health datasets. And our work expands in the areas of reproductive Maternal Newborn Child and Adolescent Health, as well as nutrition in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and other low and middle income countries. And in May 2015, Nadia, along with her mentor and PhD supervisor held a call to action for women and children’s health in Afghanistan, where her work was directly used for policy and advocacy with funders, policymakers and other influential stakeholders in the country. And if you’re interested in reading her work, you’ll be glad to know that her work has been published in over 50 Peer Reviewed papers. And the majority are in high profile medical journals such as the Lancet, the Lancet global health, the BMJ, JAMA, and the Annals of the New York Academy of Science. And in 2018, Dr. Akseer was identified as a Canadian woman leader in global health jointly by the Lancet, the Government of Canada, and the Canadian Society for International Health. And in March 2019, she was awarded the 2019 emerging public health leader Alumni Award from the public health Alumni Association of the University of Toronto. So not a bad person to begin talking to about leadership and public health, ey? So I sit down with Nadia, and we talk about a bunch of things. And mainly we talk about the leadership drive that she had. And then we get into a conversation about when she decided that she wanted to become a leader in her space. And then I asked her whether you need to be in a management position to be a leader. And of course, I couldn’t let her go without asking her about her multiple meetings with Bill Gates, yes, the Bill Gates, where she presented and collaborated with him on some of her work. So without further ado, here’s my conversation with Nadia.

So today, I wanted to talk about a topic that I’m very, very, very passionate about, and it’s leadership. And I’m fascinated with leadership. And I think it’s especially within the field of public health, because you and I both know that you need really good leadership to see change in this field. And I’ve been thinking about doing this podcast for PH SPOT for a number of years. And when I thought about the different topics, leadership was always at the top. But the one problem I had was, I couldn’t really think about a specific individual that I wanted to speak to about this topic, until I came across you. And so I don’t remember exactly how it came across you. But I know it was on Twitter, and I started following your work for a while. And when I just kind of like kept up with the things that you were doing. I knew like I needed to speak to you about this and get your perspective on it. And then I think it was shortly around that same time that the University of Toronto awarded you with the emerging public health leader award. And then you were also recognized amongst other outstanding individuals as a Canadian woman leader in global health. And then I remember, I’d like reached out to you on Twitter, we started chatting a little bit more. And once I sort of got organized with this podcast, I knew that I really needed to get your perspective and advice around leadership to share with our PH SPOT community. And so maybe I’ll start with something that you mentioned in that University of Toronto feature that they kind of wrote up about you after that award. And it was around that leadership drive that you talk about. Can we talk about that? And what that means, like, what do you mean, when you say leadership drive?

Nadia 7:34
Yeah, well, thank you very much for, first of all, for bringing me on to the podcast, and for following my work, of course, and for your generous comments. I will try to do justice to the topic and share whatever little insight and wisdom that I do have, in my few years in global health, I think to directly answer your question on leadership. To me, leadership is really about having a vision. And in the field of global health or public health, I think having a vision for doing good. It really frames your approach, and I think, motivation and stamina and drive every single day to go towards that goal that you have. And so, personally speaking, a few years ago, when I was- I had joined my PhD in the year 2011. Actually, I was working on a topic, which was not really of much interest to me. And I started to think a lot about, you know, what is it that I want to do what- what is really going to get me out of bed every day and make me feel excited about about working in this space. And I was in public health, but I wasn’t in global health. And I thought about the challenges and you know, the issues that are- that women and children are experiencing all over the world, particularly in countries low and middle income countries and countries such as Afghanistan, which is my homeland, where there’s ongoing conflict and issues around corruption and disparities and women and children dying prematurely. When I thought about issues like that, I felt this, this is an area that I want to contribute to and whatever little that I can do through my work is going to make me feel fulfilled and happy. And I think that having that vision, having a goal to contribute to something meaningful like that is what encouraged me to do- to frame myself as a you know, initially as a strong researcher, as a researcher working towards becoming stronger in that area. And then using the skills that I have, you know, in epidemiology and biostatistics, I realized that hey, there is a gap in epidemiology and biostatistics in this area and I can position myself as a leader and- and really tried to steer rigorous methodologies and in an effort to not only do good great, great research myself, but also to teach and help others who want to learn more about this area. And so I think having a goal, working towards that goal.. That’s something that you’re passionate about, and it giving you the drive and stamina. I think these things collectively, really push leadership forward for me.

Sujani 10:11
Do you think that, or at least when you kind of like, reflect back, is there a specific point in time where you- when that really became clear for you, because I can imagine, as you’re going through school, you know, undergrad and masters, and then your PhD, you don’t necessarily at least take the time that you need to reflect and align everything, think about a vision and think about, okay, how do I position myself as a good leader? Did you- do recall a point in time? Or did this sort of gradually happen, and now you’re able to kind of voice that in a nice, concise way?

Nadia 10:47
I think it’s definitely something that I learned over time and thought more about as the years progressed, I think the turning point, as I mentioned, was realizing, for me, as a researcher, what is the research area that I really want to focus on. And once I had kind of nail that down, that was a point where I was like, “Okay, now I want to become a leader in this space.” And so and then, you know, as I did more and more research and global health, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and other countries in Africa, I started to understand more about where the gaps were, there are lots of phase and research that are saturated with various types of expertise and insights from experts in diverse disciplines. But there are also areas where there are huge gaps. And, you know, as I mentioned, I think data, the use of data for decision making using rigorous methods to generate evidence, these are areas where I saw huge gaps in the way research is done in global health. And the gaps come from, you know, data limitations, also from a lack of technical expertise, the international expertise, but also expertise within countries and research institutes, and the government and NGOs, in methods and in biostatistics, for example. And so when I started to learn more about those gaps, and then just, you know, falling back on my own set of skills and things that I had learned in my training, and, you know, some of the techniques and methods that I was comfortable in, I started to realize that this was a place or an area where I could position myself as a leader.

Sujani 12:26
Do you- have you ever felt that you know, to be a leader, I need to be in a senior level position or in a management type position? Like is leadership different from management? Can you have, can you be a leader without being in a senior level position? Because a lot of our listeners in the community of PH SPOT, they’re younger professionals sort of getting into the space of public health? Do you think they should be limited in terms of identifying themselves as a leader? Because they’re not in a management position?

Nadia 12:58
Absolutely not. I mean, I think there’s one thing that I’ve learned in my, you know, few years of working in research, and- and that is that everybody plays a different role. And project management or operational management is one role, which is, of course, a leadership role. But there are many parallel leadership roles, and all of them are needed to effectively drive research or effectively work towards your goal. And so in my previous experience, the team that I worked on, we had, let’s say, I had a research team of 15 people. And there were several leaders on that team. There was myself as the research lead in the technical area. So biostatistics and epidemiology. We had project manager who was handling the day to day management of the portfolio of working with HR dealing with contract stuff, contracts, so on, so there’s that angle of it. And I think that’s that’s how we traditionally think of leadership as you know, management. But I think those two are not necessarily one in the same. So that individual had a role. We had the principal investigator of the study who also was a leader, but policy, advocacy, funding type of leader. And then we also had other leaders, I had a project coordinator, who was an excellent leader that would handle the day to day scheduling, sorting out scheduling, deliverables, and timelines of the staff. And each one of us played a leadership role in our respective portfolios. So I absolutely think that there’s opportunities to be a leader, and whatever portfolio that individuals’ working in.

Sujani 14:36
So when you take your- your team, for example, for the research work that you’re doing, and you have, say, new grads sort of coming into your team, how can they show leadership? Or maybe you have an example of an individual that sort of just came right out of school, but right off the bat, they were really showing leadership in this field.

Nadia 14:59
Yeah, absolutely. Really, I’m gonna have several examples. Over the years, I’ve been really fortunate to work with great students, who often stay around and take practicums, and then eventually become part of the team, and also of fresh grads, you’ve just finished their masters and are, have joined my team as their very first job out of their master’s program. And there are many examples of great leaders that I’ve observed. But I would say that that’s absolutely possible. One example I can give is of a young lady who was working in a different field, and then decided that she wanted to do more public health work and went ahead to the University of Toronto, did her master’s in public health from there. And so she joined our team, I think, as a fresh grad, but to someone who is a bit later in their career. And she was also learning and growing as everyone else was, she had an amazing drive and that she, I mean, several things, I think, came to work early, stayed long hours to try to do self directed learning, understanding more about the work that we’re doing. And she was constantly asking questions, the right questions, but provoking questions and things that really made me realize that she understands, but not just that, she wants to learn more. And so she was kind of exuding leadership in that area, I would say, by being self driven and motivated. And within a short time, within six months, she actually moved up the team quite rapidly. Because of these, you know, her work ethic, her drive, her interest, her motivation, the fact that she wanted to learn, and she put her all into the work and the tasks that were given to her. And she was promoted within, I think, six to nine months of joining our team, which is sort of typically unheard of. As in the past, we had research assistants who would be with us for several years before they would get a promotion. But I think all that was because of you know, her own drive and her own interest and moving forward and doing great work.

Sujani 17:08
Do you think that like maybe for yourself, do you think that leadership is something that you can learn? Or do you think it’s innate? And it’s sort of just you have it or you don’t? Like, what’s your take on that?

Nadia 17:23
Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting question. Depending on when you asked me, my answer might change. But I think if you asked me a few years ago, I would say, there are natural born leaders. And when those individuals get opportunities to shine, in the leadership positions, or leadership opportunities, they’re really able to, to move forward and show their skills. But now, I would say that there are natural born leaders, but there are also people who are given the right opportunity, or if even if the opportunity is not necessarily there, they can create their opportunity, if they’re motivated and driven to become a leader in that area. I think it’s absolutely possible. And so, you know, as I’ve mentioned earlier, I think, finding for an individual to find an area that they’re genuinely passionate about something that keeps them interested, and stimulated, and getting out of bed every morning, I think those are the types of ingredients that are needed to have strong leadership drive, and anybody’s capable of it.

Sujani 18:27
Yeah, I think it’s interesting that you mentioned, like, given the right opportunities, but also you yourself, seeking the opportunities for yourself, and knowing what kind of environment you’re going to drive in, and what kind of environment is really going to motivate you. And before we started recording, we were both kind of chatting about our careers and how we needed to constantly keep challenging ourselves. And I think the path that you’ve taken to constantly challenge yourself is very, very impressive. I don’t know if you want to talk about that a little bit and how you sort of go about your career in terms of choosing the next opportunity and whether you’re looking for opportunities for leadership when you are seeking out new opportunities.

Nadia 19:12
Yeah, sure. So I think personally speaking, I really thrive on being challenged and being stimulated, day to day in my work. And I know that, you know, sometimes you can be doing a task for a week or several weeks or several months, and it can become mundane. But, you know, outside of that task, I think being in a role where, you know, there’s a constant influx of new things coming in, that’ll keep you interested in keeping you motivated. That’s the kind of area that I always seek for myself, because I know that’s what drives my productivity. And so personally speaking, I was working at the hospitals for sick children for many, many years. Initially, I was working in a role where I was a biostatistician consultant across the hospital. In many different clinical departments, supporting clinicians and scientists and their work, and I did that for a number of years, and also provided developed actually facilitated trainings on Biostatistics and Epidemiology to clinicians. And, you know, after a few years in that role, I realized that I had learned as much as I was going to learn. And I felt that I had done a quality work that I was proud of. And, you know, it was time for me to do something where I could be challenged again. And so I started seeking opportunities, a different area to work in, where I could learn something new and, and really become innovative. And, and, you know, stimulated and challenged myself again. And so I switched over to working in global health, where now I was faced with a different type of beast, and that, you know, I’m still doing data and numbers and you know, methods design and things like that. But it was a very different type set of data, you know, dealing with data, in contexts where data is typically poor quality, we’re relying largely on survey data sets that have their own issues. And so that was really interesting and challenging for me and different, you know, I still work in that field now. But every day, I was learning something new. And every day I was innovating and problem solving and thinking about, “Okay, how do I address this issue? How can I develop a new method to address you know, X issue.” So I think working in that space, keep myself constantly challenged, has been really important for me, and has, again, motivated me to become a leader in that space, because I’m innovating and creating and I’m problem solving. And then on top of that, I think publishing my- my results and finding so the scientific community and you know, the public health community at large can benefit from it. I think that’s been really kind of stimulus as well, in a way. So the more I would innovate, the more I would publish, and then kind of go back and forth, and very encouraging. And so I think, personally speaking, continuing to look for the next challenge that keeps me interested and stimulated has been somewhat key. After a number of years of doing that in global health now, I- and you know, having published quite a bit, I realized I was at that point, again, where I needed the next challenge. And so recently, I had taken up a short research opportunity at the Harvard School of Public Health, where I worked on a different type of data set longitudinal cohort data set that I hadn’t yet worked on at SickKids, which was quite interesting for me. But after a short time, I just decided to take up an opportunity with gates ventures, which is the private office for Mr. Bill Gates, based in certain Kirkland, Washington. And they’re not only doing research, but also working on the other side. So the funding side where we’re commissioning research studies to research institutions. So I think this is a new challenge for me, because now I’m not on the side where I’m writing grants and looking to receive funds for research, but I’m on the side of commissioning grants, and- and then overseeing the research process. And so it’s a new and interesting, I think, area for me, and definitely keeping me interested in on my feet. The present moment.

Sujani 23:25
I think, when you talk about the different phases that you’ve gone through, what’s running in my head is like how you’ve perhaps evolved as a leader in this space? Do you- have you noticed that for yourself like did you see yourself or define yourself as a certain type of leader when you were biostatistician providing that consulting service for the sick kids and then moving into global health? And then with Harvard, and now gates ventures. Do you define leadership the same way in each of those roles?

Nadia 23:58
Yeah, I think that’s a really interesting question. And I hadn’t really sat down to think about it until now, when you bring it up. And I would agree that I do think how I view leadership has changed over time. And also the- the, the opportunities for leadership have also evolved over time. So when I first started out, I was a, you know, junior researcher, just fresh out of my masters. And so the clients and individuals that I was working with, of course, relied on me for my technical expertise. But understanding still that I was junior and I was young, and they understood that and I understood that as well. Now fast forward, my role in the end, near the end of my tenure at SickKids. I had worked for a number of years and published significantly in many great medical journals. And so I’ve actually, I would say more established myself in the field as, as a, you know, a technical expert or a researcher who’s quite known, or not quite known, I’m never going to be quite known, but you know, better known in the space than I was seven or eight years ago. So I think my leadership role really changed because I found myself not having to actively seek out opportunities after some time the oppor- opportunities actually sought me out. And so in those roles, when it will, whether it’s Harvard or other opportunities that I had to, you know, I had the privilege of being involved in the perception from the individuals I was working with was that I was already a leader in this space, I was already somebody very well known in this space, and they valued my contribution and input in a different way, as more senior researcher, and so and now working with gates ventures, you know, I have a strong portfolio behind me. And they, you know, my role there is different, they know that I bring the biostatistics and epidemiology technical expertise to the team. And they value that and as I mentioned, that I’m a leader in that space in that team that I work in, and there are several other leaders who are leaders in their own space. And so yeah, I’ve definitely say that the role has evolved and it evolves with, the more experience you gain the more you push yourself beyond your limits and challenge yourself to grow. To learn more, I think that’s reflected in your work. And that’s also reflected in how people perceive you, and the opportunities that come towards you.

Sujani 26:28
I think, like, as you said, once you sort of establish yourself within a certain field, you’re, you’re more discoverable, and people come to you for or with different opportunities, or perhaps they want you to speak on certain topics. How important do you see for young professionals to put themselves out there, or do more of like, self marketing or PR work for themselves? If they do want to be seen as a leader in the space that they’re working in, perhaps?

Nadia 26:59
Yeah, I think that’s a good question. Self promotion, or PR, if done tastefully is always a good thing. I think there are many young people and many researchers out there, you know, we were talking before we jumped on the podcast about the number of PhDs that graduate every year in Canada there, there are many researchers, and many, many people in the field. So I think identifying yourself and- and building an image for yourself in the public is important and can be a great catalyst for opportunities for becoming well known. And, you know, and so on. So I do think it’s great. That being said, if I had to pick between focusing my energy on doing PR, versus doing good quality work, for me, personally speaking, I always focused on my work. Understanding that if I do great work, you know, my my number one goal is to make sure that I do excellent quality work that has impact towards achieving the goal that I’m working towards, which is, of course, improving the lives of women and children all around the world. And with that comes, you know, there’s some natural PR that comes with that, that has been my personal experience. But that being said, I think, you know, creating a profile for yourself on Twitter, or, you know, other social media platforms where you bring awareness to your work and the awesome things that one is doing. I think that’s always a great idea.

Sujani 28:30
Absolutely. When you talked about some of the work that you published, presumably like communication, so there’s written communication that plays a role in being a good leader in the work that you’re doing. But how about like, verbal communication? Are you seeing that as an important skill in being a good leader?

Nadia 28:51
Yeah, absolutely. I think, I think public speaking and being confident in sharing your work, in your ideas is a hugely important part of, you know, getting yourself out there and also just bringing awareness to who you are and your work in general. And, you know, that being said, I think these skills develop over time, and they certainly have for me, if I compare the first presentation I ever came, gave an undergrad or in my masters, to the type of presentations I give, now, there’s a world of a difference. So as one becomes more familiar in the work, the- the topic that they’re working in and in honing their skills and comfortable in that space, I think, public speaking and, you know, talking in like conferences, academic conferences, or talking to NGOs, or stakeholders or funders, these conversations become a lot easier. I will say that, you know, the usual saying like practice makes perfect. I think the more one practices on public speaking, the easier it becomes and the more comfortable you feel when you’re up there. And so yeah, I do think that beyond the written communications and honing the writing skills, which comes with publishing papers, I think practicing public speaking is hugely important not to fear even among those people who I think, usually struggle in this area, I think continuing to practice, and taking up opportunities where you’re invited, even in a small gathering among friends, maybe or among peers, or in a classroom setting, I think taking those opportunities and seizing the moment to practice is really important. There’s, you know, I can- I can speak to many experiences of my own, where, you know, I spoke in front of a group of funders or I spoke in front of research teams in different countries, and I was sort of just thrown into doing so. And I took those lessons from there and reflected when I went back and I thought about, “Okay, what did I do, right, what did I do wrong?” And I went ahead, and I practiced with my peers or practice amongst family members or others to kind of get my speech down, right. And to make sure that the next time I went up, I was more comfortable. In particularly in those areas where I struggled, and that was hugely important, I noticed a big benefit that it brought to my own fluidity. And when I was speaking.

Sujani 31:20
Yeah, I think another sort of question that comes to mind for me, from someone that’s part of the PH SPOT community is they had talked about how does one go about speaking to partners and stakeholders, especially, like, topics that are difficult, where you need to convince or compromise on mutually beneficial resolutions? So that’s like another aspect of communication where that- where you’re trying to negotiate? Do you have any tips there?

Nadia 31:52
Yeah, I think, I think that’s an art that one learns over time. And something that I’m continuing to, to learn about and an area that I’m growing in. I mean, some tips that I can offer are that, I think it’s important to listen to the other party, and listen to what their needs and their desires. And also, if you know, you’re not seeing eye to eye to try to probe and dig deeper and understand where their perspective or their take is coming from, you know, ultimately, we want to have effective collaboration. And that’s why we’re there in the first place. And so, listening to them, and understanding is hugely important. And even if in the end, you decide to go in a direction that’s closer to what you yourself are interested in, I think the other party feels, you know, feels good about being listened to and feels valued, that their contribution was, was received and considered. So I think listening and understanding is important, asking questions. And then also open having an open dialogue, you know, where there are contrasting views, I think putting your views on the table and providing your take or the rationale behind it. And also listening to them. I think having that open dialogue, in a non-confrontational and non-defensive tone is really important and to effective collaboration. And, and I’ve seen that many examples of that, you know, going to settings where someone in the group says something to defend their own idea and shuts down all other ideas automatically. Many people around the room will shut down and not want to engage. And so that doesn’t really make for great collaboration. So I think it’s an art. It’s something that one learns over time, but valuing the other person’s input and contribution and listening, as well. I think these are important things to consider.

Sujani 33:46
Yeah, and I think those are very important for good leader as well.

Nadia 33:51
Definitely.

Sujani 33:51
And I think kind of like going back to how we started off with, which was kind of your leadership drive is what we started talking about. And you kind of spoke to this a little bit throughout, but I’m wondering, do you use- do things specifically to feel that leadership drive? Or is it kind of just, you know, something that happens on the side? Or are you constantly actively fueling that drive for yourself?

Nadia 34:22
I would say, for me, personally speaking, the leadership drive is something that just comes naturally in the work that I do. And maybe fortunate in, you know, in the fact that typically, when I’m brought to the table, there’s a general lack of expertise in that particular team and methods or epidemiology biostatistics. And so they’re looking to me to advise in that space, and so automatically, I can assume a leadership position. And the more I’ve- you know, done research in the space and enhance my own skills. I think I’m more comfortable being a leader in that space. So I think personally speaking, I’ve- I benefited from having opportunities where I was brought into the leadership role to advise and play that role. But that being said, I think seeking out opportunities or frequently, you know, thinking about where you can be a leader, and innovating and positioning yourself as, as someone who can, you know, stir the team, I think that’s, that’s an excellent mindset to have. And you only find opportunities, I think opportunities sometimes find you but more often than not, you find opportunities when you seek them. And so if an individual is particularly interested in enhancing their leadership skills, or growing in that area, definitely keeping an eye out for those and seizing them when they come around is an excellent approach.

Sujani 35:53
I have a question for you actually, not- you know, you speak about leadership and like your personal experience, who’s a leader that you look up to in this space of public health? Is there someone that you kind of consider, maybe not even like a personal mentor that you go to? On a regular basis? But is there someone that you look up to? That’s a really good leader?

Nadia 36:16
Yeah, I mean, I would definitely say, my boss, and my PhD supervisor who I worked at with at the Hospital for Sick Children and Professor Zulfiqar Bhutta, he will always be you know, an amazing leader who I admire and aspire to be like. He’s quite well known in the field of global health, particularly in maternal and child health and nutrition. And, you know, I’ve been fortunate to work with him over the past six years or so. I think, even though he’s a really busy man, and is not around often to spend one on one time with us, just watching him from afar, engaging with him in research, seeing the way he presents, I’ve been fortunate enough to see him sit in funding meetings and have a home team of funders agree to his proposal for a project, it’s been incredible to witness, I definitely would say he’s an amazing leader that I’ve been fortunate to observe and to work with. And someone who I constantly think about, when I’m faced with a challenge, or I’m thinking about the next thing, I always think what would Zulfiqar Bhutta do. And, you know, I think it- him and there are other, you know, inspiring people in global health, I would say, as well, in different spaces who I read their work, or I watch them present or watch them give a talk. And I think, Bob, this person is just so inspirational, and the way they speak is thought provoking. So yeah, there are a few of those people that I think I constantly come back to but finding it a good, I think someone a leader like that, who’s much more senior than you or maybe not even much more senior, but somebody who you admire their work, their approach. I think that’s really, really important and helps drive leadership as well.

Sujani 38:05
And I think more recently, there’s an another great leader that you had a chance to meet and speak to, and I feel like I can’t let you go without asking you about your encounter with Bill Gates. And for our listeners, like this wasn’t just a photo op, it was a meaningful meeting, where you’re actually speaking to him about your research, and you guys are or his team and your team. You guys were working together on a project. How did you feel meeting Bill Gates?

Nadia 38:35
Yeah, I’ve actually been fortunate enough to meet him twice now, to present my research. So once was in November 2018, and then in September 2019. So we were presenting to him this large study that we’ve been doing for a number of years while I was at SickKids. Looking at countries that have managed to reduce child stunting dramatically over the past 15 to 20 years, a set of countries would call exemplars, and trying to understand what these exemplar countries did right, and synthesizing the findings so that other countries can learn from them. And this is an area that Mr. Gates is personally quite interested in. And that’s why his personal office had commissioned the study. And so when I met with him in 2018, of course, I was super nervous. I went with professors Zulfiqar Bhutta who’s the PI on the studies, the two of us went there. We were both- I think it was maybe the one time that I had seen him be a little bit nervous. Not nervous at all. But I was super nervous. I wasn’t sure. I mean, it’s Bill Gates, so I wasn’t sure you know, who can go deep be pleased with our work? Was he going to think that it was garbage? I wasn’t sure what the tone was going to be or just even what he was like as a person. So we had several hour closed door meeting with him and shared our findings. And he was just you know, in such an inspirational being, I think, to be around. And I think what really impressed me about him was that he had, he had read our research, and he understood our research. And I think that’s so important, because many, you know, senior level folks, especially someone at his level, or, you know, high in positions in funding agencies or NGOs typically don’t know, or, you know, get into the nitty gritty of the research or the technical language, or understand the methods. But Mr. Gates did. And that amazed me, because I was thinking how he probably had comes across so many different research studies. So many different people, he meets all the time, yet he took the time to read our work. And he asked us questions, technical questions that were write down, you know, in the weeds, about the methods that we used, and I was very much impressed by that. And, and they showed there were questions that showed his understanding. And also, I think his tone was, he was very constructive. And not, you know, not critical for the sake of being critical. I think he gave us constructive critiques. He has thought provoking questions. He, he and he also, at the same time had this big picture, a lens, and that he was thinking, “Okay, so now, how can other countries benefit from this?” I think his goal, as is, you know, the mandate of the agencies that he funds such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is really to improve the health and survival of families and children all over the world. And that really showed through the interaction that we had, you know, he was frequently beyond the technical questions asked me about the big picture. So how can we emulate success? How, you know, how can we take these results? How can other people benefit from them. So there’s a combination of questions coming from two different spaces. And he- it was just inspiring to be around and, and to witness that, and also to have my research contribute to that. And then the second experience we had in 2019, just a few months ago, actually, we shared an update on our work. And he was very much excited. In fact, he made a comment about our work last year, where he said that I quote, this is some of the best nutrition research he’s ever read. And so I think we were quite excited to receive that type of feedback from someone like Mr. Gates. And this year, we gave him an update. And he was, you know, just as excited as the work is getting closer to having a public dissemination. And there’s lots of interest as well from now, other donors and agencies all over the world who wants to take our exemplars work and try to replicate it in other contexts, and so on. So lots of positive stuff coming out and having Mr. Gates support, and just even having him there, and giving us a Thumbs Up was incredible.

Sujani 42:57
It’s always nice when the people that you look up to are exactly the way that you would like them to be inspiring in person. Thank you. Thank you so much, Nadia, for spending the time to share some of those tips and some of your experiences and perspective on leadership. And I am 100% confident that a lot of our listeners are going to walk away with some very tangible things that they can work on.

Nadia 43:23
Oh, not a problem. Thank you so much for having me. And, yeah, I hope that the audience enjoyed our talk. Guys, if you want to reach out to me anytime, feel free to message me on Twitter. Or, you know, you’re gonna feel free to share my contact information and happy to chat if anyone wants to happen off line conversation.

Sujani 43:45
I hope you enjoyed that episode with Nadia on leadership. And I really hope that if you don’t already consider yourself as a leader in your space that you will, and I really hope that you will work towards strengthening that skill because we need strong leaders to see change in public health. And with that, thank you so much for tuning into PH SPOTlight this week. And if you want to get any of the links or information mentioned in today’s episode, including ways to connect with Nadia, head over to pHspot.ca/podcast. And we will have everything there for you. And once again, thank you for the invaluable work that you do for this world.

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About the Show

PH SPOTlight: Public health career stories, inspiration, and guidance from current-day public health heroes

On the show, Sujani sits down with public health heroes of our time to share career stories, inspiration, and guidance for building public health careers. From time to time, she also has conversations with friends of public health – individuals who are not public health professionals, but their advice and guidance are equally important.

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