Patience, perspiration, and passion, with Dr Firdosi Mehta

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In this episode, Sujani sits down with Dr. Firdosi Mehta, an adjunct professor at York University. They discuss his previous work at the WHO, the eradication of smallpox and polio, and his current work with mentoring and educating students and young professionals along their public health journeys.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • What motivated Dr. Mehta to pursue public health after his time in medical school
  • Dr. Mehta’s memories of the WHO’s work in eradicating smallpox and his own work towards eradicating polio
  • How kindness, compassion, and empathy is at the root of public health
  • Networking and reputation building tips for job seeking
  • Dr. Mehta’s mentoring experience and advice for students and young professionals

Today’s Guest:

Dr Mehta has over 30 years of Public Health experience, more than half of which were with the WHO. He has worked in several countries and regions of the world. Dr Mehta completed his medical education in India after which he served in the Indian Navy Defense Services. He then served in the Ministry of Health, Sultanate of Oman in various capacities for 10 years, the last being Director of Surveillance and Disease Control. Dr Mehta then joined the World Health Organization and worked in Somalia from 1998 – 2002, where he was responsible for supporting the control of TB and all other communicable diseases in a complex emergency situation. He moved from Somalia to Indonesia in 2002 in the capacity of Country Advisor Tuberculosis Control program (Mega High burden country) for seven years. Dr Mehta subsequently moved to Sri Lanka in 2009 as the WHO country Representative until 2014. His experience in emergency and humanitarian action, communicable disease control, health system issues, mental health and a keen focus on addressing non communicable diseases in Sri Lanka have been well recognized and acknowledged. He is an Adjunct Professor at York University and University of Toronto in Canada, as well as a senior Mentor on several mentoring platforms. In recognition of his contributions to the Global Health Program at York, a Global Health student prize has been named after him in 2022. He is a member on the Governance and Advisory committee on Human Trafficking at the Peel Institute on Violence prevention, Family services Peel Toronto. Also a member on a Lived experience Advisory committee on research at the Centers for Addictions and Mental health (CAMH) Toronto. Member on the Steering Committee on Research for Mental Health Equity in the Asia Pacific – Digital (REMAP-D) based at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Advisor on “The Young Innovation Leaders Fellowship” Nigeria, which is a platform created by Hutzpah Centre for Innovation and Development – a social enterprise aimed at promoting innovation across sectors in Africa

Featured on the Show:

Episode Transcript

Firdosi 0:00
Be passionate about what you do and what you have. It will stand you in good stead and I’ve always been passionate about what I do. I care about what I do. It stems from the- the innate desire to do good, and to make a difference in people’s lives.

Sujani 0:25
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.

Hi, Dr. Firdosi Mehta, and thank you so much for being on the PH SPOT Podcast. I’m super excited for our listeners to be able to hear your 30 year public health career journey.

Firdosi 0:53
Thank you very much, Sujani. Good morning to you. And thank you for having me. It’s always nice to connect with public health professionals and look forward to this podcast.

Sujani 1:06
So I know your story a little bit because we had you inside our community. And you spoke to our members there. And you and I have chatted here and there. And I think one question that I’m super curious about that I don’t think I’ve asked you yet is kind of how you discovered the area of public health. I know you have training in, in medicine, and you joined the armed forces back in 1970s. And it was at the time when you discovered public health as you were pursuing medicine, or did you have some sort of awareness about this field of public health and what public health practitioners did even before that?

Firdosi 1:46
Thank you for that question, Sujani. This goes back, as you have correctly pointed out, this goes back to my medical days, if I told you that I was in the Armed Forces Medical College, and I was doing my MBBS over there, my medicine over there. So during that time, my formative years in- in medicine and being in the medical college over there, in the final year, you have your four subjects, that is medicine, surgery, gynecology, and obstetrics and preventive medicine in India, it is called preventive and social medicine. But it covers the broad aspect of public health. So during my medical days and studying medicine at that time, my affinity was not so much towards the clinical specialities. I had a much more preference and interest in preventive and social medicine that is public health. And during that time, what I felt was that I would be better off doing good and contributing towards communities, rather than individual face to face clinical medicine, not to say that clinicians do not have, but I wanted a more broader aspect of medicine. And public health was quite my favorite at that. And during that time, when I- we had our textbooks, of course, the World Health Organization was frequently referenced to many issues, initiatives, smallpox eradication, polio, and various things were referenced to. So right during those formative years, I had a dream of joining the World Health Organization some time, that took a long time to come to fruition. But I did not forget my dream, and I worked towards the dream. And that was my journey for several decades that I finally achieved. And I got into the World Health Organization that was in 1998. So this, this is the background of my interest in public health. And I still am very passionate about public health. I’ve done a lot of work in the different countries, which we have talked about, and I feel that it is a very good discipline. And I mentor and I encourage several students and young professionals to sort of consider going into public health. So that’s the background, Sujani.

Sujani 5:00
Was preventive medicine popular? Would you say amongst your colleagues when you were pursuing medical school?

Firdosi 5:09
No, Sujani, no, preventive and social medicine was not that particular during that time, most of my colleagues went into clinical specialities. Several of my batchmates from the Armed Forces Medical College, majority of them became surgeons, physicians and obstetrics and gynecology, very few went into public health. But that is- that is changing when I was in medical school, or I’m talking in the 70s. So that was 50 years ago, but things have changed. And there is definitely much more interest and opportunities in public health now for young professionals and students to consider. And I would say that there is definitely a mind shift. And quite a few people are looking at public health and global health. And as you know, I am an adjunct professor in York University, where they have a global health costs over there, it is an undergraduate course. They started the global health course in 2014, so I have been associated with it since 2015. And I’m happy to note that a School of Global Health has been also instituted in York University in 2020. And I do quite a lot of mentoring, guest lecturing and support over there in York, for students to consider going in for global health and public health as such.

Sujani 6:52
Yeah, definitely the popularity in public health and education around it has, like we can see it evidently. And I think the pandemic has a lot to do with it. But you know, just going back to the 1970s, it’s interesting, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody have mentioned smallpox on the podcast, and 1980 is when it was officially declared to be eradicated. And as you’re going through school in the 70s, in what we’re calling public health, do you remember I recall, kind of that eradication campaign? And is there anything that you could tell us about that period?

Firdosi 7:30
I would say eradication of smallpox is the single most significant achievement of the World Health Organization, I would say, in this several decades, WHO is 75 years old. It started in 1948. And then it embarked on smallpox eradication, and it was a success. As a young schoolboy. I remember the teams used to come to school, and they used to inoculate us for against smallpox, and it used to leave a little scar on your arm. The BCG vaccine was always given in the left upper arm, and the smallpox given in some other place. So I remember that as a small child, and many children would not have youngsters and young professionals would never have had the opportunity of getting the smallpox vaccination. But another association that I had with smallpox is that one of the last cases of smallpox was in Somalia. The person was from Mirka, a place called Mirka, which is in the central and southern part of Somalia. That person I remember his name. He was one of these last survivors of smallpox, and then he was indoctrinated into the polio eradication program. And I had the good fortune of meeting him during my tenure in Somalia from 1998 to 2002. And the next disease which is on the horizon of being eradicated is polio eradication. I have done a significant work in polio eradication right from the time that I started my international public health experience in Oman. I was in Sultanate of Oman, which is a gulf country. A small population, oil resource rich, very committed to public health, we did a lot of good work in polio eradication at that time. I was the polio eradication and control coordinator. I used to follow up all the acute flaccid paralysis, AFP cases, which used to be admitted in the hospitals, follow them up at 60 days for residential purposes, ensure that their stool samples were taken for polio virus isolation, we did a lot of work with the ministry of health coordinators, UNICEF, CDC, Atlanta, WHO etc. And the work that started in Oman, and several clinical trials that we did with different polio vaccines, the use of IPv, that is inaccurate polio vaccine, along with oral polio vaccine, several papers were published, and then that shaped the technicalities and the different strategies of polio. Now, polio is right at the end game, there are just two countries that is Pakistan and Afghanistan, where endemic polio virus circulation is taking place, there is a seeding in different countries, but the world is committed just now for eradicating polio, the polio eradication program did not think it would be so difficult because security, rumors, etc. And the volatile security in Afghanistan and Pakistan, due to the civil war, terrorism, etc, has impacted on that. But I’m sure that I will see polio eradication during my lifetime to come to fruition.

Sujani 11:59
That would be incredible. And I think what I’m always impressed by Dr. Firdosi, when you’re speaking is the level of detail that you remember, from every experience you’ve had over these past 30 years, and the individuals names like, I don’t know how you- how you do that, like you, you are able to remember every detail from the 1970s to now and all of the individuals you have worked with. And I want to guess that perhaps, you know, you’re super passionate about the work that you kind of get involved in the relationships that you’re building with the people who are involved in these in these experiences that you’ve had.

Firdosi 12:39
That’s right, Sujani. It stems with passion, it stems with passion, and it is connected with commitment. So I was always passionate about public health, I have been passionate about what I do. And I always tell my mentees, students and young professionals, passion is the baking powder of life. If you have it, you rise, if you don’t have it, you remain flat, just like how a baking powder makes a cake rice. So I always tell my students and young professionals who I mentor, and I talk to, be passionate about what you do, and what you have, it will stand you in good stead. And I’ve always been passionate about what I do. I care about what I do. And it stems from the innate desire to do good, Sujani, it stems from that the innate desire to do good, and to make a difference in people’s lives, you know, so it’s been a long journey. And I’ve had several people along the way and in any way that I have been able to make a difference. It’s always been a pleasure. And I’d like to give a quote over here, which used to be on my dear father who’s no more, he passed away many years ago in 2007. So it’s almost 16 years since he passed away, he had the same small plaque on his table, it reads, “I shall pass this way but once therefore any good that I can do or any kindness that I can show, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it or I shall not pass this way again.” That same saying is on my table now. And I have passed it down to my children. And I always tell people that if you get an opportunity to show kindness and to make a difference, try and do it because that opportunity may not come again.

Sujani 15:08
I love that. And I- and I think that’s something that’s not taught in school compassion, kindness, and how to build a career that’s rooted in that.

Firdosi 15:18
That’s true, Sujani, combined compassion and kindness, I always tell my people who I mentor and students, I say, three things are important in life. One being kind, two, being kind, and three, being kind, you know, in this world of today of digital realities, interpersonal interactions, etc, much less, and the more people who show kindness and compassion and empathy. And I always say empathy is very important, walking in the shoes of a person. And as a public health professional, I would say, or as anybody, if you have these values of kindness, compassion, and empathy, it goes a long way, Sujani.

Sujani 16:14
It absolutely does. And I recall, when you did the talk for our career club members, there was another takeaway you left us with when it comes to building a career and having a dream. And I heard you kind of talk about it right now too, as you are graduating from your medical school, you set a goal of joining the World Health Organization and work towards that it took a few years for you to get to it. But you always knew that was kind of your career goal and in what you were working towards. And let me see if I can remember it. It was- it was the three P’s was it? It was passion, persistence, and patience. Was that what you were referring to?

Firdosi 16:54
That’s the Triple P, you remember it correctly, the Triple P, patience, persistence, and perspiration. These are an informidable combination, which people should inculcate. As you have noted in the past, also, when we were talking on your career clubs career journey, you often say that you come across people, public health professionals, other professionals who are in a big hurry. But patience is a virtue, and it takes time. And another quote that I say is that “Success is the sum of small efforts done day in and day out. And Rome was not built in a day.” So it takes time for my dream to come to fruition. And for it to become a reality, took more than 20 years, it took more than 20 years, 11 years, I wasn’t the forces, it was very good to be in the armed forces. You develop a respect for authority, systematic thinking, discipline, etc. It was a very good foundation for the larger world and international health and public health, etc. And then Oman, it was 10 years in Oman. And as I told you, I did a lot of good work over there. My public health skills were honed, but you were a commodity over there, you are just an entity over there, there is no long term career goals over there. So the issue was continuing to do small efforts day in and day out, then it ultimately leads to success and your dream would come through and another thing as you pointed out, during our past discussions, you talked about networking, you know that it is very important. You see, Sujani, in the late 80s and 90s. There was hardly any social media platforms etc. So Net King was your reputation, your reputation, your character, your passion, etc. It was your passport. And I always say that your reputation always precedes you. And if you are sincere, if you are committed, people will recognize you and know that you are dependable. You’re consistent and you will be recognized by that. So but the world has changed now. There is so much of platforms available on social media. I came across a very nice thing about social media is that basically, everybody is angry on Twitter, happy on Facebook, successful on LinkedIn, artistic on Instagram, and jobless on WhatsApp. So that was a nice, nice one that is so much of networking that is now available digitally, LinkedIn and various other platforms, it’s much easier to read this thing. But ultimately, when it comes to what is the last push, or what is the last mile, is your reputation, to be consistent, committed, passionate, and having compassion and empathy. These are the characteristics that I would go in when I am employing or taking anybody on.

Sujani 21:01
Yeah, I love that you said that you can have the largest network of people and know so many people. But if you don’t come off as authentic and compassionate and don’t care for others around you it- I think, regardless of if you’re online or offline, it really can show to the other person.

Firdosi 21:21
That’s right, Sujani, these are the important things that we must cultivate and foster and tell the professionals, youngsters, students, etc, to cultivate and to look forward to and to foster, to nurture and foster these things. You know, that’s important.

Sujani 21:41
So you finished off your time in the armed forces, and you move to Oman to work in surveillance and disease control for about a decade. And then from there starts your career with the World Health Organization. And you were a country adviser in Kenya and Somalia, and then a country advisor in Indonesia, and then the WHO representative to Sri Lanka. And then today, you’re at York University as a professor. And so when you look back at these 30 odd years, first, I think when people you know, see your career trajectory, or hear your story, or anybody’s story, it always seems so perfect and so linear. And that’s overwhelming to individuals starting off in their career. And what I like to paint where possible is the struggles and the challenges individuals have faced, and yet they were able to build a career that was fulfilling for them. And so when you think back to these 30 years, especially early on in your career, what are some challenges or setbacks that you had faced that you think are good lessons to share with our listeners?

Firdosi 22:55
Thanks. So Sujani, there have been several challenges and hurdles that I had to overcome along the journey. There are several several challenges and hurdles that I had to overcome. The thing is, to have faith and to believe in yourself and to believe in your dream. And I always say that everything happens for a reason. Don’t question it, trust it, because always in hindsight, we realize and understand why this thing happened, or that thing happened along the journey. So, it was not easy, Sujani. It was not easy for me. First of all, when I was in the armed forces, I had to take a premature retirement. For taking a premature retirement, I had to take a premature retirement on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. It took a long time because the Armed Forces is quite bureaucratic, it all took about a year and a half for the papers to be processed, but then it finally came through then when it came through, I was looking for openings in WHO, UNICEF ,etc, etc. But the youngsters and the young professionals have to understand to get into organizations, multilateral organizations like WHO, the United Nations etc, you have to have experience. So then I applied to various openings in the Gulf being in India, the advertisements used to come in the Sunday newspapers, but one thing is there again, Sujani, advertisements were mainly for clinicians for surgeons, physicians, ophthalmologist, ANP, etc. Very few public health advertisements were there, and again, everything I say everything happens for a reason. And there was an advertisement for a public health specialist in Oman, which I applied for. And I got it. I moved to Oman, with my wife and my two year old daughter not knowing what was in store in gulf, and then slowly, slowly ones reputation by being committed by taking on responsibility to try to do the best that you can do. And during my 10 years, in Oman, I never forgot my dream of getting into WHO I kept applying for WHO. I kept applying, you see, there are things called vacancy notices, you keep applying. And then you get a letter back saying that your candidancy was seriously considered, but we regret that it was not successful this time. And you could try it again. Then during my time in Oman, due to the work that I had done my reputation in WHO, UNICEF, CDC Atlanta, people knew me. And then the question was that the people who counted in WHO and UNICEF, etc. And that was an opening for me to get in and to continue. I again, tell my students and mentees that nothing is impossible. As Audrey Hepburn says, “If you put a apostrophe after I, get this converted to I am possible.” So keep trying. Keep at it, and continue doing what you can and have faith, have faith in yourself, and have faith in the almighty or whatever you believe in. Because it will work out if you keep trying and be committed and passionate. And if you want to do good, because the more good you- you do, the more good comes back. It’s been a long journey. Sujani There have been several obstacles, on the way several hurdles. But looking back, I take pride in having this journey of 30 years. And I take pride in sharing this. Because I always say the definition of a mentor is somebody a little older, a little wiser, from whose hindsight a student or a young profession can gain foresight. So I like to put students and young professionals on my shoulders so that they can gain foresight, and look forward from the hindsight from what they hear.

Sujani 28:05
I love the work that you do mentoring kind of the next generation of public health professionals. And maybe you can tell us a little bit about how your, I guess your career is today and what you’re up to these days. We know that you’re a professor at York University, but you also are an advisor and you know, on boards, and maybe you could tell us a little bit about how you spend your time these days.

Firdosi 28:29
So I finished with WHO in 2014. So I’ve been here for almost 10 years with my family over here. I am an adjunct professor in public health in York University in the Faculty of Health. I am also adjunct professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health in UFT. So these are the two academic appointments that I had. And as I was telling you a little while earlier, I have been recently inducted as adjunct fellow in the Dalla Lana Institute of Global Health Research at York University also. I also am on several committees in which I am on a committee, a lived experience committee in CAMH. This is a lived experience committee on LERC that is lived experience research committee in damage for quite a few years. We- we sort of meet on a monthly basis, and we give input from a lived experience, lens and a viewpoint into researchers doing various projects in chemists. Similarly, I’m on a lived experience research committee in the University of British Columbia, which is doing a project called REMAP-D, it starts research into mental health in the Asia Pacific region, and I’m working with collaborators in University of British Columbia. I’m also on committee, the Governance Committee and the human trafficking committee in an NGO called Family Services Peel, which does a lot of work on gender based violence and human trafficking. I’m also senior mentor on different mentoring platforms. One mentoring platform where I’m very active is multi-pod. MultiPOD stands for pathways, opportunities and directions. This is a WHO colleague of mine, Dr. Fernando Zacharia, who’s much senior to me, He’s based in Washington. This was his brainchild, I’m on the board of directors of that MultiPOD mentoring platform, which takes in mentees for a nine month mentoring program, it is free of cost. And I have been active on that since 2016, or 2017. So these are the various academic and committees that I am active on. One thing I’d like to mention here Sujani, which I feel very, very privileged on that during my time in Sri Lanka for almost six years, the Sri Lanka Medical Association is one of the oldest medical associations in Southeast Asia. And just when I left I was inducted as an Honorary Fellow of the Sri Lanka Medical Association, which had never been done before. They had never inducted an Honorary Fellow as a non Sri Lankan. So that was a great honor. And I was very humbled and privileged by that honor which was bestowed on me. So apart from academic mentoring committees, etc, I spend the time on my farm I’m- I have a farm, which is about four hours driving time from Mississauga, where my city home is. It’s in Lanark County, Lanark County is the maple syrup capital of Ontario, I have about 30 sheep, a llama, a pony, and some chickens. So this gives me a lot of pleasure. It’s so nice to be in nature, to work with animals, etc. And that is a lovely experience with which is a good combination and an offset to the various academic and professional activities that I do.

Sujani 33:10
I love it. 30 plus years later, your- your passion for public health is still strong. And I’m curious after you had achieved that dream of joining the WHO and you spent about 15-16 years there, did you come out of that with a new goal or new milestone that you wanted to reach?

Firdosi 33:31
No, it was after 16 years with WHO, you sort of slowed down a little, Sujani, you do slow down a little I would have liked to do consultation with WHO and the other UN organizations etc. But once you are sort of in North America, you’re quite far because I was based in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, which was the Southeast Asia Regional Office, which is in New Delhi. So you’re sort of out of the orbit over there. So it was difficult to sort of see for consultations, consultancies, etc. But I’m happy that I found these academic and mentoring opportunities. And I feel very strongly on giving back to the students and the young professionals from whatever I have learned and to sort of nurture them and to inspire them for a career in public health, whether it be for the UN, whether it be WHO or NGOs or what you are doing, Sujani, I mean, I find what you are doing and PH SPOT very credible. As I told you, I saw your website reference on the resources in MultiPOD where I am a mentor, that is how I saw it, I looked at your website, I found it very credible, very resourceful. And then I reached out to you and I’m glad that we have been able to coordinate and I’m sure we- This will be a long lasting relationship. What you are doing is nurturing the future professionals and inspiring them through your public health career club, through these podcasts, through your workshops, through your side hustles. Hats off and congratulations to that. I really admire the work that you’re doing.

Sujani 35:45
Thank you so much. Dr. Firdosi, I think a lot of the things that we talked about, I can kind of connect to it, you know, kindness, compassion, empathy, patience, perspiration, and passion. I think a lot of those are the ingredients that really drive me to building and growing PH SPOT. So I do know that we will continue this relationship. And I’m hoping we can work together in some form in the future.

Firdosi 36:10
Yes, definitely, Sujani. So thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure and continue what you are doing, which is very good work that you are doing. And I look forward to engaging with you and looking for further opportunities to further and inspire the younger generations in public health for the future.

Sujani 36:34
Hey, I hope you enjoyed that episode. And if you want to get the links or information mentioned in today’s episode, you can head over to And we’ll have everything there for you. And before you go, I want to tell you about the public health career club. So if you’ve been looking for a place to connect and build meaningful relationships with other public health professionals, from all around the world, you should join us in the public health career club. We launched the club with the vision of becoming 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 those meaningful relationships with other public health professionals, the club also offers other great resources for your career growth and success, like mindset coaching, job preparation clinics, and career growth strategy sessions in the form of trainings and talks, all delivered by experts and inspiring individuals in these areas. So if you want to learn more, or want to join the club, you can visit our page at And we’ll have all the information there. And you know, as a space that’s being intentionally curated to bring together like minded public health professionals who are not only there to push themselves to become the best versions of themselves, but also each other. And with that, I can’t wait to see how it this is going to have a ripple effect in the world as we all work together to better the health of our populations and just have immense impact in the world. And I hope you’ll be joining us in the public health career club.


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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