When working as a dental hygienist, Salima Thawer realized very quickly that, although she enjoyed making a difference for each individual patient, there were many other factors at play with respect to a person’s health.
“I wanted to learn about the broader factors impacting an individual’s health,” explains Thawer. “I was interested in exploring the social determinants, social structures and policy aspects of health. I decided the best way to do this was to pursue my master of public health (MPH) degree.”
Thawer—a self-described permanent student—has crossed the convocation stage four times at the University of Alberta, her most recent time as an MPH graduate in public health leadership. She explains that the program was flexible, meeting her needs as a part-time student on a maternity leave. But what stood out to her the most was her connection with her advisor, Ken Zakariasen.
“Ken was easy to talk to and supportive of my interests—particularly my capstone project,” says Thawer. Their backgrounds both lay in the dental field and he was able to help her make the transition from private practice mentality to public health. “We still keep in touch from time to time.”
During her practicum experience, Thawer worked with a community health researcher and her research team in the area of oral health surveillance. This was her first significant exposure to dental public health, and she continues to work part-time with that researcher at the University of Calgary today. Their research focuses on projects related to community water fluoridation cessation—a topic with relevance for Albertans.
“Water fluoridation cessation can be a contentious issue,” explains Thawer. “It’s exciting work because the research that I’ve been involved with has had real influence on decision-making and political discourse.”
Thawer is also an assistant clinical professor with the School of Dentistry in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta. There she teaches courses related to population health and policy to dental hygiene students. She challenges students to look beyond a patient’s oral cavity and physical body, and to consider the person and their environment as a whole. This influences the approaches taken in patient-centred care, whether the “patient” is the individual or the community.
“A view from a public health lens really encompasses a broader, multi-factorial approach,” says Thawer.
Aside from lending her time to the University of Alberta’s Alumni Council as the School of Public Health representative, Thawer has also been part of a team of volunteers that helped to set up a dental hygiene program at Aga Khan University in Pakistan. Using her combined background in dental hygiene and public health, she contributed to some of the community health and leadership components of the curriculum.
“Seeing this project from the initial assessment and planning phase to its early stages of fruition has been a highlight, and I look forward to continuing to contribute as it grows,” says Thawer. “I hope that this work will impact the access to care, oral health and overall health of underserved communities in other regions of the world.”
(Last updated October, 2017)