PhD Student, Health, Behavior and Society
Erin Mead was at the top of the world, in the Canadian Arctic, when she realized the power of community in public health. In 2008, Mead, then an MHS student at the Bloomberg School, had traveled to the remote Kitikmeot region in Nunavut, arriving on the longest day of the year, when there is no sunset. She had come to the area, home to a mostly Inuit population, to launch an intervention designed to improve nutrition and increase physical activity in two remote communities with high rates of obesity and chronic diseases. Over the next six months, as coordinator of the Healthy Foods North program, Mead collected baseline data on residents’ diet and physical activity; and hired, trained and managed six community members as peer health educators. At various venues, including stores, workplaces and community events, her team demonstrated healthy cooking methods, provided samples of tasty and nutritious foods and educated residents about the benefits of good nutrition and exercise. Along the way, Mead discovered that the underpinnings of effective community-based initiatives are strong local partnerships. “I felt like I was building capacity for the community but also building my own capacity,” she says. “They really educated me about how to be adaptable and sensitive to what’s going on there.”
A personal connection with one woman in particular helped Mead define community-based public health. Staff turnover in the hiring and training of local workers was a challenge while instituting the Healthy Foods North program, but one worker who persevered, despite her self-doubts and shyness, ended up excelling at her public presentation. Having come full circle, Mead left Nunavut on the year’s shortest day, when there is no sunrise. As a doctoral student for the past two years, Mead has focused on environmental and behavioral cancer risks and health disparities. She recently returned from a data-collection trip to India as part of a study to evaluate compliance with tobacco control policies in 25 cities. She envisions working in research and developing culturally sensitive programs to improve the health of marginalized communities.