Alumni Member

Ellen MacEachen

When did you graduate from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health?

I completed my PhD in 2003.

What additional degrees or training do you have?

I have an MSc from Queen’s University and a BA from Concordia University.

How did you become interested in your field?

My fields are research and teaching in public health, with a focus on work and health, and qualitative research methods. I became interested in these because of various employment and learning experiences. My experience as a young Canadian traveller working as an aide at an institution for people with severe mental disabilities in England prompted questions about how we understand the borders between health, illness and disability and how we organize the situations of more vulnerable members of society.

The observations of cultural differences during my travels as well as the observation and immersion at the hospital were key prompts for my interest in ethnographic and other qualitative research methods.  My main research field is work and health. I became drawn to this because of the mentorship of Joan Eakin, DLSPH professor emeritus.  My experience as a research assistant on her studies created an interest in the structural conditions and social relations of work and health and the situation of workers ‘at the margins,’ such as those in small businesses and contingent employment relationships.  For instance, even though 97 per cent of Canadian business are small, we treat them in research and policy as the exception.

What do you enjoy most about your current career position?

I appreciate the opportunity to engage in teaching, student mentorship, and school governance. I value the ability to engage in research that can made a difference to work and health systems and to improved opportunities for the protection and heath of workers.

In what ways has your experience at the School had an impact on your career and who you are today?

It has had a huge impact. I developed a strong understanding of social and structural determinants of population health. I learned how to engage with theory and research in relation to my interests in work and health services design, implementation and evaluation. Most importantly, I learned to think critically. That is, the training at the School showed me how to appraise knowledge and situations and how to consider different visions for the organization of populations and health.

How did your experiences at the School help you to overcome obstacles you’ve faced as a public health professional?

The School taught me to look at the big picture. In turn, this puts obstacles in context and makes them more manageable.  The multi-disciplinary environment of the School creates a keen awareness of the different ways that people bring knowledge and methods to a situation.  By drawing together knowledge and resources, we can address complex problems. All of this came into play with a successful SSHRC Partnership Grant Application in 2013 that allowed me (with co-director Emile Tompa) to create the national Centre for Research on Work Disability Policy that addresses the problem of un- and under-employment due to ill health or disability.

Describe any significant relationships with fellow students or faculty. How did these relationships help you?

I have ongoing and important relationships with many fellow students and faculty. My working relationship with my academic supervisor, Joan Eakin, has extended well beyond the years of my PhD training.  Under Joan’s mentorship, I was introduced to international scholars and research opportunities that have since made a significant difference to my career. We still meet regularly and I still seek advice from her. Other important faculty relationships were with course instructors such as Ann Robertson and David Coburn. They never shied away from posing difficult questions that made students think about issues from new angles.

My peer relationships provided me with a social and professional network that I draw on to this day.  For instance, I have worked across various committees with Carol Strike. My peers and I provide guest lectures to each other, tap into each other’s professional networks, write support letters, share professional advice and insights. We also have laughs together. Most recently, a group of us had a weekend cottage retreat.

What advice would you give to younger alumni or current students who aspire to follow a similar career path?

I completed a PhD, which led to a career path in research and academia. It can be tough these days for young scholars to secure good academic positions. However, there is no end to the need for people who understand research and public health, and know how to think critically about complex issues. These are tomorrow’s innovators and planners. I would tell them that my career part has been rich and rewarding.

Do you have a favorite or funny story about your time here?

I had my third child during my PhD. It was actually more restful for me to come into the office than to stay at home because I had a two and a four year old at home.  So, as I came to the end of the pregnancy and went one week overdue and then two weeks overdue, I continued to come into the office, which was 3rd floor McMurrich Building right by the offices of Ted Myers, Matilda Kong and Carol Strike. I remember people being very uneasy about my continued attendance. I heard many half-joking remarks about who in the building might be able to deliver a baby.  At the time, I thought people’s nervousness about delivering a baby was quite amusing. I had so many other issues on my mind.

What would you say to a prospective student who is considering the School?

I would say that the School is an excellent place to learn how to engage in disciplined, critical thinking about public and population health. The faculty are top notch and the Dean is visionary.  I can’t think of any place that can compete with the School for top quality and extensive training in qualitative health research theory and methods.