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Christina Ricci: Making Waves in Maternal Health

July 26/2021

By Françoise Makanda, Communications Officer at DLSPH

Christina Ricci is finally ready to hit the workforce after seven years of university studies. With a job waiting for her after graduation, Ricci says the transition from school to work will be effortless.

For her first role at Public Health Agency Canada, she will be working within the Maternal, Youth and Child Health division, maintaining surveillance on breastfeeding rates in Canada and pediatric oncology.

“There’s an entire surveillance system for that within Canada,” says Ricci. She has been studying maternal, newborn and child health since her undergrad.

DLSPH Communications Officer Françoise Makanda spoke to Christina about her time at DLSPH.

What got you into epidemiology?

It started in the late years of my undergraduate degree. I have always done maternal, newborn and child health but in a wet lab or biochemistry setting. And I was really disliking it. I knew I wanted to have an impact on the community but behind the lab bench did not feel right for me. I also have always enjoyed preventative medicine as being proactive with your health is something I have always valued for myself and my family.

I started to learn about public health as a general notion to making an impact on the wider community and then for my final undergraduate practicum, I had stumbled upon somebody who was doing maternal and child health, but from the epidemiology side at Mount Sinai Hospital. She introduced me to the school as well and so I applied to Dalla Lana. Doing epidemiology started off as something I wanted to do so I could learn the hard, technical skills and coding while I was still young and in school, but through this practicum and the program, I really started to enjoy it for more than that.

Now, I view epidemiology as my way to make an impact, identify gaps or problems and communicate these to the public. It feels a little bit more creative. I can adapt a study design or data collection method or make a question within my code as opposed to doing the lab work every day. It’s also more practical—I could go to school to be an epidemiologist and come out of it as an epidemiologist. With a bachelor’s degree, you’re doing life science, but it can mean 10,000 different jobs. I am realizing now there are many jobs I can do with an MPH but I was glad I was able to acquire many technical hard skills I can take with me throughout my career.

And why did you narrow down on maternal health?

So that started all the way in first year. I was taking an elective. They had a biochemist come in and talk to us about different areas of their research. And then there was this one individual who presented on the Dutch famine and the notion of development origins of health and disease (DOHaD).

Alumna Christina Ricci

Alum Christina Ricci

In the 40s, many pregnant individuals were not eating properly during their pregnancy due to this famine but what they found 30 years later was their children were developing cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses at an increased rate. I thought it was interesting that something that happened during those 9 months could affect the trajectory of this newborn’s life well into adulthood decades later. That sort of led to me doing, essentially, both of my undergraduate practicums, my part-time research jobs and my undergraduate thesis, either in a wet lab, or a dry lab setting, in this DOHaD space. I studied preterm labour proteins for my first practicum. My second practicum was on exposures that would have happened in utero from the mother and the father in a pediatric cancer population. Our surveys consisted of questions on everything under the sun, what did they eat? What medications did they take? Where did they go?

Even during my first practicum at DLSPH at Sanofi Pasteur, one of my big projects was looking at the dengue vaccine in individuals who had inadvertently become pregnant during the clinical trials. They used that as a natural experiment to see if we can give this vaccine during pregnancy safely.

If I ever pursued further education, I think this would be the area I want to continue to study. I am excited in my role at PHAC to be able to positively influence pregnant individuals’  health trajectories for their child in this critical period. My career goal in this space is to ensure every woman regardless of their income, education, ethnic or location is able to have a child with equally healthy neurodevelopment and birth outcomes.

Is there anything you would have done differently, pre-pandemic or post-pandemic in your program that you just didn’t get the chance to do?

The one that seems to be jumping to my mind is the Trainee Cluster Program to Build Capacity in Implementation Science program. They have this implementation science [opportunity] where you join with other faculties or even just amongst students at DLSPH to do a project or design a program. I was recently looking through my email and saw this opportunity which was sent out to us in October. I must have just deleted the email in the midst of being stressed by assignments.

Now that I have had some time to stop and reflect over the last month or two of being done school, that implementation piece, taking the data forward and on to the policy and program side would have been great to learn more about. I audited a program evaluation course which I found very informative and has already been very helpful in my global health volunteering in Nigeria and Kenya but doing these extracurricular, multi-disciplinary programs would have really enriched my degree at Dalla Lana. I wish the program was offered to alumni now that I have a bit more time to build on these additional skill sets which are so important to being well-rounded public health professional.