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Joanna Burke-Bajaj: Boston Congress of Public Health 40 under 40 winner

The inaugural 40 Under 40 Public Health Catalyst Awards aim to highlight the rising leaders and innovators of the public health field. The Boston Congress of Public Health (BCPH) and the HPHR Journal selected a group of “leaders, entrepreneurs, researchers, scientists, activists”, and doctors that will inspire the next generations of public health workers to change the world. The individuals featured for this award have not only shown excellent work performance and an extensive academic history but have also brought innovative solutions to public health issues around the world.

The NYC Daily Post interviewed 40 under 40 award winners to learn about their career journeys leading up to their nominations.

Q1. What’s a piece of advice you’ve received that has impacted your career journey? 

The best advice I received was to always pursue work that feels meaningful to me. It sounds cliche but it is true – when you follow your passions, you can show up at work as your fully enthusiastic and dedicated self, so success will flow more easily.

Q2. Do you have a mentor you’d like to recognize? If so, what would you like to say to them? 

I have had many mentors that I have been grateful to learn so much from, including teachers, peers, and colleagues. Especially to those who taught me how to organize in pursuit of meaningful change as an activist, I want to say that I am grateful for the learning and unlearning together. I would also like to thank all of the mentors who encouraged me and other young professionals to do this work – public health needs new generations of driven and innovative colleagues who will transform our field with new ideas and innovations, and I am honored to be part of that new generational wave. 

Q3. What advice would you give a young professional beginning their career in your field? 

Be open to where public health can take you. There are thousands of roles related to public health, and graduates can work in a vast range of fields that intersect with human health. In fact,say there are so many varied opportunities in public health that I could live hundreds of lifetimes and still not have touched every area of interest to me. For this reason, I think young professionals should try to stay open to the multitudes of work and academic study areas in this field and try out as many different opportunities as they can, to find the space where they feel they can have the most meaningful impact. 

Q4. If you could do one thing, leave one mark, on your profession, what would it be?

For me, the one area of this profession that I think is the biggest piece needing a change in the next decades is improving access to high-quality care for all. Even in Canada with our universal healthcare system, there are numerous ways that socially and systemically marginalized populations do not receive equitable access to care, or receive care that is ultimately not at the level of quality that it should be. This is the health equity disparity that I believe many of us working across the continuum of care will spend our whole careers trying to impact in some way – from primary care to long-term care and beyond. 

Q5. Name a challenge you’ve faced and how it turned out. 

When I graduated from my Bachelors degree, I wanted to pursue a Masters degree but I didn’t think that I could afford the cost. Instead of turning away from my dream, I spent time digging into all the MPH programs available to find one that would allow me the most flexibility to be affordable. I ended up being able to work full-time during my degree by taking a bit longer to graduate, and I was able to complete my Masters of Science in Public Health. 

Q6. What is your ultimate career goal as you see it today? 

My ultimate career goal is to continue pushing for changes that can improve lives: in healthcare and public policy, from my hometown to the world. I believe a career in public health is more about the journey and the impact we have along the way than it is about a final destination or a specific job title. 

Q7. What alternate role(s) would you be interested in pursuing? 

I have already had a very wide range of roles in this field, but there are many more I would be interested in exploring. I currently work in the area of quality improvement (QI) in healthcare, and I believe that QI will be a key component of future work in public health; specifically, I would love to work on future projects related to my research at the nexus of environmental health and women’s health.

Q8. What core values are important to succeeding in your professional field? 

I think the main core values needed to succeed in public health are compassion, dedication, determined optimism, and a deep passion for improving the lives of others through health. In every organization that I have worked with in my career, public health professionals always have the same thing in common: we are all working in this industry because we truly care about the lives of each person who is touched by public health. 

Q9. Ten years ago, I thought I would be … 

I thought I would be working in policy and governance related to the environment and climate change. Health policy is still a key area of interest for me and I continue independent research and advocacy on environmental health, but I have found that I also really enjoy managing programs in care delivery and quality improvement. Having worked through a wide range of areas in public health from HIV prevention, to global health, to long-term care and aging care, it has been incredibly special for me to see the direct impact that has been achieved through the programs I have been fortunate enough work on.

Q10. Ten years from now, I want to be …

Continuing in my journey of working to improve healthcare access and quality for all, particularly through deepening grassroots level advocacy based on the experiences of women as patients and as caregivers. 

Q11. Would you want to acknowledge any family/friends/partners (beyond mentors)? If so, who?

My mom has always been the prime supporter of my following my passions, and I am so grateful for her encouragement and the many sacrifices she made so that I could be the first in my family to obtain a graduate degree. I am also grateful to my mom for walking with me on the journey to founding the Women Patients and Caregivers Advocacy Network, after learning to navigate the healthcare system from a different perspective alongside her, after her bladder cancer diagnosis.

I would also like to thank my husband who always enthusiastically agrees to be my test audience for every new piece I write or present, and who lends me his optimism whenever my belief may be waning. 

Q12. Please indicate your hometown, place of study, degree field(s), and an interesting fact about yourself.

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – Masters of Science in Public Health 

My first connection to public health was actually through environmental activism, as myself and a team of students rallied to push the University of Toronto to divest from fossil fuels. I was majoring in Biology at the time, when I was asked to co-author a brief on the human health impacts of extractive industries – after that I was completely hooked on public health!

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