The first annual Scientific Endeavors in Academia (SEA) interdisciplinary conference was organized by Dr. Jacqueline Blundell and the Faculty of Science at Memorial University on April 8th and 9th, 2022.
It comprised multiple events, including a series of talks and presentations at the Earth Sciences, Engineering and Chemistry-Physics buildings, poster sessions and socials at the new Core Science Facility, and a keynote speech by Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, the Chief Medical Officer of Health in the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador at the Core Science Facility.
Undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty presented their research under three main themes—’ Climate Change & The Environment,’ ‘Health & Wellness,’ and ‘Innovation, Technology & Exploration.’ A committee of judges from the faculties of Biology, Chemistry, Biochemistry, Earth Sciences, Computer Sciences, Ocean Sciences, Mathematics and Statistics, Psychology and Sustainable Aquaculture assembled. These members adjudicated the 80 posters and 65 presentations at the conference and awarded prizes.
The interactive presentation sessions and the social events during the conference provided students and faculty members an excellent opportunity to learn about new research projects and connect with one another in person.
CMOH Speech Highlights
In a humorous and illuminating speech on Friday evening, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald spoke about her time as a student at Memorial, her journey in the field of public health and her responsibilities as Chief Medical Officer of Health in the Government of NL during a pandemic.
Dr. Fitzgerald completed her undergraduate degree in Biology at MUN in 1990 before attending the MUN School of Medicine and starting work as a family doctor in Springdale. She spoke about the challenges of working in rural medicine. This topic is especially relevant in NL today, with many communities in the province facing a shortage of doctors.
“Working as a rural family doctor is really hard work, and work that often doesn’t get enough credit. You’re often the only doctor in the community. You have to deal with whatever comes your way, often with minimum support from staff.”Dr. Janice Fitzgerald (Newfoundland and Labrador’s Chief Medical Officer of Health)
As her work in medicine continued, Dr. Fitzgerald recognized deeper issues that were posing a risk to people’s health. “Keeping people healthy is really hard—not because of their genes, diet or lifestyle choices, but because of bigger, ubiquitous determinants of health, like childhood experiences, poverty, housing and education.” Her first experience with a pandemic was during the H1N1 crisis in 2009 while working in family medicine.
To further explore the deep-rooted factors that impact health: Dr. Fitzgerald pursued a Master’s degree in Public Health part-time at MUN in 2016. She then started at the Department of Health and Community Services in 2017.
“Public health is part of the health system that focuses on promoting health and preventing disease,” Dr. Fitzgerald stated.
“The purpose of public health is to achieve optimum health and well-being for all people in the province. We use policy and legislation; surveillance, preventative measures, health promotion and population health assessments to achieve this goal.” While working towards equitable health outcomes, Dr. Fitzgerald’s work involves identifying and rectifying disparities by working with partners in the government and the community.
“The results of public health can be seen in the outbreaks that did not happen, the traumatic injuries that did not occur and the drug overdoses that were avoided.”Dr. Janice Fitzgerald (Newfoundland and Labrador’s Chief Medical Officer of Health)
Remarkably, she was appointed as the Chief Medical Officer of Health after two years, in September 2019– just 2 months before the first novel coronavirus case would appear.
The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic brought new challenges to the Department of Health and Community Services. The staff had to rapidly adapt to the developing crisis. According to Dr. Fitzgerald, the pandemic also exposed gaps in our society– primarily related to healthcare access for marginalized communities– that must be addressed.
“The declaration of a public health emergency allowed us to respond to the pandemic quickly and efficiently,” she noted. She also spoke about the onerous responsibility of making and implementing policies that were distressing for many families, like the travel restrictions in NL.
Dr. Fitzgerald recalled learning about Labrador’s first case in the province just before a press briefing on Saturday, March 14, 2020. The team notified local Public Health in Labrador, traced contacts and rewrote speech notes for the briefing within the hour.
“Public fear was compounded by the lack of information,” Dr. Fitzgerald said, “We learnt so much information that went against what we previously knew. We had to put aside our preconceived notions and egos to respond to the information in front of us. Sometimes that meant changing advice, and sometimes it meant admitting that we didn’t have the answer.”
In expressing her appreciation for the Public Health team, Dr. Fitzgerald said, “There is nothing in the last two-plus years that I or anyone has asked them to do that they have not delivered. Their role in the response to COVID has been immeasurable and our province has been so fortunate to have them.”