This Q&A series is part of Black History Month and Beyond, an initiative of the BHM Organizing Committee co-led by Black students and faculty from the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences with the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Anti-Racism Committee (EDI-AR) of the School of Population and Global Health.  

1.Can you tell us a bit about yourself?  

My name is Nicholas Hickens, and I am from Halifax, Nova Scotia. I spent much of my life growing up in Guyana and the Caribbean. I am currently enrolled in the family medicine graduate program at McGill University and an aspiring clinician-scientist. I have an educational background in biology and biochemistry, applied human nutrition and applied sciences. In my career, I have worked primarily in primary care, public health and scientific research, including working for the Public Health Agency of Canada and Dalhousie University as a research director and internationally as a medical health awareness officer in East Africa. I consider myself a jack of all trades; I love travelling, exercising, sports, anime, painting, writing and making music. I have a non-profit organization in Guyana and a health technology start-up that I dedicate much of my time to when I can.  

2.Can you describe your program of study and your research? 

My program involves research on prominent family medicine and primary care settings. I am supervised by Bertrand Lebouche, MD, PhD, who specializes in HIV research at the McGill University Health Centre’s (MUHC) Chronic Viral Illness Service and the Research Institute of the MUHC’s Centre for Outcomes Research & Evaluation. My research explores digital and m-health initiatives and focuses on identifying and implementing electronic patient reported outcome measures (ePROM) in HIV clinical care. PROMs are tools used to assess a patient’s health status at a particular point in time from the patient’s perspective. My investigation aims to encourage more substantial compliance with clinical guideline standards and improve outcomes in patient-centred care in HIV clinical settings by adequately utilizing these tools.  

3.What inspired you to pursue your area of research? What do you hope to achieve? 

My life and career journey has taken me down quite an interesting path that has enabled me to gain exposure to many vulnerable sub-populations. I have conducted forms of health research in historically marginalized African Nova Scotian populations, the LGBTQIAS+, newcomer immigrants, seniors and at-risk youth. Gleaning a deeper understanding from some of their experiences gave me a unique lens to examine higher-level issues. It changed my career trajectory, and I have focused on empowering patient-centred care in healthcare. There is emerging evidence of the impact of empowerment and patient inclusion in healthcare decision-making towards reducing burnout, stigma and overall burden on the healthcare system. My research can provide an added measure to foster patient-centred care and give especially vulnerable patients a platform to take better agency of their health. 

4.Why did you choose McGill? 

I initially considered McGill after receiving an invitation to apply to the McCall MacBain scholarships. Before returning to Canada after living in Guyana for some time, I was interested in applying to McGill because of its world-class facilities and experts, especially in the field that I was most interested in, medicine. However, I did not apply then, and life took me down a different path. Ironically, it has all come full circle after a few years. Montreal has also been a city I have always wanted to live in due to its cultural diversity, history and artistic expression. My supervisor also played a pivotal role in my decision, and his research endeavours truly inspired me. 

5.Can you describe your community involvement and why you feel it is important, especially as a member of the Black community? 

Currently, I am a member of two co-investigation teams, one addressing the effects of stress on cognition in racialized communities and another investigating racism in dietetics. Although this research path deviated from my primary interest, I often realized a tremendous lack of visibility when seeing a Black health or science professional within these spaces. As an EEG scientist, I recall one of my Black participants commended me and stated it was the first time they saw a Black scientist doing this type of work. She was so excited that she later introduced me to her son, inspiring him to tread a similar path. Despite being humbled, it indicated we have a long way to go. Visibility, especially in healthcare, is so critical. Because of this, I have continued to push in various endeavours. I am on the selection committee for the QEII Foundation Diversity in Healthcare Scholarships. I am an ambassador for the Quebec Scientific Entrepreneurship Program and a reviewer for the Healthy Populations Journal at Dalhousie University. I continue to push for representation and empowerment through my non-profit. I often voice issues on the Black experience in academia and healthcare through various outlets, including the Life Out Loud podcast. I also extend my assistance to former organizations I have worked with, including the Delmore Buddy Daye Institute, I Am Potential, Directions Council Nova Scotia, and Autism Nova Scotia. 

6.How has your identity as a member of the Black community informed your research interests or community involvement? 

Over time, my positionality as a healthcare professional and a Black male has undoubtedly influenced my research interest and career. Earlier in my academic journey, I assumed that my focal point would centre on the prototypical components of medicine and healthcare. Through my own life experiences, I have learnt about the complexities of lived realities, systemic injustice and structural inequities that continue to plague many underserved communities, creating a continued oppressive cycle. Coming from a relatively disadvantaged background and now in a position of privilege, it is my responsibility to advocate and take a stand in addressing critical issues through my research and community-based initiatives. I aim to empower the next generation in any way I can, knowing they can accomplish their dreams without fear of othering and discrimination. It is essential for those who have these positions of privilege to promote visibility and serve as positive role models in our fields. 

7.What advice would you give your younger self knowing what you know now? 

Don’t put so much pressure on yourself. You are right where you need to be. Give yourself grace, and remember that you are always your biggest cheerleader. You are already great; you are worthy of occupying space. Stay true to yourself, your values and principles. Enjoy the journey, and take a moment to look up and see how far you’ve come. 


BIPOC Change Champions: In conversation with Milca Meconnen, master’s student in public health  

BIPOC Change champions: In conversation with Farida Zakariya, master’s student in Experimental Medicine