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? 

I am a first-year student pursuing my PhD in epidemiology in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health. I was born and raised in Senegal. At the age of 16, I went to South Africa to attend boarding school at the African Leadership Academy. During my childhood, I did karate, and later transitioned to taekwondo. I have a bachelor’s degree with dual majors in biology and French from the University of Rochester, in New York State. Upon graduation, I worked at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for about a year. I trained in epidemiology at Université Laval in Quebec. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I joined the Centre Intégré Universitaire de Santé et de Services Sociaux de la Capitale-Nationale du Quebec where I worked on building transmission chains and early detection of aggregates of cases to support the outbreak control teams. Previously, I held the position of Program Manager for the Cervical Cancer OMICs in West Africa project at the Pasteur Institute of Dakar. I’m passionate about improving outcomes for women with cancers, especially cervical, ovarian and breast cancers.

  1. Can you describe your program of study and your research project?   

I’m currently studying epidemiology, specifically cancer epidemiology. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted cancer control, prevention and care services in Canada. This includes a decline in key screening and diagnostic tests, reduced primary care visits, and fewer cancer surgeries. The objective of my research is to assess the impact of the pandemic on ovarian cancer prevention and care in Canada, estimate its long-term effects on ovarian cancer mortality and assess whether there is variability in the effect of the pandemic on ovarian cancer incidence based on socioeconomic status. Understanding the impact of the pandemic on cancer care is crucial for improving outcomes, increasing healthcare system resilience to crises, and addressing health disparities in Canada.

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

My decision to pursue doctoral research in ovarian cancer stems directly from the work I was privileged to be a part of as a session assistant at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, in New York City, one of the leading institutions in cancer research and treatment. Through that position, I gained firsthand experience witnessing the devastating impact of cancer on individuals and their families. I can deeply empathize with the pain of grief caused by ovarian cancer, the most lethal gynecologic malignancy. These life experiences have shaped my academic and research choices, motivating me to make a meaningful impact. With my background in cervical cancer research, I aspire to expand my focus to other female cancers. As a cancer epidemiologist, my career goal is to contribute to the advancement of cancer research, prevention, and control by conducting rigorous epidemiological studies, understanding cancer etiology, and informing public health strategies. I aim to utilize my expertise to improve cancer outcomes, reduce cancer burden, and ultimately contribute to the global effort to combat cancer, especially female cancer such as ovarian cancer.

  1. Why did you choose McGill? 

The PhD in Epidemiology program at McGill University provides a supportive and inclusive environment that nurtures methodological skills through a combination of hands-on experiences, and collaborative opportunities. I am fortunate to be under the supervision of Dr Talía Malagón and Dr Eduardo Franco, esteemed researchers in the field of cancer epidemiology, whose leadership inspired me to join this community.

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

Certainly! My community involvement centres around Coeur Tamsir, a non-profit organization dedicated to undertaking humanitarian and solidarity initiatives to support vulnerable populations. Coeur Tamsir focuses on providing essential services such as education and healthcare to those in need, with a special emphasis on orphans and disadvantaged groups. Through Coeur Tamsir, we have not only directly assisted vulnerable communities but also demonstrated the power of leadership to catalyze meaningful transformations. As a member of the Black community, it is especially important for me to give back to the community that has shaped me. By actively engaging in initiatives like Coeur Tamsir, I aim to serve as a source of inspiration for future generations, showing them the importance of compassion, empathy, and collective action in creating a more equitable society.

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

My experiences have shaped my commitment to my academic pursuits, motivated by a desire to leave a lasting impact in the community. It has allowed me to want to understand the socioeconomic discrepancies in ovarian cancer outcomes specially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Understanding these dynamics is key to providing valuable guidance for implementing targeted interventions to address health disparities, particularly during crises. Ultimately, my goal is to contribute to the collective efforts aimed at achieving health equity and improving the well-being of underserved populations.

  1. What advice would you give your younger self, knowing what you know today? 

If I could give wisdom to my younger self, I would emphasize the importance of embracing uncertainty and failure as essential components of growth. I would encourage myself to take risks, to not fear making mistakes, and to view setbacks as opportunities to learn rather than reasons for discouragement. I would also emphasize the significance of exploring various interests, and nurturing passions. Additionally, I would stress the value of building meaningful connections with others, seeking mentors, and being open to guidance and advice. I would remind myself to trust the journey, to be resilient in the face of challenges, and to always remain curious and eager to explore the world around me.


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

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