Natalie Boychuk, 2015

Natalie Boychuk is a graduate of the 2015-16 Munk One Cohort. During her time at U of T, she pursued a major in Peace, Conflict and Justice and completed a double minor in Political Science and French. She is currently completing her Master of Public Health (MPH) in Public Health Research Methods at Columbia University. In this blog post, Natalie shares her reflections on how Munk One kicked off her passion for research, her fondest memories from the program, and more. 

Can you tell us a bit more about your undergraduate research experiences and how you were able to take advantage of those opportunities?

In my second year, I joined a team of researchers at the Reach Lab (now the Reach Alliance) to study the success of UNHCR’s biometric cash assistance program for urban Syrian refugees in Jordan. I was lucky enough to travel with my team to Jordan in 2017 to interview people who had worked on the program and try to understand what lessons could be valuable for other humanitarian programs. I really only became part of this project because I had heard Professor Joseph Wong, one of the professors for Munk One, talk about his research and I knew immediately I wanted to be a part of it. I was also fortunate enough to conduct independent research with guidance from Professor Teresa Kramarz, who mentored another Munk One alum and I through the ethics and research question development process. We received funding from U of T to travel to Bangalore, India, to study a labour union for garment workers that provides social services, such as childcare and counselling for gender-based violence. I heard about the grant opportunity through Munk One and Professor Kramarz was instrumental in helping us receive funding to conduct this research. I would not have been able to take advantage of this opportunity had it not been for her guidance, and she continues to be a mentor to me today.

In my last year of undergrad, I worked with the International Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation within the Rehabilitation Sciences Sector at the Faculty of Medicine at U of T. In this role, I helped develop a report for the Rwandan Ministry of Health and UNICEF recommending standards for integrating children and adults with disabilities into communities. I heard about this opportunity through the U of T Career Learning Network (CLNx) – an excellent resource for students looking for research experience. Had it not been for my prior research experience, which came directly as a result of Munk One, I don’t think I would have been prepared to be in a research environment focused on reaching particularly marginalized communities.

What is your fondest memory from your time in Munk One?

Presenting our final Dragons’ Den pitch to our friends, professors, and judges stands out as such a fun memory. We spent so much time mulling over the challenge we had selected that our pitch felt so personal. It was probably the most nervous I’d been all year, but it felt so good to see the culmination of all of the research and thinking we had done over the course of the year. The entire day was such a blast because we also learned so much about the challenges our friends had been focused on throughout the year. I remember a presentation on absenteeism among higher-level health professionals in India standing out to me. The entire day demonstrated our commitment to diverse global issues.

How did you know you wanted to pursue an MPH and what has your experience been like so far?

I started my education at U of T with the intention to go to law school, but Munk One changed the way I saw global health challenges and my role and responsibility as a young person to contribute to the SDGs. I started to think about pursuing a degree in public health in my later years of undergrad because I felt that after Munk One had ended, I missed being able to think about innovation and designing global health programs. I knew that I wanted to dedicate my career as much as possible to sexual and reproductive health issues and that an MPH would give me more of a background on technical issues in program design and more exposure to clinical terminology. So far, my MPH experience has been incredible. I’ve been able to pursue really interesting courses in GIS, data science, and epidemiology and apply what I’ve learned to reproductive health issues. I also get to assist with the revision of the Monitoring EmOC Handbook, which is used by governments around the world to track their progress in reducing maternal mortality and morbidity. I feel like it’s the perfect continuation of what we focused on as Munk One students.

Are there any insights from your Munk One experience that you are still able to apply to your activities now?

I don’t speak lightly when I say that Munk One was completely transformative for me. I still lean on the qualitative research skills we covered in class, even as I’m pursuing a specialization in public health research methods in my MPH (in fact, I brought our Munk One research methods textbook with me when I moved to New York!). One thing I took from Munk One is that research is not just an intellectual exercise. Knowing how to ask and answer the right questions is critical to design programs that work for the people that need them most. There is an ethical imperative to get out into the field, understand what is working and what is not, and how we can keep doing things better.