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New PhD Program in Urban Health launching at DCSN

Dr. Cristina Catallo on this exciting interdisciplinary initiative.
By: Bonte Minnema
October 21, 2020
Daphne Cockwell Complex (DCC)

The Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing is in the final steps of launching its first PhD program, focusing on Urban Health. Dr. Cristina Catallo, Graduate Program Director for the school, describes the program as having a ‘very Ryerson’ approach. “We have a distinctly interdisciplinary approach to our PhD program,” she said. “Although the program was developed by and will be housed at the School of Nursing, it is meant to attract and serve students across health-related disciplines.”   

“We want to attract students who are willing to challenge the status quo and look at complex macro-level health problems in new and innovative ways. Covid-19, for example, has heightened existing health disparities across populations or communities. Neighbourhood mapping shows that some areas are at greater risk than others and may therefore experience additional disparities. An urban health researcher graduating from the program will be well-positioned to study such complex issues and can help offer innovative solutions to these issues.”  

Many health-related disciplines that potentially influence this program include epidemiology, public health, geography, migration studies, urban development, indigenous studies, early childhood studies, nutrition and social work. According to Catallo, “An anthropologist and an epidemiologist would look at things differently, and in blending their approaches, we can benefit from the philosophies of multiple perspectives in research and problem-solving, something that will set this PhD program apart from others.”  

This is also exciting because it is the first PhD program at DCSN, building on their body of work in nursing science. “This is particularly timely, as governments, and other stakeholders, are starting to look at health issues in this way. Many players, including governments, are interested in Urban Health. It’s a big issue. Take the opioid crisis, for example. It is an urban health issue, but it takes many individuals to address it. Homelessness is another timely urban health issue with many perspectives and viewpoints about how different levels of government can support those who are vulnerable. Often urban health problems are not easily solvable problems, which is why we are developing this program to help address these issues from different angles and levels.”  

Ryerson’s academic plan encourages interdisciplinary work and encourages academics to break out of silos. “Our program is focused on creative risk-takers who challenge the status quo in order to address the needs of vulnerable populations and communities. We are very focused on growth through interdisciplinary learning.”

The program will begin with five students in January 2021. “It has been a very competitive process and applicants will be notified soon about admission into the program. The program has three streams. A health and wellbeing stream, a safety and security stream, and a migration, immigration and settlement stream. “Ryerson is in the urban centre of Toronto and a city builder, so it's logically the best location for this program,” she said.  

Additionally, Catallo is thankful to be surrounded by a wealth of knowledge, pointing out that DCSN is well-positioned to establish and deliver this program from a research perspective. “We have many full professors with full research programs who have a background in urban health as researchers, including an urban health chair. Star researchers like the new Urban Health chair, Dr. Josephine Wong and others like, Dr. Sepali Guruge, Dr. Suzanne Fredericks and Dr. Souraya Sidani have been involved from the beginning. They are bringing really exciting research and experience to the table. It will be very exciting to see the ongoing development of this program and the expertise that emerges.”

Catallo comes to lead this program with a broad base of experience in nursing science, public health, and as a policy advisor in government. In many ways, her experience put her on a path to lead precisely this kind of program. She was always interested in science and while in nursing, pursued public health, closely linked to Urban Health,  as her clinical area. Working with new immigrants, she saw both the challenges that came with rebuilding lives and the power of small but meaningful differences she could make in their lives. “I could see the challenge of ‘making place,’ a new economy, providing for families, and the resources that I, as a nurse, was able to deliver. I also knew I was never alone in the delivery process, and I could see how there were always different disciplines working together to address these issues. I always knew my part, as a part of a puzzle, but also by understanding the various contributions that others in the public health system made to the bigger picture.” Following this, Catallo worked for the Ontario government for many years as a nursing consultant. She could see both how policy was made and how these policies then impacted people. “Policymakers need access to the best information to make the best decisions. Better information helps to ground decisions that are rooted in evidence rather than politics. Many drivers support policy creation which ultimately impact the lives of real people. We want to make sure, in this program, to have research that addresses real issues and is presented in a way that makes sense to people working in policy roles.”

Dr. Maher El-Masri, Director of the Daphne Cockwell School of Nursing, is excited to see the PhD program will be launched in Winter 2021. “The Faculty of Community Services and the DCSN are very well-positioned to not only ensure that the program will be successful but to also prepare graduates who will be leading scholars in urban health research. I am aware of the amazing work that my colleagues at the PhD Program Implementation Committee have put into the development of the program, and I can't wait to welcome our inaugural class in January. The launch of the program will indeed mark a new era for our school."

El-Masri and Catallo extend their thanks to all those who have helped launch this program, particular, the members of the PhD Implementation Committee: Dr. Heather Beanlands, Dr. Suzanne Fredericks, Dr. Sepali Guruge, Dr. Elizabeth McCay, Dr. Souraya Sidani, and Dr. Josephine Wong.