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BCCDC Profiles: Sarah Henderson, senior scientist, Environmental Health Services

BCCDC Profiles provides a snapshot of some of the talented people who work in our program – who they are, what inspires them, and where they see the future of public health.
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Describe your role at the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC).

As the senior environmental health scientist at the BCCDC, I lead a program of applied research and surveillance to support good environmental health policy for the province. This work spans a broad range of topics including extreme weather events, radon gas, food safety, acute poisonings, water quality, and air pollution from all sources. My areas of greatest expertise are wildfire smoke and heat waves. The idea of ‘public service’ is my guiding principle, and I try never to forget that my salary comes from the pockets of B.C. taxpayers. 

What inspired you to take up a career in public health and how did you get interested in the health impacts of wildfire smoke?
 
I started my career in environmental engineering with a focus on industrial pollution abatement and control. When I got really interested in how those emissions affected nearby communities, I went back to university to study environmental epidemiology. My original thesis topic was related to sulphuric emissions from Canadian oil refineries, but the extreme 2003 wildfire season hit British Columbia the summer before I started. Pollution from those fires was so unpredictable and so much worse than pollution from any industry that I decided to switch my thesis topic. 

What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

There is so much for my team to be proud of. Most publicly, our surveillance systems for extreme hot weather and wildfire smoke have been recognized by Accreditation Canada as Leading Public Health Practices, and I love seeing those certificates hanging on the wall in the BCCDC lobby. More personally, I was promoted to the associate professor rank at the UBC School of Population and Public Health last year, meaning that objective reviewers from academia and public health were able to see the value in all our hard work. 

What changes do you anticipate in your field over the next decade?

Technological advances in environmental measurement and modelling have been huge over the past decade, with larger and more complex datasets becoming available all the time. I expect this trend to continue over the next decade, especially with the rise in personal sensors. These tools are invaluable to environmental public health, so it is imperative that trainees are well-grounded in the data sciences. People in the environmental health field need to know how to do everything from management of large datasets through to advanced statistical methods. This is why my team has taken a leadership role in R training for UBC and BCCDC students and colleagues. 

How does your work improve patient care? 

I like to believe that we help to prevent people from becoming patients! Almost everything we do in environmental health is on the preventative side of the equation. In my ideal world, people use our work to protect themselves from the potential harms of the environment, therefore leading to healthier and longer lives. 

What is your favourite thing about your work?

There are two favourite things, and I’m not willing to choose one over the other. First, our team in Environmental Health Services is amazing and our partners at the Centre and around the province are great. I am constantly inspired by the commitment of my colleagues, and it is an honour and pleasure to serve with them. Second, the work is never boring. I have been at the BCCDC for almost 10 years now, and I continue to tackle new problems and learn new things on a regular basis.

Tell us a surprising fact about yourself.

I am the youngest of eight children and the only member of my family with a graduate education. I did my engineering degree mostly in tribute to my father, who would have loved to have the same opportunity. However, he went off to the Second World War after he graduated from high school and had a young family to support when he got home. Although I have enjoyed the journey that brought me to the BCCDC, I would be equally as happy working on a horse farm.  

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