A day in the life

Jacqueline Gahagan, professor

Jacqueline_Gahagan_profile3

I want my students to think outside the traditional confines of public health and health promotion and shake it up a bit. If they aren’t advocates for the health issues of marginalized populations, who’s going to be?

Championing vulnerable communities

After joining Dal’s Health Promotion program in 1999, Professor Jacqueline Gahagan found the East Coast setting inspired her to take up two new pastimes on both land and water.

On land, she likes to cruise the roads of Nova Scotia on her 750 Honda Shadow motorcycle.

“My students kind of look in shock and horror when I’m riding away with their papers in one saddlebag and my laptop in the other one,” she says. “They’re probably thinking, ‘Please don’t crash until you enter our marks!’”

On the water, Dr. Gahagan has become an eager sailor. “I sail on anybody’s boat I can get on to,” she says. She has also become a big booster of the sport by founding a not-for-profit organization that encourages young women to get into sailing by providing small bursaries to help cover the costs of health memberships and equipment.

“I wasn’t a sailor until I moved here—I wasn’t even remotely interested in sailing,” she says. “I started Women On Water to get more women into sailing because it’s really inaccessible for people who don’t know anyone with a boat or don’t come from a sailing family.”

A native of Ottawa, Dr. Gahagan earned two undergraduate degrees—in Sociology and Anthropology—at Carleton University, before doing her master’s in Sociology at the University of Windsor. That was followed by a PhD in Medical Sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit.

She got into the field of health promotion after completing her master’s, when she landed a job working in public health at the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit in Windsor, Ont.

Dr. Gahagan’s main area of research is sexual health, specifically HIV and Hepatitis C prevention. It’s an area in which she’s long been interested, going back to her own undergrad years when she first got involved in AIDS activism.

“I remember helping this master’s student hand out surveys about violence against gays and lesbians, and on a wall as we drove up to this community centre someone had spray-painted ‘AIDS=Gay, AIDS=Death,’” she says. “It shocked me that people could be so closed-minded, that they really thought it was just a problem for gay men and they didn’t have to worry about it. For me it was more of a social justice issue. It was a fire-in-my-belly moment.”

She says that despite all the awareness work done over the years, the number of people living with HIV in Canada isn’t going down, and is actually increasing among younger people and women. It’s why she’s called upon to work for the federal minister of health as a policy advisor on Canada’s response to HIV.

“We’re shifting our thinking about what the next generation of prevention and intervention needs to look like,” she says. “It’s not only a necessity, it’s an obligation.”

Dr. Gahagan’s area of expertise is part of the program’s bigger focus on community health promotion, multicultural health, and vulnerable populations. She says the diverse backgrounds of the faculty, and their connections with health-related organizations, ultimately benefit their students.

“We’re a very accessible, very student-focused program,” she says. “We’re here to serve the students, and they have a lot of latitude for where they want to focus their interests. We’re probably one of the most laid-back programs and we’re constantly changing and adapting.”