Adele Balram

Adele Balram, Database Analyst

Adele Balram is a Database Analyst with the New Brunswick Institute for Research, Data, and Training. She holds a professional specialization certificate in Population Health Data Analysis from the University of Victoria, Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from the University of New Brunswick and a Master of Public Health from Memorial University in Newfoundland. Adele has several years experience in public health, including working as an epidemiologist on environmental and community health issues across New Brunswick.

What was your first experience with GIS and what attracted you to it?

My first experience with GIS was in 2008, when I was completing my practicum for my Master degree, at the New Brunswick Department of Health. I was asked to examine a cluster of meningitis outbreaks that had occurred in the province. The first thought that came to mind was that I needed to map the cases. However, I had never used GIS software. Eventually, I found a GIS program and taught myself how to use the software and mapped out the meningitis cases.  After the project was completed I was curious to learn more about GIS and its capabilities, which led to my interest in taking formal courses. However, after searching for some time, I could not find an online course that provided me with hands on software experience. Consequently, I stopped my search and did not pursue my interest in GIS for many years.

The subject of GIS did not come up again until I started my position as a Database Analyst with the New Brunswick Institute for Research Data and Training (NB-IRDT).  It was during this time I began working with a colleague who had a Geography background and was looking for research support using spatial methods to investigate/evaluate health outcomes.

Once again, I searched for a course that could provide me with hands on GIS experience that I could take through a distance learning program while working full time. When I found the University of Victoria’s Population Health and Data Analysis program I was excited. This program offered fully online training including two geospatial courses using ArcGIS – one course in Population Health and GIS and another in Spatial Epidemiology and Outbreak Detection.

How has GIS benefitted or influenced your work as a database analyst?

GIS has benefitted and influenced my work as a database analyst. So far, I have used GIS in a few of my projects working for the NB-IRDT. One project was a study that looked at small-area population projections for New Brunswick. GIS software was used for this project to create different boundary files and population counts for the province. We have also used GIS software during a more recent project to calculate the distances from patients’ homes to the hospital nearest to them. This information was used to determine how hospital closures in the province influenced the distance patients drove to the hospital that was now closest to them.

However, the project that I am the proudest of is my work on a recent publication “Urban greenness and mortality in Canada’s largest cities: a national cohort study.” In this study an NDVI layer was created for the country by downloading thousands of image tiles from NASAs aqua satellite at a spatial resolution of 250m as 16 day averages. Using this information, we calculated the annual maximum greenness values averaged over the summer months for each year from 2002 to 2011, and long-term mean values over the 10-year period. This layer was then used to assign green space exposures to individual postal codes in our study.

What are some career moments or accomplishments you are proud of?

I have many career moments and accomplishments that I am proud of. However, there are two recent accomplishments that standout. First, is the completion of the Population and Health Data Analysis Program (PHDA) at the University of Victoria. This learning was invaluable to my career and GIS experience. The second accomplishment that I am proud of is the recent publication that I co-authored which investigated the relationship between Greenness and Mortality. A lot of time and effort went into this study which was recently published in the Lancet Planetary Health.

I am also very fortunate to be part of a new team that is studying the associations between residential exposures to water and risk of mortality among urban Canadians. Furthermore, the lead investigator of these two studies and I have recently presented a webinar for The Canadian Urban Environmental Health Research Consortium (CANUE) on the two studies above titled “Does living in greener areas and near water affect mortality?”

Who has been your greatest career mentor? How has this person influenced your career?

I have had a few mentors who have influenced my career, however, the most influential GIS mentor that I have had is my collogue Dr. Dan Lawson Crouse. He is a Research Associate at the University of New Brunswick, an Epidemiologist at the NB-IRDT, and holds a PhD in Geography from McGill University. Dr. Crouse has taken the time to assist me with my GIS questions and share new tips and tricks regarding GIS methods. He has also been very supportive and helpful in encouraging me with my career aspirations.

My knowledge of environmental exposures such as air pollution, green space and blue space and their relation to health outcomes was limited before I met Dr. Crouse. However, since I began collaborating with him, he has taken time to train me in this area of research, and has also given me the opportunity to participate in his recent greenspace and blue space studies. After completing my Master’s program, I never thought that I would pursue this area of research.  Nevertheless, I am now engrossed in the study of environmental exposures, and I plan on continuing my education and research in this subject area.

Have you faced any challenges with being a woman in a technical field?

After I graduated from my Master’s program I worked in the government sector and I believed that I would stay there for the rest of my career. I came to realize while working for the government’s health department that women tended to outnumber men, and women occupied many of the managerial and technical positions. However, after a reorganization of government departments I was laid off from my job unexpectedly, and it took a while before I was offered my current position as a Database Analyst at the NB-IRDT.

My current job requires a sound knowledge of statistics and program coding. These types of positions are typically filled by men in the academic environment. I also find that there continues to be push back to accept women into these positions. Many are surprised to learn that I am a woman working in this technical field. However, I am pleased to tell people what I do, and more women should be encouraged to fill these technical positions in the future.

What personal strengths do you feel are key to working in the field of geospatial analytics?

Some of the personal strengths (skills) that I believe are key to working in the field of geospatial analytics are having a strong statistical background, excellent data management and programming skills, patience and having great attention to detail.

What inspires you in your personal and professional life?

What inspires me in my personal life is my family. They inspire me every day to continue in my field and to advance my technical skill set and career. They have also been very supportive of me continuing my education and I am very grateful for that. What inspires me in my professional life is the drive to be a leading woman in the area of geospatial analytics and eventually pass this experience along to other women who want to do the same

If you had three wishes for the future, what would they be?

My three wishes for the future would be health and happiness for my family and friends. The second would be to attend an excellent Canadian university to complete my PhD in Epidemiology/Health Geography and the third would be to hold an academic position in my field, preferably a Canadian Research Chair in a health discipline.

Interview conducted by volunteer, Ann Greenwood, Education & Training Lead Population Data BC.

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