Ottawa·Point of View

I often feel I don't belong, but that won't stop me from getting my PhD

Zahra Clayborne is a PhD candidate in epidemiology who is also biracial, and who has often been made to feel like she doesn't belong in this not-so-diverse academic field. She writes about why different perspectives matter when it comes to public health.

Zahra Clayborne writes about the lack of diversity in epidemiology, and why it's a matter of public health

Zahra Clayborne says throughout her academic career, she's been made to feel like she doesn't belong. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

In October 2017, I was sitting alone in the stands of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, eating my lunch. It was the first day of an academic conference, and I remember looking around for another lonely attendee to talk to. I zeroed in on another graduate student and introduced myself. 

He asked me, "Where are you from?" I answered: "Canada." His confused expression is one I get often. I knew the next question: "Oh … and where are your parents from?"

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When I told him, he finally seemed satisfied. Later, he interjected that he was impressed that I had done so well for myself, given my background. I found an excuse to leave, and for the remainder of the conference I kept to myself. That interaction made me feel like I didn't belong there.

Next year, Clayborne plans to graduate with a PhD in epidemiology. Here she's pictured at her undergraduate graduation ceremony with her mother. (Submitted by Zahra Clayborne)

I'm biracial. My mother is Black and my father is white. I don't really look like either of my parents, and my ethnicity is often a guessing game for those who meet me. Even my name, a combination of Arabic and English, adds to my ethnic ambiguity. 

I am often met with both blatantly racist behaviour and an array of microaggressions. I have been stopped by strangers on the street, insisting on knowing where I'm from. I have been told to "go home" to many different countries. In my academic life, praise has often been paired with surprise. I have lost count of the number of times I have been told that I am "surprisingly well-spoken" or a "surprisingly good writer."

I grew up thinking that education was the antidote to ignorance — it was part of what fuelled me to continue my schooling. However, as I progressed through university, I've come to realize that academia is seriously lacking in diversity, too. For me, this explains its resistance to change, and why I have seen it serve as an echo chamber for racist sentiments.

Clayborne spent time in Norway last winter working on her thesis at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. (Zahra Clayborne)

Next year, I will be graduating with a PhD in epidemiology from the University of Ottawa. I started on my academic path in psychology, but the skepticism I was met with from professors surprised by my work, and from research participants who questioned my qualifications, pushed me to consider a different field. I always felt like an impostor with something to prove, and it was exhausting.

In epidemiology, I thought I would be able to conduct meaningful work — still in mental health — but without feeling constant scrutiny.

I have lost count of the number of times I have been told that I am 'surprisingly well-spoken' or a 'surprisingly good writer.'- Zahra Clayborne

But when I started graduate school, I found that this feeling persisted. Epidemiology and public health also have a diversity problem.

In my classes, while fellow students came from all walks of life, all but one of my professors were white. We learned almost nothing about the impacts of key social determinants including racism, poverty and discrimination on health. I worry that universities are training future public health leaders who lack a fundamental understanding of these concepts. 

Clayborne says she's often asked about her background at academic conferences. (Submitted by Zahra Clayborne)

There are real consequences to this lack of awareness. Ontario, for example, recently announced it will start collecting race-based data for the COVID-19 pandemic. My question is: why wasn't this data being collected before?

For a long time, I was silent on these issues. However, I was spurred on by the murder of George Floyd and the surge of protests denouncing police brutality and anti-Black racism, which organizations including Ottawa Public Health have said is relevant to public health.

I wrote an open letter to my department. I wanted to hold them accountable. I wanted them to address the lack of diversity in our field.

As a biracial woman with a name that's both Arabic and English, Clayborne says her ethnicity is often a guessing game for those who meet her. (Submitted by Zahra Clayborne)

Luckily, my department has been receptive to change. It published a clear statement condemning anti-Black racism and promised an action plan for changes to our curriculum.

Unfortunately, I have heard from friends in other departments and universities that their administrators are not open to these same changes. 

I'm hopeful things will start to shift in epidemiology — that we can address how a lack of diversity impacts our learning, our research, and ultimately, the public's health and well-being. 

This is especially important for people who come from marginalized communities.

Clayborne says she feels the tide is finally starting to shift in her chosen field of epidemiology. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

I left psychology because I felt like an impostor. In epidemiology, I often still feel that way. But I remain, because I feel the tides are shifting. 

My academic path has not been easy, but I hope things will be smoother for those who come after me. Maybe they'll finally feel like they belong.


Zahra Clayborne is a PhD candidate in the University of Ottawa's School of Epidemiology and Public Health.

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