By Sharday Mosurinjohn
As a Master’s student in Queen’s school of Public Health, Osama Berrada spends a lot of time thinking about something that a lot of us don’t have to; his work involves making sure water is clean and available. In the third cohort of the MPH program, which he describes as “a successful offshoot from Queen’s well known epidemiology and biostatistics programs,” Berrada is soaking in concepts from these fields along with training in program evaluation that will equip him with a strong public health background. When I ask about the genesis of Queen’s MPH, the enthusiastic grad student tells me that, among other factors, the program “originated from recent outbreaks of communicable diseases around the world, like SARS and H1N1, which have revealed a need for more public health workers. Epidemiologists focus on outbreaks, of course, but they can’t do everything!”
Among a cohort of professionals returned from their fields, Berrada is one of the few students who came straight from an undergraduate degree, which he took at the University of Ottawa's Interdisciplinary School of Health Sciences. Nonetheless, Berrada has already worked at Ottawa's Queensway-Carleton Hospital as part of the Infection Prevention and Control team; at the Correctional Service Canada Public Health division as a part of the Epidemiology and Surveillance team, specializing in infectious diseases; and at the Public Health Agency of Canada as a Vaccine-Preventable Diseases Surveillance Officer.
Now in the midst of a 4-month long practicum in Ottawa place at the Department of National Defence, his attention is turned to the production of potable water aboard Canadian naval ships. It’s no small matter, considering that these crafts pack no water on operations lasting between one to six months. When the only source of water is the sea, troops rely entirely on a large machine (“maybe the size of an average room in a home,” Berrada tells me) called an SROD, which stands for “shipboard reverse osmosis desalinator,” which desalinates the seawater then disinfects water using a method called bromination. The SROD also processes water – about 100 litres a day – for feeding into the engine, whose boilers require a certain water quality. And the military doesn’t only use the machine in order to produce water for troops. It’s been applied in relief operations in Haiti, for instance, when natural disaster left communities with an urgent need for clean drinking water.
The thing is, only ships and oil rigs use bromination to disinfect drinking water, but there isn’t much knowledge regarding the possible adverse effects of bromination. So during this unique placement, which Berrada discovered by pursuing opportunities through his supervisor’s professional network, he’s studying not the effects of the disinfectant byproducts, but rather looking to see if SROD machines reject enough of the byproduct precursors that the water meets Health Canada standards. (Bromide, for those of you who are curious, is lower in periodic table than chlorine, which means that it’s more potent and the kind of chemicals it produces may be more carcinogenic). “The data are already collected and presented,” explains Berrada, “so I’m putting together various mathematical models in order to assess the SROD’s rejection efficacy. It involves a lot of biostats,” he offers, with a weary laugh that seems to be shared by everyone who spends quality time with statistics equations. “I’m very lucky, though, because my preceptor is the senior toxicologist advisor to the Department of National Defence. I sit down with her for an hour here and there and she just teaches me everything that has to do with water. It’s been a pleasure.”
At the end of Berrada’s 25 hours per week placement at National Defenses, he’ll be writing up a 25-page report on his experience, presenting his project to MPH program faculty, and finishing up three more courses in the Fall term before he graduates. Once his degree is in hand, he’ll have an eye out for positions at National Defenses as well as openings at Public Health Agency Canada as an epidemiologist. “Once I have some more professional experience, I’ll want to re-orient myself toward research and pursue a PhD in population health,” Berrada predicts. In the meantime, the Master’s in Public Health has been “full of rich discussions, collaboration, and the front line perspective from students with, for example, nursing backgrounds or with MDs. They share so much from their work experience and can envision what it might mean for different health care settings to implement certain protocols and what that requires from public health workers.” Looking to the future, Berrada imagines that water quality will remain a strong focus in his work. In Ottawa, where water is purified through a process called chloramination, it can be easy to take for granted that we have access to, as Berrada puts it, “some of the best quality water in pretty much the whole world.” “Access to clean water will be the biggest concern in the future – even more so than oil,” he insists. In this global climate, it’s clear that Queen’s Master’s of Public Health has arrived at a critical juncture for professionals and interdisciplinary students like Osama Berrada who are asking these vital questions about public health and Canada’s role in it.