By Sharday Mosurinjohn
Paula Muis always knew she wanted to help people improve their health. When she started a degree in chemistry at Queen’s some 20 years ago, she realized that working in the lab wasn’t for her, and switched after two years to Ryerson. Once she graduated from her studies in Environmental Health, Muis knew that one day, she’d pursue a Master’s degree. In the meantime, she became a certified Public Health Inspector and moved to Vancouver. She’s been back in Kingston, her hometown, for about 10 years now, where she serves as a Public Health Promoter and a Tobacco Enforcement Officer.
In her position with Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington (KFL&A) Public Health, Muis gets to be in the field every day. She spends time educating the community and ensuring compliance with tobacco legislation. It’s the networking that she enjoys the most. In 2006, Muis received a phone call from the Vice Principal of a secondary school who had discovered that a seller of contraband cigarettes had been giving one of the high school students a small kickback to sell the cigarettes to his schoolmates. Muis worked with Kingston police, the RCMP and the Ministry of Finance to try to put a stop to that trade in contraband cigarettes. “I did something that typically isn’t done – after that first collaborative effort, I said ‘let’s get together, put faces to names, and get clear on all these disparate bits of tobacco legislation,’” recalls Muis. Now five years later, representatives from these organizations as well as from some NGOs, four different health units, Ontario Provincial Police and Crime Stoppers meet every four months to discuss current issues regarding contraband tobacco. “I’ve learned that sharing information and taking action at a grassroots level can at times be far more effective than top-down initiatives. I ask what works for each of these other agencies, and that builds a good rapport with communities, retailers, and even tobacco-users. It’s a more positive way of being a tobacco ‘enforcer,’” she laughs.
When the Master’s of Public Health program was announced, Muis was “so excited,” but decided to wait a year. “I was hesitant,” she remembers, “but I love to learn – and my two kids are the same way – so even though I knew there would be some tough times, I felt I could do it. I’m no quitter.” So in 2010, Muis went back to school part time, taking one course in her first semester and excelling. In fact, she’s been awarded a scholarship under the Ontario Tobacco Research Unit called the Ashley Studentship for her current project in tobacco control.
Although tobacco control is a passion for Muis, her MPH practicum is about a different topic. Now, she is working with the KFL&A’s Geographic Information System Team on a project that improves the management of public health information. “I’m taking the opportunity to do something different and getting a sense of what else public health can provide.” Beyond this practicum, she is also actively involved in a research project aiming to develop a better system of making sure that store clerks ask for ID when customers purchase tobacco products. “The biggest predictor for sales to minors is not asking for ID,” explains Muis. Currently, retailers are required to request ID from anyone who looks under 25. But as the Tobacco Control Program’s undercover shopper compliance checks have shown, age isn’t easy to guess. With already four years of data on the variables that influence whether or not a sales clerk asks or does not ask for ID, Muis has also learned that many clerks who ask for ID don’t actually calculate the shopper’s age based on the date that they quickly skim. So Muis is innovating strategies that keep clerks engaged and mindful about their role preventing youth access to tobacco.
When I ask what has impressed her most about her graduate experience so far, Muis emphasizes how strong the MPH program is in teaching about evidence-based programming. “Graduates from this program will be great assets to public health,” she says confidently.It is for the same reason, among others, that Muis herself is such a dynamic addition to the program. “At the time I began my Master’s, almost all of my cohort were in their 20s. The younger students were very career focused, but since I’m halfway through my career, I have a different approach to learning. I took on a mother hen role with them,” she says fondly, “but we all learned from each other. ” In fact, just two days before Muis and I met to chat about her experiences in the MPH, she had watched some of those friends cross the stage at their convocation. “After seeing my sister earn her PhD and now cheering on my classmates at their graduation, I know I’ll pursue further graduate studies, too.”
What’s kept Muis going most during the tougher parts of her return to school is the vision of having her kids see her get hooded and handed her degree. “My kids are so supportive,” the single mother of two says with deep appreciation in her voice, “they’ve seen me through everything. My son and I even commiserated over not understanding statistics at the same time!” Working a graduate degree around a full time job and raising two kids has been demanding, she affirms, but Muis is fully convincing when she says that she’s enjoyed it all. In a year from now, Muis will be finished her program. Will she miss it, I ask? “I’ll miss the learning and I’ll miss conferencing,” she predicts. “But the thing about getting bored quickly is that I’m always looking to strategize to do something else.” Clearly, Muis’ next degree, public health initiative, or project (recently she built her own chicken coop!) is never too far away.