Written by Abby Arora
Edited by Juhi Mattekatt and Paula Magbor
Dr. Elysée Nouvet is a Ph.D. Associate Professor in the School of Health Studies at the University of Western Ontario. Trained as a medical and cultural anthropologist, her work explores themes of power, ethics, and humanitarian health, as well as best practices in research with marginalized populations. With her experience in global health, she has developed and co-led research on the perceptions and moral experiences of humanitarian health initiatives throughout the world.
Continue reading to learn more about her journey on becoming who she is today.
Briefly walk us through your journey as an undergrad student. What was your major in college? Where did you go to school?
“I studied cultural anthropology for my undergrad. That was my major. I did an honours and I was at Concordia University in Montreal."
As a freshman in college, what career aspirations did you have for yourself post-grad?
“I think I was very fortunate in the sense that I was primarily thinking about getting a university education rather than a career path 25 years ago. Moreover, there were more job options, so I wasn't very worried about where I would end up next. However, I had a very strong interest in film, so I did a lot of film courses in Montreal. Later on, I ended up pursuing a Masters in visual anthropology at Goldsmith College in the UK. There was definitely a point where I considered leaving academia to go into film, so I think that my first professional plan was to pursue documentary film.”
Did you enjoy your experience as a foreign student? How has it helped you become who you are today?
“When I finished high school, I took a year off and traveled alone through the Mediterranean region. Travel has been a passion of mine. Not to mention, I have French citizenship and have been to Europe to visit a lot of family, so the UK feels very familiar and not exotic, or challenging at all. It's very much like Canada for me. But I would definitely say that there was always a strong appeal to make sure I found a career path that would enable me to keep learning about other ways of living. That’s just something I've been really fascinated about and enjoyed, and also find really rewarding for my own self-reflection and exploration. You learn so much about yourself when you're traveling and in unfamiliar places and scenarios, so I really enjoy that side of my work.”
As a former undergrad and grad student, what is the biggest difference you saw between the two education systems? Did you like one better than the other? If so, why?
“At Concordia, where I did my undergrad in anthropology, there were about 60 undergrads a year with anthropology as their major, so that was a very intimate setting. So I really enjoyed having that. However, in the UK, where I pursued my Masters, there were about ten of us in my graduate program. That said, one big difference between undergrad and my graduate program was in the degree of supervision."
"My graduate program was very self-directed. This is usually the case when you go from undergrad to graduate studies anywhere. In my case, we all had a supervisor assigned to us for our Masters, but we were expected to design our own project, conduct our own Masters thesis and then, if needed, meet with our supervisor. There was definitely an expectation that you would just kind of get stuff done. For my undergrad and linked to my honours, I had a supervisor who I discussed ideas and research with weekly, so having that very consistent mentor and professor with whom I could discuss my thinking was quite a big difference.”
Understanding that your research has a focus on humanitarian health, what are some of the major challenges you've found are faced when delivering humanitarian assistance to marginalized populations?
“I do a lot of intersectoral work and collaboration with NGOs and more recently have
been engaged in collaborating with the World Health Organization along with other organizations that are involved in research in emergencies. So my side of the work is addressing the challenge of how to engage affected communities in ways that are authentic rather than tokenistic and work against a history of colonial, extractive research."
"It is important to revise the humanitarian sector and accord appropriate respect to local responders who are the first ones to respond in humanitarian emergencies. That is sometimes forgotten in international humanitarian action. There is a certain framing of that in the media, especially to the Canadian public, that those who fly into an emergency are the main responders. They are not. They work with locals who know the context best, have been there first and will stay after foreign help leaves."
"In the current global situation, there are a lot of fragile healthcare systems, and some of them are regularly destabilized by disasters or public health emergencies. So there is always going to, well, not always, but for the foreseeable future, there's going to be a need for an international humanitarian health care response. So my work has been focused on that intersection between the international responders and local providers, as well as on understanding the experience of patient and research participant communities and populations. The aim is to build bridges and ensure those local to emergencies are heard and can contribute to guidance on how to effectively collaborate with local populations during crises.”
In one of your lectures, you mentioned how a story came out when you were a Ph.D. student claiming “only 1 out of 6 PhD graduates would secure a tenure-track job in academia”. You also mentioned how out of the six graduates in your cohort, you are the only one with a tenured position. Why do you think that is?
“I graduated in 2011, and we were still globally feeling the reverberations of the economic collapse of 2008. So things might be a bit better, but there certainly is a really large amount of professor positions or instructor positions that are short-term contracts or course-by-course contracts. The growth of precarious labour within universities across the world, and certainly in Canada, is a reality. So structurally, there's a major challenge for Ph.D. graduates to get a livable wage within academia because 50% of your professors at Western are limited by term or session. Essentially they have Ph.D.s, who've gone through all that training, but they're getting their jobs every four months, and that pay is very low. And because that pay is low, a lot of people who get a Ph.D. end up needing to move on."
"In terms of myself, I did have a good track record for scholarships. I got scholarships throughout undergrad, I got a Commonwealth to go to the UK, and I got big grants for my Master's and Ph.D., but I was also really privileged to be married, so that when I finished my Ph.D. I had the ability to say “no” to some of the more precarious employment that other friends of mine had to accept. So I really had the privilege of being in a dual-income household. I think that helped a lot alongside my strong track record and socioeconomic reasons for my success.”
Oftentimes, students are more excited about finishing their degree than they are about the “journey” of it. What is one way you would recommend making this journey more enjoyable?
“Well, first of all, I think it is great to celebrate when you finish; it’s a huge accomplishment and something to be proud of. However, the process of getting through it is a lot of work and to make it more enjoyable, one thing we keep emphasizing in the School of Health Studies is our work-life balance."
"In Canadian society, we know that our work-life balance has been eroded. Gradually and steadily over the last couple of decades, expectations on how much time you're going to be spending on work in order to be “successful'', just seem to be increasing. So, I think that to enjoy the process, there has to be some self-kindness and compassion for yourself. There needs to be recognition and appreciation for your own hard work and intentionally reserve time off to restore yourself outside work."
"Of course, being focused on the external validation of the grades works too, but it’s also really important to try to think back to something you might carry forward into your life that was really interesting, and memorable for you. In university, you have the opportunity to read a lot and learn a lot without needing to decide what your career is at that point. So kind of enjoying that “gray zone” of it being a little bit vague where you're headed because, eventually, you will be more focused. The flexibility of an undergrad degree allows you to explore a variety of interests and pursue a variety of questions. And think about yourself and what you like because it really is a beautiful time to work on your friendships and figure out who you are.”
Have there been any setbacks you faced (in undergrad) that you later realized were an advantage?
“In university, I was really lucky in terms of having my sister in town, and a support system near me. However, I did struggle with some depression. In my second year, despite having that balanced lifestyle, times definitely got harder. And I guess that has fed into my empathy and interest in mental health issues. However, compared to others I’ve experienced limited setbacks, but it still has shaped my perspective on the world and ability to relate to people. So I think that it's important to also try to learn from your setbacks. But I've been pretty lucky.”
Since spring is coming up, a lot of students are looking into applying for internships, jobs, summer programs, etc. What was it that you usually did during the summers between university?
“I worked for the Government of Canada one summer. So, I went through that kind of paid job internship, which was great. I did need to earn a certain amount of money every summer as an undergrad to supplement scholarships, so I tried to work as many jobs as possible: mostly coffee shops or retail. One year I got a work-travel visa and went to the UK and worked in a coffee shop. So I really enjoyed all those jobs I had. I feel that every work environment that puts you in contact with humans is always great for your social skills. I mean, I know you need to build your resume in more substantial ways, and during the school year, I did seek out an undergrad research assistant position, so I did have that going on my resume, but, for some reason, I think I wasn't really aware of more professional internships in the summer, so I was doing kind of more ordinary jobs.”
Thank you for your time, Dr. Nouvet! You provided great insight into your journey from undergrad to professor. This interview will definitely provide our students with increased awareness of their future years. Taking from some of your advice, I’m sure it’s time we all broaden our horizons and explore our interests beyond our everyday space.
“Thank you for the chance to be interviewed!”
About the interviewer:
Abby Arora is a Second-Year undergraduate student at Western University. Currently, she works as a COVID-19 Screener at Brampton Civic Hospital and leads youth initiatives aimed at helping children living in low-income households. She is passionate about the interconnectivity of Environmental Science and Human Medicine and seeks to share her passion on campus by engaging in various events that promote scientific literacy and student engagement on pressing healthcare issues.