Public health grad aims to improve global health from the ground up
University opened Heather Nixdorff’s eyes to health inequities; now she’s determined to help marginalized communities around the world secure safe water, food, air and soil.
By BEV BETKOWSKI
Heather Nixdorff took clean water for granted, until she took a university class about Indigenous health.
“We learned about how so many Indigenous communities don’t have access to clean water in Canada, and when you don't have that, it can really impact other aspects of society, like economic security and health.”
It was a realization that got her thinking about a career in environmental public health and eventually resulted in a master’s degree from the University of Alberta this spring, along with a determination to make a difference.
Water, air, soil, food security and other environmental health issues are all priorities for Nixdorff.
“We can’t be healthy if our environment isn’t healthy, so it’s important we protect that,” she said.
Armed with her new graduate degree, Nixdorff plans to work at ground level with marginalized communities—a calling she’s been following already.
Inspired by her mother, a doctor who travels around the world to deliver health care, Nixdorff has worked in harm reduction with at-risk youth and sex workers, and volunteered in Africa delivering education on HIV and malaria.
“I’m hoping to work with people who’ve been pushed to the side. To me, they are not forgotten; each person’s life is valuable.”
A 2015 trip to a remote village with an organization called Haiti Health Initiative became the foundation of her graduate thesis.
While working with local community health workers in Haiti to deliver education sessions on everyday topics like maternal health, nutrition and hygiene, she’d learned about issues surrounding a water system that had been built in the village of Timo. It was in danger of failing due to issues of maintenance, sustainability and vandalism.
The complexities of the situation “sparked something in me,” she said. “It was surprising to see how water can be so political.”
Originally intending to study lab microbiology for her graduate degree, she reflected on her Haiti experience and realized that was the kind of community-level work she really wanted to do.
“I love being out in the world and talking to people.”
With that in mind, she partnered with Haiti Health Initiative and went back to Timo over the next two years to explore the experience residents were having with the water system, including reasons for lack of access, management concerns and ideas for improvement.
Nixdorff found that, although many residents wanted to maintain the water system, its functionality was being hampered by a lack of communication surrounding payment, maintenance responsibilities and a general lack of community cohesion.
She asked residents for their input into how the water system is managed, and she identified social characteristics that were affecting its sustainability. Her thesis offered the community and Haiti Health Initiative a way to improve the situation.
“We were able to find out how they as a community could work with the organization that built the water system to manage it together,” she explained.
After COVID-19 travel restrictions lift, Nixdorff plans to follow her passion for community engagement and health with a 12-month placement with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in Myanmar, a country in southeast Asia.
As in Haiti, she’ll be alongside local community health workers, planning and supporting various projects ranging from infectious disease prevention to mental health—“whatever is deemed important by the community,” she said.
And while her time at the U of A was a “roller-coaster of hard work,” Nixdorff also knows it has empowered her to tackle the complex challenges presented by a career in global public health.
“The U of A was an engaged, stimulating environment that really challenged me to think more independently. That will make me a more effective person in the world. I feel more confident in myself and my work after finishing this degree.”