Fellows Feature: Maria Ahmed & Chris Borst

The fourth year of the Population Analytics in an Aging Society Training Program held its kick-off on September 6th. The 22 accomplished Fellows who compose the 2023-24 cohort were competitively selected from CAnD3’s (Consortium on Analytics for Data-Driven Decision-Making) partner higher education institutions. The new cohort comes from diverse backgrounds, with eight in master’s programs, 13 in PhD programs, and one completing postdoctoral training. They bring a range of disciplinary training from political science and geography to gerontology and medicine.

Here, we feature two of our new Fellows, Maria and Chris, who share the paths that brought them to CAnD3 and how they hope to use the training to make a positive impact.

Featured image: Maria Ahmed (right), Chris Borst (left)

Maria Ahmed (she/her)

Maria’s research examines how social inequalities are transferred intergenerationally. While previous researchers have explored this problem from the angles of financial, social, and cultural capital, Maria takes a new approach. She is interested in how health and personal capital can be resources that are transferred from parent to child. An example is maternal and child health during the perinatal process, such as the birth outcomes of the child as health capital and the resiliency of the mother as personal capital.

“This research area is inspired by my daughter, Alisha, who was diagnosed with brain cancer shortly before the pandemic,” shares Maria. “My year spent at two different children’s hospitals shaped my understanding of the role that social institutions play in alleviating or exacerbating social inequalities.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, these social institutions providing support to patients and caregivers were strained or altogether stripped away, deemed as “nonessential”. Maria says that she sees the reverberations of these policy decisions on mental health today, with greater impacts on minority populations who rely on social supports to compensate for other disadvantages.

Maria’s SSHRC-funded doctoral research at Western University draws on both her personal experience and academic background in social structures. She is examining the mechanisms and policymaking processes in highly institutionalized settings during times of crisis that create advantages and disadvantages for racialized populations–such as hospitals during the pandemic. More specifically, Maria wants to look at the pregnancy outcomes of disadvantaged populations in the Canadian context, and she has already presented a paper looking at disparities in the risk of c-section among visible minority and immigrant women in the United States.

Through the CAnD3 Fellowship, Maria wants to learn knowledge mobilization skills to better translate her research into formats that are accessible to and impactful for the public and policymakers. She expresses her excitement to expand her skills in quantitative methods to analyze population-level data on pregnancy and birth outcomes before and after the pandemic.

Maria likes to play video games with her oldest daughter and make crafts with her youngest. She is also a founder of the Alisha Jilani Foundation, through which she raises funds to support other families that are going through cancer treatment in Ontario in loving memory of her daughter.

“Through serendipity or divine intervention, my life pathways have perfectly situated me to tackle these questions on health and social inequalities,” reflects Maria. She looks back on how her current research themes have been shaped by her bachelor’s degree in commerce focused on organizational behaviour and master’s in leadership and policy. “I build on these theoretical conceptualizations with my real-world experience of being a caregiver in both hospital and community care settings and a mom to three beautiful girls.”

Learn more about Maria and maria.ahmed [at] uwo.ca (connect) with her.

Chris Borst (they/them)

Chris curates a website called “Image of the Child .org”. It is a “research project that attempts to classify our ideology about children and childhood”. The project aims to build a systematic accounting of the existing images of the child because these (sometimes) contradictory and (sometimes) complementary images are institutionalized and determine how we teach, parent, and make policies and laws concerning children. The website asks readers to reflect: “When I say ‘child’, what age is the person you see in your head? what race? what gender? what are they wearing? what are they doing?”.

For Chris, the normative disagreements—or the different images—around childhood that are borne out of answering these questions are not well-reflected in the research conducted or policies constructed around children. Chris saw this gap while working as a policy researcher in municipal government for 14 years, supporting decision-making in children’s services and community development.

“I’m interested in how we can systematically incorporate normative disagreements in empirical research designs, and I’m focusing on early childhood as a case study,” says Chris. They explain that despite wildly varying ideas about how to raise children and assess how children are faring, much of social scientific and policy research commonly ignore disagreements in, for example, what counts as “abuse” and what is “responsible parenting (or care)”. Putting it more bluntly, “Pretending that politically loaded research isn’t doesn’t make it less loaded.”

Chris wrote a piece on how we might properly approach politically loaded research in the context of policymaking for children and children’s services in Innovations in Early Education: The International Reggio Emilia Exchange. They discuss forging alliances among the images of the child and embracing the full breadth of the ways “children” and “childhood” are conceived.

Here is Chris' image as a child and them paddling, one of the activities they enjoy doing, in addition to hiking and dancing. They also love going to art galleries and museums and taking in performances on the stage (orchestral, dance, theatre). Reading novels is another favourite pastime, with their current favourite authors including Naomi Novik, John Scalzi, and Katherine Addison. 

Chris is pursuing a PhD in sociology at McGill University, where they want to learn how to improve policymaking and evaluation in the context of normative disagreements, by learning computational text analysis (or as Chris calls it “doing statistics with words”). They joined the CAnD3 program to complement their formal doctoral instruction with professional development opportunities and advanced statistical methods training. “I envisage the training helping to shift my career from a municipal to a national or international focus,” shares Chris.

Learn more about Chris and chris.borst [at] mail.mcgill.ca (connect) with them.

About the training program

The Population Analytics in an Aging Society Training Program is a rigorous one-year fellowship hosted by the Consortium on Analytics for Data-Driven Decision-Making (CAnD3), funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and based at McGill University. The program upskills rising researchers in Master's, PhD, and postdoctoral programs in the areas of population data science and computational population social science from a multidisciplinary lens. It also connects Fellows to experiential learning opportunities, which include hands-on research projects and internships with government, not-for-profit, and private sector CAnD3 partners. Since the first year of the program in 2020, CAnD3 has trained 52 Fellows and welcomes 22 new Fellows for the 2023-24 Academic Year.

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