Reflections by CNNTD’s SYP Ambassador Maëla Séguin

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when I developed a passion for infectious diseases, and more specifically, tropical diseases. I fell in love with the landscapes and culture of South America in 2018, when I joined a youth volunteer trip to Ecuador. I learned about social and health inequities affecting Indigenous populations. I was a nursing student at that time and this experience opened my eyes to the world of global health. When I took an introductory microbiology class for my Bachelor’s in nursing, my interest for infectious diseases was cemented: thus began my journey into global health and infectious diseases.

Coming from a small town, there are not many global health work or volunteering opportunities. However, upon my graduation, I gained meaningful employment in Public Health, where health equity is at the heart of my work. Although I was making a difference in my community, I wanted to expand my horizons to a global scale. I was accepted for a Master’s of Science in Global Health and Infectious Diseases in 2021. My studies began that fall and my courses allowed me to dig deep into different infectious diseases and learn about global health issues.

In November 2021, I was honored to be selected as the Canadian Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases Student and Young Professional (SYP) Ambassador. It was the perfect opportunity for a student like me who aspired to further discover the world of global health and work alongside a group that shared my values and aspired to make the world a better place. Throughout the past year as the SYP Ambassador, I gained valuable knowledge on Neglected Tropical Diseases—which to be honest, I had heard very little about before. I learned about the different diseases and their epidemiology as well as how they disproportionately affected the most marginalized populations, such as women, children, and refugees. My Ambassadorship also allowed me to meet incredible, passionate Canadians who work in the field of NTDs.

When I look back at the four years I spent in nursing school, the term Neglected Tropical Diseases was never used once. Even global health as a discipline was seldom discussed. In fact, I even remember being discouraged from pursuing non-clinical work by a professor because it was a ‘poor use’ of my nursing skills. Most nurses consider bedside (or hospital) nursing as their only option following graduation.

Throughout my year as the CNNTD SYP Ambassador, I often asked myself: How can we engage young health sciences students in global health and/or infectious/neglected tropical diseases?

During my 3rd year of nursing school, I was supposed to travel to the Dominican Republic with peers for my Pediatrics clinical placement. Although the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of these plans, this was an incredible opportunity for students to discover global health and learn first-hand about health inequities in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Offering short-term placements or exchange programs abroad for nurses while earning credit is an excellent way to experience hands-on global health work in low-resource settings.

Furthermore, nursing students have very intense class schedules that allow room for only 2-3 electives throughout the four-year bachelor’s program. For many future nurses, global health or infectious diseases courses are simply not an option due to scheduling conflicts or limited availability of electives. It’s important to make global health courses accessible to all health science students. Core nursing courses should also include discussions or projects on global health.

Also, many universities and colleges provide funding for student clubs. Some universities have CAGH (Canadian Association for Global Health chapters), which are an excellent way to engage students in global health and related challenges. The small school I attended for my undergrad unfortunately did not have such a club, but if I had the chance to start over, I would engage my peers and my professors in discussing global health challenges and advocating for health equity beyond our Canadian borders.

As I come to the end of my SYP ambassadorship mandate, I hope that global health, infectious diseases, and NTDs become a regular part of discussions in all health sciences programs, but especially in nursing.  But for the interest and passion to grow, one must plant the seed early in one’s professional life: All it takes is one passionate professor or student to take action and make a difference.