Medical microbiology alum now an emerging public health leader
Dr. Tammy Stuart Chester has found her niche.
“I’m passionate about public health, public health surveillance, using data for action and doing my small part to make a positive impact on the health of the population,” the scientist says.
Growing up in Headingley, Man., Stuart Chester always wanted to help others. After completing an honours bachelor’s degree in genetics at UM, she earned her PhD in medical microbiology and infectious diseases, also at UM.
During graduate school, she conducted HIV research at the National Microbiology Laboratory under the mentorship of Dr. Frank Plummer and Dr. Kevin Coombs. She also took part in what is now UM’s International Infectious Disease and Global Health Training Program.
Then a growing interest in applied epidemiology led to her acceptance into the Canadian Field Epidemiology Program at the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). As a field epidemiologist in Ottawa from 2006 to 2008, Stuart Chester was deployed to provide critical epidemiological assistance, such as for a tuberculosis investigation in an Alberta penitentiary.
“I was able to work in intense settings and on multidisciplinary teams on everything from study design to data analysis, reporting, and making evidence-based recommendations for disease control and prevention measures,” she recalls.
After a stint volunteering with the World Health Organization in Ethiopia, she returned to PHAC, where she contributed to the H1N1 pandemic response.
In 2010, Stuart Chester moved into a senior public health officer-epidemiologist role at PHAC in Manitoba. For the next dozen years, her areas of focus ranged from syphilis to harm reduction to working in the office of Dr. Brent Roussin, chief provincial public health officer, during the COVID-19 pandemic response.
The skills that she had developed during graduate school, such as problem-solving, critical thinking and taking initiative, enabled her to succeed, she says.
Public health surveillance is near and dear to Stuart Chester’s heart. “It’s the ongoing, systematic collection, analysis and interpretation of health-related data and the use of the data for public health action,” she says.
In 2022, Stuart Chester started to take on more responsibility in public health leadership. Still based in Manitoba, she has held roles at PHAC including a senior advisor position and her current key role as a manager in the surveillance strategic planning and governance division of the agency’s data, surveillance and foresight branch.
“I’m very interested in leadership opportunities that will allow me to foster new partnerships and challenge how we perform public health surveillance in the future,” she says, adding that mentoring new staff is a particularly satisfying aspect of leadership.
She has also served as a part-time assistant professor in community health sciences at UM’s Max Rady College of Medicine, teaching applied public health epidemiology.
Stuart Chester’s career advice to graduate students is to “find mentors who inspire you, try new things and be collaborative.
“I’m always happy to speak with graduate students and to brainstorm ideas about opportunities in public health. It brings me great joy to help people with their career paths and progression, just as mentors have done for me.”