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Tracie Afifi.

Meet the 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award for Academic Innovation recipient

Learn about Tracie Afifi’s journey from student to award-winning researcher

June 8, 2023 — 

Named one of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada, Tracie Afifi [BSc/99, MSc/03, PhD/09] studies the long-term physical and mental health effects of child maltreatment. Her goal is to prevent child maltreatment and to promote healthy child development and well-being.  

“When I first started going to university, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I liked science in high school, so my Bachelor of Science degree just made sense,” she says. “When I started my Masters of Science, there was a new faculty member interested in recruiting students. He studied violence against women, but he knew I had an interest in children and suggested I consider studying violence against children.  I would not have entered this field without this suggestion. Then the more people I worked with in the field, the more it felt like this was the right space for me.” 

Over the last 13 years, Afifi has created an innovative research program aimed at preventing child abuse and neglect, fostering resilience and improving mental health. She founded the Childhood Adversity and Resilience Research team at UM, one of the most innovative research programs on child maltreatment and health worldwide and is a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Childhood Adversity and Resilience. In 2019, she was an invited participant to the Finding our Path Toward Childhood Free from Violence in a Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children hosted by UNICEF Canada, and she is also a frequent collaborator with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States to study adverse childhood experiences. Her work with the CDC resulted in the 2017 Child Abuse & Neglect publication that won article of the year (out of 238 manuscripts) in the International Journal Child Abuse & Neglect. 

“Even though it’s really difficult to learn about the traumatic experiences of children and to work in this world every day, it’s never lost its importance or meaning to me because this work has the possibility to improve the life of a child or five children or 10 or 100,” she says. “If you can reduce or prevent violence in a child’s life, it actually changes their whole life trajectory. The hope is that the more work we can do in this area then the more likely it will be that we can reduce or prevent violence from happening.”  

Afifi’s innovative research has also been used to inform policy. For example, 12 of her publications were used in the Chief Public Health Officer’s 2016 policy report on the state of family violence in Canada. In addition, her research was cited in a 2018 policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics stating that parents/caregivers should not hit or spank children. She is a leader in guiding the science in her field as a member of the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse & Neglect, the official society that publishes the journal of Child Abuse & Neglect where she has served as an Associate Editor since 2016. In this role, she has managed over 700 manuscripts.  

“The connections I’ve made through UM have been integral to working with many organizations, especially the Public Health Agency of Canada,” says Afifi. “We’ve developed a collaboration in which they recognize gaps of knowledge relevant to their work, and then I am able to provide research or a report to fill these gaps and provide the information to policymakers and decision makers.” 

She is also committed to mentoring students, inspiring them to set and achieve their own academic goals by providing individual mentorship, paid research positions, networking and publishing opportunities. She adopts innovative methods of sharing her research findings with a broader audience, including social media, infographics and her own website with easy-to-understand descriptions of her research and links to free open access academic publications. 

“I have been in the field for more than 20 years, which gives me a perspective that informs my vision and hope for where the field will go and how we can make the most impact to improve the lives of as many children as possible,” she says. “I can only do the work of one person, so I also feel that the more I can invest in students and the more students I can mentor and teach and provide opportunities like the ones provided to me, then it’s like one person’s work can multiply and create the biggest impact.” 

Afifi has received numerous awards and prizes, including Children’s Rights Support Award, the 2016 CBC Manitoba Future 40 award, the Royal-Mach-Gaensslen Prize for Mental Health Research, the Alexander Leighton Award, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Gold Leaf Prize for an Early Investigator and is an inducted college member of the Royal Society of Canada. This year, she will also receive the University of Manitoba Distinguished Alumni Award for Academic Innovation.  

“I completed all three of my degrees at the University of Manitoba, and I have my faculty position here. I have no desire to have my career anywhere else but here,” she says. “And so, to get to be an alum of the University of Manitoba, to have my career here, and then to be recognized by the university with this award is very meaningful to me.” 

The 2023 University of Manitoba Distinguished Alumni Awards Celebration of Excellence presented by TD Insurance will be held September 21, 2023. For more information about the event, or to purchase tickets, visit our website.   

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