Sujani Sivanantharajah – Epidemiologist & Entrepreneur

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Sujani Sivanantharajah is an Epidemiologist with the Public Health Agency of Canada. She is also the founder of the Tamil Health Association, a non-for-profit organization.

Although Sujani could not be happier with her career choice in Public Health, her childhood dream was always to become a teacher. For over ten years, she tutored children and until this day, this passion remains. During high school, the idea of becoming a teacher began to phase out as her fascination for dentistry took over. In University, she began to take all of the prerequisite courses for dentistry, ordered DAT (Dental Admission Test) preparation materials and even volunteered at a dental office. Soon into her undergraduate studies, Sujani realized that she wasn’t enjoying biology, organic chemistry or any of her physics courses. She then began to look elsewhere to find a career path that would really interest her and would truly enjoy.

Sujani’s pivotal moment came with her elective course – “Plagues and People”. It was during this course that she was introduced to population-level health, epidemiology, and outbreaks. She was intrigued by this course that she enrolled in more electives related to epidemiology and population-health. Eventually, she had switched half of her focus to Health Studies and continued to explore careers in this field. “I liked this stuff; and more importantly, it made sense to me, unlike atoms and nucleic acids!” Sujani graduated with an Honours Bachelor of Science degree, majoring in Biology and Health Studies, and then went onto pursue her Masters of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan with a concentration in Epidemiology.

“The biggest obstacle for leaving the idea of Dentistry and moving into Epidemiology was the thought of letting people down around me. I was afraid that my family would be disappointed in me because I wasn’t going to become the Dentist I said I would. I also thought that I was giving up easily without really trying. But, truthfully, I didnt enjoy that field of study. I was battling perceived obstacles and myself.” – Sujani Sivanantharajah

Fortunately, to Sujani’s surprise she did not receive any negative criticism. Her family never stood in the way of any of her professional/career choices; they asked questions, but never enforced their beliefs onto her, which helped her a lot when she decided to change her career path. “My mom had a unique parenting style. She was strict but friendly, fostering independence and took a hands-off approach – she let me make my own career decisions,” she proudly says.

As an Epidemiologist working for the Government of Canada, a typical day for Sujani varies as her day depends on the team she is working with and the current clusters/outbreaks in Canada. If she is on the investigation team during an active outbreak, work is fast-paced with deadlines that need to be met as soon as possible. During an investigation period, a typical day starts by following up with the Senior Epidemiologist and receiving updates with the rest of the investigation team. A lot of Sujani’s work involves team work and keeping each other up to date with each other’s progress. Teleconferences are also a major method Epidemiologists use to communicate, since they are based in different regions across Canada. When Sujani is part of the investigation team, her tasks include the following (until the investigation is closed): collecting and organizing data on ill individuals, conducting data analysis to determine possible sources of infection, coordination with provincial colleagues across the country, sitting in meetings with other public health partners across the country and preparing various reports to present findings. When she isn’t on an outbreak investigation team, Sujani is either working on national projects that will support outbreak response in the future or be involved in a team of Epidemiologists who are monitoring for any potential illnesses across the country.

When asked what keeps Sujani going day in and day out as an Epidemiologist, she responded saying:

“A lot of the Senior Epidemiologists I work with have been involved in some exciting international outbreaks that reminds me of how awesome Epidemiology is. A number of my colleagues were in West Africa this past year for the Ebola outbreak, and others were in the Philippines during the 2014 Typhoon. Hearing their stories upon their return reminds me of how great this field really is and the kind of impact that it can have. I have also met other epidemiologists across the country who have been in this field for decades that have worked on outbreaks we are familiar with, close to home: the 2002 SARS outbreak, the 2009 Swine Flu pandemic, or CNE’s Cronut Burger outbreak! It all shows you how important epidemiology is!” – Sujani Sivanantharajah

Sujani Sivanantharajah_Tamil Health Association_speaking shotIn addition to Sujani’s full-time job as an Epidemiologist, she is also the founder and Executive Director of the Tamil Health Association. This project stemmed from the frustration of seeing how difficult it was for individuals of Tamil-speaking origin living in Canada to access relevant health information online. Sujani came up with the idea for finding a solution to this while pursuing her Masters in Saskatchewan. Her brainstorming eventually led her to founding a not-for-profit organization directed at Tamils with the vision to be the forefront of health promotion, education and research. Sujani says, “The Tamil Health Association is still a work in progress but with the support of the community and volunteers, it is doing well!”

Another great initiative Sujani helped create is TamilEvents, an online directory geared at helping bring Tamils from around the world together through events. Currently, there are four individuals including her working on this common vision. Personally for Sujani, a lot of the milestones she has reached, both personally and professionally, were a result of the connections she made at some great Tamil events in the community. She really hopes the Tamil community across the globe will use this platform to explore the wealth this community has to offer through being exposed to the various great events happening around the world.

When asked how she manages to balance everything she does and her advice for those aspiring to do the same, she responded:

“I love being busy, and organizing every hour of my day makes it easier. Having goals and wanting to make an impact through the ventures I am involved in keeps me going. I love entrepreneurship and the results I see make me happy.

The way I see it, the time is there if you really want to do something- whether that’s a venture, spending time with family or taking guitar lessons. I would totally encourage everyone; regardless of what stage of your career you are at, to get out and try a lot of new things. If you have an idea, jump into it and start it! The experiences you will gain through these ventures will be invaluable. It’s great to have a conventional education and multiple degrees, but I encourage you to do something more. If I could do one thing differently during my undergrad and Masters, it would be to jump into starting a side-business and into the world of entrepreneurship much earlier.

Explore what’s around you, meet tonnes of people, and don’t be afraid to share your dreams and vision of your future with others. Remember, the world is your playground!” – Sujani Sivanantharajah

Sujani is always open to speak to anyone who wants to grab a coffee and talk about school, career paths or about a new project or idea. Feel free to contact her at sujani.siva@gmail.com.

Co-Executive Editors: Stefi Anthonipillai & Narmitha Kanagaratnam

If you have any recommendations or suggestions for individuals to be featured in our Munnetram Series, please e-mail us at comm@tamilprofessional.ca.

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