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Research for the community, by the community

Christine Ha’s climate change research on food systems in Northern Quebec is led by the area’s youth

McGill researcher, Christine Ha, on location in Whapmagoostui

It was while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Global Nutrition that Christine Ha, BSc(NutrSc)’18, got a taste for research.

Studying in the School of Human Nutrition, she was given the chance to work in the lab with researcher and Associate Professor Hope Weiler.

“Dr. Weiler got me really excited about research and helped me see how I could be involved in the field of human nutrition as a researcher,” says Ha, who came to McGill with a passion for nutrition and originally thought she would apply to medical school after her undergraduate studies.

Experimentation was an important part of her early research experience. “She let me dabble in all the areas where she works,” says Ha. After her undergraduate research experiences she knew she wanted to work on climate change and food security.

Now as a PhD candidate, Ha works in a research group led by Murray Humphries, Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition & Environment (CINE), with Associate Professor and Associate Director of CINE Treena Wasonti:io Delormier as her supervisor. For Ha’s thesis, she’s identifying community priorities in adapting to climate change to ensure food security in Whapmagoostui, James Bay.

Humphries’ lab targets issues of climate change from different perspectives – reflecting the important role of interdisciplinary research in the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences – with Ha as the only health researcher in a lab of environmental ecology researchers.

Community-based participatory research

After earning her undergraduate degree, Ha was offered an internship to work with the Cree Nation Government in northern Quebec, originally to identify the community’s priorities in adapting to climate change, and now to work with the youth to look specifically at how climate change affects food security, food sovereignty and food systems within the community.

Based on that work, she and her supervisor, Delormier, are developing the project for her graduate studies.

From the lab to people

Ha says there’s a necessary adjustment to being out of the lab, and working with people. But Delormier has mentored her in community-led research. “Dr. Delormier taught me to understand that it’s always about the people. People aren’t just data. You have to remember all the things these people are and incorporate that humanity into the research,” says Ha.

“Our research is based on the community’s priorities. The goal is to provide empowerment tools and build on their needs.”

For the youth, by the youth

The community she’s working with wants Ha to look at intergenerational exchange, specifically to facilitate a sharing of knowledge between the youth and the elders about food systems that could benefit the youth in the future.

Accordingly, the research itself is being led by the young people. “We train them in research skills, but they’re going into the community, recruiting participants,” explains Ha.

Ha and the youth create the framework of the research questions together, but it’s the youth who conduct the interviews. “It’s up to their interpretation. They don’t necessarily stay on script. It’s fascinating to see how they pick up certain elements that we wouldn’t have thought of. It makes the interviews so much more rich, doing it that way gives us a much bigger picture and understanding of their stories.”

While the young people may be gaining research experience, “it really wouldn’t work without them,” says Ha. “We’re a team. They allow the research to work. And the research is for them.”

The project is still in its early phase and there are still a lot of paths it could take – depending on the wishes of the community. “Something we talked about with the chief was if the youth are interested in cooking and preparing traditional foods, we might capture that knowledge through video,” says Ha. Again it would be the young people behind the camera, using their own lens to decide what’s important.

A changing path

“I got all these opportunities I couldn’t turn down. And it led me to my PhD studies,” says Ha. It’s notable that she’s also a model community member on the Macdonald Campus, involved with organizations including the Macdonald Campus Students’ Society, the Dietetics and Human Nutrition Undergraduate Society and the Global Food Security Club. She earned a Macdonald Campus Gold Key Award in 2017, a Scarlet Key Award in 2018 and a Gretta Chambers Student Leadership Award in 2019.

Ha now sees how crucial research is for health and medicine, and that her research is a way for her to help kids. She’s still interested in medical school, but thinks she’d attend to become a researcher in pediatric nutrition.

“Nutrition is fundamental to health, especially when children are growing up, and I want to apply that to my pediatric career,” says Ha.