Profile: Justin Thielman
23 Jan 2018
In school, Justin Thielman pursued an undergraduate degree in biology with a minor in psychology. While he was drawn to the exactness of biology, after some years studying, he realized he didn’t want to work in a traditional wet lab. Since he couldn’t decide what his next move was, he moved overseas to Taiwan to teach English for a year.
After his travels, he returned to Ontario, where he started taking courses in Public Health, including some epidemiology courses. He knew right away that he had found the right field – it was the perfect mix of the social science concepts he loved, and quantitative measurement and analysis. He applied to M.Sc. programs in Epidemiology.
That’s when he started to become enamoured with research. In his undergrad, he felt he never learned what research was – in biology, they largely focused on memorization. When he was in his Master’s program, Justin realized that research has a major creative component – a unique way of thinking and looking at problems, and this type of analysis fit with his personality and interests.
He was interested in tackling what seemed to him the biggest health problems – ones that affected the most people: chronic disease and obesity. He ended up doing his master’s thesis on neighbourhood walkability and physical activity.
Walkability can be defined by four categories:
- well-connected streets (meaning a direct route to destinations)
- high population and residential density
- high density of nearby amenities (banks, grocery stores)
- good aesthetics (sidewalks that aren’t all cracked, good street lighting)
Focusing on the built environment and physical activity also allowed him to look at a broader population perspective when it comes to chronic disease and obesity:
“Many people tend to focus on obesity and chronic disease as an individual level problem – as in, individuals need to change their behaviours to become healthier. I thought it was just as important to consider these issues from a context point-of-view – certain environments are more conducive to living a healthier lifestyle. It’s overly simplistic to chalk it up to individual choices – to get the full picture you have to look at contextual factors like neighbourhoods”.
Why the neighbourhood? What’s significant about this context?
“Neighbourhood is important – because policy has the potential to influence a neighbourhood [layout], you can change community design, or change the street network. You can’t influence someone’s individual home or workplace as much. Each workplace is different and probably managed by different organizations.”
Justin emphasizes the importance of rising above the individual point of view – to have a positive impact on as many people as possible using an upstream approach.
How do these concepts – walkability, the built environment – link with the social determinants of health, for example?
“The social determinants of health and built environment interact a lot. Someone’s socioeconomic status will majorly impact the neighbourhood that they choose to live in. In cities like Toronto, the most walkable neighbourhoods tend to be the most expensive neighbourhoods. The reverse is true as well – Let’s say you’re living in an unwalkable built environment that is far from your workplace. Your commute may add to your stress level, it can take away from time with your family, and ultimately it negatively affects your health.”
Why is PHO important to your work?
Justin’s thesis work on walkability led him right into PHO’s doors – he became the lead epidemiologist on a project looking at Neighbourhood walkability.
“All of the walkability work that I’ve done at PHO has been interesting – the thing that makes it interesting at PHO is that we have a strong connection with policy-makers and local public health units, so you have that connection to the people who are using the information. Sometimes you don’t get this connection at academic institutions, so you can tailor your work to what is useful to those stakeholders. You can hear input from different groups, hear what they think is important and let it inform your research.”