Advocating for reproductive health with mathematics

2022 K. D. Fryer Gold Medal winner Jalisa Karim crosses disciplines to advance women’s health

By Melodie Roschman Faculty of Mathematics

For Jalisa Karim, interdisciplinary work comes naturally.

This fall, Karim will graduate with a BMath in biostatistics and a BA in sexuality, marriage and family studies.

While some might question her choice to pursue degrees from two very different sides of campus, for her the pairing makes sense.

"I think interdisciplinary research is so important," she says. "Fields don’t exist in a vacuum. Understanding the context around the research questions you’re trying to answer is essential."

Karim’s overarching passion as a researcher is women’s reproductive health. She transferred to Waterloo from the University of Western Ontario after her first year of university. She was attracted by the Faculty of Mathematics’ stellar reputation and the newly created degree in biostatistics.

She had known since high school that she was interested in health sciences: initially, she wanted to be a doctor, but then Karim decided to look for other ways that she could combine her interest in science and health with her love of math. After taking a family studies course at Western, adding a major in sexuality, marriage and family studies here at Waterloo seemed like a natural next step.

During her first year at Waterloo, Karim continued with many of the same extracurriculars that she had pursued in high school, mainly music and dance. As she progressed in her studies, however, Karim felt a growing urge to give back to her community both as a leader and an educator.

She volunteered as a notetaker for AccessAbility Services, a natural outgrowth of her high school volunteer work with the Cerebral Palsy Association of British Columbia. She also served as the vice-president, communications and the president of the Sexuality, Marriage and Family Studies Student Society, and as a member of the WUSA Education Advisory Council.

Karim’s most personally fulfilling work, however, was related to health. She regularly volunteered at the Waterloo Women’s Centre and worked across campus as a Peer Health Educator with UW Campus Wellness. Karim helped plan bingo nights and Jeopardy! sessions, answered questions and provided resources and helped staff pop-up booths across campus with free information and sexual health supplies for any student that might stop by.

She says that the work was often both frustrating and incredibly rewarding.

"I talk to so many students who had no or barely any sexual health education in high school," Karim explains. "I would talk to students who have no knowledge of things that I would think should be common knowledge. If you are someone with a uterus, and you’re sexually active, you should know about the different kinds of birth control!"

Between studying and volunteering, Karim completed several co-op terms as a research assistant at the University of British Columbia. It was there that she confirmed her love for academic research and decided to continue her education in graduate school.

This September, she began a PhD in women+ and children’s health sciences, where she continues her work for women’s health through her research focusing on endometriosis and infertility.

Karim graduates this fall on the Dean’s Honours List and is this year’s recipient of the Faculty of Mathematics K. D. Fryer Gold Medal, an honour given to a student who exemplifies academic excellence, good citizenship and involvement in extracurricular activities.