Post-grads tease policy recommendations from data in National Policy Challenge

Post-grads tease policy recommendations from data in National Policy Challenge

Finalists of the challenge combed through Statistics Canada microdata to examine the health of care workers, the role of immigrant families, legal cannabis strategies and more. A long-lasting relationship between SAS, Statistics Canada, and the Canadian Research Data Centre Network helped create this national showcase for graduate students to flex their policy research muscles.

But data researchers globally, across all industries, are in high demand, and thebreadth of topics covered by this year’s finalists continue to draw the eyes of industry experts and potential employers everywhere.

A study of the links between illicit cannabis consumption and the distribution of legal cannabis outlets in Canada took home the honors in the 2022 Canadian Research Data Centre Network’s National Policy Challenge.

Angele Poirier, a master's in economics candidate at the University of Regina, used Statistics Canada’s enormous volume of microdata to determine the who, where and why of illicit cannabis use despite its status as legal for recreational consumption. The recommendations she drew from the data targeted specific demographics and regions for educational initiatives about marijuana consumption, particularly among teens and rural younger males – those more likely to use illicit cannabis.

The timing was propitious for Poirier. Like the other candidates, she was preparing to defend her thesis. “I am so lucky that this event fell shortly before my thesis defense,” she said. “It was excellent preparation.

“Any presentation is good practice – when you teach something, it forces you to learn it better.”

Poirier’s presentation was among a varied field of finalists, from the role of family in the economic participation of immigrant women to the mental health support of casual health care workers.

“I am always impressed at the breadth of topics covered by the finalists every time I have had the opportunity to serve as a judge for the National Policy Challenge,” said Hugh Cairns, SAS Canada’s technical consultant and adjunct professor with the Eric Sprott School of Business at Carleton University in Ottawa.

SAS partners each year with Statistics Canada and the CRDCN for the policy challenge, providing candidates with tools, training and advice for their projects.

Second-place winner Samer Hamamji’s project aimed at creating a Food Choices Assessment Score based on the recently revised Canada Food Guide and Canada Dietary Guide recommendations.

Hamamji, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Nutritional Science at the University of Toronto, drew associations between food choices, socio-economic and demographic status and cardio-metabolic risks in the Canadian population.

“The study is, to our knowledge, the first to use the Canadian Health Measures Survey (CHMS) food frequency questionnaire to develop a dietary score to assess dietary choices of Canadians according to the latest Canada Food Guide and Canada Dietary Guide,” Hamamji said.

El Zahraa Majed's journey took three years. In the second year of her PhD in health promotion at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., she saw the challenge as “a huge opportunity, something that could open doors later on.” Unfortunately, the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the NPC that year. In 2021 she couldn’t participate because of a high-risk pregnancy.

She soldiered on in her third year despite issues with the server farm at the university, continuing her examination of physical activity patterns among new and established immigrants and their association with physical and mental health.

Physically active and an immigrant herself, she found there was a lack of data in the literature, and hoped she could develop funding for programs to increase participation among immigrants who have found it difficult to continue their fitness regimens.

After doing some primary analysis on her laptop, she shared her research plan with her mentor at SAS, who encouraged her to continue with the regression model she’d been using. “(She said) it made more sense in terms of what I was looking for.”

Samantha Skinner, a PhD candidate at Western University in London, Ont., examined the mental and physical health of “casual” or “informal” caregivers – those non-professionals who care for family members in place of a professional health services worker.

Her third-place effort drew connections among the intensity (volume and frequency) of the work, living situations (e.g. in-home caregiver), socioeconomic disparities and mental and physical health self-assessments.

Skinner’s work supported national standards for casual caregivers – while professionals have guidance on the intensity of work and other factors, informal caregivers do not.

“Casual caregivers are not considered,” Skinner said, and that makes predicting outcomes more difficult.

Jennifer Frimpong’s study – charmingly titled “The Importance of Grandmothers”– examined the impact of changes in immigration policy and the participation of immigrant women in the economy.

The University of Manitoba candidate’s analysis focused on the 1995 change in direction of Canada’s immigration policy from family re-unification toward economic immigration.

The study found the change has profoundly affected the work participation of female immigrants without family to act as alternate child-caregivers.

Cairns called the judging process “a difficult task” this year. “Each participant offered insights into their chosen fields in an interesting and compelling way that will serve to enhance policy decisions for Canada,” he said. “Each of them should be very proud of their work.”

Poirier said StatsCan should include the policy challenge in its orientation session for prospective users of its Research Data Centre (RDC). “It should be communicated to students in graduate and undergraduate programs who may be candidates for RDC or data science."

The National Policy Challenge is just one of the ways SAS helps foster the next generation of analytics talent across Canada and beyond.

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