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

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Jalisa KarimFor Jalisa Karim, interdisciplinary work comes naturally. The 2022 K.D. Fryer Gold Medal winner graduates this fall with a BMath in Biostatistics and BA in Sexuality, Marriage, and Family Studies (co-operative program). She has also earned a Co-operative Education in Research Certificate, and is on the Dean's Honours List.  

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 – or cross-disciplinary 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 transferred to Waterloo from Western after her first year of university, attracted by the Faculty of Math’s 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 she decided to look for other ways that she could combine her interest in science and health with her love of math. After taking an engaging family studies course at Western, adding a major in Sexuality, Marriage, and Family Studies here at Waterloo seemed like a natural fit.

Karim’s overarching passion as a researcher is women’s reproductive health. Her drive to improve women’s health is what drives her academic work – and that commitment shapes her extracurriculars as well. In high school, Karim was involved in a wide variety of extracurriculars – band, choir, dance, math challengers – and initially in university she participated in a similar set of activities. As she advanced in her academic career, 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 VP 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 volunteered regularly at the UW 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.

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!”

Karim thinks the active role that she played in helping reach out to her peers with sexual health information is vital, especially in an international university like Waterloo where students come from so many different backgrounds and cultures. “Realistically, people will learn things more if you come to them with the information. A lot of people can’t look up information because they don’t even know it’s there to look up.”

In 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 her research focuses on endometriosis and infertility.

Despite her commitment to research and service, however, Karim emphasizes the importance of making time for fun and community in everyday life. Some of her most valuable experiences at Waterloo, she says, were the times just spent relaxing and goofing off with friends, whether informally or through her involvement with the Waterloo Ismaili Students Association. She emphasizes that none of her accomplishments would be possible without her extensive support system: especially her parents and sister, but also her very large extended family and network of friends both at home and in school.

“Often, when you’re a student, it’s easy to just concentrate on school,” she reflects. “It’s easy to forget that you’re a human being that has a whole life.”

The K.D. Fryer Gold Medal is presented annually, at Fall Convocation, to a graduating Mathematics student who best exemplifies academic excellence and good citizenship. Involvement in extracurricular affairs such as athletics, cultural activities, and student government are important criteria in making the award decision. The medal is in honour of Kenneth D. Fryer, a professor of Mathematics since 1959. As Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies for a number of years, he served the Faculty until his death in 1984.

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