Shahan Salim

PhD student, Public Health and Health Systems


Shahan Salim

Bringing data and AI together to predict the impact of air pollution on vulnerable populations

As well as environmental and economic impacts, air pollution is considered a major global health risk. Working toward his PhD Public Health and Health Systems, Shahan Salim has partnered with UNICEF Mongolia to develop a tool that will better predict air pollution patterns and provide early warnings for vulnerable populations.

One third of the existing global burden of diseases are caused by environmental factors. Children under the age of five bear 40 per cent of this burden, yet only make up 10 per cent of the population. This social justice aspect of global health inspired Shahan to make a difference for vulnerable people in areas most affected. "While there's no escaping the air that we breathe, prediction, early warning and intervention really becomes key. They can mitigate some of the impacts on vulnerable populations, including children." These impacts can be seen in Mongolia, where urban centres are amongst some of the most polluted in the world. Through a partnership with UNICEF Mongolia, Shahan's research brings technology and public health together. He collects important data from various local resources including public health records, meteorological agencies, and university stakeholder information. Through technology, Shahan is using these data, existing air-quality sensors and is applying artificial intelligence and machine learning to create a visualization tool – a dashboard of information – to inform decision-makers of early predictors of health impacts.

Big challenges, great opportunities

Working with multiple stakeholders can present one of the biggest challenges that Shahan faces in working on this project. "You need to create productive partnerships and gain access to data - which we know is the most valuable piece for organizations. It can prove tricky getting through bureaucratic processes, but it also presents some of the greatest opportunities to make a meaningful difference." At the same time as building these relationships, Shahan simultaneously creates the technical platform; "In some ways, this is the easier part - it's the part we can control." What is an important outcome for this project is that it's sustainable - affordable, usable and adaptable and that's what makes the partnership discussions central to the project.

Scholarships and awardsIn 2020 Shahan was awarded the NSERC doctoral scholarship. This pretigious award not only reinforced his belief in the direction of his research but also opened the door to other scholarship and award opportunities. In fall 2020, his project was successful in obtaining Concept's Cimate Change grant.

Drawing inspiration from connections  

Shahan always wanted his work to be meaningful and make a difference in people's lives. He was drawn to public health from early on in his academic career and is fascinated by the intersection between technology and health. "It was great to find Professor Plinio Morita while researching potential PhD supervisors. I connected with him about his expertise in the area of remote patient monitoring and public health surveillance, I found that exciting. Now I'm able to work with him in this doctoral program, it's a great match and I'm really appreciative of that." The interdisciplinary and networking opportunities have been meaningful. "In Plinio's research lab, UbiLab, we get to work with people with all kinds of interests. There are engineers and programmers that I get to interact with and share ideas."

In Professor Plinio Morita's research lab, Ubilab, we get to work with people with all kinds of interests. There are engineers and programmers that I get to interact with and share ideas.

shahan salim, PhD candidate, Public Health and health systems

Even during the pandemic, connections through UbiLab meant that he was able to work with multinational companies, world-renowned public health officials and academic leaders. Together, they worked toward an early version of a contact-tracing app just as the Covid-19 pandemic had been declared. “Being at the centre of it all, getting to see the impact of my work not necessarily immediately, but very quickly is so meaningful. It’s not just theoretical, it’s real. 

As for what's next, Shahan continues working on his research project. It will mean a continuation of developing the air pollution tool with a view to not only developing a way to make sure that it’s sustainable for years to come, but that it can be expanded to improve the health of vulnerable populations all over the world as we continue to grapple with air pollution and the climate crisis.