Alumna Shout Out: Donna Halperin

This interview, conducted by StFXAUT Communication Officer Philip Girvan, appears in the Spring 2021 edition of The Beacon.

The Beacon regularly features interviews with StFX University alumni on the topic of StFXAUT members who challenged, inspired, or helped in some way. This issue’s interview is with Dr. Donna Halperin (B.Sc.N. ’93), Professor & Associate Director, Rankin School of Nursing, StFX University. Dr. Halperin also serves as the Associate Director of the Canadian Center for Vaccinology (CCfV).

The Beacon: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Donna Halperin: I graduated from StFX in 1993. I grew up in Sydney, NS. My father was also an X grad. He would often tell me stories about his life in residence and the incredible sense of belonging and community that existed within the campus walls. He enjoyed it so much that he completed three degrees at X.

In terms of my career, I worked in Mental Health and Community Health following graduation and then pursued a Master of Science (Community Health) (M.Sc.) at Syracuse University in New York. I began teaching clinical at StFX in 1997 before beginning a tenure-track position in 1999. I received my Ph.D. from the University of Calgary and pursued post-doctoral studies at Dalhousie University in the area of Vaccinology.

I have four children, two of whom have graduated from the economics program at StFX. One is currently studying law, and the other has been accepted into the London School of Economics for her Master’s degree. My younger two are in secondary school. I’ve had conversations with them about the merits of taking an undergraduate degree at StFX. Smaller universities may not have the research capacity or the international prestige that larger schools do, but they offer advantages. The possibility of developing close relationships with faculty is one. It’s easier to do this on a smaller campus and can lead to research and other opportunities even for first year students.

The Beacon: What prompted you to pursue a career at StFX?

Donna Halperin: Personal circumstances, certainly, but also the connections I had with the School of Nursing faculty. We had kept in touch following my graduation, and they were always supportive. Despite not having my Ph.D. at the time, they gave me an opportunity to begin teaching at StFX in a limited-term contract, and the rest is history.

The Beacon: During your time at X was there any particular Professor, Librarian, Lab Instructor, Coady Program Staff Member, Nurse Educator, Extension Program Staff Member, or Learning Skills Instructor that helped you, inspired you, or was a mentor to you?

Donna Halperin: Ellie MacFarlane and Saru Sony not only helped me when I was a student, but they both helped bridge my way to academics. They were outstanding nurses, educators, and scholars. In my early years as a student, I struggled to stay in the nursing program as I was uncertain whether it was the right path for me. They nurtured my interests and strengths and guided me to the area of nursing that would eventually become a part of my life’s journey. Their understanding and support will never be forgotten, and it is something I carry with me as I strive to mentor our current undergraduate students.

The Beacon: What, in particular, have you taken from those experiences and been able to apply to your professional career?

Donna Halperin: The people who taught me were passionate about what they did and transferred their love of education and learning to me. They helped reinforce the idea that nursing is all about questioning and, the importance of translating curiosity into scholarship and inquiry. This foundation was instrumental in my decision to obtain a Ph.D. so I could contribute to enhancing knowledge in the healthcare field.

The Beacon: What’s your experience been with the Canadian Center for Vaccinology? Vaccines are certainly topical. It must be frustrating that, with all the evidence concerning vaccines — the fact that they wiped many infectious diseases plaguing humankind, we seem to be moving backwards. Can you tell me a little bit about the research you are involved with concerning COVID-19?

Donna Halperin: I’m currently involved in four funded COVID-19 studies. One study, funded by SSHRC, examines how individuals and communities understand, are affected by, and react to COVID-19 public health outbreak control policies and their implementation and communication — policies such as masking, quarantining, and social distancing. This is an international study describing and comparing the COVID-19 public health responses in British Columbia, Ontario, and Nova Scotia, Guangdong, China, and Dhaka, Bangladesh.

A supplemental research study, linked to the SSHRC-funded project, and funded by Research Nova Scotia, focuses on the impact that COVID-19 public health outbreak control policies have on non-profit sector service providers and the people they serve. We are also exploring the sector’s ability to mitigate the effect that these policies may have on their clients. One of my honor students, Alexa Davis, has been working on a segment of this project for over a year, doing tremendous work exploring the effects of public health measures on the homeless population.

A third study examines the motivations and decision-making process of those choosing to participate, or not, in a Phase 1 trial of COVID-19 vaccines to better understand attitudes, motivations, and behaviours and to improve the effectiveness of vaccine trial procedures. There are currently three COVID clinical trials taking place at CCfV that have been developed in Canada.

The fourth study identifies perspectives, concerns, and information needs related to COVID-19 vaccination among Mi’kmaq communities, Historic African Nova Scotian communities, and Immigrants, Refugees, and Newcomers to Nova Scotia from the African diaspora and Caribbean.

Our team will continue to work hard to do our part in contributing to the understanding of how the pandemic and associated public health measures have impacted the general population, especially those belonging to racialized communities.

The Beacon: Thank you very much for your time, Dr. Halperin.