Scheim stands among nation’s elite

Ayden Scheim, a PhD candidate in Epidemiology and Biostatistics, has been named one of 14 2014 Trudeau Scholars, a prestigious doctoral scholarship presented by the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation. Scheim’s research takes a social-epidemiological approach to understanding HIV-related sexual risk, poor mental health, substance use and their co-occurrence among transgender Ontarians.

Ayden Scheim has been preparing for this moment his entire life.

Scheim dropped out of high school when he was 16 years old to work on health programming for transgender youth in his community. There, he saw the importance of the research questions he would later ask himself as an Epidemiology and Biostatistics PhD student at Western.

“In that work, I saw first-hand how marginalization and discrimination affect the well-being of people in my communities, and particularly transgender people,” he said.

He eventually returned to school, completed a BA in sociology in the University of Toronto’s Transitional Year Program, and then landed at Western in 2011 for graduate work.

Three years later, Scheim has been named one of 14 nationwide recipients of the 2014 Trudeau Scholarship, the most prestigious doctoral award for the social sciences and humanities in Canada.

Presented by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, the scholarship supports outstanding doctoral students who are committed to solving issues of critical importance to Canada and the world. In addition to an annual grant of up to $60,000 for a three-year period, Trudeau scholars benefit from the expertise and knowledge of the network of foundation fellows and mentors.

“This cohort consists of the best minds studying crucial and complex questions for Canadians and the world,” said Tim Brodhead, foundation interim president. “The Trudeau Scholarship provides them with financial support and an extensive network to generate innovative solutions that will inform public policies at home and abroad.”

Scheim’s project, Impacts of Social Exclusion on the Health of Transgender Ontarians: Identifying Strategies To Increase Health Equity, marks the fifth Trudeau scholar for Western.

“During my undergrad, I was doing a lot of work in health research outside of school. I was doing a lot of work around transgender health in the community,” he said. “The opportunity presented itself to do work with the Trans PULSE study, the largest trans-health study ever done in Canada.”

Trans PULSE is a community-based research project created to respond to problems identified within Ontario trans communities regarding access to health and social services. Greta Bauer, a Western Epidemiology and Biostatistics professor, is a co-principal investigator on the project.

Today, Bauer is Scheim’s PhD supervisor.

“(Western) seemed like an opportunity too good to pass up,” Scheim continued. “So, I applied to do my masters in Epidemiology here. About a year in, I realized I liked Epidemiology, and I could answer a lot of the social questions I was interested in as an epidemiologist.”

At its heart, Scheim’s research project asks how social marginalization and discrimination impact the health of transgender people, and, in particular, how they drive the co-occurring and synergistic health problems documented in some transgender populations. These include HIV, depression, suicidal tendencies and problematic substance use. The primary aim of his research is to identify potential strategies for interventions at the social and policy levels, recognizing that individualistic solutions are inadequate to remedy socially produced health problems.

“It’s based on the premise that it’s not just the experience of different forms of exclusion and discrimination in society (that) impacts one kind of health condition, but that it actually impacts a whole range of health conditions, and their interplay with each other,” he continued. “Depression, substance use and HIV risk are interrelated, and fuel each other, and don’t just exist in isolation.

“This all draws on social science theories, so it brings in my social science training.”

His work builds on more than a decade of experience as a community-based researcher, activist, service provider and health promoter in sexual and gender minority communities. He is currently an investigator for four studies on the social contexts of HIV vulnerability and resilience, ethics in participatory research with people who use drugs and quantitative methods to bridge social theory and population health research.

He co-founded, and currently chairs, a working group that produced the first comprehensive sexual health resource for gay and bisexual transgender men, a tool that has been translated into seven languages.

Ayden has co-authored reports, case studies and fact sheets for organizations including the University of California San Francisco Center of Excellence for Transgender Health and the Open Society Foundation. He collaborates and consults on transgender social inclusion and health for national and international organizations, and he is both a member of the Global Forum on Men Who Have Sex with Men and the HIV Research Group, and a contributor to implementation guidelines for the World Health Organization’s Guidance on Prevention and Treatment of HIV and Other Sexually Transmitted Infections Among Men Who Have Sex with Men and Transgender People in Low- and Middle-Income Countries.

Outside of his studies, Scheim volunteers with the local needle-exchange program. He is a volunteer facilitator for the London Area Network of Substance Users and he helps organize the London Prisoners’ Justice Film Festival.

On June 7, he is organizing a trans-health forum in London to evaluate what people in that community need in terms of health and social services.

“I’m really trying to keep my feet planted in what’s going around me in the community,” he said. “It’s easy when working with numbers and data to be locked in your office.”

Of the 160 scholars in the program’s history, the University of Toronto leads all Canadian universities with 22 scholars, followed by the University of British Columbia with 19 and University of Montreal with nine. Oxford University with 16 scholarships and Harvard University with eight lead all international universities.

Western’s previous winners include Memee Lavell-Harvard, Education, 2003; Joshua Lambier, English Literature, 2007; Daina Mazutis, General Management, 2008; and Jeremy Schmidy, Geography, 2009.

Scheim’s win is unique in that he is the first successful candidate from Medicine. As his discipline is Epidemiology, it is considered social science research even though housed in the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry.

“One of the great things about being Trudeau Scholar is getting the opportunity to talk about my research in less technical ways and talk about the real-life implications of it,” Scheim said. “I’m interested in the policy impact of Epidemiology, and the big emphasis of the Trudeau Foundation is on connecting academic research and public policy.

“It’s an opportunity to sort of come full circle to my roots in social science and to make sure I’m doing work that translates across disciplines and is useful across all disciplines.”

Other winners of the 2014 Trudeau Scholarships announced today include:

  • Tammara Soma, Geography and Planning, University of Toronto;
  • Wendell Adjetey, History and African American Studies, Yale University;
  • Erika Bockstael, Natural Resources and Environmental Management, University of Manitoba;
  • Geoffrey Cameron, Political Science, University of Toronto;
  • Mélanie Doucet, Social Work, McGill University and Université de Montréal;
  • Ali Hamandi, Health Policy, Harvard University;
  • Joanna Langille, Law, University of Toronto;
  • Nathan Lemphers, Comparative Politics, University of Toronto;
  • Andrea Marston, Geography, University of California, Berkeley;
  • Aaron Mills, Law and Society, University of Victoria;
  • Jake Pyne, Social Work, McMaster University;
  • Claudia Stoicescu, Social Intervention, University of Oxford; and
  • Rebecca Sutton, Law, London School of Economics.