Mona Shum, MSc’97

Mona Shum is the 2023–24 UBC Alumni Builder Award – Faculty of Medicine Recipient.

Mona (she/her) is a distinguished Master of Science in Occupational and Environmental Hygiene (MSc OEH) alum with almost 30 years of professional and community leadership. As a mentor, supervisor, and employer, she has played pivotal roles in the career development and success of many MSc OEH graduates. A dedicated curriculum developer and instructor, she has also played key leadership roles within the American Industrial Hygiene Association, cementing her status as a pivotal figure in her field. At UBC, in BC, and across North America, she has significantly contributed to the practice and growth of occupational hygiene.

What drew you to the MSc OEH program at UBC?
I was in a gap year after graduating with a BSc in Microbiology and a bit disillusioned about a career in primary research. I liked science and learning, but not working in the laboratory, so I was checking out different programs at UBC in 1994.

In those days, without internet, I actually was visiting the Department of Healthcare and Epidemiology to check out their program. As I was leaving in the pouring rain, I happened to see a wet pamphlet on the ground outside the building. For some reason, I picked it up and it was a pamphlet introducing this new Occupational Hygiene Program. It ticked all the boxes for me in terms of a career in science working with people and data, continually learning new things, and not being confined to a lab all my life. I believe it was serendipity that made me pick up a wet piece of garbage from the ground that day!

What is your favorite memory from your time at UBC?
We were a close-knit group of about seven people in the Occupational Hygiene Program and It was probably one of the most stressful times in our lives up until that point, but also the most fun. In those days, our professors would sometimes give us homework assignments in our cubbyholes (yes, we had cubbyholes for our mail, etc.). So, one day a friend and I decided to play a prank on our other classmates by putting a fake and impossible homework assignment in their cubby holes. We let them sweat over the assignment for a few hours in the evening, before calling them up and telling them it was fake. We still talk about the prank to this day!

What has been your journey since graduating from the MSc OEH program at UBC?
In 1997, I started my first job as an industrial hygienist at Shell Canada Ltd. in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta working for the refinery there and responsible for industrial hygiene for all the oil and gas plants and terminals across Canada. It was a great adventure, and I loved learning about oil and gas and travelling on the Shell jet!

I moved to San Francisco a year later and worked for a consulting company for 10 years in the health sciences department. There, I worked as the industrial hygienist doing exposure assessments for a group of primarily epidemiologists. My career really burgeoned in California, as I was able to complete several publications and also served as an expert witness in many indoor air quality cases. Due to family issues, I ended up moving back to Vancouver and managed the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health at the BC Centre for Disease Control. There I learned that environmental public health and occupational health weren’t all that different – they just served different populations, but the principles of hierarchy of control were still applicable.

Then, I decided I missed industrial hygiene too much and stepped back into consulting, but this time in Canada, which was a completely new experience. After a few years, I decided to strike out on my own starting Aura Health and Safety and at the same time, teaching at UBC in the same program from which I graduated, teaching my absolute favourite course that I had the pleasure of taking with Dr. Kay Teschke. Things have certainly come full circle, and I’m so grateful for this opportunity to do what I love.

Since your graduation, tell us about your connection with the occupational hygiene community.
I’ve always been connected to the occupational hygiene community having joined the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) both at the national and local levels fresh out of school.  I’ve served on the AIHA non-ionizing radiation committee since 2000 and have chaired it for a time as well. I served as the president of the AIHA BC Yukon chapter in 2012 and opened an Indoor Air Quality Association (IAQA) chapter in 2016 serving as the chair for a couple of years.

Even though I lived outside of BC for a good portion of my career, I always stayed in touch with UBC grads and the program, even mentoring (through phone calls in early days to mentoring cafes in present day). In fact, it was a meeting with my former UBC professors that led me to my job at the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health. And it was my continued contact with the UBC School of Occupational and Environmental Health throughout the years that led to my eventual adjunct faculty appointment there in 2016. In 2020, I was grateful to receive the Elizabeth McDonald award, which was awarded to me by my peers and honours Elizabeth McDonald, a pioneer in the field of industrial hygiene.

Why are you inspired to give back to your communities?
I really believe in passing on knowledge, so we don’t lose it, and also giving others the same sort of opportunities for mentorship and learning that I had. I enjoy the camaraderie with my fellow industrial hygienists who volunteer for committees; I feel we all have a sense of wanting to give back and to help others – otherwise, we would have chosen much different career paths!

What advice would you give to alumni who want to get more involved with UBC?
Just do it! There are so many ways to get involved. It doesn’t have to be at the level of teaching at UBC – it can be hiring UBC practicum students, hosting student projects, being a mentor, giving a technical or professional presentation to students, donating to a scholarship fund, or just coming out to alumni events.

How has your identity affected your perspective in your practice, community involvement, and/or your future pursuits?
I am a third child of Chinese immigrants and even from a young age, I was always keenly aware of what my parents gave up in Hong Kong to come here to make a better life for their children. While my father was a physics and math teacher in Hong Kong, he spent many years washing dishes and doing night security work in Canada to make sure that his family was fed and clothed. I always knew that I needed to do well in school, so that I could prove to my parents that they made the right decision all those years ago. However, doing well in school wasn’t all about making my parents proud; I always had a thirst for knowledge and would even ask for extra assignments in school, partially for the extra credit, but mostly because I wanted to know more/do better. I think that childhood thirst is still with me today and it drives me to embark upon some interesting journeys.

I want to leave the ones who will replace me in a better position than I was in. I think that idea comes from my parents who were the first to voice that desire for me.

What is one thing you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?
In keeping with wanting to disseminate knowledge, my colleague and I want to start a 2-year industrial hygiene technologist program, so that the field of industrial hygiene can grow. With more technologists supporting them, industrial hygienists (who graduate from Master’s Programs) can accomplish more and have far greater impacts on occupational health in Canada and globally.

What does a healthy society mean to you?
I remember someone saying to me in the program, that ultimately, we as industrial hygienists want to do such a great job of improving workplace health that we are no longer needed. Unfortunately, I believe there will always be health risks, and thus a need for industrial hygienists. However, I do believe a healthy society is one that is educated and fully aware of the health risks and does what it can to mitigate them.

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