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Behind the Science: Moving the microscopic lens to Marginalized Populations

Interviewee: Emmanuela Ojukwu (RN, PhD), Assistant Professor of Nursing, University of British Columbia. Authors/Editors: Romina Garcia de leon, Shayda Swann (Blog Co-coordinators).

Published: November 18th, 2022

Could you briefly explain your career trajectory from a Registered Nurse to now an Assistant Professor? 

Towards the end of obtaining my Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing, I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in women's health. As my journey progressed, I would eventually get accepted to a PhD program where I had the opportunity to work with a professor who was internationally recognized, with a track record of success in improving minority women’s health with a focus on social determinants of health. The decision to focus on HIV came during my RN experiences at a Perinatal HIV clinic for vulnerable populations, wherein I observed birthing parents living with HIV, to be lost to follow-up to their own care but continually engaged in their infant’s care, postpartum. Possibly due to maternal instincts, but the focus on their infants and not themselves was very apparent. This spurred the idea for what would eventually become my dissertation. So, I wanted to see what factors deterred them from engaging in their own care or factors that motivated them to go in (for those that did). Also, as a natural empath - sometimes to a fault - I would find myself really vested in their care, particularly, for the marginalized women, e.g, new immigrants/refugees, racialized populations, homeless. Most of the patients who were lost were within these categories, so it was important to note the possible intersections in their marginalized identities, which were causing their suboptimal engagement in treatment and possible impediments to their overall wellbeing. When I applied to UBC, I definitely wanted to continue with HIV research, although, I realize that HIV rates here compared to the US are relatively less, but it's still present. And, as there is currently no treatment that completely eliminates the virus, the likelihood of transmission and/or increasing morbidity and mortality,is significantly reduced with effective treatment/management. I remain vested in this topic as a researcher, and would describe my work as focusing on health equity and social determinants of health for vulnerable populations, marginalized by race, sex, gender, disabilities such as HIV, and other psychosocial vulnerabilities.

Why did you choose to study marginalized populations and sexual health?

Asides from being such an empath, I think that I've had my own lived experiences of discrimination within the healthcare setting, both as a patient and a healthcare provider. I, sometimes, find that there are “sexual and reproductive health stereotypes” that follow “black women” and these often go before them upon their arrival to any hospital/clinical setting. As a patient, I can count times this has been the case for me; and not until I divulge my profession in healthcare do I get treated any differently. As a provider, the discrimination can stem from patients or colleagues with preconceived, underrated expectations of racialized peoples’ performances, and hence a lack of trust in their abilities as providers, and also unequal (or mostly, subdued) access to and opportunities for growth and development within their various units. All of these experiences, and their impacts on wellbeing demonstrate a critical need for research with and for persons on both sides of the table. By doing this work with and for patients who may fit within these identity brackets, especially for topics that could be stigmatizing such as sexually transmitted infections and HIV, I hope to amplify their voices and create an awareness of their situations. I hope that in creating such an awareness of the existing disparities and inequities; and with the development of interventions, put in place by healthcare providers, public health officers, and even the government; that there might be opportunities to rebuild some of the trust which may have seemed lost in the system, by these communities.

How does Women's Health specifically intersect with your work at the moment?

Women’s health is at the center of everything I do in my research. A lot of my work focuses on the sexual and reproductive health of women. I currently have two ongoing studies; one, examining the impacts of COVID-19 on quality of life for African, Caribbean, and Black women living with HIV in BC; and another exploring the impacts of racism, sexism, and psychosocial vulnerabilities on access to care services for African, Caribbean, and Black women living with HIV. While I have a special interest for racialized women, I do not shy away from work focusing on the psychosocial and sociostructural factors influencing equitable care for all women. Merely existing in a patriarchal world as a woman can interfere with several aspects of wellbeing. The impacts of other layers of marginalization can have very lasting, detrimental effects on the lives of persons who fit within these identity brackets. Examining the impacts of these intersecting, underprivileged identities and unpacking the various layers and layers of vulnerabilities that surface, is at the core of my research. So in essence, the makeup of a woman’s sexual and reproductive health, and how that interferes with and/or allows them to exist inclusively in a very patriarchal system is of importance to me.

What impact do you hope to see with your work years from now?

I’m hoping that knowledge generated from my work can have lasting positive impacts in the way that care is modified/adjusted for the affected populations. Not surprisingly, there isn't a lot of data on marginalized populations when it comes to women's reproductive health, whether it's rates of maternal mortality or anything else, in Canada. I'm hoping that my research can contribute to bridging those gaps and generating these data, so that researchers, community leaders, healthcare providers, the government, and others in positions of power may be alerted to these situations and help to effect change. We know that these issues exist but the paucity of data and research in this area limits the opportunities for interventions that are culturally-sensitive and -safe. I hope that my research in the short run, can be a “call to action” and in the long run can lead to sustainable “actions for change” for enhancing women’s equitable health. 

Where can people find your work? 

My email, usually, is the best way to contact me, at

HIV, inequality, marginalized communities, nursing, perinatal, sexual health, women's health