ASSISTANT PROFESSOR DR. SARAH DOW-FLEISNER SOMETIMES FEELS like she has two selves. The one that came before, and the scholar she is now.
Though stopping just short of calling herself a hellion when she was younger, Dr. Dow-Fleisner remembers a time when she might have been a bit too big for her own britches. “I told my eighth-grade teacher that as soon as I graduate from high school, I’m leaving town and going to college. She gave me a wake-up call though and encouraged me to improve my grades and my attitude if I wanted to go anywhere.”
Dr. Dow-Fleisner says that moment was a timely reality check, and she still counts that teacher as the first of many mentors she is grateful for on her path to earning a doctorate in social work and becoming an equity-focused, developmental scientist.
In many instances, the word stubborn evokes a negative connotation. When Dr. Dow-Fleisner uses it to describe herself, that connotation falls away, leaving a positive expression that she says suits her perfectly.
“I grew up in a very rural and working class family. Having this job would never have crossed my mind,” she says. “You have to be stubborn in the knowledge that what you’re doing is going to help people, and never settle for doing anything less than what excites you. I’ve been stubborn and that stubbornness has helped me get to where I am.”
The scenic route
One might look at Dr. Dow-Fleisner’s tack and assume that a PhD in social work was the plan from the get-go. “It wasn’t,” she laughs and shakes her head. “Part of being in a less affluent situation meant I had to work throughout my education. The different positions I had during my undergraduate, master’s and PhD influenced my interests, and led me down a different path from my original plan of being a child psychologist.”
Her father—and biggest advocate—always told her that she liked to do things the hard way. Dr. Dow-Fleisner agrees, adding, “I did take the scenic route, but I think I’m better for it. I really appreciate where I am.”
The scenic route meant working with substance-involved youth at the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital after her undergrad. This piqued her interest in involving the families as part of the conversation, which meant more education and ultimately led to her master’s. The door was then opened to being an in-home clinician with Massachusetts-based independent mental health clinic The Guidance Center. While she found this work with families gratifying, she questioned whether it was checking all of her boxes.
“I have the greatest respect for the work being done in direct practice, but I felt like I needed more information to serve my clients, so I was drawn back to research.”
Asking the right questions
A current research collaboration funded by the Interior University Research Coalition of BC has Dr. Dow-Fleisner as principal investigator on an interdisciplinary project exploring the mental health of children and families in the context of COVID-19.
“We know there’s been an inequitable response in terms of who’s been impacted by the pandemic,” she says. “This is a machine learning and advanced statistics project where we are using an equity lens from my background in social work to take these large datasets and start understanding some of the differences.”
As the recipient of a 2021 Scholar Award from the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, Dr. Dow-Fleisner is also exploring pathways to wellbeing in the context of childhood adversity. The ADAPT project (Adaptation, Development, and Positive Trajectories) focuses on the timing and type of protective factors involved. “The ADAPT project stems out of my dissertation work which looked at how children defied the odds in the context of maternal depression.”
“We know that when kids grow up with parental mental health or addiction concerns it can potentially lead to poor outcomes. When this idea was established, it was innovative and important, but I felt like something was missing. When we ask ‘how are people at risk?’ we’re going to find out how they’re at risk. But if we ask, ‘how are they adapting and doing well?’ then we’re going to find out how they’re doing well. If you look for resiliency, you’re going to find those protective factors and those strengths emerge.”
With this research, Dr. Dow-Fleisner aims to contribute to the development of screening protocols, early intervention and prevention programs for youth experiencing childhood adversity.
Statistics are cool
“One of the things I love about research,” she says, “is working with these huge secondary datasets with tens of thousands of data points for thousands of people and distilling them down to meaningful nuggets of information that we can use to inform practice and policy. In the data, I can see the young people and the families I’ve worked with, and recognize the paths of resiliency.”
Dr. Dow-Fleisner adds that the qualitative component is also important. “We go back to the individuals and ask them if the results make sense, and what we might be missing.”
If you look carefully in Dr. Dow-Fleisner’s office, you might just notice a button that says I ♡ Data. “I’m constantly trying to get my students on board with how cool statistics and research are,” she says.
“They can be intimidating, but when used properly and with passion and equity in mind, statistics have the potential to reveal knowledge. Connecting the language of statistics is empowering and when I see that ‘aha’ in the eyes of a student, that’s the best moment,” she laughs, “and the moment I say to myself, I’m good—I can retire happy.”
The path to UBC Okanagan
After years in the hustle and bustle of Boston, Massachusetts, and having just completed her PhD, the opportunity to join UBC Okanagan in 2018 made for an easy decision for Dr. Dow-Fleisner. “It felt like the perfect place to start a career. I loved the idea of being in at the ground floor of a growing university.”
As part of the Faculty of Health and Social Development’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Working Group, she’s also proud to help shape UBC Okanagan’s evolving identity. “We’re asking important questions like how can we attract and retain diverse perspectives in our faculty? How do we help individuals feel supported? How can we grow more equitably? It’s very exciting to be part of this growth process.”
Kelowna’s proximity to the mountains, its orchards, the lakes and the summer heat are all welcomed by Dr. Dow-Fleisner, but she says it’s the close community that she appreciates most. “There are so many intersections for collaboration. It’s a fantastic environment for meeting people and learning about what they’re working on. The students are so engaged and bring such unique perspectives.”
She adds, “You can’t go anywhere without bumping into someone you know, whether its faculty, staff or otherwise.” She welcomes running into her students on the street, at the beach or on the path along the pond behind the Engineering, Management and Education building. “It’s always nice to see your students and to have them see you as a person. I think I learn more from them than they do from me.”
Dr. Dow-Fleisner always has two things on her desk. One is a small blue dish—a gift from her mentor at UBC Okanagan, Dr. Susan Wells. The other is a tiny statuette of Ganesh, given to her by one of her research assistants.
“They represent the knowledge and learning that come from those who have gone before and from those who are just starting on their journey. They remind me to never turn my back on either.”