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‘The obvious choice’

PhD spring graduate attracted to Medicine's variety of health perspectives

special feature: Class of 2022

Part of a special feature celebrating and recognizing the Class of 2022 at Memorial.

By Terri Coles

Supportive mentorship and diverse scholarship attracted Valerie Webber to Memorial for graduate studies.

Valerie Webber, wearing glasses and a button-up denim shirt, sits on a green curved couch. They have one arm draped along the back of the seat and are looking at the camera.
Valerie Webber
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“I was first attracted to Memorial for the intensive, comprehensive and practicum-based master of public health program,” said Webber.

The varied backgrounds and expertise in the Division of Community Health and Humanities, Faculty of Medicine, drew them to the doctoral program, says Webber, who collected a PhD in medicine (community health and humanities) on June 1 during spring convocation ceremonies.

“I was also really intrigued by the Community Health and Humanities unit and how it brings people together from a variety of health perspectives: bioethicists, epidemiologists, medical anthropologists and so on. Memorial became the obvious choice.”

‘A wonderful overall experience’

“During my master’s degree, I really connected with Dr. Fern Brunger, who would go on to be my PhD supervisor,” Webber said.

Both Webber and Dr. Brunger have a background in medical anthropology.

They also share an interest in work that is practically and politically relevant. Dr. Brunger’s approach to academics, her mentorship style and support of their proposed project were a great match.

“That trust and respect has granted me a wonderful overall experience.” — Valerie Webber

Webber’s dissertation looked at occupational health and pornography production.

“I approach the subject from a sex worker rights perspective that recognizes and celebrates the community health practices and epistemological contributions generated by sex workers, rather than seeing sex work as a “problem” or a “risk factor” to be solved, as is often the case in public health research.”

At Memorial, Webber was out about their own involvement in adult film. They knew Dr. Brunger fully supported their work.

However, they expected other resistance or even hostility, they say, based on colleagues’ experiences elsewhere. Thankfully, Webber’s experience at Memorial has been positive.

“Everyone at Memorial, from the Interdisciplinary Committee on Ethics in Human Research to the School of Graduate Studies to Research and Graduate Studies, to my classmates, staff and faculty in the division, has always offered support and appreciation to me and the work I’m doing,” they said. “That trust and respect has granted me a wonderful overall experience.”

Fighting for marginalized communities

Webber missed their two master’s degree convocation ceremonies because they had already moved out of the province.

“The thought of also missing this one because of COVID was really disheartening, especially since PhD convocations come with the best outfits,” they said. “So I am really grateful.”

Next up for Webber is a post-doctoral fellowship at the Sexual Health and Gender Research Lab at Dalhousie University. They will also continue their work as board chair of PASS, a non-profit dedicated to occupational health in the adult industry.

Webber’s work co-ordinates scholarship, advocacy and policymaking that resists the ongoing backlash against marginalized groups in society.

“There is currently a very aggressive, co-ordinated attack against sex workers, queer folks and other communities who are marginalized because of their sexuality, gender and relationship styles. I want to keep pursuing research that serves these groups.”

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