Retiring but not taking a brake: SPPH celebrates career of Professor Emeritus Kay Teschke

Banner photo credit: Martin Dee

If you’ve ever unionized your worksite due to poor working conditions, you’ll have something in common with Professor Emeritus Kay Teschke.

Dr. Teschke celebrated her retirement last month after more than 30 years in occupational and environmental (OEH) health, and says she first realized the importance of the field while working in a pillow factory following her undergraduate studies. This involved stuffing chicken feathers into, and then sewing up, pillows (“I would come home covered in feathers”), and she worked alone in a large room next to noisy machines, with a single lightbulb dangling from the ceiling.

“It was a shock to me, ‘Oh my god, people work in circumstances like this?’”
Professor Emeritus Kay Teschke

With the aim of improving the working conditions, Dr. Teschke gathered signatures from more than 50% of the workers, the plant was unionized, and the sympathetic owner enacted changes. “Because I’d done an economics degree, I worked out how much he would have to raise the price of the pillows to double employee wages. It wasn’t much at all.”

The pillow factory

The pillow factory

Occupational health issues with blue collar work have been known for over a century, but it is now known that there are serious health issues in other professions as well, she says. And the field is important because “some exposures can kill you at a much younger age [than normal], and there are exposures that can destroy your life.”

After BCIT courses on industrial hygiene in 1979, Dr. Teschke found that graduate training in the field was not offered in Western Canada, and so completed a Masters of Public Health in 1982 at the University of California and a PhD in 1994 at the University of Washington. She joined the School’s predecessor, the Department of Health Care and Epidemiology, in 1984 as a research associate, becoming a faculty member in 1988.

“I was enthusiastic to get a Master of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene (MSc OEH) program going in BC, to try and prevent these diseases and injuries from happening in the first place.”
Professor Emeritus Kay Teschke

Dr. Teschke worked with a team to establish the MSc OEH program at the University of British Columbia, with students first enrolled in 1992, and served as director from 1998 to 2000. Today, she considers it a career highlight, with graduates employed by industries across Western Canada.

“Our graduates have had a big impact. It makes you feel proud of what they’re all doing.”
Professor Emeritus Kay Teschke

Kay Teschke in the new lab

Professor Emeritus Kay Teschke

Dr. Teschke also worked to create the Bridge Program, which brought together researchers from health, engineering and policy disciplines to identify novel approaches to public, occupational and environmental health issues. The Program produced 36 projects, and she was its first director from 2002 to 2008.

A keen cyclist for much of her life, Dr. Teschke says she began to think about safety and cycling more after seeing Holland’s cycling infrastructure and the birth of her daughter in the 1990s, and in 2003, she was appointed to the Bicycle Advisory Committee of the City of Vancouver, which provided input on bike route design proposals.

Looking into the logic behind these proposals, Dr. Teschke realized that research was sparse in the area of cycling infrastructure and safety, and that the quality could be improved. In order to make evidence-based decisions, she began research in the field, and is now regularly quoted by international media on this subject.

“I hadn’t been planning to do it but when you’re sitting on a committee and wanting to make informed decisions, it seemed like the logical thing to do.”
Professor Emeritus Kay Teschke

Hugh Davies, Mieke Koehoorn, Kay Teschke

Associate Professor Hugh Davies, Professor Mieke Koehoorn, Professor Emeritus Kay Teschke

Cycling research has “exploded” in the last 10 years, but there’s still a way to go for Vancouver and North America, she says. “There are lots of changes afoot and that’s really allowed people to make the choice to cycle, so it’s very encouraging.”

She has seen a number of changes in the occupational hygiene field over the course of her career, Dr. Teschke says, with it now covering more occupations, including traditionally female-dominated occupations such as nursing and cleaning. And instead of just measuring exposures, investigators now try to figure out which factors are associated with higher and lower exposures, leading to better understanding of health effects and more appropriate control measures.

Dr. Teschke hopes in future there will be a greater connection between engineering and health, where health will figure out the problems, and engineering will design the solutions.

“Water systems, sewers, etc, are designed by engineers and have a huge impact on public health. These things have a thread, but the connection needs to be stronger.”
Professor Emeritus Kay Teschke

The School has more women in the faculty, and feels more equal, than when she first started, Dr. Teschke says. “Everyone can see now that both men and women are stars in the department.” But, she says, she is still waiting for a female Dean of Medicine.

As for her future plans, Dr. Teschke may be retiring, but she is not taking a brake: she is a member of several working groups for road safety in British Columbia, continues to disseminate research results, and has been appointed to the Board of Directors of WorkSafeBC. “I told them I’ll have to see if I’m any good at it.”

“Boy, is she going to be missed!”

SPPH co-directors Carolyn Gotay and Chris Lovato said Dr. Teschke’s research on transportation, particularly cycling, had been groundbreaking. “Kay has been a key contributor to our SPPH community and will be missed by all of us.”

“Her work leaves a legacy that will continue to improve the lives of British Columbians.”
SPPH co-directors Carolyn Gotay and Chris Lovato

Professor Mieke Koehoorn said Dr. Teschke was an excellent faculty mentor, inviting Dr. Koehoorn to be a co-principal investigator on a research proposal when she first arrived at UBC as an Assistant Professor. This experience had shaped Dr. Koehoorn’s career in terms of how to write a successful funding application, how to conduct rigorous research that has policy relevance for decision makers, how to run a successful team meeting, how to engage student trainees in the research process, and most importantly how to mentor others. “I am forever grateful for that knock on my door more than 15 years ago.”

Professor Karen Bartlett said since first meeting Dr. Teschke in 1992, she had been in awe of her foresight, energy, and integrity for research and hygiene. It had been a real privilege to have Dr. Teschke as a mentor and colleague, she said.

“She has been the both the brains and the brawn behind many significant initiatives that have resulted in policy changes, the chance to train highly qualified personnel, and advancement of interdisciplinary approaches to real world challenges.”
Professor Karen Bartlett

Associate Professor Hugh Davies said Dr. Teschke played a huge role in the success of the Occupational Hygiene program that changed the face of the profession in BC, and that had real impact on the lives of BC workers. She had been a wonderful mentor, and a great role model through her excellence in research and passion for education, he said. “I know that my own work is guided directly by philosophies and principles that I learned from Kay – always wonderfully practical and immensely helpful. I strive to pass these same lessons to my own students.”

Partnership for Work, Health and Safety privacy and operations director Suhail Marino said she had the great privilege to work with Dr. Teschke early in her career. Dr. Teschke was a great role model, whose qualities she had tried to emulate years later. “She was a hard worker, a clear communicator, thoughtful, decisive, authentic and showed passion for what she did. She taught me that one should always do the right thing even if it is uncomfortable and also taught me the importance of treating the people around you with kindness.”

“I wish her well but boy, is she going to be missed!”
Partnership for Work, Health and Safety privacy and operations director Suhail Marino

Continuing Education director Lydia Ma said she had known Dr. Teschke for 25 years in both academic and professional capacities, and said she had always been an exemplary role model to students and colleagues. “Aside from her vast knowledge and experience in occupational and environmental public health and safety, Kay is always generous with encouragement of others, and demonstrates the virtues of patience, humility and kindness.”

“She is always supportive of one’s ideas and suggestions and most importantly, she is always willing to listen to others’ viewpoints and treats others with respect.”
Continuing Education director Lydia Ma

Aura Health and Safety Corporation principal industrial hygienist Mona Shum took the OCCH 501 course with Dr. Teschke. She had a wealth of knowledge and all of the students were intimidated at first, Ms. Shum said. “But over time, we realized the she was hard on us because she wanted us to learn these concepts that we would one day be applying in the real world to improve workers’ lives.” Dr. Teschke instilled the desire to learn the craft, to grasp concepts, to practice, and to constantly improve because it mattered if Ms. Shum was going to make this her career. Today, Ms. Shum teaches the practicum course Dr. Teschke taught her more than 20 years ago. “The first thing I say to each class, is that the same practicum class that Kay taught was my absolute favourite class in the program, because for me, it was a culmination of everything we had learned.”

“ I have Kay to thank for where I find myself today.”
Aura Health and Safety Corporation principal industrial hygienist Mona Shum

University of Saskatchewan Associate Professor Catherine Trask said Dr. Teschke was her course instructor, employer for research and teaching assistantships, an active thesis committee member, co-author, and a key mentor in Dr. Trask’s academic development. Dr. Teschke has a tremendous amount of integrity, and consistently lived the example of doing the right thing, even when it was unpleasant, awkward, or hard, she said. “Kay also has a lot of passion of public health and justice, and because this permeated her teaching and research it was imparted in her students.” Dr. Trask said Dr. Teschke’s legacy at UBC was not only in her research accomplishments and the policies it influenced, but also in the subsequent generations of researchers who absorbed her integrity and passion.

“Many times during my career I have been in a difficult situation and thought to myself: “What would Kay do?” I have spoken with other UBC alumni about this, and I am not the only one!”
University of Saskatchewan Associate Professor Catherine Trask

In lieu of retirement gifts for Dr. Teschke, a new student award has been set up at SPPH.

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