From Northern Africa to Southern Maryland: One Researcher’s Path to Public Health

Dr. Faustine Williams
Dr. Sherine El-Toukhy

Growing up in Cairo, Egypt, the daughter of scholars was nothing less than fascinating for Sherine El-Toukhy, Ph.D., M.A. Her mother is a professor of organic chemistry, and her late father was a professor of agricultural economics. Their family home provided a calming respite with its many books and reference materials. Dr. El-Toukhy grew up listening to intellectual discussions about tenure and publications. She recalls the distinct smell of chemicals and the students’ gleaming white lab coats in her mother’s laboratory. Dr. El-Toukhy credits her parents as her strongest influences and describes herself as persistent—a trait which served her well in her path to research.

When she was in middle school, Dr. El-Toukhy used her mother’s books to write her first research paper, garnering an award and recognition from the school district. Originally, she wanted to become a medical doctor. But her parents left Egypt to work in the Persian Gulf before her sophomore year of high school, and classes at her new school were taught in Arabic—not English, which was the language of instruction at the schools she attended in Egypt. As she started her studies, Dr. El-Toukhy had to choose between humanities and STEM tracks. “You can imagine how hard it was to sit in biology, chemistry, and algebra, classes taught in Arabic. I ended up switching to humanities,” says Dr. El-Toukhy. After graduation, she pursued a major in communications at one of the top universities in Egypt.

Being in the school of communications revealed tremendous opportunities to do public good. She remembers a television soap opera called, “And the Nile Flows On,” which focused on family planning and gender inequality. Trained as a broadcast journalist, Dr. El-Toukhy began her career producing documentaries and writing stories on environmental health and social injustice and its relation to mental health. “I have always been a researcher at heart; I just used a camera and a microphone instead,” she says.

Soon after, she started administering on-the-street surveys in low-income neighborhoods. With very limited resources in Egypt, her mentors brought Dr. El-Toukhy in on many research projects, allowing her to learn research by doing it.

Dr. El-Toukhy worked to promote children’s vaccines, a clean environment, gender equality, and other issues. She was involved with capacity-building in the community, and focused on extreme poverty, especially on empowering young women about their sexual health. She also promoted adult literacy programs to residents of impoverished communities and youth awareness of HIV and prevention strategies.

It was Dr. El-Toukhy’s father who shared a newspaper advertisement calling for applications to study abroad and told her it was time. As a first-generation immigrant to the United States, she gained a deeply personal experience that provided insight into the challenges facing minorities and health disparity populations. Growing up in Egypt, Dr. El-Toukhy encountered immigrants and students from all over the world. Her family lived in India for a time as her parents pursued their studies. However, these experiences did not prepare her for what it would be like to become a minority herself once she came to the U.S.

This shift in dynamics opened her eyes to the challenges facing minorities. Her experience further solidified her commitment to diversity and inclusion of underrepresented groups through research and mentorship of minority students and trainees.

Dr. El-Toukhy received a doctorate in mass communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she also earned a Certificate in Interdisciplinary Health Communication. She now works as a Stadtman Tenure-Track Investigator in the Division of Intramural Research at NIMHD and is also a 2018 NIH Distinguished Scholar.

Dr. El-Toukhy’s work takes place during a digital revolution. Health information technologies like mobile technology, patient portals that allow doctors and patients to communicate online, and remote patient access pave the way for expanded access to care. Dr. El-Toukhy’s work at NIMHD focuses on making sure all populations—including minorities and the underserved—benefit equally from health information technologies and can receive the best health care possible.

Within the Digital Health & Health Disparities Research Lab (DHDRL), Dr. El-Toukhy and her team look for ways to leverage health information technologies to improve minority health and reduce health disparities. Currently, they are examining disparities in engagement and abstinence outcomes of text messaging smoking cessation interventions, developing a just-in-time mhealth smoking cessation intervention targeting low socioeconomic young adult smokers, and exploring disparities in the use of electronic medical records.

“In a way, life gave me another chance at being in public health, just a longer path and one that was not obvious at first glance,” says Dr. El-Toukhy. “So, after all the twists and turns, I am finally doing what I want to do. I am where I want to be, and there is no other place I would rather be.”

Posted June 21, 2019