Faculty profile: Meet Fathima Wakeel


As a teen growing up in Orlando, Florida, Fathima Wakeel knew she wanted to make a difference in the lives of moms and children.

Wakeel volunteered at the hospital taking floral arrangements to new mothers after they’d delivered their babies. But a single event – witnessing the birth of a child – during a summer internship changed everything.

We asked Wakeel to tell us a bit about herself, her research and her interests along with what she’s discovered so far about living in the Lehigh Valley.

How did you come to Lehigh?

Wakeel: I was a founding faculty member of the undergraduate and graduate public health programs at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, so when I learned that Lehigh was launching a new College of Health, I was extremely excited to explore the opportunity to be a part of this incredible venture. Before coming to Lehigh, I was an associate professor of public health and the program coordinator for the Bachelor of Science in Public Health program at Ferris.

What is your specific area of interest? How did you come to this particular focus and how does it relate to your position in the College of Health?

Wakeel: My research primarily focuses on maternal and child health, specifically the measurement and development of maternal resilience among racial/ethnic minority and low socioeconomic women.

How did you come to this particular focus and how does it relate to your position in the College of Health?

Wakeel: I have always been interested in maternal and child health ever since my high school internship and the life-changing experience of witnessing an infant being born! What happens to your mom even before you’re conceived has a huge impact on your life. It’s this transmission of risk and protection we keep in mind.

You were 14 at the time you saw the birth, tell us about that experience.

Wakeel: When I came into the hospital that day, I didn’t know this would be happening. When I look back, I was really stressed out witnessing this baby being born. The mom was not stressed at all because it was her fourth child. She took it all in stride, and I was taken by her strength. If you could make an impact on a child’s life at those very critical times – like when they’re born or during the first two years – it sets them up for a good outcome later in life. The decisions made by his parents would make a big difference. It’s a blank slate, but those decisions by his family would create the direction of this child’s future.

What changed for you?

Wakeel: Originally, I planned to be a physician who specialized in either obstetrics and gynecology or pediatrics. During my undergraduate degree, I realized I was not interested in clinical care but was more interested in the health of the population. When the baby was born, I looked at this baby and knew he had his whole life ahead of him. The decisions made by his parents would make a big difference in what he would become.

Tell us about your current research projects.

Wakeel: I have three main umbrella projects:

One is looking at the impacts of Covid, which started in 2020 after the lockdown. I’m looking at the physical and mental health impact in the Lehigh Valley and nationwide. We have the data, have done some of the analysis, and are working to get some papers out.

Another that I’m most excited about is maternal resilience and measuring it in South Bethlehem. We’ve gotten funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and will be working with the Hispanic Center on a multi-phase study with qualitative and quantitative components. We’re looking at how these women think about resilience and stress, and the impacts on their reproductive health outcomes.

Lastly, I have funding for a community-based study that will examine the needs of autistic youth in the Lehigh Valley as they transition into adulthood.

When did you start at Lehigh?

Wakeel: I was hired in August 2019 and started at Lehigh in January 2020.

What’s your personal vision and approach to your research and methods - how has this served you, or is it a result of changing and adapting along the way?

Wakeel: I have adopted a strength-based approach to both maternal and child health and community health research.  A strength- or asset-based approach is when you evaluate a community in terms of its assets and inherent resources instead of risks. You assess what types of things you can leverage to make health programs work rather than what is wrong with the community. Those in the community already know what’s wrong. There are also existing programs that are doing a good job. It may be a matter of pulling those things together rather than building from scratch. I have also focused on maternal resilience (protective factors) as opposed to maternal risks in my research. Some women do really well and have good outcomes – despite undergoing trauma and stress – while others do not. I am interested in exploring the internal and social resources that these women have garnered during their life course to potentially incorporate these resources into interventions that will help women from vulnerable groups.

How has the Greater Lehigh Valley surprised you?

Wakeel: I absolutely love working with community health stakeholders here in the Lehigh Valley. They are among the most brilliant, passionate and progressive individuals I have ever worked with.

Where else have you visited in the region?

Wakeel: Jim Thorpe, the Poconos, Philly, NYC, and Edison, NJ.

Why Edison?

Wakeel: They have a lot of Indian and Pakistani stores there and that’s our cuisine. I was born in Sri Lanka and my family moved to Nigeria when I was a year old. When I was 8, we moved to Orlando, Florida, and I consider Orlando my hometown. When we first moved here [to the Lehigh Valley] we’d go to Edison for groceries and we have family near there. Sri Lankan food is similar to Indian food. Rice and curries with vegetables, chicken, beef or lamb.

Any hobbies?

Wakeel: Reading classic literature and more contemporary novels, watching foreign-language movies and traveling.

Cats or dogs?

Wakeel: Neither! We have a Russian tortoise named Tortilla! He’s small, about the length of my hand. They have long life expectancies, which is one of the reasons we got him. He’s about 2 years old. We haven’t had much luck with goldfish….