2015 Press Releases

#MeetUCC: The girl who lived

1 Oct 2015
UCC Dentistry student and Quercus Scholar Sarah Jameel (Photo by Clare Keogh)

Storyteller, social entrepreneur and foodie. In a #Startupirl themed #MeetUCC, Dentistry student and Quercus Scholar Sarah Jameel discusses life at Hogwarts, Food Beyond Borders, a shout-out from Jamie Oliver and snorkeling with sharks.

#MeetUCC provides a regular glimpse into the lives of the students, staff, graduates and partners of UCC that make our community so special. UCC is a key supporter of the Startup Gathering 2015 and will be hosting a wide range of seminars, workshops and drop in clinics for startups, entrepreneurs, investors, agencies, researchers and anyone involved in startups (see #StartupUCC and https://www.ucc.ie/en/startup/ for more)

In conversation with Tom McCarthy, Media & PR Officer at UCC.

Name: Sarah Jameel

Hometown: Colombo, Sri Lanka and Montreal, Canada. Some cities you grow up in, and some cities make you grow - Colombo was the former and Montreal was the latter.

Course at UCC: Dentistry (Bachelors in Dental Surgery)

Describe yourself in 10 words or less: 

You may say I'm a dreamer but I'm not the only one. (Sorry, that's 12)

First impression of UCC?

HOGWARTS! When you walk along the UCC Quad for the first time, you really see what they mean when people say this place is Hogwarts if it ever existed. Also, the grass is always greener at UCC, just walk by the Quad if you don’t believe me (Lawn goals on point!) And to top that, this year we had a sorting ceremony by the Harry Potter Society, so it just made every one of mine and all other campus wizards’ Harry Potter dreams come true.

What's student life at UCC like?

Being a student at UCC is about enjoying living in a European Capital of Culture (as it was awarded in 2005) and all the festivities it has to offer, from its famous drama and short story festivals to its splendid musical festivals. It’s also about enjoying college life in a city that is small enough for you to bump into your friends, but big enough to contain all the necessities that make up a city.

For me, shuttling between CUH (Cork University Hospital) and the Boole lectures theatre gives me the breadth and diversity of what a comprehensive university really looks like; one that primes on excellence in both the Arts and Sciences. And there really isn’t a dull day on campus, whether it’s checking out the amazing Glucksman Art Gallery on campus on a Friday after class or catching a play at the Granary Theatre.

For someone like myself who thoroughly appreciates the Arts and yet adores Science, I think UCC is the perfect blend of both - where you can find both your academic and extracurricular niches.

You were recently praised by the one and only Jamie Oliver for your Food Beyond Borders initiative - how did that come about?

When I was brainstorming on how to embark on this journey, I spoke with one of my friends and fellow Global Changemakers (an organisation that empowers young people for social change) who used to work for Jamie a while ago and I mentioned my idea to him. He straight up told me I should get in touch with Jamie and his Food Revolution Community. And so from that conversation to a few emails later, Jamie endorsed it on Twitter less than 24 hours after I launched Food Beyond Borders, and I was asked to be one of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Ambassadors.

So to rephrase that, I think it was a classic case of talking ideas with my friends instead of gossip. And now when I come to think of it, the older I get the more I am drawn to friendships that facilitate this type of intellectual stimulation, because there’s always something constructive that comes out of these type of interactions. Food Beyond Borders was just one such instance.

Food Beyond Borders is a global food conversation and currently runs in the form of a food blog. It aims to impact the world through food culture as a storytelling platform that connects people and places through food culture - though they may be divided by political and human boundaries and borders - because this is what food does best.

Being born into such a strong food culture in Sri Lanka, it has been hard to get away from the variation, variety and veracity of food. As a child, whenever I left any food on my plate, my parents like all parents used to give me the cliched line: “There are so many children around the world starving." In response, I used to make drawings with the food on my plate and the four-year old me would sassily reply, “Why don’t you give them my food?” It was years later, while studying International Development did I realise that the answer to that question was not that simple to execute globally.

Ironically, it was after starting College halfway across the world at McGill University in Canada, in the midst of not having time to eat, and learning to cook (a combination of intuition and Skype sessions with my parents), did I start to explore the culinary world in my own effort to understand its sheer diversity. Living in Montreal, Canada during my formative adult years and being exposed to the multicultural, multi-ethnic and multireligous mosaic which makes up the Canadian culture, I was drawn to how local and yet how global the food conversation was.

Having been a keen writer since I can remember, I decided to merge my ability for storytelling with my curiosity of food culture. The modern day vibe of storytelling as perfected by Brandon Stranton who started Humans of New York has been an influence. Then, while working as an intern for the World Health Organization on the prevention of non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, I saw for myself the evidence of diet being a major modifiable risk factor in the prevention of what is killing 60 percent of the world today.

Now, at UCC's Dental School, learning the biochemistry behind the metabolism of food and how much “we are what we eat”, I am continuing a professional journey on the importance of diet in oral health and social well-being and the imperative need to educate patients.

Some kids take selfies on their phones, I have food. So when I envisioned Food Beyond Borders, it was more than just to showcase food. It was to create an impact by telling the food stories that matter - the diversity, beauty, and the health benefits behind the food we know and love, and the food we have yet to discover. It's about being bold enough to merge different food cultures and create our own entrée. It's about discovering healthier ways to still devour the food we love. It's about being well informed of the ingredients in the food we eat and of healthy serving sizes. It's about embracing the differences in foods, which is what makes them all so similar.

It's about using this substrate of life to break down the political, social, economic, gender boundaries and borders and other social constructs that we as humans have created for ourselves. And it's about creating an impact by telling the food stories that matter. Because food is borderless, it doesn’t discriminate, it doesn’t hate, and most of the time it is prepared with love. I want the community to join me as I venture out from fancy diners to soup kitchens, from street food carts to food drives, from Asia to America, to bring you stories of Food Beyond Borders. This is a global story of food for peace, for health, for a better world.

Currently, as an Active Citizenship Scholar on UCC’s Quercus Talented Students Programme, I am excited to be mentored and guided in further strengthening the mission of Food Beyond Borders to inspire healthy eating, instil a culture of food diversity and share the food stories that matter. Together with the multifaceted global team I have working with me, from literally eight different time zones and with expertise ranging from finance to law, from film making to music, and from management consulting to app development and social justice, I am excited for the future of Food Beyond Borders.

Your worked on another campaign called Kick The Butt?

KICK THE BUTT was the result of an urgent need to address the tobacco menace that seemed to be plaguing the developing world, with the shift in the tobacco industry to the global South as a result of a reduction in the markets in North America and Europe. At 16 I had to take action, knowing that Sri Lanka has one of the highest oral cancer rates in the world and with smoking as a validated risk factor, knowing that young children were being handed out cigarette at bus stops, and having lost my grandpa (my hero) to cancer with a history of smoking. Having done my research on the efficacy of tailor-making programs to suit a target audience, I embarked on a fashion and social media campaign to tackle the issue of teenage smoking. So KICK THE BUTT was as far as I know essentially the world’s first anti-teen smoking campaign that used fashion and social media (still in its infancy at the time) to change teenage mindsets.

My fascination with this topic runs deep, and when I interned for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, I produced “UBIQUITOUS LOVE: A Love Story That Can Save The World”; a documentary on the global fight against the biggest killer in the world today - non-communicable diseases. It explores the use of mHealth, harnessing the use of mobile technology to prevent, treat and rehabilitate patients through the revolutionizing global program “Be He@lthy Be Mobile”. Stemming from a partnership between the WHO and ITU (International Telecommunications Union), it examines how we may be able to uniquely address the question of effectively tackling this global disease burden.

Now being in Dentistry, smoking cessation is a core subject of study and is something we learn about on a clinical basis. To me, it’s the most fascinating topic of all because of how fundamental this ruinous lifestyle habit is to numerous disease processes in the oral cavity and head and neck region - let alone the thumping healthcare expenditure takes from a public health perspective. There is still lots of work to be done in this field, and this is what makes my journey all the more exciting to me.

We noticed your Food Beyond Borders bio mentions snorkelling with sharks ... say again?!

Growing up surrounded by the ocean, I'm very much an ocean girl. I am a huge fan of Vitamin Sea, to the point where my background music when I study often ends up being waves and ocean sounds on Spotify. So whenever I am on holiday, I always end up near a beach or doing water sports like water skiing and windsurfing. And so yes, snorkelling with tiny hammerhead sharks in Trincomalee, along the east coast of Sri Lanka is something I've done and thoroughly enjoyed. If I had a spirit animal, it would totally be a dolphin - hands down, so yes sharks are pretty cool to hang with.

Best/worst thing about living in Cork?

The Cork accent is something I'm still trying to fathom, but then it's neutralised by one of the nicest and friendliest attitudes of the people here so it's all 'grand'! 

What would you love to see introduced at UCC to improve the lives of students?

Healthy, nutritious, diverse food from across the world in all the UCC campus cafeterias! I think I'd like to see Food Beyond Borders influence menus and food choices on campus and to make UCC one of the healthiest and diverse campuses in the world in terms of food. That’s my goal for when I graduate from here, putting UCC on the global map as being the standard for food diversity and healthy eating campuses.

When did you decide UCC was the right choice for you?

It was during my first day of orientation, when I was giving a file with three facts on UCC.

I now call it the Holy Trinity that really makes me adore this place.

It's progressive, green and it is built upon a tradition of independent thinking. It was my first day on campus when I learned that women studied Medicine here 20 years before they were allowed to at Oxford. This pretty much sealed the deal for me. I was sure this was the type of progressive institution I wanted to be part of and call my Alma Mater.

Besides that, UCC is a school with a true conscience, and its student-led initiative to be aware and reduce the carbon footprint on campus has made it the world's first green campus. And all this culminates in and reflects its tradition of independent thinking, where we are taught that great minds don't think alike. 

What advice would you give to first years at UCC?

You're part of the lucky 20-30% of the world that's privileged enough to go to college. So just keep that in mind before you don't feel like waking up for that morning lecture (trust me, I tell myself this whenever I feel like sleep > school).

Enjoy what you're learning, never be afraid to question the content or the context of what you're learning, and relish campus life because the friendships you will make in these years will last a lifetime and will be fundamental to the person you become. This time won't come back, so don't exist in it - live it!

We say George Boole, you say...?

Sorry not sorry, but you wouldn't be reading this on your laptop or smartphone if it was not for his genius. Boole thought here, taught here and the digital revolution pretty much started at UCC. So it's in this legacy that we move forward and digitise every conceivable facet of human life.

Who or what inspires you? (And what do you dream about?)

If would be safe to say that other than my parents who have been inevitable genetic inspirations to me (two amazing professionals who have dedicated their lives to the service of others,, dad as a brilliant dentist and mom as an amazing lawyer), my biggest inspirations are two beautiful, funny and smart British women - Princess Diana and J.K. Rowling.


I was originally supposed to be born on her birthday, July 1st, but I came out two days earlier. I was named 'Sarah', which means princess in Arabic and Hebrew.

There has never been someone better able to take privilege and royalty and break down every conceivable social barrier, from hugging AIDS patients to fighting against the use of land mines, whilst being a culturally sensitive yet effortlessly magnetic fashion icon. In an era before it was even a thing for celebrities to be humanitarians, the People's Princess paved the way to show the world how power, affluence and prestige can be used for social good.


For millennials like myself. Harry Potter wasn’t just a book series; it was everything and it was all made possible by one person - J.K. Rowling. When Harry enrolled at Hogwarts, we started school and when the last book of the series came out, it was when we also finished high school, so this story developed with ours.

We are pretty lucky to be part of the ‘Potter Generation’ and I love how much Rowling has inspired a generation to be kind, inclusive and brave, and just wonderful wizards who happen to be human. Reading her writing from a very early age has really influenced my character.

Whenever I need a dose of inspiration, I watch Rowling’s Commencement Speech at Harvard on the benefits of failure. Often times, we only hear of people’s successes, because the failures don’t sound worthy enough to note.  But she says, “I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” 

And to me these words resonated and I realised it was really a reiteration of what I considered my purpose in life.


Coming from a faith that literally means ‘Peace’, from fasting during the month of Ramadan to feeling the hunger of those that go through the ordeal of poverty every day, and giving 2.5% of wealth to charity every year, it has undoubtedly been the nurturing element of my humanitarian gene.

And as much as faith is a private matter to me, it is a huge influence in my life and has inspired every one of my social justice ventures. Because after all, poverty is a man-made phenomenon that we are all ultimately responsible for as human beings.

The girl who lived

Sometimes the most unforeseen events have the biggest impact on your life. I was at the Annual Scientific Sessions of the Sri Lanka Dental Association (SLDA), where my father was being sworn in as President of the Association. I had just turned 18, and was a proud daughter. Although I had a choice of spending my symbolic entry into adulthood with friends, the humanitarian in me chose to spend it volunteering at the SLDA’s Annual Dental Fluorosis Outreach Project. And there I was at a dental camp in a rural town in North Central Sri Lanka, where my trilingual brain discerned which language to communicate in as I took down the children’s patient history.

And then, I came across this unique girl whose smile remains engraved in my mind to this day. This girl looked different from the rest of the children I had spoken to.

Her face was slightly disfigured from what seemed to be a trauma injury. The nurses later told me that she was a gun-shot victim whose family had been in the crossfire of a recent attack in Sri Lanka’s three decade-long civil war. Unfortunately for this girl, tragedy has struck twice, and her family had been relocated to a town which had a dental health-related time bomb. The effect of excess fluoride levels in the ground water in this town left discolouration on the permanent teeth of children her age and led them to become socially stigmatised and afraid to smile. She was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and was not amenable to any type of treatment regimen thus far.

I sat with her, held her hand, and reassured her that when the treatment was done, she would look back in the mirror and feel better. She came out of the treatment room, smiling at me and said “nandri” – or thank you in Tamil, with an innocent smile that made me see beyond the brutal scars on her face.

Six months later, at the World Economic Forum as one of the six British Council Global Changemakers, representing the voice of youth globally, I found myself reliving moments of what could have been this girl’s life before my encounter with her. At the United Nations Refugee Agency’s Refugee Run, together with world leaders and businessmen, I was made to experience simulated landmines and other attacks, as well as solitary confinement, and consider how to choose between meagre food rations and a doctor’s visit.

Ironically it was just that day that I had questioned Bill Gates, the role of multinational corporations in achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals of combating disease and creating a global partnership for development. In this moment I felt a greater sense of responsibility to represent the voice of children like her. The dots in my life thus far have connected to create one picture – a passion for sustainable oral health. That girl was my spark who fused my love for Global Oral Health and International Relations to create this singular passion.

So what inspires me are people and problems that need to be solved with creativity and connecting the dots.

What album do you listen to over and over again?

To be honest I think I was born in the wrong musical generation, because I cannot live without Elton John, The Eagles and Simon and Garfunkel. Also, I am not going to lie - Irish boy bands made my teenage years, including ...Westlife!

What's next for you?

In terms of passions, I think I stand at the intersection between Global Oral Health and International Relations. I feel that's my calling. If you analyse the nature of conflicts globally, you will see that the resettlement of IDPs (Internally Displaced People) and refugees and their oral health needs are a ticking time bomb.

And as conflicts prolong, the lives of people have to carry on, and the public health ramifications will be too large to rectify if we don’t act soon.

Working with the WHO in Geneva last summer gave me a taste of what it is like to work in Global Health and of the lessons we all need to learn as a global community. To date for example, there isn’t a comprehensive global strategy on oral health for conflict situations.

Additionally, there is much research in the literature to suggest strong links between oral health and systemic health and the early diagnosis of a plethora of diseases in the oral cavity. Paying attention to these connections through evidence-based medicine and dentistry has the potential to lead to reduced healthcare expenditure on a global scale.

After graduating from Dentistry at UCC and upon specialisation (which I want to do in either Paediatric Dentistry or Maxillofacial Surgery), my mission is to lead in creating the infrastructure and human capital to provide dental care to regions of the globe that need it the most, built upon a model of Clinical Practice, Research and Global Outreach.

So as I look ahead into my future, there is one thing I have yet to create – Sina Bo Weva - ‘MSF’ or ‘Doctors Without Borders’ for Dentists. To me, humanitarianism lies at the core of Dentistry. This is because every act of kindness that touches another human being inevitably makes them smile, and spreading smiles - or “Sina Bo Weva” as it translates to - is a gift that a dentist specialises in giving. So Sina Bo Weva is the mission statement in my own personal effort to create a world with a healthy smile.

I want to be the type of dentist that draws on clinical dentistry and social theory, one who is able to link molecular epidemiology to history, and ethnography to political economy. After the benefit of a well-rounded undergraduate experience at McGill University, I think UCC will be the place where I learn to take on my global pursuit of smiles through Clinical Dentistry.

Where can people learn more about you?

Twitter: @sarahjameel


Facebook: facebook.com/foodbeyondborders

Instagram: food.beyond.borders

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/pub/sarah-jameel/40/b5b/689

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/sarahjameel296

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