Econ student in a lab coat

Written by Laura Hallas, MPH candidate and incoming Marshall Scholar, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and alumnae of the Summer Research Program- Public & Global Health Track

I was only a college freshman when I began working at the Institute for Public Health. An economics major at that. Not exactly the person you would guess would wind up picking through pediatric blood samples and signing for a shipment of syphilis samples.

I knew that I was interested in public health and was familiar with Wash U’s medical school and its stellar reputation, but I was still unsure of how I could combine these passions into a career in global health policy, my ultimate goal. My summer at the Institute for Public Health was the first time I was able to really envision a future within this field and it has played a valuable role in my academic path since.

My specific project focused on the importance of effective, low-cost diagnostic medicine in building strong health systems in resource-poor regions of the world. I worked with Dr. Sarah Riley and her organization Pathologists Overseas to validate low-cost rapid diagnostic tests for common diseases such as HIV. In addition to working with blood samples in the lab, I also researched the policy side of diagnostic medicine, and programs that had worked in other countries.

This was an incredible experience for me. I had never before considered the importance of diagnostic medicine to global health, nor had I had the opportunity to work in such an interdisciplinary way. But in reality, all over the world millions of people live with, and die of, diseases whose names they will never know. Diagnostic medicine provides a necessary first step toward treatment.

When I returned to University of Texas, Austin, I added a major in health and society to continue researching the policy implications of global health and wrote about public health and global health issues (including HIV) as editor of my student newspaper and as a writer with the Dallas Morning News. I ultimately even wrote my senior honors thesis on the World Health Organization‘s release of the Essential Diagnostics List, with which Pathologists Overseas staff were intimately involved. My time at IPH had shown me how to combine research, writing, and policy analysis in a very hands-on way.

If I were to offer advice to current interns, it would be to take the time to get to know your mentors and classmates, their experiences and, getting their perspectives on your own interests can really help to organize what was, at least for me, a more general interest in public health. Talking with my friends about their neuroscience or post-operative care research and their experiences helped me sort through my own ideas about what interested me in the field of public health more than any advising session ever has.

Next year, I will begin my graduate school journey as a Marshall Scholar in the UK. I will spend my first year to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to study for a Master of Public Health (the same degree one of my own cohort members pursued), and then spend the following year at Oxford studying policy evaluation. And it wouldn’t have been possible if not for that summer in St. Louis as an econ major in a lab coat.