Blog Health Equity

Adapt and respond: The necessity of versatility in public health

 By Samantha Grounds, BSPH nutrition candidate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ; SPRIGHT Scholar in the 2020 Institute for Public Health Summer Research ProgramPublic and Global Health Abbreviated Track

When discussing how her experience living through 9/11 as a law student in New York City altered her work and focus, Professor Kim Thuy Seelinger, JD, and a Research Associate Professor at the Brown School, shared these insightful words with the Institute for Public Summer Research Program – Public and Global Health Abbreviated Track cohort: “No matter what you train for, sometimes history and the moment you’re in ask you to do something different.” I believe these words are clearly applicable to the present day. Amidst a global pandemic when the public is looking to public and global health professionals to lead the way, it is vital for public health professionals to adapt and respond.

This sort of versatility amidst a global crisis may take form in multiple ways, such as potentially requiring researchers to shift the focus of their research interests for the time being or to divert attention to other needs. Our cohort had the opportunity to hear from Sean Whelan, PhD, a virologist and the Head of the Department of Molecular Microbiology. While Dr. Whelan’s research has primarily surrounded the Ebola virus, he is now also researching a potential vaccine for COVID-19. Dr. Whelan provides a prime example of a public health professional willing to adapt and respond to address the public’s immediate needs.

Professor Seelinger’s experience with 9/11 and witnessing the suffering in New York drove her to pivot her plans and to respond to the moment by coming to the aid of those around her. As a law student with specific interests and goals, Professor Seelinger was willing to put those aside to serve her community’s immediate needs. Her example of adaptability and responding to the moment is not only inspiring, but is also a challenge for each of us to think about how we can adapt and respond during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Katie Plax, MD and Medical Director of the Supporting Positive Opportunities with Teens (SPOT), who shared with the cohort her work assisting local teens and young adults living with HIV and her role as a physician advocate, ideas emerge from listening. Millions of people around the world are directly suffering with COVID-19, while countless others are suffering in more indirect ways, such as with food insecurity, job loss and economic hardships, and mental health conditions. Listening to and understanding these needs will help inform practical ways to respond in order to effectively aid one’s community.

Crises are often unforeseen and unavoidable. Versatility is therefore essential in public health work. Given the present abundance of suffering, now is an opportune time not only for public health professionals, but for all, to pause and to consider how we can adapt our plans and respond to the needs of others.

This post is part of the Summer Research Program blog series at the Institute for Public Health. Subscribe to email updates or follow us on Twitter or Facebook.