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Many paths to improving global health: Reflections on Summer Research Program alumni presentations

Written by Floriana Milazzo, MPH candidate, Columbia University, New York and the Colonel Carroll A. Ockert Scholar in the 2021 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program

Last week, I had the privilege of listening to three presentations from alumni from previous Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program – Public and Global Health cohorts. I’ve always felt that my interests in global public health pull me in many directions. I care about epidemiology research; I care about writing; I care about health communication and education. I want a lot of meaningful experiences from my career. Listening to these incredible alumni illuminated how much careers in global health work can pivot with different experiences.

Floriana Milazzo in Copenhagen while studying comparative health systems.

In her presentation, From St. Louis to Kathmandu: My Journey in Global Health, Biva Rajbhandari, MSW/MPH, Brown School ’17 (mentee of Patricia Cavazos-Rehg, PhD, Professor, Department of Psychiatry), discussed the importance of building “critical skills,” such as qualitative research, which can help careers shift with the changing global health landscape. She also emphasized the importance of never saying no, staying grounded, and building connections with mentors. This advice inspired me to continue seeking out directions that spark my interest and being okay with where they take me. Biva also elaborated on how writing can spur change in global health work. I majored in English during undergrad studies, and hearing this reaffirmed my desire to use my love of language to further health equity.

Vineet Raman, 2017 cohort, discussed Tribal Health in South India and how his Summer Research Program project on type II diabetes and Medicaid, under the mentorship of Amy McQueen, PhD, associate professor in the School of Medicine, gave him research skills and a network that enabled him to hold a variety of global health positions from obtaining a Fulbright in India to working on COVID responses.

In India, Raman sought to determine whether healthcare expenditures between the Adivasi people and non-Adivasi communities were a result of tribal status and location and how social and geographic isolation came into play. This two-tiered research question underscored the importance of using a systems approach to ask underlying questions about socioeconomic, political and cultural contexts so that our questions accurately portray the problem we wish to understand and perhaps solve.

Finally, Sam Jaros, an epidemiology PhD candidate at Stanford University, described his summer research project on HIV in Ghana, Social Diseases and Social Solutions. His mentor was George Kyei, MD, PhD, MS, and assistant professor at both Washington University in St. Louis and University of Ghana. The research examined how ART coverage for Ghanaians could be increased. Sam reaffirmed that beneath any research question, and fundamental to positive findings, lies the community: people must be central to the questions we ask in global health. Centering on people can mean giving the community an active part in the research (for they are experts in their lived experiences) and befriending—not bypassing—community gatekeepers.

Together, these presentations show that to practice global health research is the willingness to listen to the community, which can take a multitude of forms.  I look forward to continuing to pursue work that exists at the intersections of all my interests.