Post by guest blogger Rutvij Merchant
Rutvij Merchant, a political science major and economics and global health studies minor, is spending his summer in Geneva, Austria doing an internship at the WHO Ebola Response Data Laboratory. Rutvij writes about his first 5 weeks on the job at the WHO, which he calls a “dream opportunity.”
My first few steps into the atrium of the WHO headquarters building in Geneva were surreal. Portraits of previous Director-Generals hang from the walls; exotic gifts donated by member states are strategically placed in the reception and posters of the various campaigns that the WHO is spearheading catch your attention. For a global health and international development nerd like myself, an internship with the WHO is the dream; I feel incredibly grateful to simply be here when I walk in through the front doors each day. I believed that the internship would not only be a great opportunity to learn new skills but that it would also act as a defining experience that would provide clarity on the professional paths that I would take after college.
Five weeks into my internship, I can safely say that the work has been challenging and moreover, I have gained some extremely valuable insight into both my own professional goals and how an apex organization like the WHO functions. My internship is with the ebola response laboratory database team, and the responsibilities include loading, cleaning and analyzing the data sent by the labs that are testing patients in West Africa. In the initial couple of weeks, the learning curve was very steep as the central database consists of hundreds of thousands of records and my Excel and STATA skills definitely needed to be at a higher level than they were. Yet, with plenty of help from my colleagues and a natural tendency to ask a lot of questions, I feel that I am now able to contribute to all aspects of the team’s work. The primary deliverable is a weekly PowerPoint presentation that displays the key insights held in the previous five weeks of data and this is disseminated to the Health Ministries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone as well as the top brass at the WHO. The idea is to ensure that high-level strategy regarding outbreak control is based on real-time data and is as evidence based as possible.
The focus at present is to get ebola cases down to zero in Sierra Leone and Guinea and keep them there, as well as build capacity in the local health systems to tackle other diseases such as malaria that also have similar symptoms to ebola. My favorite part of the day is sitting in on the senior leadership meetings, which are convened in the ebola response control room. Issues relating to policy, vaccine development, communications, HR and logistics are covered and it’s fascinating to see how many stakeholders are involved in the response and how difficult it can be to co-ordinate and align priorities as an apex organization. The successful study investigating a new ebola vaccine that was recently published in the Lancet was WHO sponsored and it was amazing to hear firsthand the report of the primary coordinator of the trial. It gave me an understanding of the life cycle of vaccine development and testing as well as an insight into how a safe, efficacious vaccine is an immediate game changer for outbreak control.
Over and above my direct work, the internship is a great opportunity to network with health professionals and other interns from various departments at the organization. There are some incredibly accomplished and driven people within the UN system and the networking opportunities can really help you understand the various facets of public health and narrow your interests within the field. That is definitely my primary goal for the second half of the internship. Further, Geneva is also incredibly beautiful in the summer and with the heat wave that swept Europe in July now having receded, I intend to make use of the good weather to hike and travel on weekends to fully explore the surrounding area.