A Lesson in Collaboration: NU’s First Case Competition

Eight teams of undergraduate and graduate students participated in Northwestern University’s first Global Health Case Competition this past weekend, each giving a 15-minute presentation on how to decrease pneumonia-related deaths in children 0-5 in Uganda.

40 participants in 8 teams from all 10 Northwestern schools

40 participants, 8 teams, 10 Northwestern schools

For the week leading up to the competition, 40 undergraduate and graduate students, split into teams that represented at least three Northwestern schools, got to know the details of our case, preparing to impress the judges with a solution that aimed to be innovative, realistic, and overall, successful. I was thrilled to be participating in the event – I am constantly trying to make the most of every experience I come across at Northwestern, and this competition seemed to offer the perfect mix of challenge and insight that I couldn’t pass up.

When I first heard of the case competition that was to take place this winter, my curiosity sparked. I’ve heard many of my friends practicing cases, but never before had I considered participating in one myself. Never one to write off any opportunities, however, I sent in my application to join a team. Weeks later, participants were placed into eight teams. I found myself on Team 5 with a group of four capable women, and before I could blink, our preparations were underway for the first ever Northwestern Global Health Case Competition. We met for breakfast, Skyped weekly, and prepared through research and practice to tackle whatever problem we were given at the beginning of the week.

No amount of preparation, however thorough we wanted to be, compared to the time spent in our “war room,” as we called it, running through the case and our potential solutions on Friday. We thought we had our solution all figured out – a few hours of brainstorming, research compilation, and productive processing had led us to the reasonable explanation that we presented to Noelle Sullivan, the expert assigned to answer questions we might have during an hour-long help session. Professor Sullivan, in the most eloquent of ways, asked us the perfect questions to get to the core of our solution. Why were we taking the approach we had suggested to her, and why was it the right path? I was unnerved – it was difficult to comprehend the work we had done for hours before wasn’t the approach we would want to take during the competition. But after we spoke with Noelle, bouncing ideas around in a collaborative frenzy, our solution transformed into a better, more innovative concept. I felt my brain expanding – open, ready to welcome a myriad of possibilities I hadn’t even considered possible.

The hours passed more quickly than I would have ever guessed. Finding a solution was like pulling a never-ending scarf out of a magician’s hat; the logic kept coming, the options began to spiral, but the answer continued to evade us. I was intimidated – how could so much research boil down to 15 minutes? Why did I think I was qualified to work on a real problem that was so real?

The winning team (from left to wright): - Emily Drewry- Global Health Minor Program Director: Dévora Grynspan- Team Mentor: Professor Noelle Sullivan- Smitha Sarma- Pooja Garg- Grace Jaworski- Suvai Gunasekaran

The winning team (from left to right): Emily Drewry,  Global Health Minor Program Director: Dévora Grynspan, Team Mentor: Professor Noelle Sullivan, Smitha Sarma, Pooja Garg, Grace Jaworski, Suvai Gunasekaran

All of a sudden, it hit me. The haze faded away and a sense of empowerment rose to the surface. I was ready to tackle the broader picture.  It was a true collaboration – as our collectively unique minds churned together, I could practically feel my confidence growing. Collaboration was the trend of the weekend – because each team consisted of students from at least three Northwestern schools, each member of our team offered a myriad of experiences, skill sets, and passions to create remarkably well-rounded presentations.

The collaboration of teams wasn’t the only organizational success of the organizers. Never before have I felt so surrounded by individuals who offer me the chance to become a better version of myself. Students, faculty, and guest judges alike spent their weekends involved with this competition for one reason: we are all driven towards a future where the global health problems we aimed to solve fail to exist – and most likely, we will be part of the teams to make that happen.

The work that went into creating our presentation was at times exasperating, even  – and it certainly wasn’t easy. But it was real, perhaps the realest opportunity I’ve had since coming to Northwestern.

When we filed into Harris 108 on Saturday morning, with a completed case and hours ahead to wait until presenting, I was able to reflect on the experience as a whole. I was terrified to present to the judges – these three women are professionals at UNICEF and USAID and work on the projects I aspire to be a part of one day. How could we possibly impress them in a presentation about the real world problems they work with on a daily basis? In retrospect, the reason I was afraid to present was the very same reason I needed to embrace the experience, and the reason I am so grateful to Northwestern for giving us this opportunity.

As I spoke with a peer early on in the day, I expressed that I was intimidated by how established many of the participants were. “But here’s the thing,” she responded. “We know so much.” My first inclination was to disagree – but, as I began to shake my head, it dawned on me. We as individuals know what we have learned in our three or four years at this incredible institution – but we as teams know so much more.

Participants waiting to be called in for their presentation

Participants waiting to be called in for their presentation

I could not have asked for a better result – I am so honored to be a part of the team that will be representing Northwestern at the Emory competition later next month. But beyond the results of the competition was a bigger success, and it took the form of a life lesson I won’t be forgetting for a long time.

The theme of the weekend wasn’t competition. It was collaboration. Though our goal was to create a viable situation, the work each participant put into the weekend was reciprocated two-fold in opportunity. We put an incredible amount of time into the case itself, learning about pneumonia, Uganda, and past public health efforts. I am so proud of the final result my team presented to the judges, but I am more proud of the comfort I now feel, knowing that so many talented individuals out there will one day be presenting these solutions to real donors and make real impacts.

In his closing remarks, global health professor Michael Diamond stressed the same point that I had arrived at by the end of the day. “Collaboration,” he said, “as we all know, does not come easily.”

Neither do the solutions to global health problems. But after this weekend, I am confident that members of the eight participating teams will be part of the movements that, with dedicated efforts and innovative ideas, will go on to change the world.

A huge thank you goes out to the Program of African Studies, the Office of International Program Development / Global Health Studies, the Buffett Center, the Center for Global Engagement, and the Center for Global Health for sponsoring the event, as well as to Noelle Sullivan and my teammates for being incredibly patient and supportive throughout the weekend. 

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