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Making a Difference with Mabie

Not sure what to do this summer? For any undergraduate student interested in making a difference, opportunities abound.

March is here, which means the deadline to apply for the John and Martha Mabie Public Health Fellowship is fast approaching. The grant offers undergraduate students a chance to research global health issues, both in America and abroad. Past research topics have ranged from studying public health awareness through academic arts in Chicago to the way Algerian women view hypertension to LGBTQ health disparities in hospice care in Nepal.

This past summer, two Mabie fellows used the grant to study of the most important resources for health around the world: access to clean water. Weinberg senior Julia Yeam and School of Education and Social Policy senior Tracy Guo assisted with research efforts to design a scale that will help researchers analyze water insecurity.

(Photo courtesy of Julia Yeam)

“As a research group we are working on developing a scale, a cross-cultural scale, that will measure water insecurity at the household level— something that doesn’t exist at the moment.” says Julia Yeam, a biological sciences and global health major.

The Mabie grant gave Yeam a chance to extend her work with her research group, keeping her in Evanston during the summer break to analyze data.

“It wasn’t just me individually doing this project, [but] I played a role in it and there were parts that were distinctly mine,” Yeam says of her work over the summer. “I was doing a combination of data cleaning, looking at some of our preliminary data and doing analysis.”

She performed all these tasks in Evanston, but her data set came from 11 different countries, including Ghana, Uganda, Tajikistan, Ethiopia, and Colombia. The number has only grown since then.

“We partnered with a lot of other researchers – both in the US and outside – and we asked them if they were interested in our project,” Yeam says. “If they were, then [we asked if they] would like to partner with us and conduct our survey at their research site. Some researchers have multiple research sites in different countries.”

Ultimately, the research collaboration wants to design a short survey with a set of seven to eight questions that can quantify a household’s water insecurity, regardless of where they live.

“We started off with a list of 32 questions…we condensed it to 27 or 28,” Yeam says. “We’re seeing, based on different models and statistics and regressions, how well do these questions actually capture water insecurity experiences. By measuring the strength of each of these questions we will be able to see which of the questions we ultimately want to keep in this final survey.”

The project isn’t done yet— the number of sites continues to grow, adding more data for the research group to consider. However, Yeam is far from disappointed with her Mabie experience. She says her favorite part of the summer of research was preparing and attending a conference held in Northwestern to discuss progress on the study. Many of the international partners and experts in water insecurity came, which made the atmosphere exciting for Yeam.

(Photo courtesy of Julia Yeam)

“I was the only undergraduate on this project over the summer, so being a part of this conference was very intimidating because there were all of these big names that I had been reading about— people who are absolutely giants in the world of food and water insecurity already,” Yeam says. “I was thinking, ‘who am I to present data to you, this is insane!’”

However, Yeam says she not only presented the descriptives she had generated during the summer, she also joined in the conversations the attendees had about water insecurity. While the summer gave her a chance to learn some important research skills, the most important lesson she learned came from the conference: the necessity of teamwork.

(Photo courtesy of Julia Yeam)

“In terms of actually conducting research work, I learned a lot about how to do quantitative data analysis which was really cool, and I think a useful skill,” Yeam says. “On a more grander level, I really got to see how important collaboration is when trying to make something as significant as a scale that doesn’t exist yet, especially one that’s cross cultural and can be applied to any cultural context and any socio-economic context as well.”

Yeam says she feels grateful to have an eye-opening experience through her Mabie grant and recommends that any global health-minded undergraduate student to think about the fellowship and others like it.

Any students interested in applying for the John and Martha Mabie Public Health Fellowship can apply at this link and contact Micki Burton at micki.burton@northwestern.edu with questions. The deadline for applications is March 19th.

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Interning at Médicos del Mundo: insights from working globally

I spent last fall in Barcelona, interning at Catalonia’s branch of Médicos del Mundo – or translated in English, Doctors of the World. This is an international human rights organization that empowers and provides health services for vulnerable populations. Today, 400 programs exist in over 80 countries, and the programs are largely spearheaded by local teams.

I got to join one of these local alliances: I worked with six women in an office tucked in the non-gentrified half of El Raval, a historically immigrant neighborhood of Barcelona. The office was about the size of a large bedroom, six desks lined the walls and a square window overlooked the narrow street outside. Dense files, packets and large colorful posters were scattered all around the room. When I arrived around noon, the office was always a full house with local volunteers were constantly rushing in-and-out the door. This community was like a family. Laughter and banter – mostly in Catalan, the regional language of Catalonia – filled the room, while a sense of determination united each and every employee.

Three women lead a panel discussion in Transgenerant, an annual event that promotes transgender awareness in Barcelona.

But no matter the size of the office or staff, it was truly astounding how much work they did for Barcelona’s most vulnerable populations. Luckily, I got to engage with some of their initiatives. I designed promotional materials for their annual transgender awareness day, facilitated a roundtable about female genital mutilation in Barcelona’s African migrant community and assisted with a high school course on health inequality. What really put me out of my comfort zone was leading an empowerment workshop for a group of twelve transgender women – entirely in Spanish.

Thinking back on these experiences, I can explain how meaningful they were to me using two big reasons. First, it opened my eyes to another Barcelona, one that is more real, less perfect and ridden with a deep history of inequality. In this Barcelona, systemic processes like stigmatization and hierarchization perpetuate poor health outcomes in disadvantaged populations.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, Médicos del Mundo showed me firsthand how a small local alliance can make hugely influential differences. In 2016, this team designed and launched a docu-web to make visible human rights violations among refugees; they initiated training programs and educational services to teach high school youth about cultural diversity and health inequality. These platforms for social inclusion gave me a kind of optimism that I will bring to my future work in global health, a field that more often than not feels like a collection of problems rather than a discipline. That said, joining this team of passionate individuals who dedicate their lives to advancing health equality was an invaluable experience.

Working abroad in a foreign language was undeniably challenging, but the ability to better understand local contexts and narratives was indispensable to my growth as a global health thinker.

My friend (left) and I (right) strolling through the Gothic Quarters, Barcelona’s oldest neighborhood.

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Global Health Studies: A model for campus internationalization

Popular undergraduate program honored for advancing curriculum development, fostering international opportunities

This article was originally published by the Office of International Relations.

Northwestern University’s Program in Global Health Studies is among a select group of university programs awarded with the 2018 IIE Andrew Heiskell Awards for Innovation in International Education, the Institute of International Education (IIE) announced today.

The awards honor the most outstanding initiatives in international higher education, highlighting programs that remove institutional barriers and broaden the base of participation in international teaching and learning.

This is the second time Northwestern has received this prestigious award. In 2016, the university was highlighted for its multidimensional partnership with the elite French institution Sciences Po.

This year, Global Health Studies is being recognized by IIE with an honorable mention as a successful model for internationalizing the campus by advancing curriculum development and fostering international opportunities for both students and faculty.

Global Health Studies: a program grounded in interdisciplinary teaching and research

The interdisciplinary program was established as an academic minor in 2004 by now-Vice President for International Relations Dévora Grynspan and Abraham Harris Professor of Anthropology William Leonard, who serves as the program director.

Since then, the program has greatly expanded and now draws students from all six undergraduate schools and colleges. With a consistent average of close to 300 students in the program each year, the demand for classes and research is high.

This past year, the university added an adjunct major and the Accelerated Public Health Program (APHP), a combined five-year bachelor’s degree/master’s of public health (MPH) curriculum, to its portfolio of offerings.

The Global Health Studies program teaches students the skills needed to engage critically with current global health challenges, and sets itself apart from many others in unique ways: it employs faculty with a diverse set of academic backgrounds—from anthropologists and biomedical engineers to rehabilitation specialists and health officials—and requires a study abroad experience.

Over the years, students have been able to fulfill this requirement through Northwestern-administered public health programs at partner institutions in Chile, China, Cuba, Mexico, Israel, France, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The program also provides financial support for domestic and international student research, and offers many extracurricular activities, such as local health community involvement and an alumni mentorship program.

Broadening the scope and participation of students and faculty in research and study abroad

Global health faculty teach a variety of topics, including global bioethics, social determinants of health and Native American health. They also serve as supervisors for student research. Many of them lead or support public health experiences abroad, sometimes in collaboration with one of Northwestern’s international partners.

“Our program couldn’t offer all of these wonderful engagement opportunities outside the classroom if it wasn’t for an extraordinary group of faculty who challenge students with thoughtful and critical perspectives on a diverse range of topics,” Leonard said.

Over the last four years, Noelle Sullivan, assistant professor of instruction in global health and anthropology, has taken student cohorts to Tanzania for hands-on field research in public health. The undergraduate researchers worked with students from the University of Dar es Salaam to investigate health issues relevant to the Arusha region.

According to Sullivan, the benefits of field research for students are immense.

“In high school, students learn from standardized testing that there are right and wrong answers,” she explained. “In global health studies, we teach them about the complexities of the world and challenge the attractive simplicity of ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ In the field, they learn the different opportunities and constraints people face and can use these insights to start to conceptualize the world they want to build.”

Peter Locke, assistant professor of instruction in global health and anthropology, takes students to Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina each summer to study post-conflict mental health and policies in a region that was tormented by war in the 1990s.

“Spending time in both Serbia and neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina helps students to build a comparative, critical perspective of the region’s history and current challenges, and to reflect deeply on the place of health in processes of post-war recovery, policy-making and transitional justice,” Locke said.

Another group of students traveled to London in 2017 to conduct archival research on maternal health in the 20th century at the Wellcome Library. Led by medical historian Sarah Rodriguez, who has appointments in both Global Health Studies at Weinberg and Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Feinberg, the group looked at the historical roots of contemporary maternal health problems. Students’ travel, accommodations and programming were covered in full by the John & Martha Mabie Fund, which was set up to provide public health research opportunities for Northwestern students.

Other faculty members engage students in global health research on campus and in the community, such as medical and psychological anthropologist Rebecca Seligman, who regularly oversees student research projects. Beatriz Reyes, a postdoctoral fellow in the program, works on the development of evidence-based programs in addressing health disparities and teaches classes on community-based participatory research and Native American health. Michael Diamond, adjunct lecturer in the program, has taken many students into the local community over the years to help them understand the intersection of global and local health, or ‘glocal’ health, and how closely these two areas are related.

While faculty and students have primarily benefitted from Global Health Studies’ international opportunities, the program has also contributed to internationalizing Northwestern staff: Greg Buchanan, assistant program director for Global Health Studies, recently received a Fulbright Administrator’s Award. In the spring, he will travel to India to meet with representatives from Indian universities, private-sector agencies, research institutions and government agencies.

Training future researchers early on

“Meaningful global health student engagement” is a top priority for Sera Young, assistant professor in anthropology and global health and a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research. Currently, she leads a research group that consists of postdocs, PhD students and nearly 20 undergraduate students.

“The overarching question that we ask is how to best help mothers in the vulnerable period of the year prior to delivery and the two years postpartum, known as ‘the first thousand days,’” Young said. Specific research areas of focus include food insecurity, water insecurity, HIV and micronutrient deficiencies.

“Studies have shown that food insecurity and water insecurity are tightly correlated with one another, and we look at nutrition through this slightly indirect, but extremely important aspect of nutrition, which is water,” said Weinberg senior Julia Yeam, an undergraduate member of Young’s research group and one of the first students who enrolled in both the new global health adjunct major and the APHP.

“What our research group is trying to do, and what a lot of other collaborators around the world right now are trying to do, is validate a scale to measure and quantify water insecurity at the household level,” Yeam added. The group has water insecurity research sites in 24 countries and is adding two more sites in the coming weeks.

The scale has already been validated in western Kenya and will now be adapted “to understand how water security works in different settings, to compare, contrast and understand national and regional prevalence,” Young said.

Assisting with faculty research helps undergraduate students develop a skill set they will need moving forward in their academic and professional careers, no matter their ultimate field, according to Young. Her students are all involved in primary research and take on many responsibilities, including literature reviews, data entry, data cleaning, data analysis and presentation.

She considers these research collaborations a great method of engaging with students.

“Teaching in a classroom is only part of my teaching job. Working with undergraduate students directly on primary research helps train the next generation of researchers and helps us to answer the scientific questions more quickly,” she said.

Providing students with the tools to engage with today’s global health challenges

Yeam, who came to Northwestern specifically to study global health, was surprised by all the offerings available to students—in global health, and also at the university as a whole.

“I don’t think I really understood how many opportunities we had here until two years ago when I started looking for study abroad opportunities and met Dr. Young. That opened up so many other doors. Now there are opportunities for me to present posters, go to different conferences and ideally get papers published,” she said. “But also, I realized just how many resources there are on campus in terms of people to help you navigate your career and your research goals.”

As she continued through the global health program, she became determined to pursue an MPH after graduation. As if it were meant to be, in the midst of her planning, Global Health Studies made an announcement to all its students: The five-year APHP was slated to start in fall 2017. Yeam immediately applied and was accepted, along with five other students. The program combines a four-year global health bachelor’s degree with a one-year master’s degree in public health.

Not having to study for the GRE and being able to earn credit towards the MPH during her senior year allows Yeam to focus on her global health studies, while tying in her public health interests early on.

For Yeam, the Global Health Studies program has already had an impact.

“It really helped me grow a lot to expand my view on health and the role we play in it— both our individual roles and our collective role as part of a global community, because we’re all affected by it, whether we blatantly realize it or not,” she said.

Yeam is just one of many students who have participated in the various opportunities offered through the Global Health Studies program over the years. These students and their faculty mentors exemplify what the Heiskell award is all about: reducing barriers to broaden the base of participation in international teaching and learning on campus—and abroad.

Program director William Leonard will accept the award on behalf of Northwestern and Global Health Studies, and he will showcase the program with a presentation on Best Practices in Internationalizing the Campus at the IIE Best Practices Conference in New York City on March 16, 2018.

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Global Health Studies alumna talks medicine, mentorship and being grateful

Julia Polk returned to campus for Reunion Weekend and shared her story as a doctor in global health and advice for those interested in a similar direction.

By Mira Wang, Medill ’18

Dr. Julia Polk knows a thing or two about the path less taken.

After graduating from Northwestern University in 2007 with an anthropology major, global health minor and international experiences in Mexico and South Africa, Polk, whose name was Harris as an undergraduate student, went to Brazil for a year to conduct global health research at the National School of Public Health in Rio de Janeiro. Right afterwards, she moved to Beer Sheva, Israel, for a medical degree at Ben Gurion University, followed by an obstetrics and gynecology residency at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Now, she works as an OB/GYN and clinical instructor at Mount Sinai in New York City.

But Polk’s international experiences didn’t end with medical school; she still completes weeks-long trips in rural medical facilities in Liberia two to three times a year. Just this past June, she went to train nurses and midwives in the field.

Dr. Julia Polk

I enjoy the challenge of thinking on my feet in a new scenario and learning a new way to approach things from my foreigncounterparts,” writes Polk in a follow-up email. “Medicine is this amazing entity that transcends language and culture, so to a certain extent when I arrive somewhere to work with other OB/GYNs we are already friends, with a common medical language and knowledge base. It’s thrilling to learn new things and simultaneously comforting to see how much is the same.”

In October, Polk shared her advice with the Northwestern community, especially targeted to the 55 percent of students in Global Health Studies who pursue a pre-medical track.

She talked about when to take gap years—after undergrad and after residency, but not between medical school and residency—to only conduct research if you actually care about it and can talk about it, and to even postpone pre-med classes and take a post-baccalaureate program if organic chemistry is “bringing your average down,” she said.

But the piece of advice advice Polk emphasized above all else is to be grateful.

“At every stage, you close doors, so do what you can do at every stage and enjoy yourself,” she said. “You’re lucky to be here for four amazing years, when no one requires anything of you except for what you choose.”

Polk is still very connected to Northwestern. She helps current undergraduates at Northwestern navigate their experiences through the Global Health Mentorship program, which pairs undergraduate mentees with alumni mentors to chat about career development opportunities.

“I really admire how Dr. Polk has found a great balance with her work in the U.S. and abroad,” says Becca Sinard, a Weinberg senior and one of Polk’s mentees. “When I first met her, I was like, ‘You are who I want to be!’” she laughs.

Polk has helped Sinard through the interview process for medical school. In January this year, Sinard was preparing to interview for the Undergraduate Premedical Scholars Program (NUPSP), which allows early MD admissions to the Feinberg School of Medicine for dedicated and high-achieving Northwestern undergraduate students.

With Polk’s help, Sinard was accepted into the program and is set for medical school next year.

“It was great answering some of the interview questions with her, bouncing ideas off her and getting tips before the interview,” says Sinard.

Polk has been involved in the mentorship program since the program took off in 2013, and credits the program with providing important structure to facilitate building mutually beneficial relationships between mentors and mentees.

“I think it’s a really good exercise for the alum because you can look back and see how far you’ve come, and see if you are or are not manifesting your interest in global health,” she says. “It keeps you on your toes and allows you to be grateful but also to do your own tweaking in your own career path.”

As for benefits for students, Polk says it’s helpful to have a mentor who has just vacated the shoes that the mentee is standing in, so that mentees can hear about how new trends are affecting the careers they’re interested in and have meaningful advice about how to proceed, in school and after school.

Overall, she emphasizes being grateful and appreciating the four years that undergraduates have to explore.

Throughout her own undergraduate career, she did exactly that—explored the world through Northwestern’s opportunities. Polk tried to learn as much as she could by seeing as much of the world as possible. In South Africa, she learned that by living in a country and seeing things with her own eyes, she could understand the underlying issues affecting health—like how the lack of educational infrastructure contributes to the spread of HIV. In Mexico, where she didn’t speak Spanish, she learned how uncomfortable the language gap was, how to navigate it and how to empathize with diverse peoples in the U.S. who don’t speak English.

“A public health background gives you good context as a doctor, where I can see my patients in the worlds where they live,” she says. “Global health means I have a global perspective on how I treat my patients.”

But Polk didn’t always want to be a medical doctor; in her undergraduate career, she studied anthropology instead. She only found her calling as a medical doctor after graduation, during her time in Brazil.

At the time, Polk was working with vulnerable, disenfranchised women, and she wanted so badly to advocate for them and be a voice. The logistical issues with research boards and the slow-moving nature of her work frustrated her. After sitting in on clinical interactions where she could see, explicitly, how OB/GYNs empower and personally touch the lives of the women they serve, she decided to join their ranks and work towards an MD.

Even now, however, in her day-to-day life of teaching, performing C-sections and delivering babies in private and public clinics in New York City and Liberia, she counts all of it—her anthropology and global health background, and the languages she picked up around the world—as vital to her interactions with a diverse array of patients and students.

Polk notes that knowing a few phrases in multiple languages can make a patient’s day, and recognizes the bravery a pregnant woman exhibits when she visits an American clinic without knowing the language.

“It’s about seeing your patients as people,” she says. “I can really appreciate my patients and why they’re there.”

 

This article was originally published by Northwestern’s Office of International Relations. 

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Northwestern expands faculty collaborations in health-related fields

In a step towards continued cross-cultural collaborations, eight Northwestern faculty members and administrators traveled to Havana, Cuba, this past June to explore possible joint research opportunities with Cuban peers.

Four days of back-to-back meetings with University of Medical Sciences of Havana faculty and visits to family doctor offices, hospitals and specialty clinics highlighted Cuba’s public healthcare successes and yielded multiple possible research collaborations through diverse theoretical lenses.

The meetings come at a point in indefinite U.S.-Cuban relations. Yet Northwestern continues to intensify its ties with the country’s academic community in an ongoing effort to promote the creation and sharing of knowledge across borders.

This article was published by Northwestern’s Office of International Relations. Click here to read the whole article, and watch and read several interviews with the Northwestern faculty members who traveled to Cuba this past June.

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