Flexibility and Confidence are Essential – Tips and Recommendations from Global Health Student Researchers

On Thursday, Feb 16th, 2012, a group of students, professors, and sponsors from a variety of academic disciplines gathered in Harris Hall on the Northwestern University Evanston Campus at the 2nd Annual Global Health Research Symposium. At the symposium, undergraduate and graduate students discussed their public health research and how they are connecting their Northwestern education to the global community.

Student researchers outlined their projects and major findings during a mix-and-mingle poster presentation, which preceded a panel discussion featuring Ryan Lange, a global health alum and Fulbright Scholar (WCAS ’11). Other panelists included Marielle Meurice (WCAS ’12), recipient of the Radulovacki Global Health Scholars Research Fellowship, Christopher Miller (WCAS ’12), recipient of the John and Martha Mabie Fellowship for Global Health Research, and first-year Feinberg students Annsa Huang (WCAS ’11), Danielle Chun (WCAS ’11), and Gabrielle Ahlzadeh (WCAS ’11), recipients of the International Group Research Fellowship in Global Health.

The diversity of student academic backgrounds was evident through the wide variety of global health research presented at the Symposium. From Sophie Ewald’s (WCAS ’12) Berlin study on the incidence of strokes in marathon runners, to Helen Gómez’s analysis of how the Cuban culture affects access to health care for
those living in (and visiting) Cuba, the central themes running through all of the projects were creativity and ambition.

Among the attendees at the Symposium was President Morton Schapiro, who reflected on how global health research can be a type of “experimental learning to complement the classroom.” Many of these students “gain a whole new appreciation for what they’ve learned in the classroom,” he said. “I think it’s a great idea.”

Northwestern University Provost Daniel Linzer gave opening remarks before the panel discussion, during which he highlighted the immense interest Northwestern students have shown in the area of global health in recent years. “Every single school at NU has an interest in global health, through teaching or scholarship, or involved students,”  said Provost Linzer. Global health research, especially research leading to new affordable approaches for global health care, is one of the major pillars of the 2011 Northwestern University Strategic Plan.

Prior to the panel discussion, Dévora Grynspan, director of the Office of International Program Development at Northwestern, emphasized, “the idea is to discuss the process of doing research above the research data itself…The process highlights the ethical challenges. That is the most important thing that our students learn.” During the panel discussion, the students discussed challenges they faced during the entire research process, as well as key takeaways from their experiences writing proposals, working in the field, and their advice for students looking to embark on similar global health research.

For writing a stellar grant or research proposal, Ryan suggested, “Find the most critical person you know, the most creative person you know, and the best writer you know… Also, don’t become married to your draft.” Before applying for his Fulbright fellowship, he reworked every sentence of his proposal countless times. Ryan’s Fulbright project looks at how obesity metaphors affect policy support in the U.S. and Canada.

Marielle detailed the invaluable resource of having supervisors she could count on while she was working in Kampala, Uganda. For students interested in pursuing global health research, she advised, “Find someone who’s going to be really dedicated to you when you get to your site.” Once you are in the field, “flexibility and confidence are essential.”

In terms of where to begin in a project search, “Do something that you’re really interested in and passionate about,” stressed Annsa. She participated in a group project with Danielle and Gabrielle that looked at diabetes in Bolivia. The research was “really relevant to many of the things we are constantly talking about in medical school.”

Finally, Chris Miller had some very important words of wisdom modeled after his own research with the Chicago Public Health Department this past summer. “Taking the first leap is the hardest part. After that,” he said, “you gain some confidence.” He also stressed taking advantage of the unique position Northwestern students are in. “Be aware of the incredible resources that you have…Don’t be afraid to talk to your professors.”

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