From Idea to Innovation: Insights from the 2012 Global Health Unite for Sight Conference

Sponsored by Unite for Sight, this past weekend’s 2012 Global Health & Innovation Conference at Yale University featured various speakers and panelists from diverse backgrounds in global health. The Acumen Fund, USAID, Management Sciences for Health, PATH, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation were just a few of the many organizations present. Esteemed speakers such as Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and Special Advisor to Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon of the United Nations, inspired and informed the audience about the most pressing global health challenges.

This year’s conference theme was innovation. Clearly, innovation is a key to the future of global health. Take for example, Laura Stachel, Co-Founder of WE CARE Solar, who described her journey in “bringing light to maternal health care”, literally. Studying maternal mortality in Northern Nigeria after serving many years as a doctor in the U.S., she found that many state facilities only had sporadic electricity that was rationed among the various communities. Without the ability to predict when they would have light, doctors and nurses often found themselves unable to work at night, putting delivering women and critically ill patients at severe risk.  Her husband, a solar energy educator, designed an off-grid solar electrical system (the size of a suitcase) in response to this need. Put to use in a Nigerian hospital, the self-sustaining system was instantly successful and quickly led to improvements in local health outcomes. Demand for their product grew rapidly and now they supply their Solar Suitcases across the developing world.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from this conference was learning how one can pursue global health work without being a doctor or a nurse.  I was quite surprised to hear many speakers talk about how they had worked in medical practice for many years but then decided that global health was their next step. In fact, Laura Stachel was one of them. Actually, at the career panel I attended I was intrigued to learn that all five speakers had not originally pursued public health but either encountered the need in their current positions, such as with USAID, or altered their career trajectory down the line to pursue this interest. While I have felt concerned about my ability to impact health outcomes without pursuing medicine, here were all of these very accomplished men and women who were doctors and decided it wasn’t enough! So, to all of you global health students out there who are not pre-medicine, feel confident that you are also critical to advancing healthcare around the world.

But how you ask? There are so many avenues a global health practitioner can pursue! The conference’s speakers included engineers, designers, educators, environmentalists, energy and food experts, film producers, photographers, and artists, health policy and advocacy leaders, infectious and non-communicable disease specialists, and maternal and child health experts, organizational managers, researchers, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, social media and marketing professionals, technology specialists, and water and sanitation authorities. Clearly, you should not limit yourself to the confines of direct service delivery! All of these presenters are working towards sustainable, significant, and culturally appropriate improvements to the health of populations across the globe with their diverse work. Through collaboration across sectors and specializing in specific interests, these individuals advance disease prevention and lessen the social, financial, and environmental factors that negatively impact access to care in very different ways.

Another conference-inspired insight to leave all of you readers with: if the professional opportunity you seek does not exist or is out of your reach, either create it or look elsewhere. To create it, you may pursue independent research in your interest or begin to mull around ideas about the practicality of starting your own organization with the global health emphases that are missing. You may also consider collaborating with an organization that already exists and developing an interest area that is lacking. When I say look elsewhere, I am referring to unconventional places for internship placements. You may want an internship with NIH in Washington D.C., but you are competing with many, many other like-minded applicants. So what should you do? I would suggest directly contacting lesser-known non-profits here and abroad or foreign public health government agencies. Offer to volunteer your time and contribute your skills. Perhaps you can work for a start up with a small staff; it may be less prestigious, but because it is small you may achieve more responsibilities as an intern. After speaking with many global health students both at Northwestern and at this conference, I find that many successful students took the path less traveled. Again, this approach takes initiative and time, but it is worth the effort when you gain unique professional experiences and real world insights that you may have otherwise missed out on.

Furthermore, if there is a need to be addressed and you know a solution, take the initiative to make a change. It doesn’t take millions of dollars and a large cohort of people to make a difference. If this conference taught me anything, it is that notion. All it takes is a simple idea plus perseverance and resilience. Plenty of college students start their own companies and non-profits with due diligence of research coupled with professional networking. Plenty of college students have also developed products that are either created by impoverished individuals in the developing world or aimed at reducing environmental damage and supporting local farmers. The difference between one of these inspiring conference speakers and you is not intelligence or money, but rather the idea, the persistence, and open-mindedness.  To further back up my claim, let me point out that many of the conference’s speakers were undergraduate, master’s, and PhD students presenting their own cutting-edge ideas and affecting change.

The Unite for Sight Global Health Conference is an annual event bringing together hundreds of people from all professional backgrounds and academic disciplines. As a Northwestern global health minor graduate and future health professional, I found it to be an extremely worthwhile experience and I know the other NU undergraduate attendees felt the same. Be sure to check out the event next year and consider contacting IPD/Global Health Studies for financial assistance in attending this inspiring conference!

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