An undergrad’s unforgettable experience: Attending the American Public Health Association’s Annual Meeting

Northwestern undergrad Emily Smith (Biological Sciences, Gender Studies and Global Health, WCAS 2014) got to present her summer research findings on lesbian and bisexual women’s access to healthcare in Capetown, South Africa at APHA’s Annual Meeting. She wrote about her experience for the Global Health Portal:


Last summer I had the opportunity to spend a few months in Cape Town, South Africa conducting independent research through IPD’s John & Martha Mabie Fellowship. My research was a qualitative study looking at lesbian and bisexual women’s access to healthcare and sexual health information, their experiences “coming out” to healthcare providers, and their suggestions for how the healthcare system can be more accepting and affirming for non-heterosexual women. I submitted an abstract to present this research at the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) Annual Meeting and, much to my surprise, was selected to present as part of a poster session at the conference, which is typically attended by over 13,000 public health professionals and researchers. I was ecstatic (albeit extremely nervous) to have the opportunity to present my research and to attend other presentations at the conference, which took place in Boston in early November.

paradeAfter weeks of preparation, I set off for Boston armed with a crisp new pantsuit and my nearly four foot tall poster (side note: carrying a 42 inch poster through the airport is not fun). I arrived on Saturday morning and somehow managed to navigate the ‘T’, only to find that the streets surrounding my hotel were packed with tens of thousands of celebrating Red Sox fans. The championship parade happened to be passing by right as I arrived and, even though I’m not really a baseball fan, it was a great introduction to the city and its (very) enthusiastic residents.

Things settled down a bit after the parade passed and I eventually made it to my hotel. The main part of the conference didn’t start until Sunday, so I spent most of Saturday exploring Boston. I walked around Chinatown, the Boston Commons, and the waterfront area, saw some of the historic sites in the North End, and enjoyed some Boston delicacies like clam “chowda.”

After enjoying some of the city’s more touristy activities, I was excited to spend most of Sunday and Monday attending presentations and other events at the conference. The conference was absolutely huge (the program was 400 pages long…) and pretty overwhelming, but I attended a few really interesting presentations, especially the ones sponsored by APHA’s LGBT Caucus. For example, in one session on “Emerging and other relevant LGBT topics,” I attended presentations about LGBT veteran’s experiences with VA hospitals, about a transgender housing project in New York City, and about access to health insurance for LGBT persons under the Affordable Care Act. The presentations were all really interesting and informative, and represent the diversity of projects at the conference and even within individual sessions.

The highlight of the conference was having the opportunity to present my summer research project. I was really nervous because I was one of the few undergraduates at the conference, and everyone else presenting in my session had some type of professional degree. However, I was a lot more comfortable once I started talking to people, and it was an incredibly positive and rewarding experience. During the hour-long poster session I talked to about twenty people, while a bunch more just stopped to read the poster – and only one person asked me how old I was! People’s responses to the poster and research were overwhelmingly positive, and it was exciting to answer their questions and get feedback on the project.

Overall, I had an absolutely incredible time at APHA and in Boston both presenting my research and attending other presentations. This experience would not have been possible without IPD’s generous support, and I am extremely grateful for the funding I received. Attending the conference was an unforgettable experience that contributed to my global health education and professional development and allowed me to share my research with others, thus increasing the impact of the study.



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