If you stand in front of a map of the world and throw a dart, chances are, that dart will land on a location where Penn’s Center for Global Health (CGH) faculty and students are engaged in clinical or research work. From Botswana to India, Penn sends its innovative experts to collaborate with local researchers or clinicians while also inviting scientists from around the world to visit Philadelphia and share knowledge and wisdom gained from years studying and mastering unique challenges.
But like most other things during the past year and a half, the danger of COVID-19 grounded flights, closed borders, and kept scientists isolated in their home countries. In order to continue research and education efforts, CGH had to adapt — something that they have a lot experience doing.
“Working in global health requires flexibility and creative problem solving,” said Andrielle Yost, the assistant director of Global Health Training at the CGH. “We adapt every day, so when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, we knew we would have to strategize and change most of our programming.”
A main focus of the CGH is providing global health opportunities and education to Master of Public Health (MPH), MD, and PhD students. While travel was out of the question for students this past year, the center pivoted in multiple ways, including a shift to remote global research opportunities for trainees. Another recent example: CGH hosted a virtual Career Pathways Week where Penn and non-Penn experts in various global health fields had a chance to speak directly to Penn MPH students, share experiences and advice, and answer questions from tomorrow’s global-health experts.
The virtual event provided a moment for students to gain global health insights from experts around the world, despite disruptions in global travel imposed by the pandemic. The following outlines some of the takeaways from the week.
Madeline Smith, an MPH candidate with the University of Pennsylvania, was involved in organizing and planning the event and served as a moderator. As she learned about the backgrounds of the various speakers, she noticed that the journeys they took to get to their current roles varied completely.
“As students, we often settle into the mindset of specific sequences of classes to fulfill degree requirements,” Smith said. “However, it was refreshing to see that there are a multitude of routes ‘in’ to a global-health role.”
Michelle Roland, MD, the former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Botswana Country Director who oversaw CDC operations in Botswana and who gave the keynote speech at the end of the Career Pathways Week, was a perfect example of this.
“She emphasized how the trajectory of her career was shaped by following her passion rather than worrying about what’s next,” said Smith. “Although a country-director position with the CDC may not have been what she set out for, her immense and diverse experience within Botswana allowed her to land and succeed in the position.”
Elizabeth Borkowski, also an MPH candidate at Penn, received the same takeaway from Jonathan Patz, MD, MPH, chair of Health and the Environment at the University of Wisconsin. “His last piece of advice was don’t do something because you think it will be good for you, but to go straight into what you want to do,” said Borkowski.
When Americans arrive in foreign countries to do global-health work, especially in middle to low income countries, many think that they have more experience and superior ideas compared to researchers or clinicians in those countries. That’s often not the case.
“All the speakers emphasized the value of collaboration,” said Miranda Rouse, also a Penn MPH candidate who helped organize the event. “You want to be able to go into a place and fix things right away. But the experts in a foreign place have skillsets that you don’t have. We as Americans can learn just as much or more than we can teach, and the speakers at Career Pathways week reminded us students that when you go abroad, no matter your age, you are often a student.”
Even without travel restrictions and border closings, those interested in global health cannot go everywhere and see everything before making decisions about what and where they study. There is limited time to see the world and all the avenues an MPH student can take. That’s where virtual events like Career Pathways week come into play.
“I always value the opportunity to speak to real people who are doing the kinds of work that I aspire to,” Smith said. “Global health is this expansive field that covers numerous areas of medicine, and for someone who has a lot of interests, it can be hard to narrow down our focus or even determine the next steps we as students can take. Listening to global health professionals helps me understand myself more and what I can see myself doing.”