Young adults often find themselves stuck in a “waiting room” — a place where everything comes at a standstill. We do not move because we are afraid to move; we do not know how to take the next step. So we remain frozen in that chair in the waiting room as we claw anxiously at the armrests. But why? We are at the brink of adulthood, yet we feel we are still not quite strong enough to make a difference in the world — to set a change for something so much bigger than ourselves. But there is a way out. Much to our surprise, we have had the key the entire time.
In fact, the causes of change are closer than we thought. At the Fourth Annual Undergraduate Conference in Public Health last Friday, students from Hopkins and the neighboring states presented their research in the field both abroad and within the nation. Here, even undergraduates were able to make their own findings in their respective projects, essentially using those results to progress in the science field or to improve social conditions. These students have already left that waiting room of doubt; they are providing an example for young people of their generation: changing the world can happen at any age.
Storyteller Extraordinaire Opens the Conference
“Why do you create something? You put so much effort into it and it’s about going away,” Jody Olsen, former Chief of Staff of the Peace Corps, said.
With countless experiences from her world travels, Olsen led the conference with a voice that opened a window to the world. However, she begun with a more local story, one in which she witnessed an ice sculptor carving the word, “MELT”, in large ice blocks. It confounded her that one would work so hard for something only temporary. But she was making her point. This is exactly how the field of public health works. “You have to have the intensity of that moment. You have to share that moment because that moment doesn’t come back. But I realized…that that moment has been captured in my head and thousands of other people’s heads and has influenced all of us for all these years.”
Like a spark, the job of a public health worker may be momentary, but their influence becomes widespread and long-lasting through the stories of the people that have been affected. “We in public health are about that day, we are about that week, and we are about that moment. And it’s so important that our commitment in public health is about each day of the difference that we’re making because we’re influencing enormous populations,” Olsen said.
Olsen told a story of her time in Malawi, where giving birth comes at a great risk. In fact, it has the third highest maternal mortality rate in the world. Here, women are responsible for carrying the proper supplies on their person during pregnancy, so that in the time of labor, clinics will use those supplies and deliver the baby. However, even with improved services, Malawi women did not trust the foreign staff and continued their delivery methods in secret. Olsen reported that correcting this problem was more than simply implementing health care; it was about understanding the people in this other-worldly setting. Their interests, their beliefs, and their culture all affect the way that care reaches people. Public health is more than just statistics and economic intervention; there is a social element that involves both sides as well.
“Every one of us, no matter what we chose to do once we finish our degree here, we have made a commitment, we have a responsibility to health, well-being and to public health. Public health is all of us. We each have a place, and we each have a responsibility,” Olsen said. She sees public health as a field that anyone regardless of age or occupation can contribute to. On a national level, we can aid health issues by involving Congress or by promoting campaigns for anti-smoking. At a local level, we can do research and find the statistical evidence to fund a change. In terms of international health, Olsen eagerly promoted the World Health Organization and mentioned their Safe Motherhood Program in the hopes of reducing maternal mortality rates in places such as Malawi.
The field of public health extends like a roof over the world; it can provide shelter, but it needs the support from more than just one organization in more than just one place.
“We have a responsibility to promoting health regardless of specialty, regardless of talent, and regardless of our interests. It’s in every one of us.” Olsen said.
Worldwide Discoveries Under One Roof
A noisy crowd gathered around rows of poster boards as each student author eloquently spoke of their own research. Professors and fellow students alike took part in this event, recognizing faces from classes together. Amidst this crowd was Conference Chair and undergraduate, Claire Rosen, who remarked on the campus’ “biggest and culminating event” in public health.
“[The Public Health Student Forum] works as a group, a conference committee, and a club to put the event together,” Rosen said.
The process for preparing the Undergraduate Conference in Public Health is year-long, and the forum must come to a consensus on the theme and the guest speakers.
“The most interesting part is always deciding which speakers we’re going to have and what they’re going to influence in the conference. It’s always nerve-wracking to think ‘Will people come?’, ‘Are we going to have presenters?’, but it’s really helpful to work with the health studies office and get their support.” Rosen said.
One poster author, Christina Li, presented on her summer abroad in South Africa at St. Joseph’s Home, a place for economically-disadvantaged children in need of health care.
“When I was coming to Hopkins I never imagined I would be able to have the opportunity like this and affect the way a non-profit works. My experience was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I will treasure forever.” Li said.
Li surveyed the nurses at the home and calculated the number of hours nurses spent on certain tasks each day. The problem here was that some of that time was used on medically irrelevant tasks that other servicemen could do. With her data, Li proposed that more servicemen and less nurses would still be more efficient while saving money for the home.
As a senior and a part of the executive board of the Public Health Student Forum, Li has watched the conference grow throughout her undergraduate career and found it as a rewarding experience.
“This conference is really great because it showcases what students are doing. They’re being proactive and they really want to enact change in their local communities both here and abroad…” Li said.
And seeing their peers demonstrate this ability will no doubt act as a motivator for students.
“I think it’s important for students to realize that they can enact change here while they’re at Hopkins…” Li said.
In fact, that very day, Li found out the St. Joseph’s Home implemented her suggestions and are now saving money by recruiting more servicemen.
Of different places and of different interests describe both the students and the people that they seek to help. Whether it is in Africa or Baltimore, students are working toward improving the many aspects of health. Diversity is everywhere, and it highlights the essence of the public health field, itself.
The Leaders of the Field
Toward the end of the conference, students had the opportunity to sit and have lunch with public health professionals from specialties ranging from infectious diseases to Health Care for the Homeless. One such specialist, Clifford Mitchell, is the acting assistant director for environmental health and food protection in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Infectious Disease and Health Administration. He began his introduction with a question to the audience, one in which he asked them to close their eyes and picture what the word “environment” means. Afterwards, he asked if anyone saw people included in that image. Much to everyone’s surprise only ten percent of the audience raised their hand. Mitchell pointed out that, aside from nature, the environment includes how people interact with their environment.
During the lunch, we sat down with Mitchell and he was very eager to know about the students as much as we wanted to know about him. One student asked what Mitchell’s job entailed, and he explained that public health is structured and has many different aspects. In his department, there are epidemiologists that handle food management, disease outbreaks and education of health and disease programs. In addition, there is a public health laboratory in Maryland with experts in environmental chemistry and microbiology. They even investigated whether pet food contained melamine, a chemical found in plastic, which ordered a recall in 2007.
There is also a clinical aspect to environmental health, and Mitchell noted that because of the relatively small amount of physicians in the field, they align themselves with many programs. Mitchell, himself, covers conditions associated with environmental exposure, radioactive releases, chemicals in the environment, climate change, hydrolytic fracturing, health impact assessment, and food protection.
“On any given day it’s very hard to describe my job in some ways, but it’s actually more fun than you’re allowed to have legally until they catch you,” Mitchell said humorously.
Mitchell became interested in environmental science and policy as an undergraduate and then went to MIT for their environmental health graduate program. After a few years as a consultant, he went to medical school with an eye for occupational and environmental medicine.
“That’s not the typical written career path for most people… but at some point along the way, many people discover that the patients that they’re talking to keep talking about their workplace.” Mitchell said.
He found that behind the science and behind the diagnoses, there is a larger root cause for a person’s health: the workplace. After all, humans spend a third of their lives in such a potentially hazardous environment.
Quoting from 18th century Italian physician, Bernardino Ramazzini, Mitchell said, “If you really want to understand what causes health problems for people, you should first take a three-legged stool, sit down where they work, and watch them work.”
So that’s just what he did. During his time as a professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, Mitchell took his students to various workplaces in Maryland such as Bethlehem Steel and the Perdue processing plant. His students walked through the workplaces and saw what the people were doing in order to gain an understanding of health outside of the hospital.
“As clinicians, most people’s backgrounds are undergraduate, graduate school, medical school, and then they become doctors. Very few of them get into the real world…They don’t see where most people work,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell got the point across that public health and becoming a physician entails more than just the science and how that idea guided him through his career. “I was always interested in understanding where people lived, where people worked and how that affected their health which is really what preventative health — public health — is all about.”
And so, even after conference, the insights and discoveries of professors and students in the field remained. This conference brought more than just the many aspects of public health together; it showed that regardless of age, occupation, and interest, we all have the ability to make a difference.
So, with the key in your hand, you know that waiting room is no longer suited to you. The world is out there, and it’s just behind the door.