Finding herself in global health: Heidi Robbins '13

Wednesday, Jun 7, 2017
by Alex Wheatley '16

Heidi Robbins graduated in 2013 with a degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. She has spent the last three years around Princeton’s campus, rowing with the US national team (which trains on Lake Carnegie) and working as a research specialist in Professor Bryan Grenfell’s lab. In this Spotlight, she shared insights from seven years on campus, five years with the Global Health Program, and global health experiences everywhere from Tanzania to Newark.

                The Global Health Program drew Heidi to Princeton. She says that health had always captured her interest, but never the science side of things. She spent her freshman year diving in languages and the humanities, and traveled to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania for volunteer work the summer before her sophomore year. She was struck by the poverty she saw in the city, and returned to campus ready to explore GHP more fully. She remembers the course Immunology, taught by Andrea Graham, as a turning point in her GHP journey. That class turned her on to disease dynamics and the big science questions that would structure her interest in global health moving forward.

                Heidi spent all three undergraduate summers in Africa, traveling next to Sierra Leone to intern with the Wellbody Alliance on a health care app project, and then Kenya to conduct thesis research on elephant herpes viruses. Her “touchstone” global health experience occurred in Kenya, when she woke one morning to gunshots and saw villagers from across the river running and screaming into the research camp where she stayed. The shooters were cattle raiders, effectively a type of tribal warfare. The villagers stayed in her camp for weeks without aid. She says that the experience brought her “back to the feelings I had that freshman summer: I’m powerless to do anything. At the end of the day, I have a ticket home to the US and I don’t know what’s going to happen here. It [that feeling] has stayed with me. It’s why I continue to be in the field.”

                Today, Heidi works on a large study of HIV infection and pre-exposure prohylaxis (PrEP) treatment in Newark. The project uses mathematical models to try and predict the impact of different public health interventions in different populations in Newark. She’s enjoyed the opportunity to work on an issue so close to Princeton, and highlighted how grateful she is for the relationships she’s gained working with other GHP grad students (particularly those in Professor Grenfell’s lab): “Of course the [GHP] professors were so terrific and so approachable themselves. But I think now about my experience working with graduate students and postdocs—those relationships have been especially meaningful. They are mentors and really special to me.”

                Heidi’s next step will be medical school. While she doesn’t see herself working at a local hospital, she is passionate about family medicine. She says that GHP introduced her to a community of people and interests that just felt right, and that these relationships have helped her to find and to pursue her passions. She hopes to enter a community similar to GHP—full of people who share her passions—in medical school next fall. Her advice for students? “Keep an incredibly open mind.” She says that putting herself out there and allowing her perspective to change when experiences dictated it changed her thinking and helped her grow throughout her time at Princeton.

 

Heidi is a 2013 graduate of Princeton University. She works in Professor Bryan Grenfell’s lab at Princeton.