Global Health Lessons from Teach for America: Liz Chen '10

Written by
Alex Wheatley
Oct. 21, 2016

When Liz Chen ’10 was an anthropology student at Princeton, Professor Joao Biehl’s “Medical Anthropology” class introduced her to the world of global health. She has since learned that public health is at the intersection between the fields of medicine and public policy--and thus there is no singular career path into this work, but rather many different avenues through which to become engaged.

In Liz’s words, “A lot of people stumble into public health,” and “[GHP] prepares you to do many different things. That’s what I love about it.” Anthropology and GHP, she says, trained her to identify root causes of problems and to share them; however, she knew that she needed further education to fully understand and implement the interventions to address these root causes. As she says it, “I knew I wasn’t an authority on what communities needed” or how to give it to them. This proved to be an important motivation in choosing what to do after college.

As a senior at Princeton, Liz was intrigued by the opportunity to get to know a community through Teach for America. As a teacher, she could draw connections between health and education and really learn about the public health needs of rural communities. She spent two years with Teach for America as a chemistry and biology teacher in Gaston, North Carolina. Her current interest in adolescent health stemmed from her time in these classrooms, as well as her time as an Outdoor Action leader and as the executive director for the Model Congress conference at Princeton.

The next step in her journey began with a new online course. In her classrooms, Chen saw the need for a sexual health intervention. Low-income communities in rural North Carolina-- where she taught—have disproportionately high teen pregnancy rates compared to non-rural communities. Chen sought to develop an effective health education program that could increase students’ access to high quality sexual health education and to encourage teens to engage with the information.

In this vein, Liz and her teammate Vichi Jagannathan (a Princeton 2010 alumna and Teach for America alumna) developed MyHealthEd, an online program that creates and delivers individually tailored sexual education curricula.  Their project recently won the Innovation Next national competition, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As one of five national winners they’ve secured $325,000 to build and expand their project over the next 18 months. If the course proves to be effective in increasing knowledge and reducing the rate of teen pregnancy, they hope to offer access to public schools across the state.

Chen loved the project and research, and she chose to continue her research through a Master’s in Public Health at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Health in 2012. She’s now on a PhD track, set to enter her third year this fall. Her research focuses on adolescent sexual health: her dissertation entails designing, implementing and studying the effectiveness of a sexual education intervention for 9th graders in North Carolina.

One of Liz’s biggest takeaways from her time at UNC is the idea that global health is local health. Global health is built from a community health perspective, and this is where she has found her niche. As a senior at Princeton, Chen wanted more training for conducting health interventions. At UNC, she’s found community-based participatory research to be an authentic and effective way to conduct health interventions. Thanks to her college education in GHP and anthropology, and now her graduate-level training, Chen is ready to tackle the public health needs of the communities she cares most about.

Liz Chen is a 2010 graduate of Princeton University with a degree in anthropology. She’ll enter her third year of a PhD program at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Health this fall.