Home-Based Global Health Internships: Persevering during the Pandemic

Tuesday, Aug 11, 2020
by Aimee Bronfeld, Center for Health and Wellbeing

Princeton’s Center for Health and Wellbeing (CHW) sponsors a robust Internships in Global Health program, encouraging students to probe a myriad of health topics affecting the developed and developing world, from pediatric obesity to special pathogens. Last fall, the CHW team looked forward to expanding this initiative with more compelling, hands-on opportunities than ever before. Dozens of Princeton students were selected for fully funded summer internships, some with longstanding partners and others with brand new affiliates in the United States and overseas.

The onset of Covid-19, and its impact on health and safety, changed everything.

Border closures, rising infection rates, and other effects of the emerging pandemic prompted Princeton to impose travel restrictions and other measures to protect students and the campus community. Accordingly, as the university transitioned to distance learning, CHW worked with its partners to reimagine its 2020 internship program. Many internships were successfully modified to virtual formats, while faculty members stepped in to create additional health-focused opportunities. In total, CHW funded nearly 30 remote global health internships along with 20 remote senior thesis research projects.

Thanks to the collaborative fortitude and flexibility of students, staff, and faculty, CHW’s Internships in Global Health program continues to thrive. Participants have engaged in meaningful work at the forefront of public health practice and policy. A few of these unique experiences are highlighted below.

 

Maya Eashwaran

Maya Eashwaran ‘21
Internship: United States Agency for International Development (USAID)

Maya Eashwaran, a Politics concentrator, was anticipating a summer in Stockholm, Sweden when Covid-19 derailed her internship with a pro-democracy think tank. “I was searching for another opportunity, and knee deep in research for my Junior Project about access to reproductive health in South Texas, when I received an e-mail about global health internships,” she said, noting how her budding interest in public health and health policy inspired her to apply for a position with USAID. The internship was initially based in Washington, D.C. but adapted to a remote structure as a result of the pandemic.

Maya joined the Neglected Tropical Diseases Division, within the agency’s Bureau for Global Health, as a Health Communications and Public Affairs intern. The position has allowed her to contribute to USAID’s work fighting tropical diseases that can be eradicated or controlled through safe, effective health interventions. “It has been so interesting to dive into this sect of global health,” remarked Maya. “The internship has broadened my understanding of these ancient, potentially devasting diseases, how they impact different populations, and the challenges of assisting developing countries.”

Maya has been involved with creating communications campaigns, website and social media content, graphics, and various articles for the program. “I’ve learned how to talk about complicated, very scientific topics in a way that everyone can understand,” she noted. “These are solid skills that I will take with me.”

In a sense, Maya considers her change in plans a stroke of luck. “Traveling to Sweden would have been great, but this internship came at a really good time for me, as I try to figure out what’s next,” she added. “The internship reaffirmed my interest in pursuing a Master’s Degree in Public Health following my graduation next spring.”

 

Katherine Leggat-Barr

Katherine Leggat-Barr ’21
Internship: Covid 19 & Demography

Katherine Leggat-Barr, a School of Public and International Affairs concentrator, GHP Certificate candidate, and CHW Health Scholar, had planned to work on her senior thesis this summer, examining the effectiveness and availability of mental health care for recently arrived refuges and asylum seekers in Portland, Maine. Unfortunately, the coronavirus put those aspirations on hold, so she applied for an independent research project under the guidance of Noreen Goldman, Princeton Professor of Demography and Public Affairs, and embraced a new challenge. Specifically, Katherine was charged with exploring how Covid-19 affects Native American communities in the United States.

“As a pre-med student, I’ve always loved research – clinical and academic – and was very interested in studying this particular population. Professor Goldman helped me hone two main research questions: Why are Covid-19 mortality rates higher for Native Americans than other U.S. populations, and why do these rates vary between states?” Katherine is gathering data and investigating variables that account for these inequities, such as living situations, reservation status, and pre-existing health conditions.

As an unanticipated benefit, the project’s demographic focus expanded Katherine’s skill set, as the bulk of her prior research has been qualitative. “This internship has taught me a lot about crunching numbers,” she said. “Through collaborative relationships with Professor Goldman and the graduate student involved in my project, I’ve learned that coding isn’t so scary and that data is a powerful research tool.”

Katherine has also valued the chance to address a vital, timely health issue. “I feel like my work is really important… answering critical questions and confronting health disparities facing Native Americans,” she added. “The experience has been empowering, helping me figure out what I want to do in the future. I’ve focused on being a clinician, but this internship has shown me a whole other side of research that is exciting!”  

 

Naomi Shifrin

Naomi Shifrin ’21
Internship: The Global Fund

The Global Fund, a Geneva-based international organization dedicated to fighting AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, offered an ideal internship opportunity for Naomi Shifrin, a rising senior studying Sociology and pursuing certificates in Statistics and Machine Learning, African Studies, and Values and Public Life. Her remote position is focused on measuring the scope and quality of the partnership’s investments in community health systems across countries in Asia and Africa.

Profoundly struck by global health disparities, Naomi is inspired by the organization’s community-based approach to disease control and prevention. “The Global Fund, while international, has teams working in each country to ensure their programs are driven and implemented by and for the people they serve, which is phenomenal,” she noted. “I am currently conducting a qualitative and quantitative analysis on the impact of cash transfers, to determine if giving money to folks with HIV and TB, conditional on a specific health or educational behavior, plays a role in reducing disease burden, improving health indicators, and targeting the social determinants of health." 

While Naomi had hoped for an immersive experience in Geneva, she is gratefully conducting research from home in New York City and participating in virtual “coffee dates” with representatives from health-minded agencies around the world. “These conversations have been so enriching – academically, professionally, and personally,” she said.

“The work is a huge privilege,” said Naomi, who plans to devote her career to illuminating truths about the intertwining, systematic inequalities that contribute to the world’s most pressing problems. “I hope that my work can affect hearts and minds, and ultimately policy, to facilitate changes that close wealth gaps and prevent inequities.  At the Global Fund, I’ve learned that there are many ways to fight injustice.”

 

Sandra Yang

Sandra Yang ’22
Internship: Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital Pediatric Obesity Program

Sandra Yang, a pre-med student concentrating in Molecular Biology and pursuing a GHP Certificate, was headed to China for cancer research at Zhejiang University, until her summer internship was canceled due to Covid-19. She then pivoted to a position supporting the health and welfare of veterans based in Sunderland, England, but that opportunity was withdrawn as well. Disappointed yet undeterred, Sandra eventually took matters into her own hands by contacting the hospital where she interned in 2019 and asked if they could use some extra help. Her perseverance was rewarded.

As a second-year intern for Le Bonheur’s Pediatric Obesity Program/Healthy Lifestyle Clinic in Memphis, Tennessee, Sandra has been analyzing data for a research project evaluating the safety and efficacy of a potential treatment for obesity in children. Additionally, she is working with the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s Neuroscience Lab to explore possible interventions for phantom limb pain, studying gene expression changes related to amputation in flies with hope that a similar model could be applied to humans. Her duties are entirely remote and vastly different than last year’s experience, though equally valued. 

“Last summer, I split my time between the lab and the clinic, shadowing a pediatric endocrinologist and other specialists as they treated patients,” she described. “This year I’m working on the back end of research, searching literature, collecting and interpreting data, and writing papers based on our findings. It’s the nitty-gritty part of research… sometimes a struggle, but always fascinating.”  

“I could be playing a role in bringing a new drug into practice, helping pediatric patients in the future,” she explained. “With the fly project, I feel like we’re on the verge on finding something significant that could help people experiencing amputation trauma.”

This summer’s internship bolstered Sandra’s aspirations of becoming a doctor and changed her perspective on research, unveiling the magnitude of scientific discovery and its impact on medicine. She added, “The possibility of having publishable results – and knowing my research can make a difference – is really exciting.”