Students Travel the World (Once Again) for Internships in Global Health

Written by
Aimee Bronfeld, Center for Health and Wellbeing
Aug. 19, 2022

Wheels up! For the first time in two years, Princeton University students traveled both domestically and abroad for internships in global health. The Center for Health and Wellbeing (CHW) sponsored 91 opportunities for research, senior thesis projects, and other health-focused endeavors during the summer of 2022.

While some internships were remote, most of them were on-site. Relaxed travel restrictions, resulting from a new phase in the pandemic, allowed students to visit Australia, Africa, Europe, South America, Asia and many U.S. destinations to explore a wide range of health-related topics, from antimicrobial resistance to brain cancer therapies, barriers to childhood immunizations in low- and middle- income countries, and the impact of Covid-19 on mental health.

“In partnership with our host institutions, we were delighted to, once again, offer immersive, international experiences for students interested in global health,” said Gilbert Collins, director of global health programs and co-director of CHW. “While virtual work is valuable and rewarding, on-site internships allow students to more deeply engage with local cultures and stakeholders.”

These fully funded internships, open to all Princeton undergraduate and graduate students, enrich academic coursework in meaningful ways. Students gain an enlightened perspective on global health while formulating ideas for additional research, advanced education, and careers.

Safiya Topiwala looking into microscope

Safiya Topiwala '24 inspects cells in a Fiocruz lab.

Visiting Students at Work

In July, a CHW staff team visited student interns at two new partner organizations: The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), a health research and development institution in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and UNICEF South Africa, based in the capital city of Pretoria. The meetings revealed extraordinary student work and eye-opening experiences.

In many cases, the internships exposed students to the practical side of global health for the first time. “I’ve traveled abroad but had never worked or studied in another country,” noted Michelle Wang ’23, a Chemistry concentrator pursuing a certificate in global health and health policy (GHP). “The internship at Fiocruz brought to life the things we read in class and helped me understand what global health looks like in the real world.”

For periods of eight to 10 weeks, CHW-sponsored interns collaborated with clinicians, scientists, and scholars to assess and elevate public health. For example, Wang investigated the impact of natural disasters on the mental and physical health of Brazilian citizens and developed strategies for building stronger, more resilient communities. Also at Fiocruz, Safiya Topiwala ’24, a Molecular Biology concentrator pursuing a GHP certificate, studied how leprosy is diagnosed and treated in Brazilian clinics while also conducting laboratory research. “This was my first experience with hands-on experimentation since the start of the pandemic,” she said. “It was really fulfilling to see a bottle in the lab with my name on it – and then to see ‘my’ cells proliferate under the microscope after problem-solving and making changes. This kind of research could improve our understanding of leprosy and how to manage infectious diseases in a developing country.”

Other Fiocruz interns worked in the institution’s technical-scientific unit and at its hospital for women, children and adolescents, where they examined issues related to health and the environment or shadowed physicians caring for patients with high-risk pregnancies.

“There is a lot to be learned about health equity when you visit a country with a unified public health system,” said Johnson Lin ’25, who is considering a concentration in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. “The health care system in Brazil is a lot different than the one we have in the United States. In Brazil, health care insurance is available to everyone, whether you’re homeless or live in the richest communities.”

Ariza Francisco, an MPA candidate at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, spent her summer at UNICEF South Africa. Interestingly, Francisco’s first interaction with UNICEF occurred in 2013, when her home country – the Philippines – was struck by a devastating typhoon that killed thousands of people. UNICEF was among the first responders on the ground, which influenced her desire to support the agency’s mission of bettering children’s lives.

During her internship, Francisco, who is concentrating in international development and urban policy, analyzed national immunization data to identify challenges, barriers and bottlenecks facing unvaccinated children in South Africa. Her in-depth analysis and recommendations were ultimately presented to the country’s highest health advisory committee, providing input to strengthen the country’s immunization program.

“This summer, I learned how important immunization is to global health. It’s our first touchpoint with infants, children, and sometimes mothers,” she said. “Unvaccinated children are among our most vulnerable populations, probably at risk for malnutrition and lacking other health care services.” She emphasized how improving the country’s immunization rates, through research and well-informed community initiatives, could reduce the prevalence of preventable diseases, such as measles and polio, while enhancing the overall health and wellbeing of South African families.

Ariza Francisco

Ariza Francisco, MPA candidate at the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, spent her summer at UNICEF South Africa.

Shaping Lives  at Home and Abroad

CHW’s Internships in Global Health program aims not only to provide meaningful summer engagement opportunities, but also to inspire future academic and professional work in the global health sphere. Interns typically return to Princeton with a broader view of global health and a renewed sense of purpose. Some students feel more confident about their chosen field of study while others set forth on an entirely new path.

Tiffany Tsai ’25, an intended Molecular Biology concentrator, rekindled her childhood ambitions. After losing her grandfather to cancer at the age of four, she developed a curiosity about medicine and a quest for battling disease. Her summer internship in Brazil increased that resolve, leaving her more determined to improve public health and bridge the gap between modern medicine and vulnerable communities.

Joan Perez ’23, a Medical Anthropology concentrator pursuing a GHP certificate, and Nhuquynh Nguyen ’23, a Philosophy concentrator pursuing a certificate in Neuroscience, affirmed a passion for maternal-child health. “Working in a public hospital has fueled my desire to open a free health care clinic in the United States or South America, where I could impact thousands of lives in low-income communities,” said Perez. Nguyen rejuvenated her vigor for women’s health care and advocacy, particularly within the realm of reproductive rights. In fact, she hopes to apply insights from her research in Brazil to her work with the Princeton Students for Reproductive Justice organization on campus.

Across the board, students emphasized that their summer internships would have profound, long-lasting effects, personally and professionally.

“I’ve learned that good health care – in all settings – starts with compassion,” added Topiwala, who observed a simple “beauty” in showing people that you care. The aspiring physician noted that she will bring that lesson to her future medical practice and all of her pursuits in life.

Summer 2023 Internships

Students can visit CHW’s Global Health Program website for more information about the Internships in Global Health program. Videos highlighting the visits to Fiocruz and UNICEF will be posted in the coming weeks. Details about Summer 2023 internship opportunities will be available in November.