May 10, 2013 — Yaendy Matos, a student at Fenway High School in Boston, says she is interested in a medical career but the field of public health has not been on her radar. “We don’t know what public health is. We’re just checking it out,” Matos said, as she sat with her friends in the Kresge cafeteria at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). Matos was among about 60 Boston and Cambridge high school students from diverse backgrounds who attended the first “Why Public Health? Youth and Public Health Conference,” sponsored by HSPH and the School’s Office of Diversity on April 26, 2013.
There are too few opportunities for high school students to learn about public health and engage with professionals in the field, according to conference co-directors Claire Perkins, SM2 Health Policy and Management, and Jason Park, SM2 Epidemiology, student ambassadors for the Office of Diversity. “When most high school students think of jobs in health care, they only think of physicians and RNs. It is time we change that!” Perkins said.
“Public health often goes unrecognized,” keynote speaker David Hemenway, professor of health policy and management and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, told the students. He compared the work of public health professionals to that of the nearly invisible elves in a popular children’s storybook who churn out shoes for a shoemaker while the shoemaker sleeps.
Hemenway described for the attendees some key public health advances over the last century. As one example, he told how deaths and injuries from car accidents have declined considerably since the introduction of safety enhancements such as the designated driver campaign (launched in the U.S. by HSPH to curb drunk driving), seat belts, driver education, safer car interiors, and highway speed bumps.
Public health is more prevention-oriented than traditional medicine, which is more geared to treating sick patients, Hemenway said. “The focus in public health is making sure people don’t get sick or injured,” he said. He described his passion for his own work in injury and violence prevention. The students appeared surprised to learn that among youth ages 12-19 in the U.S., the major killer is homicide, not disease.
Monica Wang, instructor in HSPH’s Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, encouraged the students to start volunteering for local public health initiatives, ranging from Sociedad Latina, which works in partnership with Latino youth and families to end destructive cycles of poverty, health inequities, and lack of opportunity in the Boston community, to the Boston Collaborative for Food and Fitness. Ian Lapp, associate dean for strategic educational initiatives at HSPH, gave students an introduction to public health.
A number of HSPH students discussed public health specialties. They included Lear Brace, Lucas Chartier, Suzanne Brundage, Iny Jhun, Phillips Loh, Andrea Lopez, Perrine Marcenac, Natalie Meyers, Aaron Pervin, Sebastian Rodriguez, Nakul Singh, Rachel Susaneck, and Susan Tuite.
Following the talks, HSPH students Pervin, Chartier, Lopez, and Ali Chisti led students on tours of the School and the Longwood Medical Area.
Fenway High student Jude Baptiste said before the event he didn’t know much about public health. After hearing some talks he said, “I’m impressed by the emphasis of public health on prevention.”