May 1, 2020—While working toward her master of science in exposure science in the Department of Environmental Health, Haley Barravecchia has studied coral reef health in the Pacific island nation Kiribati, transitioned to remote learning amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and turned her home garage into a hot yoga studio. In a recent interview from her home in Mystic, Conn., she discussed her path to Harvard Chan School and what excites her about public health.
One of the most important things I’ve learned during my time at the School is that there’s no cookie-cutter formula to public health. It’s a field that touches every corner of the world and aspect of life. It can be the pandemic we’re currently going through. It can be making sure that people have access to healthy foods. It can be as simple as sharing exercise tips over Instagram.
Life as a public health student during a pandemic is fascinating, but I realize that’s a very privileged perspective. I’ve been really trying to reflect on the privilege of being at a world-renowned institution that has taught me about infectious disease modeling and outbreak responses. Having that education is informative, but it’s also a call to action and reinforces the importance of why I chose a scientific career in public health.
One of the reasons I came to Harvard Chan School was to have access to leading figures in public health while being in a city known for its medical expertise. I was working in New York City prior to my masters and there also is a phenomenal research community there. However, Boston, with its hospitals, universities, and industry, really does feel like the hub of the medical and public health world.
Over the course of my program, I traveled to Kiribati twice to conduct water- and fish-quality assessments as part of the Healthy Reefs and Healthy I-Kiribati project, which is led by co-PI Christopher Golden, assistant professor of nutrition and planetary health, and several other institutions. The project is studying the interaction between humans and reef ecosystems.
In Kiribati, I was able to work with the Kiribati government and Kiribati government fisheries officersto conduct toxicological assessments of heavy metals present in the water, in the algae, and in the fish. For instance, we were analyzing levels of mercury, which we know has negative health outcomes when consumed in high concentrations and is present in many fish. In a country like Kiribati, fish are a primary source of protein so it poses a real challenge. Moreover, the South Pacific, and Kiribati in particular, has a high prevalence of diabetes and obesity. Having access to high-quality, healthy reefs may influence the outcome of some of these factors. My second trip was funded by a Rose Service Learning Fellowship, and I was able to focus more on teaching fisheries officers sampling methods. It is important to recognize that Kiribati is severely impacted by the climate crisis, from coral bleaching to sea-level rise. But, they are also the most resilient people I have ever had the pleasure of working with.
The pandemic has largely shut down my research for the moment. All the samples are going to sit in the deep freezer for now, and that’s fine. I’ve been able to redirect my work to finishing school assignments, screen Harvard Health Service emails for COVID-19 cases and questions, and take some time to reflect on everything that is going on.
I miss the human interaction of being in a classroom, but the online transition has honestly been fine. Regardless of the pandemic, I think it’s clear that more schools and universities are using digital tools and this is a good time to test things out. There is of course a learning curve for everyone, but we are all learning together.
One thing that has helped me during this time of social distancing is taking advantage of long nature walks and free exercise and yoga videos online. My garage has been converted to a gym and hot yoga studio, which is a great outlet when Zoom meetings and classes become overwhelming.
One book I recommend is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Some people say it’s more self-help than fiction, but either way it is a fantastic journey about destiny. And it feels timely right now.
I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz, Sublime, and My Chemical Romance while at home. I’ve also been listening to the “Office Ladies” podcast, which is hosted by Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey from “The Office.” It is a hilarious behind-the-scenes look at the show.
The last movie I streamed was A Few Good Men. I had never seen it before. I have to say that I didn’t like it very much. I was frustrated with Tom Cruise the whole time. I think Demi Moore should have been the lead attorney.
photo: courtesy of Haley Barravecchia