Transforming public health through social innovation

Portraits of the eight Harvard Chan School Cheng Fellows
Top row, from left: Gu, Lorch, Houghton, Chua. Bottom row, from left: Hay, Jean Pierre, Wynne, Nigam.

September 9, 2022 – Creating educational opportunities at farms in China to help individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Setting up social services in hospital emergency departments for patients who are experiencing housing instability or homelessness. Improving reproductive health education in rural Haiti to fight gender inequity. These are just a few of the innovative projects launched by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health students who have been awarded the 2022 New World Social Innovation Fellowship.

Of the 16 students across Harvard who received the fellowship, given by the Social Innovation Change Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, eight are from Harvard Chan School. The fellowship provides students committed to addressing pressing social problems in new and creative ways—known as Cheng Fellows—with mentoring, seed funding, and other opportunities.

Harvard Chan School Cheng Fellows

Sook Ning Chua, MPH ’23, is the founder of Relate Malaysia, a non-profit that delivers accessible and affordable mental health services throughout the country. “We’re passionate about education and empowerment in Malaysia, so that everyone can be aware of the importance of mental health,” she said. “It is important to me that anyone who needs help should get it, and that mental health is seen as a fundamental human right for all.”

Mengti Gu, MPH ’23, saw that during the COVID-19 lockdown in China, individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and intellectual disabilities (ID) experienced increased emotional and behavioral challenges when rehabilitation facilities closed. Recognizing that farms provide a slow-paced and stimulating environment, Gu founded FarmTime to provide individuals with educational and employment services. “Our work focuses on building a win-win and sustainable partnership between local farms and rehab facilities, so that quality and affordable services will be accessible to the ASD/ID community,” she said.

Samantha Hay, MPH ’23, plans to start a non-profit to connect patients in hospital emergency rooms who are housing-insecure or homeless with social services. “The COVID-19 pandemic started in the middle of my residency training, where I worked in an academic hospital in Chicago in one of the poorest zip codes in the country,” she said. “I was struck by the system’s inability to create safe discharge plans for patients, especially COVID-19-positive housing-insecure and homeless patients.”

Adele Houghton, DrPH ’23, developed the software tool ArchEPI. “Currently, designers are bombarded with information about how buildings influence human health in the abstract, but no technical guidance on how to translate that information into strategies,” she said. In response, ArchEPI brings together open-source data about neighborhood environments, demographics, and health, which helps designers to promote community health, climate resilience, and social justice.

Tayana Jean Pierre, MPH ’23, founded Sante Tifi, a non-profit that works in the rural areas of Haiti to deliver reproductive health education, combat gender-based violence, and support women entrepreneurs. “Our goal is to break cultural barriers and fundamentally shift Haitian culture to establish a gender equitable society, where young girls and women are given the same opportunities as men,” she said.

Tobias Lorch, MPH ’23, is focusing on the problem that every year, around half a million tons of medical products are discarded because of their premature expiration dates, even though the majority are still safe and potent. “I believe that the world is in a situation in which we can no longer afford to waste resources,” he said. By improving how expiration dates are managed, Lorch aims to mitigate the negative consequences that predominantly affect poor countries, including reduced medical treatment options, financial losses, and public health risks of hazardous medical waste.

Amber Nigam, SM ’23, co-founded the tech start-up with Jie Sun, SM ’22. The company’s software tool uses artificial intelligence to track, predict, and intervene in the health of patients with diabetes. Ultimately, the tool aims to help health care providers and insurance companies improve treatment outcomes. “My dad had unmanaged diabetes for 25 years and I have seen the daily struggles of the diseases,” Nigam said. “Our goal is to impact as many people as possible.”

Keona Wynne, PhD ’23, founded CommUnity Cares to improve preventive and primary care, as well as reduce the incidence of chronic diseases, in Black American communities. “I was inspired to found CommUnity Cares after completing Boston Vaccine Day, where I worked with a team to host a community festival to promote and provide access to COVID-19 vaccines,” she said. “I wanted to create a company that embraces positive health as vital toward closing Black-White health disparities.”

Jessica Lau