Undergraduates get taste of public health in summer programs

Summer Epidemiology students
2014 Summer Program in Epidemiology students

August 25, 2014 — In only two months as an intern in a lab at Harvard School of Public Health, Erika Espinosa believes she learned more than she could have in a semester of undergraduate courses. The Summer Program in Biological Sciences in Public Health (BPH), Espinosa said, “taught me the real definition of hard work” as she performed molecular biology research that could have implications for obesity treatment.

The laboratory-based program provides the opportunity for undergraduates to design and carry out a research project examining a biological science question that is relevant to disease prevention, and culminates in a poster session, where Espinosa—a biomedical sciences student at the University of Texas at Brownsville—was among 10 students who presented their work on August 7, 2014 to an audience of HSPH faculty and graduate students.

A range of opportunities

Espinosa is one of hundreds who have spent their summers at the School while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in a range of disciplines. As public health is interdisciplinary, the students selected for these programs often come from a variety of backgrounds, from life sciences to math to sociology. In addition to BPH, organized by the Division of Biological Sciences, students can participate in the Summer Program in Biostatistics and Computational Biology, the Summer Program in Epidemiology, or Fostering Advancement & Careers through Enrichment Training in Sciences (a cross-departmental program known as FACETS).

The summer programs are not uniform; they vary in length, content, and subject matter, with some more focused on lectures and teaching than the laboratory research approach of BPH. But their unifying theme is one of purpose: They help HSPH strengthen the educational pipeline for students from groups which are under-represented in science—including first generation college students, disabled students, students from low-income backgrounds, and students from under-represented racial or ethnic minorities.

In addition to honing laboratory research skills and scientific knowledge, the programs feature activities to increase student competitiveness for graduate programs such as GRE prep, and opportunities for participants to build and expand their research network with all members of the HSPH community through social events, panels and roundtable discussions. Each program has its own unique culminating event, such as BPH’s poster session or the biostatistics symposium—which featured a keynote delivered by a summer program alumna.

Global opportunities, too

For the students itching to explore the global scope of public health, the School offers the HSPH Multidisciplinary International Research Training (MIRT) Program. Open to underrepresented minority students—both graduate and undergraduate—the program was created 20 years ago at the University of Washington by Michelle Williams, now chair of the Department of Epidemiology. Williams brought the program with her to HSPH when she joined the School’s faculty in 2011.

After a brief on-campus orientation, MIRT fellows are placed at sites around the world, from Ethiopia to Thailand to Chile to New Zealand, and receive research training while working on collaborative projects that address health and health disparities in these countries.

Alvin Tran, a current HSPH doctoral student in nutrition, researched the prevalence of metabolic syndrome (the constellation of risk factors for cardiovascular disease) among working Ethiopian adults as a 2010 MIRT fellow in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He performed data analysis alongside Ethiopian public health researchers, and stayed with a host family who helped him become better-acquainted with Ethiopian culture, teaching him to roast coffee and make injera, an Ethiopian flatbread. “The MIRT Program not only gave me an opportunity to strengthen my research skills in a foreign country, but also provided me an avenue to become a culturally competent leader in public health,” he said. Tran’s first peer-reviewed publication was a result of his work in the MIRT Program.

To date, the MIRT Program has trained nearly two hundred students, and 13 alumni are current faculty members at US research institutions. They have presented some 170 research papers at conferences and published about 100 papers in peer-reviewed journals. Tran said that his experience “ultimately helped solidify my decision to pursue a doctor of science degree in public health nutrition.”

Mutual benefit

These programs benefit both the students and HSPH, said Meredith Rosenthal, associate dean for diversity at the School. They prepare a type of student that is underrepresented in graduate science programs to become applicants for doctoral degrees. The programs also help the School identify students who come from different perspectives and backgrounds and who may already have an interest in a career in public health—or will develop an interest through the program.

“Multiple perspectives are required to see the root of health problems. It’s essential for our public health work that we embody diversity,” Rosenthal explained.

Espinosa’s motivations for pursuing doctoral study in public health echo this sentiment. “I want to work on diseases that are prevalent among Hispanics, in my own family,” she said. “Having learned from people from so many different backgrounds will help me do that.”

The future of public health

Bringing undergraduates to the School increases the profile of public health as a potential career path. The students are exposed to the many potential careers in health outside of medicine, and have the opportunity to explore how the field intersects with their own passions.

Melanie Mendez Vargas, a FACETS student, said the experience “opened my eyes to fields of health I didn’t know existed.” A senior biology major at the University of Puerto Rico at Aguadilla, she entered the program planning to pursue a career in pharmacy. But during the program, she said she “became fascinated with epidemiology,” and was excited to learn that there is a field of pharmacoepidemiology in which she could marry her interests.

“One of the indirect benefits of the summer programs is that their visibility on campus makes it clear to the whole School community—students, staff, faculty—that we are committed to diversity and inclusion at all levels of our work,” Rosenthal said. “And by preparing the summer students for doctoral study, we are also putting them on a path that we hope leads to more diverse faculty candidates in the future. Cultivating diversity and inclusion has long-term payoff.”

Pamela Gaddi’s trajectory proves that. She participated in the BPH program during the summer of 2003, and after earning her Ph.D. at Brown University and completing a postdoc, she returned to HSPH in the summers of 2013 and 2014 to serve as a mentor to the undergraduate interns.

“I wanted to give back to the program that gave me my start in science,” Gaddi said. “My experience here was transformative, and without it I would not have been nearly as prepared for graduate work.”

Rosenthal believes that former summer students have much to offer the School. “We’re learning a lot from these students—they’re helping make our diversity efforts more effective.”

Daphne Mazuz