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Review: Harvard Global Health Conference (Day 1)

Last year, I participated in the 4th Annual Harvard College Global Health and Leadership Conference, and as a shy kid who often had trouble making connections with others, this experience truly made a difference on me, as I met so many like-minded students that I immediately connected with. For days afterwards, I was raving about this conference to my friends and family, so when I saw the opportunity to attend the 5th Annual Harvard College Global Health and Leadership Conference, I immediately signed up. This year was a virtual event, and there were around 50 students who attended, which is a significant drop from last year, which had over 600 students. Nevertheless, let’s see how the event went!

In the beginning, we started out with an introduction to the board as well as a poll about our grade levels and regions. The theme this year is Global Collaboration in Immunology and Vaccines, so the board members began introducing the conference, including the aim, agenda, and rules. The goal of this conference is to integrate the interests of all students to highlight the importance of public health.

Image Credits: @harvardcollegevision

Sukone (임혜민) – Founder of Olaga and Paradox

The first speaker was 임혜민, who is the founder of Olaga, a Korean fashion brand that works on creating jobs and opportunities for South Korea. They are a sponsor of Harvard GHLC, and today he wanted to talk about advocacy in global health. He began by describing his dream of being a leader, as he didn’t feel like being employed was what he was aiming for. However, he didn’t have a budget for a startup, so when he founded Olaga, he wanted to make money even though it wasn’t his passion to sell t-shirts. That led him to create a company to make a global impact, leading to his second company Paradox. He noticed that many visually impared people couldn’t check the time with a normal watch, so he created a watch where the time and date can be felt using the vibrations that signal the time when the user feels the watch.

As for marketing, he wanted to use social media and the marketing budget of his company to help others. His parting words were to let us know that as high school students, being employed is a decent goal for some, but by using your creativity and leadership skill, you can make the world a better place by creating jobs for others. He also said that having a business idea that helps global health as a young person is an important step to take. One question was about the greatest barriers in social entrepreneurship. He said that he wanted to inspire youth, since being inspired by others at a young age helped him gain ideas to start his business.

For me, his talk inspired me because I’ve had similar goals for my future to start my own company instead of being employed, but I was afraid that this was too high risk to try entrepreneurship. However, with 임혜민 describing how he took his leap of faith to start his company and pursue his dream, this inspires me to have confidence in my own dreams of starting a business.

Image Credits: @harvardcollegevision

Nikita Lledo, Lisa van der Sluijs, and Celina Hollmichel – Leaders of First-Year International Program (FIP) at Harvard University

As an international student from Johannesburg, Nikita wanted to speak about how her experience as an international student integrates with global health as she sees differing resources. She began her talk by sharing a video from a recent Harvard electrical engineering graduate, Nicolas Weninger, who integrated his love for electrical engineering with social impacts. The company he works for, Zipline, delivers drugs and medical supplies to hospitals which would otherwise not be able to receive supplies. The video showed the process for how each package of supplies is sent by launching it with a unique glider.

Lisa described how her life has changed in her gap year back home in Germany. During this time, she volunteered at a food bank, but she noticed that there are significant hygiene guidelines to balance between safety and distributing food. The pandemic has exacerbated disparities between the rich and the poor, as well as between countries. She stated that the poor are forced to decide between their safety and their food, which leads to less people coming to food banks in fear of their safety.

Celina talked about how the lack of a support network for mental health during this time affects students, especially as international students who have traveled home due to restrictions often feel disconnected from both hometown friends and friends from the college campus.

I was fascinated by the video on Zipline’s operations, as I found it interesting that through technology and medical research, companies can help improve healthcare in an interconnected world. This also further draws from the idea of the previous speech, as it shows how companies can strive to make social change through company operations.

Image Credits: @harvardcollegevision

Leah and Wren Green – Founders of Forthcoming, a platform for young women to explore sexual education

Their organization, Forthcoming, was started a year ago when Leah and Wren met each other in college. They had felt uneasy as women due to the experiences they had faced, so they wanted to redefine sexual education to empower women. Currently, they are planning on creating a coursebook for sexual education and reaching their goal of what they described as a “Reddit board of sharing their experiences” to facilitate a sense of unity and understanding. They believe that the current sexual education taught in America is very male-centric and focused on anatomy, so they want to make female sexuality more comfortable and open to talk about. As the organization is still very new, their ideas and goals aren’t solidified yet, but they want to help improve understanding of sexuality and help people communicate their thoughts to the world.

This issue is important to address, but I felt like the speech was a bit unstructured and spontaneous, and they seemed a bit unprepared. However, I do think that changing sex education is a great way to change the culture regarding sexuality. With their talk on giving women autonomy over their bodies, this reminded me of the culture of prioritizing appearance in women, as women are often shamed for having autonomy over their bodies in the media, so it is important to change the unequal shame associated with it.

Image Credits: @harvardcollegevision

When Global Meets Local: The College Health Response to a Pandemic with Dr. Giang Nguyen

Dr. Giang Nguyen – Executive Director of Harvard Health Services

He began his talk by discussing the need for realistic expectations for the community during the pandemic. Harvard Health Services provides care for a wide variety of people, from local students to international students to retirees. The pandemic took a huge mental toll on not just students, but faculty, maintenance staff, postdocs, and other employees. It was important for Harvard to support travelers and community members that were living abroad. In March, Harvard made the difficult decision to close campus and have students move out. They were one of the first campuses to take this action, and this was because they knew it would be more dangerous to have students come back from spring break rather than moving out before spring break. By June of 2020, research labs were reopened, since many of these labs were critical to researching important information about the COVID-19 virus. However, universities were a secret weapon against the pandemic during this time – health service workers at universities had experience with outbreaks of meningitis, mumps, Zika, and more on campus, so they knew how to control the outbreak. Now, Harvard Health Services will be offering vaccines every week for community members to help improve vaccination and community health. At Harvard, there are a group of experts who are tracking COVID-19 virus variants that may be of concern, and currently there are four variants: the UK variant, South African variant, Brazil variant, and the California variant. When Harvard launched the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness that was unprecedented and allowed scientists to share data that made significant strides in combating the pandemic. This collaboration was critical for the knowledge and information that helped shape decisions in global health.

Image Credits: @harvardcollegevision

Medical Racism Panel with Dr. Marie Louise Jean-Baptiste and Dr. Claudine Moïse

Dr. Marie Louise Jean-Baptiste – Internal Medicine Specialist and Associate Professor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School

Dr. Claudine Moïse – Clinical Psychologist and Program Officer for Center for Health Equity Education and Advocacy (CHEEA)

The medical racism panel started out with introductions, and Dr. Jean-Baptiste discussed how she grew up in Haiti while Dr. Moïse grew up in Nassau, Bahamas to Haitian parents. They met each other at a Health Equity, Social Justice, and Advocacy program, and ever since then, they have worked well together as they described it, “partners in crime.” As an interactive activity, Dr. Jean-Baptiste and Dr. Moïse asked what we knew or have heard about Haiti, Haitian culture, or Haitian people. To respond to what students brought up, they showed a video of Haiti about how the Haitians were angry at Americans for bullying Haiti and perpetuating negative stereotypes about them. After that, Dr. Moïse discussed the importance racial and ethnic socialization, which involves Black and other ethnic minority youth having meaningful conversations with adult figures about the importance of their cultural identity. This prepares young children for the issues that they may face as a racial or ethnic minority and to take pride in their culture.

Dr. Jean-Baptiste highlighted the citadel in Haiti, which is one of the wonders of the world and it was built to provide solace for the Haitians after they faced struggles at the first independent Black republic. They also discussed important figures in Haitian history, which includes Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessaline, Marie-Claire Heureuse Felicité, Edwidge Danticat, Cécile Fatiman and more. They described the significance of the Haitian flag after liberation from colonialism. With the rich history of Haiti, Haiti was colonized by France, who brought slaves over to Haiti. The French took away all the resources and exploited the Haitians, until Haiti was liberated in 1804. However, a series of unlucky disasters, including earthquakes, food shortages, and cholera outbreaks, were difficult challenges that Haiti faced after independence. Today, the impact of this trauma is still being seen today as skin bleaching and straightening hair are seen in Haiti as well as in many different places as a way of following western culture and rejecting their culture.

But how do we bridge the gap in healthcare in Haiti? In 2003, Dr. Jean-Baptiste along with a nurse and case worker created a diabetic group to improve peer to peer education and patient education and empowerment. This is because while Haitians make up a small percentage of patients with diabetes, Haitians had poorer diabetes outcomes than any other groups. In addition, a medical student created a videotape that recorded patient and provider interviews, and this helped improve patient empowerment and understanding of diabetes. They also created a culturally-tailored cooking workshop that was very popular among patients. Dr. Jean-Baptiste and Dr. Moïse also started a radio advocacy program that discusses important medical topics called UDH/Kwen sante: Radio Advocacy & Awareness Saves Lives, and this helps spread information to Haitians, including to those who cannot read. They also highlighted the misconceptions about voodoo, as voodoo was intended as a way to honor the Earth and important to the culture of Haiti, not what people believe about voodoo being “dark magic.”

This was definitely one of my favorite presentations today. Dr. Jean-Baptiste and Dr. Moïse were both incredibly passionate and knowledgeable people, and they brought new perspectives and discussions about the rich cultural history of Haiti, and integrated this with healthcare initiatives that they undertook to help the community. One theme that was prevalent throughout all of the speeches today was that in order to help healthcare in a community, it’s important to understand and integrate the culture of the community in order to improve trust in the system. It’s also critical that the interventions don’t try to “colonize” the area, which means to make the community dependent on aid from other countries.

Image Credits: @harvardcollegevision

Partners in Health: Improving Health Care for Impoverished Populations with Dr. Paul Farmer

Dr. Paul Farmer – Medical Anthropologist and Physician, Co-founder of Partners in Health

Surprisingly, Dr. Farmer knew Dr. Jean-Baptiste, so we began by hearing about how they knew each other. They met 38 years ago when they were both new and recently graduated medical school students working on a contact tracing project when there was a tuberculosis outbreak in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Dr. Farmer spoke a bit of Creole, so he connected with Dr. Jean-Baptiste when they were visiting the patients’ homes to ask about who they may have been in contact with. In his talk, he discussed his unique ideas about his motivations for pursuing medicine. When he tried to help in places that were clinical deserts, meaning places without adequate medical supplies, he didn’t know how to help so he just copied what others did, which was to invest in training and education. However, afterwards, he developed a true direction for how to make an impact in global health, which led him to work on vaccine equity.

When he first began teaching using case studies, he was skeptical of the method. But after a while, he found that every time he taught a case study, he learned something new, so he realized that faculty, students, and colleagues were all important for learning from unique experiences. They discussed that due to the mistrust and misinformation, vaccine distribution and control of the pandemic has not been going well in Haiti. He also stressed the importance of young high school students being involved in activism and social issues, and he stated that is impressed by this level of knowledge among youth nowadays. Growing up, he acknowledges that he did not have a proper understanding of healthcare, so he has changed his perspective significantly since then, and he is glad that students are now engaging themselves in gaining knowledge. With a question about differences in culture, Dr. Farmer states that reasonable mistrust in government and medicine should not be dismissed as superstition and ignorance, and instead, we should embrace cultural humility to bring medical interventions to places where there is mistrust in medicine.

Image Credits: @harvardcollegevision

Rabsa Sikder – Chair of Harvard College Minority Association of Premedical Student

At Harvard College, this organization is focused on diversifying the workforce by guiding premedical students of color and the LGBTQ+ community by providing these students with connections and mentorship. One program they have is the physician shadowing program, which partners with physicians of color to provide shadowing opportunities for minority students. They also have the student mentorship program, where premedical college students mentor high school students interested in medicine. There are many other programs and events for premedical students, so Harvard MAPS is a great opportunity for female, racial and ethnic minority, and LGBTQ+ students!

Image Credits: @harvardcollegevision

Global Health and Infectious Diseases: Work as a Physician During the Pandemic with Dr. Louise Ivers

Dr. Louise Ivers – Infectious Disease Specialist at the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Global Health and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School

Dr. Ivers was from Ireland, although she came over to the United States for her residency. She didn’t expect to stay in the United States, but her work was so fascinating that she decided to stay. Part of this was because of her research in Haiti where she treated HIV. While she was with a non-profit organization, she worked on getting the treatment to the Haitians along with the Haitian doctors. During the cholera epidemic in Haiti, she worked with her colleague to treat cholera there. After that, she moved back to Boston, although until the pandemic hit, she would frequently travel to Haiti to work with her colleagues there. She saw that people that were essential workers who were less likely to be able to stay at home were disproportionately people of color, which shows that the policies designed for the pandemic are unequal.

She said that everything she learned about social justice is from Haiti, so she is incredibly grateful for that experience. For her, global health means being an advocate for change given whatever power and position that you have. We need young people to engage on a global level, and she states that despite the overwhelming issues in the world, young people shouldn’t be scared by making change, because young people can change the world. In a question about comparing knowledge to a currency with the current situation in research, Dr. Ivers states that even though oftentimes what we consider as practical knowledge is prioritized, there are many other types of knowledge, such as cultural knowledge and experience that makes a difference in helping global health, especially in finding what help is truly needed instead of helping in a “colonialism” manner.

That’s it for the first day of the Harvard VISION Global Health and Leadership Conference!

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