It’s the end of another academic year at Rutgers, and students are reflecting on their educational experiences as they plan for the future.
Many soon-to-be Rutgers graduates’ transcripts include a global health experience, earned through coursework, internships, service learning, research, study abroad, and clinical education. As a result, these students have gained skills and perspectives that can benefit them professionally and personally. Whether it’s an appreciation for interdisciplinary problem solving or the realization that environment and culture influence health outcomes, the lessons learned through global health education can be applied broadly.
To help illustrate some of the possibilities, three students talk about their academic experiences in food science, computational and integrative biology, and nursing, and how global health has played a role.
It’s all connected
Not knowing exactly what your career path will be can be stressful for college students. But for food science major Parker Herrera, it’s an opportunity to do what he enjoys: experiment.
He loved his part-time job at The Spice & Tea Exchange in Haddonfield, New Jersey, where he helped create and sell custom spice blends and teas. And though he hasn’t officially graduated yet, he already started a full-time job at iTi Tropicals in Lawrenceville. He works in the samples department to help global wholesale clients try out iTi’s imported tropical and exotic fruit purees, juices, and concentrates for potential use in recipes and other concoctions. The company’s products, he explains, can be used as ingredients in many foods and beverages, and some also are used in personal care items such as shampoo and lotion.
As part of his education at Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, he was involved with projects that helped him to appreciate the interconnectedness of many disciplines, especially within the realm of global health. While working on a semester-long assignment in the course “Science and Technical Writing,” he developed a prototype of a hydroponic tabletop vegetable garden that could help families living in Philadelphia’s food deserts, or regions where a supermarket is more than a mile away. Throughout this experience, he explored the dynamics associated with addressing this local need.
“How to find out which families want and need help, how to contact them and distribute materials to them, legal issues associated with growing and providing food to people, how to store and keep track of supplies—all of these are parts of the puzzle that would play a role in implementing this kind of solution,” he says, noting that he also became more aware of the different factors that influence health issues such as food insecurity and malnutrition. “I realized that, in order to address these problems, you have to work to improve the inequities that are causing them, and also work through logistics that aren’t directly related to putting food on someone’s table. That was eye-opening for me.”
Modeling good health
When Zheming An was in high school in China, he entered a national academic competition in the biology and mathematics categories, because those were his strengths. But it wasn’t until he was in college that he decided to pursue a career in biomedicine by way of math. To further his goals, he enrolled in the computational and integrative biology doctoral program in 2016 at Rutgers University–Camden, where he has been conducting research on the application of mathematical models to address health issues, such as sleep disorders and tuberculosis.
Motivated to create new knowledge in the field, he focused his dissertation on the use of quantitative metrics related to humans’ sleep cycles and circadian rhythms to identify biological indicators of disease. An explains that his broader research aim includes developing an objective tool that medical providers can use to better understand the causes of their patients’ health problems. For example, mathematical modeling techniques may be able to detect whether a person’s high blood pressure is influenced by an imbalance in their circadian rhythm. Such an imbalance can be caused by jet lag or shift work, so many people throughout the world are potentially at risk.
The objective data that An’s mathematical models aim to create would allow for health-promoting interventions to be targeted more directly. Such a development could have a great impact on the world’s workforce and the health sector overall. Possible outcomes include creating greater access to precision medicine, reducing reliance on costly drug therapies, and providing more impetus to prioritize preventive care. An is graduating this month with a Ph.D. and intends to pursue a career in academic research.
Nursing student Mary Velahos’s first clinical education experience was in Tanzania, a country that’s roughly 7,500 miles away from New Jersey. During her short time there, she gained insights that contribute to her overall approach to health care.
“Tanzania taught me that a human is ever-shaped by their environment, and a person’s health is intrinsically tethered to their environment and to the resources and opportunities that reside in that environment,” says Velahos, who graduates this month from the School of Nursing and plans to begin her professional career as a floor nurse in an academic hospital. She recalls that, in Tanzania, many residents walk to most destinations, which affects their health in different ways. Walking is exercise that has a positive impact on cardiovascular health. However, having fewer transportation options may influence their decisions when it comes to health-promoting behaviors. For example, it may not be easy for Tanzanians who rely on walking to access nutritious food options, or a mother may choose not to attend a medical appointment because she doesn’t want her children to walk a long distance with her. “Now, for each person I meet, whether at the hospital where I work in New Brunswick or at the vaccine clinic where I volunteered in Newark, I realize that what underlies their ability to be healthy and engage in health-promoting activities may have less to do with their geography and personal merit, and much more to do with the environment in which they are living.”
She encourages future generations of professionals to embrace global health ideals, no matter what field they’re in. “We all can start thinking about ways to become politically and socially active within our careers,” she says. “Even if you don’t want to pursue a traditional health profession, like nursing, medicine, or pharmacy, it is so important to consider what actually makes a population healthier. Educators, policy makers, nutritionists, mental health practitioners, and so many more professionals can and should play a larger role in global health. I believe our generation can spearhead that!”