Student Voices

Zephorah Bissoon

Zephorah Bissoon

Bloomberg Philanthropies

Class of 2022

Zephorah Bissoon

My applied experience at Bloomberg Philanthropies helped me apply the data analysis, research, and communication skills. I learned in class to inform global decision-making. It also broadened my understanding of public health career paths to see that there are many possibilities within the field that are tailored to my interests. Most importantly, it showed me that behind every statistic is a person, a face, a story, and knowing that you have improved even one life can bring an ever-lasting type of joy.

Jeremy Costin

Jeremy Costin

Contact Tracer, New York

Class of 2021

Jeremy Costin

I worked as a contact tracer for the state of New York. My role was pretty straight forward, I logged into my shift and was assigned either people who were exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 or people who traveled to New York from a state with a high number of coronavirus cases (which was most of the people I spoke with). Once contacts were assigned, we would call them and conduct an initial interview which included collecting some basic health information, explaining the basics of quarantine as well as signing people up for our daily monitoring program for their quarantine. During the interview, I would also answer any questions the contact had about quarantine or COVID-19. After the initial 

interview we would need to monitor our contacts for the duration of their quarantine, including making sure they answer their daily text or calling them for a daily check in. We also had daily trainings on a range of topics designed to help us in our job and connect to the contacts we will be speaking with (things like understanding Orthodox or Amish communities or other topics like cultural humility). We also had weekly team meetings with my small group of 15 contact tracers in order to bond as a team. 

What unexpected challenges did you encounter through this experience? 

Language barriers was one of the biggest challenges I faced. While we were able to use the language line it was very hard for the contacts to understand our message when working through an interpreter. Thankfully, we had two Spanish speaking contact tracers on my team so most Spanish speakers went to them but for the few I did interact with it was a very challenging experience to make sure they truly understood what they needed to do to successfully quarantine and for them to understand that we know that this is frustrating but we are here to help them. 

I also thought some of the features of the database we were using were annoying and could have been improved. The whole contact tracing system in the state was put together in just a matter of weeks so not everything was thought through in advance. One example of something that was difficult is that whenever you needed to check in on a contact that was not for an initial interview you needed to go into one que “all open and assigned contacts” and then search your name. It would have been much easier to just have one queue that says “Your open contacts.” While the system did continue to improve throughout the summer there were still annoying things that we had to deal with because the system was hastily put together due to the urgency of the pandemic. 

What did you learn about yourself through this experience? 

That while extremely important I do not want to be a contact tracer. During the experience I felt like I was going through the motions mostly and I want to do something where I will be able to think critically and solve complex problems on a daily basis. I also want a job where things can change daily while contact tracing for the most part my days were fairly predictable. 

How has your experience impacted your understanding of the field of public health? 

It showed me that contact tracing is a really important public health tool that is one of the most important ways to limit the spread of transmittable diseases. 

How do you think your time at JHU and/or in the PHS program has prepared you for doing this public health field work? 

While the work did not require any public health background (many of my coworkers did not have a public health background), I think my background in public health allowed me to understand more about the virus from the training course as well as better explain to the people over the phone the importance of quarantine. I also think that my time at JHU has helped me make better decisions in the moment and act with my best judgment in a given situation, which is a lot of what you have to do while talking to a contact in order to make sure the information goes to the right place. 

Sabrina Epstein

Sabrina Epstein

Class of 2021

Sabrina Epstein

Sabrina Epstein, Class of 2021, has dedicated much of her public health work to amplifying the voices of people with disabilities. She has been involved in disability advocacy for almost 8 years, and has worked on several policy projects in the areas of healthcare, police violence, and voter protection.  Sabrina served on the Maryland Democratic Party Voter Protection Committee, and she got to discuss that issue on NPR in late October, 2020.  More recently, the Washington Post, the Lily and the JHU Hub highlighted Sabrina for her work on a Vaccine Prioritization Dashboard, an online tracker that compares how states prioritize people with disabilities in their vaccine distribution plans.  Sabrina conceived of the idea herself when she realized how vastly different each states approach is, with different phases and different standards and definitions for determining when people qualify for the COVID-19 vaccine. She worked with her mentor, Bonnielin Swenor, director of the Johns Hopkins Disability Health Research Center, to develop the dashboard, in hopes that it provides a resource to help people with disabilities get vaccinated and serves as a reference tool to advocate for more equitable vaccine distribution.

Sabrina shared with the PHS staff what motivates her in her advocacy work: 

As a disabled person, I have seen how our health system fails disabled people every day. I want to fix it not just for myself, but for the millions of disabled people in the US.”

Sabrina also shared with us her perspective on disability rights as a public health issue:

In public health, we talk about the social determinants of health a lot. Disability is one population often left out of that discussion, but the framework applies to our experience well. People with disabilities are more likely to be low-income, less likely to have access to transportation, and experience increased stress due to discrimination. We know that all these factors affect health, and these determinants often affect people with disabilities uniquely.”

Archita Goyal

Archita Goyal

Class of 2021

Archita Goyal

Briefly name and describe your project (program)

Cards for Courage is an international 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded in April 2020 by two of my friends (Anna Chen and Elaine Chiao) and me. Our original mission was to provide emotional support to patients through hand-drawn and hand-written cards, but in light of COVID-19, we thought to shift our focus to healthcare workers who are working tirelessly on the frontlines to ensure the safety of our communities.

What drove/compelled/motivated you to start it?

As pre-med students, I think we often get caught up in filling out a mental checklist of things that need to get done so that we can get accepted to medical school. Do we have enough research experience? Volunteer hours? Shadowing experiences? However, among the millions of things that we are constantly juggling, the one thing that easily slips through the cracks is a simple, but extremely important question that we need to be asking ourselves – “What have I learned from all my experiences?”

One night, my friends and I started reflecting on our volunteering and shadowing experiences over the past couple of years. Comparing our experiences across a variety of departments and hospitals, we realized that something we had all seen far too many times was patients who would come without any family or friends by their sides. These patients are forced to navigate their illnesses on their own, without a strong support system in place. Realizing the impact that the smallest of gestures can have on a person’s life, the idea of Cards for Courage was born.

We wanted to create an organization that could provide continual emotional support to patients through hand-written and hand-drawn cards. By encouraging genuine human connections, we hope to show patients that they are important and cherished, while transforming healthcare into a more compassionate environment for everyone. In the future, we hope to develop and implement patient-centric programs in hospitals that can make an even larger impact. Due to COVID-19, we decided to shift our focus to providing cards to healthcare workers as a form of emotional support, and we are so grateful for all the volunteers who have helped us make an impact!

Ananya Kalahasti

Ananya Kalahasti

Capitol Hill office of Congressman Bobby Scott

Class of 2021

Ananya Kalahasti

Ananya worked as an APAICS general/legislative intern in the office of Congressman Bobby Scott (VA-03). A lot of her work was administrative, such as responding to constituent correspondence and obtaining signatures for legislation, but she also assisted with legislative research projects, attended briefings, and wrote recommendations to the Congressman.

“Issues like housing, nutrition, education, income, and environment are all issues that largely affect health within communities,” she says. “This internship gave me the opportunity to learn about these issues from experts in the context of policy change, and then connect these issues to public health impacts I had learned about in my classes.”

Highlights of the Internship

Ananya particularly enjoyed the public health briefings on the hill. One that stood out was a briefing on the President’s Malaria Initiative and advances taken to strengthen health infrastructure and response in response to Malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa. After working on malaria research in high school and at Hopkins, the briefing allowed her to connect with policy experts on an issue she has come to understand thoroughly from both a public health and a molecular biology perspective.

The staffers also pushed me to think like the decision maker and evaluate stakeholders when evaluating a bill. How would people in the district feel, or how would a particular committee or other representative feel about it? It’s forced me to become more articulate with my arguments and really understand why things that I’m passionate about, like equitable access to health, should matter and be important to other people.

Capitol Hill versus Single-Issue Advocacy

What fascinates me about Capitol Hill in particular is that you’re constantly surrounded by so many different topics and problem solvers working on different issues. You’re never forced to pick one issue to work on in depth, like you might be pushed to do in many private sector organizations that tend to do single-issue advocacy work. I’m grateful I was able to learn about an incredible array of topics related to public health that I’ve gained exposure to through my classes, but also got to go really deep into the issue of intersectional reproductive justice for my synthesizing experiment.

Jonathan Lee

Jonathan Lee

Contact Tracer, Delaware

Class of 2023

Jonathan Lee

As a contact tracer for Delaware, my home state, I conducted interviews with both index cases (positive COVID-19 cases) and possible contacts (individuals who have come in contact with index cases and symptomatic contacts). For index cases, I inform them that they have tested positive or are considered a probable positive based on their recent testing. I then have them walk me through their daily activities starting 2 days prior to their onset of symptoms. For possible contacts, I inform them that they have been exposed to someone who has test-ed positive, and if they are symptomatic, I have them walk me through their daily activities starting 2 days prior to their last contact with an index case. This information is then pieced together by the Delaware Department of Health, so they can track all individuals who have been exposed. I then record their health history and connect them with state-based resources that will assist with their isolation and quarantine. 

How do you think your time at JHU and/or in the PHS program has prepared you for doing this public health field work? 

It has allowed me to understand the purpose behind what we do as contact tracers. Collecting demographics such as age, race, location will allow us to examine which groups are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. This information will allow the state to allocate more resources in the future to combat issues such as food and housing insecurity and inadequate health care. 

How has your experience as a CT impacted your understanding of the field of public health? 

Through contact tracing, I’ve been able to see how social determinants of health affect rates of transmission for COVID-19. For most individuals, taking two weeks off to self-isolate and quarantine isn’t financially feasible, so they have no other option but to go to work. Additionally, many work places such as factories and food processing plants have employees work in close contact to one another. In Delaware, this is what contributed to 6 percent of our positive COVID-19 cases being poultry workers. Contact tracing has highlighted the inequalities that exist within my own community and has taught me that although we are all living through this pandemic, none of us are experiencing it the same way. 

What unexpected challenges did you encounter through this experience? 

To standardize the interviews, I was required to read a script verbatim. In theory, this would be a great idea, however, it often resulted in a lot of awkward moments for both myself and the respondent. For example, I’d have to ask a 94-year-old man if he was pregnant or clarify with a guardian that their toddler hasn’t smoked at least 100 cigarettes in their entire life. 

What did you learn about yourself through this experience?

I learned that contact tracing isn’t for me. I’d much rather serve as a patient advocate or volunteer with kids with neurological disorders because those experiences feel a lot more fulfilling. Don’t get me wrong, contact tracing is crucial for reducing the spread COVID-19, so if it seems like something you’d enjoy, go for it. Although I’ve made it seem like an awful job, I truly believe that the pros out-weigh the cons. A lot of people I call have no idea that they’re supposed to self-isolate, and a lot of them are in need of food and housing assistance. You’re directly serving your community and making a difference in the lives of the most susceptible. Also, you learn about a lot of cool restaurants and places to visit once social distancing guidelines are lifted.

Lucy Nielsen

Lucy Nielsen

Contact Tracer, Nebraska

Class of 2023

Lucy Nielsen

I worked as a contact tracer and data analyst at my local health department here in Nebraska all summer, and I’ll be continuing to do so this academic year! As part of the contact tracing team at my health department, I followed up with individuals who tested positive for COVID-19, gathered information about what their day-to-day life looked like in the two weeks leading up to their positive test, determined who they were in close contact with, and reached out to close contacts to let them know they needed to quarantine and monitor for symptoms. delivery, and work excuse letters, as necessary. 

What unexpected challenges did you encounter through this experience? 

We experienced super varied responses to our investigations. A lot of individuals were open to sharing contacts and information and abiding by the quarantine and isolation orders, but some just didn’t see the point. Nebraska never had a stay-at-home order or statewide mask mandate, and we often ran into individuals who thought public health was overstepping their powers. We at the health department are firm in our belief that contact tracing and quarantining is necessary to stop needless loss of life, but individuals who don’t work in public health may not always see it that way. On a more individual level, it could be very emotionally draining to look at COVID-19 data all day, read through death reports, see Facebook comments calling us liars, and to never get much mental time off. I didn’t experience this nearly as much as my coworkers putting in 80 to 110 hours every single week, but even I felt worn down. 

How do you think your time at JHU and/or in the PHS program has prepared you for doing this public health field work? 

I only took a couple public health courses before working as a CT, but Health Policy and Management specifically opened my eyes to the functions and powers of health departments. I really saw that come into play this summer. The PHS program really introduced me to the connectedness of the field of public health, something I certainly experienced. 

What did you learn about yourself through this experience? 

I learned that I’m much better at adapting than I thought I was! Everyday I’m learning something do and having to change how I do things at the office, and it’s been a super rewarding experience. 

How has your experience impacted your understanding of the field of public health? 

I definitely have a better understanding of the field of public health now than I did six months ago. It’s strange working in public health when it’s being put under a microscope like never before in my life time, so I’m really interested to see what will happen as this all begins to wind down. 

Nihaal Rahman

Nihaal Rahman

Class of 2021

Nihaal Rahman

Nihaal Rahman is looking forward to spending his year after graduation in Asia, as a Luce Scholar, a nationally competitive fellowship program sponsored by the Henry Luce Foundation which intends “to enhance the understanding of Asia among potential leaders in American society.” The Program provides stipends, language training, and professional placement based on background and interests for 15-18 Luce Scholars each year. We asked Nihaal, a double major in Public Health Studies and Environmental Science, about this exciting achievement. He filled us in on his background doing research and service work at Hopkins.

During your time at Hopkins, what particular experiences are you most proud of or excited by?

Working with the Center for a Livable Future for the past year has been incredibly exciting. I love how their work is focused on the intersections of sustainability and health, and I’ve learned a lot in my time working with them. Also, being on the executive board of HOPthon and fundraising for the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center year-round allows me to feel like I am truly having an impact on these children’s lives, and that’s an incredibly fulfilling and meaningful feeling to have. Additionally, my current internship in the Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities at the Maryland Department of Health has allowed me to see how governmental agencies address social determinants of health, and what kind of institutional programs are in place to promote health equity. I’ve gotten to learn a lot about the health demographics within Maryland, and I am currently working on a project to help promote vaccination rates in Muslim communities throughout Maryland.

What interested you in the Luce Scholars Program?

The emphasis on cohort and community was incredibly exciting for me. I am so eager to learn from my cohort who all have their unique perspectives and passions to bring to the Luce Scholars. Moreover, we have already been welcomed by Luce Scholar alumni in social media groups, so it’s amazing to see how the Luce Scholar family continues even after our year in Asia.

What are your plans for the 13-month fellowship?

I hope to find an organization in Asia that allows me to work on promoting children’s health, particularly through interventions focused on some of the social-structural factors in play. Built environments and their impacts on health have become an interest of mine, so I hope to learn more about social epidemiological methods and their applications for addressing built environments. Ultimately, I hope to expand my perspective on the sociocultural factors that impact children’s health.

What are your long-term goals in the Public Health field?

My long-term goal is to become a public health pediatrician that works on promoting children’s health from both a clinical and systematic lens. I hope to bring cross-cultural competency to the forefront of my work and leverage my position to make medicine and public health more culturally competent by expanding perspectives on health, particularly children’s health, through research and education.

Any advice for students interested in Fellowships like this?

I think that for anyone interested in a Fellowship like Luce, the first step is having a strong understanding of why you want to do such a program. Especially with public health, there are countless opportunities to go abroad and do global health work, so it’s important to be really mindful about what a certain Fellowship can offer you that you couldn’t find elsewhere.

Nihaal’s story was also featured on the Hub and the Henry Luce Foundation featured his biography.

Patrick Rao

Patrick Rao

Project Healthcare, Bellevue Hospital Center

Class of 2021

Patrick Rao

I completed my applied experience as a Project Healthcare volunteer in the emergency department at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York City. As a public hospital, Bellevue routinely cares for the city’s most vulnerable residents. My time there provided a real-world lesson in health disparities and how the social determinants of health that we learn about in our public health coursework, impacts the health and wellbeing of the patients we served.

Teagan Toomre

Teagan Toomre

Contact Tracer, Northern California

Class of 2023

Teagan Toomre

I worked as a contact tracer/case investigator in Northern California. In my county, these roles were combined, meaning that I interacted with both cases and their contacts. Each day, I attended first a county-wide then a team meeting to do over the caseload for the day. I then called my assigned cases, and then I called all of their contacts, referring them to resources, including quarantine housing, food and medication delivery, and work excuse letters, as necessary. 

What unexpected challenges did you encounter through this experience? 

Given the nature of the pandemic and rapid expansion of the COVID response unit, our protocols and software were changing constantly. Every time we finally felt like we understood how to do everything we needed, there would be a new software update or resource available that would change up our day completely. Everyone described it as “building a plane as it’s flying”, which is totally accurate! It required lots of flexibility and tenacity, and I really needed to lean on my colleagues for support with each new change. 

What did you learn about yourself through this experience? 

I learned that part of what makes work rewarding for me is being able to help people. I enjoyed feeling like I was making a difference, both within the health department and for the cases and contacts I interacted with. 

How has your experience impacted your understanding of the field of public health? 

I was able to see first hand how quickly the response to COVID was developed and how often it is updated as new information is learned. The ability to develop and rapidly deploy protocols across a broad population is something highly unique to public health. No one was prepared for this pandemic, but epidemiologists, healthcare workers, scientists, and so many more all came together and devoted their time to help control it. 

How do you think your time at JHU and/or in the PHS program has prepared you for doing this public health field work? 

While the training provided me with certain COVID-specific and county-specific information, having a background in public health allowed me to understand not just what we were doing, but why the protocols were developed as is. Knowing the methodology helped me engage more deeply with my work to stay interested. I was also able to be a resource to my colleagues, answering questions and providing clarity, as most of them had no background in healthcare or public health whatsoever. 

Serena Wang

Serena Wang

Class of 2021

Serena Wang

In March 2020, Serena joined a COVID-19 hackathon on a small team of public health and computer science students from JHU and Stanford. Their idea was one of the top concepts: COVIDsms, a text messaging platform that provides users with coronavirus information and relief based on their ZIP code. That includes crucial local news and statistics, provides an outlet for city officials to update residents, and gives out resources like local testing sites, food resources, or unemployment resources.

“One of the most pressing issues this pandemic has introduced is one of communication — with many wifi hubs no closed … people without internet access struggle to connect with the resources they need,” Serena says. “Just because communication and information dissemination is a privilege for vulnerable communities, it should not be dismissed. Efforts should be made to ensure that all individuals have access to information.”

The app is partnering with the city of San Marino, California, Covaid, the online platform that connections people to local mutual aid networks, and UCLA Against COVID-19, which provides coronavirus information in Spanish, Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese.

 

Maisy Webster

Maisy Webster

Integrity Partners for Behavioral Health

Class of 2021

Maisy Webster

I had the opportunity to intern at Integrity Partners for Behavioral Health in Batavia, NY. It’s a behavioral health care collaborative working to improve mental health and substance abuse services throughout Western New York. I was able to learn so much about public mental health care and contribute to ongoing research in the field about how providers and agencies can best serve clients with limited resources.

While my classes had helped to me learn about the fundamentals of the behavioral health care system and how different policies contribute to population health, it was really interesting to see how these concepts play out in the real world. Having observed the strengths and challenges of professionals working in behavioral health care I am excited about the possibility of pursuing a career in the field.