(Originally published in Interdisciplinary MPH Program Alumni and Student News, Spring 2011)
Lauren Harris MA, MPH ’10 writes: “From time to time I get asked what it is like to work in global health. I feel compelled to give a scientific answer. A few psychology students at Berkeley run a study in which they expose Syrian hamsters to six-hour time shifts (the equivalent of a plane trip from New York to France) twice a week for four weeks. The hamsters’ performance on learning and memory are then measured for up to a month later. At the end of the study, the researchers find that the jet-lagged hamsters have suffered learning impairments and loss of memory. The hamsters also have half the number of new neurons in their hippocampuses a month after they were brought back to their normal sleeping schedule. Multiply the time shifts by two, add in culture shock, remove the cozy little hamster nests, and you’ve experienced ‘global health.’
“Kidding aside, when working in policy at the international level it’s not uncommon to feel like a very tired, confused hamster. Within the developing world, some conservative Catholic countries freely hand out birth control while others strictly forbid it. Some governments insist on carrying out million-dollar studies to test the effects of a life-saving drug on ‘their women,’ while others trust that it is safe based on studies conducted elsewhere. Often, you find yourself taking two steps in one direction and then three steps in a completely different direction.
“I’m an anthropologist by training and two years ago the policy world was completely foreign to me. Before entering the Interdisciplinary MPH program, I spent most of my career approaching health issues from the grassroots level. Whether it was assisting midwives in the Amazon to effectively combine traditional and western medical techniques, or addressing specific misconceptions about HIV/AIDS among refugee youth, my work as an anthropologist was always local and research-related.
“The transition from school to the policy world was anything but slow. A week after graduation last year, I found myself on a plane to Kenya, hired by the Berkeley Human Rights Center to find out from government officials, doctors, local chiefs, and forensic scientists about the country’s response to the massive increase in sexual assaults that occurred during and after the post-election violence in 2007. These meetings helped identify gaps in the process of collecting evidence and providing medical and psychosocial services, eventually guiding the Human Rights Center to the role they would eventually play in strengthening the nexus between medical and psychosocial care, forensic investigation, and prosecution.
“Over the past year, these relationships have solidified into a joint task force that is responsible for establishing national laws and guidelines to hold perpetrators accountable for sexual violence in Kenya. A large conference uniting all of the relevant sectors will take place in Nairobi in May. Our work in this area has since spurred the interest of international organizations such as the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), who are now seeking our advice on methods to address sexual violence within their camp programs. This summer, members of the team will research and report on the feasibility of witness and victim protection programs within Kenyan refugee camps. This information could have a major effect on victims’ ability to recover safely.
“The Interdisciplinary MPH program has provided me with both the perspective and skills to scale up the impact I was having, and helped me attack reproductive health problems from the top down. In addition to my work at the Human Rights Center, I currently work full time as Director of Research and Policy at the non-profit organization Venture Strategies for Health and Development. This “think tank” in Berkeley works with governments and women’s groups to reduce barriers that inhibit women from gaining access to family planning and safe abortion.
“Over the past year, I have worked closely with congressmen, senators, and other colleagues in the Philippines to build the case for why contraceptives should be made available within the public sector. If this Reproductive Health Bill passes in the coming months, it will mark the collapse of the Catholic Church’s century-long grip on woman’s health in this region. Over the last year I have also spoken on a number of radio shows, distributed information about the use of misoprostol for postpartum hemorrhage and safe abortion, and worked at both the international and national level to convince people of the need for women to control their own fertility.
“I find that it is common for people in public health to get stuck on one side of the ‘bridge’ between research and policy. My job not only allows me frequent access to this bridge, it also lets me play around in the water from time to time. International health policy is incredibly challenging, and I have never loved a job more.”