You currently work at the University of Minnesota: Division of Global Pediatrics & Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility. What do you enjoy most about what you do?
I have the privilege of working with faculty PIs (principal investigators) who embody the best of global health research—they are ask important scientific questions with a goal of better understanding and developing solutions to the world’s most egregious diseases and illnesses. But beyond that, they are the kind of people I can’t help but respect because their commitment isn’t only to their science and the impact on health outcomes globally, but also to their collaborators at international sites. Our scientist and physician partners in Uganda bring important insights to the study, and they have the know-how to implement projects in their local context. Their contributions are invaluable, and I have the good fortune to work with faculty who recognize this. I have worked on a number of training grants that support graduate students from low to middle income countries in underrepresented fields of the health sciences such as biostatistics, immunology, and child neuropsychology. These programs are designed to combat “big picture” development problems like brain drain by not only supporting education and training in these fields, but equipping trainees with skills in research that will enable them to succeed professionally. To me, it means so much to be working with academics who are applying their talents to tackling big questions in global health—it’s really the only reason to get up every morning and do that hard work that comes with it.
How has studying French at UMN impacted your career?
In the beginning, my study abroad in Senegal had a huge impact; it was what first inspired me to work in Sub-Saharan Africa. Studying a foreign language—and more importantly, living in a foreign language—has helped me develop some surprisingly transferrable skills. When I first came to the medical school, I was overwhelmed with the jargon and scientific language that was so far beyond anything I’d studied—and of course, this was in English. But, over time, I realized that when I went to lab meetings, I could use the same skills I learned while studying French—for example, not to let myself get hung up on words I don’t know, but rather listen to whole sentences or paragraphs and try to see how the words I didn’t understand should fit into the puzzle. I literally sit in these kinds of meetings with my laptop open to look up the definition of words, and suddenly, I will realize that I have a reasonably good understanding of what my colleagues are talking about. I may not have the scientific knowledge to ask intelligent follow-up questions, but at least I’ve learned why certain tests are conducted, and what it helps our study understand about the disease or illness in the context of our research. Studying French (and by studying in Senegal where my host family spoke Wolof, which I didn’t speak a word of before moving there) helped me to recognize that language is more than having a large vocabulary, it’s finding meaning through context and striving to communicate using the tools I have, rather than struggling over what I don’t know. It’s a shame I never figured this out as an undergrad in biology classes!
What advice would you give current undergraduates studying French and Italian? Graduates?
I would strongly encourage undergraduates not to be afraid of the sciences and look for different ways to apply their language skills. One of the most interesting parts of my job is learning about the scientific research that is being done.
I would encourage graduate students to take opportunities when they present themselves. You never know where they will lead, even if they are out of your comfort zone. Look to work with people you respect and who share your ethics, and work will never feel like work. Be open, honest, and frank when you are interviewing; it could lead to an unexpected result. You could get exactly what you want!
What are current initiatives are you working on?
In the Center for Global Health and Social Responsibility, I work with our Kampala-based operations manager on the newly established Academic Health Center Hub in Uganda. I love the idea of making global health work more accessible to a broader range of academics through the hub. I suspect there are some great minds here at the U of M who have not yet considered how they can apply themselves in global health - through education, through research, or through public health interventions and programs - and with the resources at the hub, they will find support to explore opportunities to work in Uganda. I’ve also been developing a new on-campus educational series for people interested in international research, where we invite experienced researchers in our own faculty to share lessons from the field. I’m also very excited to be supporting the School of Public Health in their initiatives to advance global health opportunities for faculty, students, and international partners.
I act as the coordinator for a number of global health training programs: the Doris Duke International Clinical Research Fellowship in the Department of Medicine, and the Fogarty Global Health Fellowship housed in CGHSR.
In the Division of Global Pediatrics, I provide project management support for grant-funded faculty-led research studies based in East Africa, as well as locally.
You have been involved in Somali Family Services for over 12 years. How did you get started in volunteering there?
While in graduate school I was asked to take part in a “needs assessment” at Somali Family Services. After completing the assessments remained on their board of directors. Later, I began assisting in grant writing. I’ve always admired the Somali community and I am happy to be involved with the community abroad as well. We focus on educational and democracy initiatives. My work with them is constantly evolving.