The following column appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2019 issue of Ohio State Public Health, the College of Public Health's magazine.
I was fortunate last summer to spend 10 weeks in Malawi, the “Warm Heart of Africa.” I traveled to this small country in the southeastern part of the continent to work on an epidemiological study through the UNC Project-Malawi, under the direction of William Miller, MD, PhD, MPH, and Kathy Lancaster, PhD, MPH, professors of epidemiology at Ohio State’s College of Public Health.
The study, called iKnow, focused on acute HIV sexual partner and social contact referral. The goals of the study were to determine the most effective ways to identify, test and treat the HIV-infected population of Malawi, where HIV prevalence is among the highest in the world. My primary responsibilities as an intern were to manage and clean study datasets, structure and complete needs assessments to determine sustainable ways to improve project efficiency, and facilitate team trainings to implement efficiency initiatives. I spent a significant amount of time shadowing epidemiologists to observe research practice methods and accompanying nurses and physicians on rounds to compare standards of care in Malawi to those in the United States.
Elli Schwartz mid-hike on Nkhoma Mountain in Lilongwe, Malawi.
With every clinic efficiency initiative that I implemented – and every mountain that I summited in my free time – I was able to gain confidence in myself and see limitless possibilities for my future, whether in infectious disease epidemiology or medicine. I made lasting connections with Malawian researchers, providers and patients, and with other visiting students and researchers. I gained valuable insight from these individuals by learning about their interests, motivations, career paths and goals. I intend to nourish these relationships, as many will likely be lifetime mentors for me.
Completing this international travel experience taught me that I could successfully overcome what seemed to be insurmountable challenges at times. I proved to myself that I was able to thrive—not just survive—in a culture that was in so many ways opposite of the one I left behind for the summer. I will always be grateful that I was provided with this transformational opportunity.
Elli Schwartz is a third-year undergraduate student of environmental public health at the College of Public Health. When students like Elli travel abroad, they’re learning to create a healthier world. They need our support to get there. If you’re interested in making an impact, please visit cph.osu.edu and make a gift to the Global Health Travel Fund (#314259).