What Happens When A Global Health Student Can't Travel?

An interview with rising second-year global health master's degree student Anna Lehmann

Published July 08, 2020 under Student Stories

Written by Mary Brophy Marcus

Anna Lehmann

Honduras, Peru, Kenya, Tanzania, Bangladesh, Madagascar — during a typical summer, many Duke global health master’s degree students travel the globe to live and work in communities in these and other countries with DGHI partners. The 10-week summer experiences are formative on both professional and personal levels, say DGHI alumni. And the research trips usually serve as a focal point of most student theses.

But this year, with the global pandemic raging and international travel suspended in the Duke community, DGHI’s Education team and faculty had to get creative about how to find enriching experiences for rising second-year master’s degree students. Anna Lehmann — who had been planning to work in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo — is among those who crafted an alternate plan. While it’s not Central Africa, she says, it has actually been a pretty rewarding experience.

Recently, she shared a bit about herself, how her summer plans shifted and her future dreams.


DGHI: Did you always know you wanted to work in global health?

Anna: I was always interested in the sciences and different cultures. At San Diego State University where I attended college, I was a biology student and I also minored in international relations. I discovered that I really enjoyed my international relations classes. But global health was not really on my radar until I went into the Peace Corps after college.


DGHI: Where was your Peace Corps assignment and was it health-focused?

Anna: I went to Madagascar for about two-and-a-half years, working as a health volunteer. At the time, I didn’t have a lot of experience in global health. I was there to provide overall health support — I did a lot of malaria work, maternal and child health work, and a lot of water and sanitation-related work.


DGHI: Did you come to Duke right after the Peace Corps?

Anna: I did. I had a couple months in between, but came straight to Duke for the global health program. I definitely had an interest in infectious disease after my experience in the Peace Corps, so I was hoping to develop it further in the program here [DGHI has partners in Madagascar]. In Madagascar, I interacted with a lot of disease — and had a lot of diseases myself! I had dengue fever. I had so many fevers – I got tested for malaria five times. But that’s where my initial interest came from.


DGHI: You’re about to start your second year of the master’s degree program at DGHI. Do you know what you’d like to do after graduation next year?

Anna: Through my Peace Corps experience, I saw how much of an impact a doctor can have in a really rural setting. Doctors can touch a lot of peoples’ lives. I love research and still want to continue to explore research but now I’d also like to do something clinical and go to medical school and become a doctor.


DGHI: How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your summer plans?

Anna: I was planning to go to the Democratic Republic of the Congo this summer. My mentor and I had planned to go work on a data analysis project there related to his research. I would have been in Kinshasa working at the biomedical center for research there, a Congolese medical center that we work with along with UCLA. I would have helped with assisting on the ground with new data collection. What’s pretty neat is that my actual project work hasn’t really changed. I’m still doing secondary data analysis with data collected a few years ago by the UCLA research team there. It’s looking at different protective factors with healthcare workers on the front lines of the Ebola epidemic in the DRC, at patterns of behavior, and if someone is more or less likely to contract Ebola based on certain behavior patterns. It’s actually very relatable to COVID-19. I would have loved going to the DRC and I feel a little bit removed from my thesis work now.


DGHI: You’re also working on COVID-related research, too, right?

Anna: Yes, in a way it’s also been really positive to be here now because I’m also working on a bunch of COVID-19 studies here at Duke. This is one of the best learning moments that anyone in global health could have asked for. I’m working on three different COVID-19 studies right now. One is primarily student run. We’re studying the infection rates of a group of students who went abroad earlier this year, many of whom contracted COVID-19. We’re looking at epidemiology and risk of transmission in a closed group.


DGHI: What are the other two studies?

Anna: The second study is with the Murdoch study group. It’s a longitudinal study going on since 2008 that has over 12,000 people in it. They have started a new arm of it called C3PI, a play off of the Star Wars character C3PO. It is looking at Cabarrus County, NC, and COVID-19 prevalence and immunity. For that study, we are partnering with the VA and also the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. My job is to connect the Murdoch team with the VA team. We’re sharing surveys and data analysis methods. The two teams meet once a week to help each other out. Our goal is to create as similar studies as possible, but in these different populations. The research is a nice layering of academic, state and federal institutions all working together. It’s really cool to see all three entities working together. I’ve talked with my mentor, Chris Woods, about this a lot and something he is trying to teach me and some of the other master’s students under his wing is how critical collaborations with academic, state and federal institutes are for connecting and developing a collective response and for collective learning during a crazy public health crisis time like this.


DGHI: Are you living at home now with your family and working remotely?

Anna: No, my family lives in San Diego. I’m living in Durham, near campus this summer.


DGHI: Any other reflections about how your summer has changed in light of the pandemic?

Anna: This definitely is not what I was expecting but I am very satisfied with the experience I’m having this summer, even if it is more time in my house here. And it’s because of what it’s shifted toward – having to do with the global health emergency that is going on. I’m bummed about not having gone to DRC, but I don’t think I’m at a disadvantage because I have been out in the field before when I was in the Peace Corps. There are ways to get involved right now with the ongoing public health crisis and the DGHI administration is working really hard to get people into good opportunities. That’s the best anyone could ask for. It’s unprecedented times.