Anyone who works in the field of global health has a story about what first sparked their interest in a profession focused on addressing health disparities. Duke Global Health Institute's 12th and newest cohort of scholars in the Master of Science in Global Health Program includes students with an array of experiences, educational backgrounds and talents. Three of the 36 individuals in the class of 2023 — who represent nine countries and speak 21 languages — shared that “aha” moment or experience when they knew they wanted to take their interest in global health to the next level.
Diya Uthappa says one of her favorite things about attending medical school at Duke is that as a second-year student, she was able to dive right into clinical rotations, spending time with patients. At most medical schools, students wait until their third year for the more hands-on training, she explains. At Duke, third year students then move on to focus on research.
But Uthappa, now on the brink of her third year of medical school, says her path will take a slight twist from the one her classmates are traversing.
“I’m taking this year and dedicating it to another degree — global health,” she says. “Like them, I’m also going to be doing some research, but I’m going to delay my medical school graduation by one year so I can get my master’s degree in global health and some additional experience.”
While COVID sidelined her and her medical school peers from their clinical rotations in the spring, Uthappa had enough time with patients to realize that internal medicine really appeals to her, and she feels it’s a perfect specialty area for someone planning to pursue global health.
“I love the problem-solving aspect of it and I really like the teamwork involved. There are a lot of different specialties within internal medicine and a lot of communication between those specialties and I like that,” she says.
Uthappa grew up in New Jersey in a health-focused family, the daughter of a doctor and an orthodontist. She attended William & Mary for college where she studied neuroscience and minored in biology, with honors in chemistry. She got involved in public health projects as an undergraduate, including one that partnered with a community in a rural area of Nicaragua, collaborating with them to achieve goals the community self-identified.
“Through conversations with community members, it was identified that access to water was a key area in which their health could be greatly improved. To address this, we worked with the community to partner with Engineers Without Borders to design a multi-phase community-wide water catchment project which is still underway. Through this collaboration I saw that the ability to organize really does make an impact,” she says.
As an undergraduate, Uthappa was immersed in basic science, so she says she is now enjoying the more hands-on experiences medical school and the masters in global health program offer. She looks forward to classes in biostatistics and epidemiology this semester which she hopes will make her “a more critical consumer of research.”
“At Duke, you’re saturated by tons of cool research going on,” she says, adding that she’s also looking forward to working with her DGHI mentor, Christopher Woods.
“I picked him because his work spans a wide range of areas. He’s looping me into some of the COVID projects he’s working on,” Uthappa says.
Like her global health classmates, Uthappa is hoping that she’ll be able to travel internationally during her year in the program.
“I don’t want to get my hopes up that I can travel. And I’m really open to going anywhere Dr. Wood’s has available. What I learned early from my undergraduate work outside of the U.S. is that engagement in the community you’re involved in is really important. I hold that very dear and in my medical school experience, too — being a partner with whoever you’re doing research with.”
Uthappa says she enjoys the contrast of lab work and field work in the DGHI program.
“One you can control and one you can’t. As science-minded people, you can get caught up in the rigidity of research, but working with people, patients, you have to be flexible and know your limitations. You can go in with a plan and have it fall apart,” she says.
As a physician, Uthappa one day hopes to both see patients and to do research that would impact those patients.
“I want to learn to take really good care of patients and do really good science to the best of my ability,” she says.
A 2020 graduate of NC State, Shivani Surati majored in science, technology and society with a concentration in global health.
“I’m from a really small town, Rockingham, NC,” says Surati, an only child of parents from Gujarat, India, and the first person in her family to attend college.
She never had plans to enter the health field, but a global health elective at college began to shift her thinking.
“And then I went to India for first time in 12 years to visit family. It was a humbling experience. It made me very aware of health disparities and I wanted to figure out how I could help in some way,” she says.
Surati started connecting with professors at NC State, asking how to learn more about the field of global health and a year later, during her junior year of college, she traveled to Ecuador with an international nonprofit group called Timmy Global Health.
“It was my first international travel experience without my parents. We helped physicians, observing them and how they treated patients. We took a class beforehand on global health and talked about cultural issues and disparities in health. It was near the Amazon basin. While there, I was not prepared to see some of the things I saw though,” she says, explaining that she met a young woman patient who was being abused by her husband.
After the trip, she knew she wanted to work in global health. “I went home and started Googling how can I have a career in global health. Originally, I only applied for a master’s in public health and then I found out about Duke’s program and I really liked the idea of a 1:1 faculty mentor experience. And there are a lot of professional development resources,” says Surati, who speaks Gujarati and some Spanish, but would like to pick up another language as a grad student.
“I want this program to guide my interest and am really hoping it helps me grow as a person and as a global health professional,” adds Surati, who when asked about her greatest strengths, says curiosity, drive and compassion.
Surati says, “I think as a first gen student, I never thought I’d be getting my master’s degree. I don’t know if this is something other first gens feel, but I didn’t think this was anything I could achieve.”
Whether it was a summer during college WWOOFing — working on a sustainable farm in Colombia — or a post-graduation stint in the Peace Corps in Nepal that cinched Alena Pauley’s decision to pursue global health, the Nebraska-born student says she knows what she wants to do with her life.
The anthropology major and biology minor, who attended Washington University in St. Louis as an undergraduate, says a career in medicine had always called to her. Influenced by a dad who “is a big science guy” and an experience in high school shadowing a doctor, she had started to carve out a path in that direction.
“In college, I took all the pre-med undergraduate classes. But I was also always interested in anthropology — people, places and cultures,” she reflects.
After graduating from college in 2018, Pauley went into the Peace Corps. “I lived in a rural village in Nepal and taught English to sixth-graders, students ages 9 to 13,” she says. “But we were evacuated in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
She had hoped to spend a full two years in Nepal. “My end goal has always been to do medical school. I had been really interested in global health and thought I’d do a four-plus-one-program of global health and medical school at the same time. But the way COVID affected things, I didn’t have time to do the medical school preparation,” she explains.
Pauley learned she was eligible for a program for Peace Corps alumni that Duke participates in called the Coverdell Fellows program that would help with grad school tuition.
“Now my general plan is to earn a master’s degree in global health at Duke and then go to medical school. My goal would be to do something in global medicine that is clinical based. Maybe potentially working for the World Health Organization or with a group like Doctors Without Borders or Global Health Corps,” says Pauley, who has picked up Spanish and Nepali language skills along the way.
She would also like to continue to practice research, with possibly a subspecialty in global mental health — psychiatry — for women.
How do her parents and younger brother back in Omaha, Nebraska, feel about her world travels and global goals?
Pauley says, “My family is super-supportive. I think this is kind of how I’ve always been. My mom and dad think I’m pretty cool. My mom’s screen saver is a picture of me in Nepal.”