Tufts Double Jumbo Mentors Students at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Program News | Posted Sep 21, 2012

As part of the EPIIC “Conflict in the 21st Century” symposium in February 2012, EPIIC for the first time dedicated one of its breakout sessions to gathering experts and students in thinking about the following year's theme on global health and security.  One of the leaders of the session was Ezra Barzilay, an alumnus of both Tufts undergraduate and medical schools and a Commander in the US Public Health Service as the Lead Epidemiologist in the Health Systems Reconstruction Office of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Barzilay, who had participated in the 2012 Voices in the Field program on humanitarian intervention, is a key adviser to EPIIC 2012-13 year and will be the Outward Bound speaker.  One of the outcomes of his participation last year was providing two internships at the CDC for students interested in enrolling in the coming EPIIC colloquium.

The six-week internships were in the Health Systems Reconstruction Office at the CDC’s Center for Global Health.  Rising senior Alon Slutzky (EPIIC’10) and rising junior Chrissy Goldbaum (EPIIC’12, BUILD: Guatemala) were selected as the interns.  Their projects, under the primary mentorship of Barzilay, included a synthesis of narrative documents to accompany the monitoring and evaluation activities for each of seven legacy goals currently being undertaken in Haiti, a comprehensive literature review of health service needs and demands pertaining to community health planning in Haiti, and adding to the growing body of literature surrounding an unexplained outbreak of chronic kidney failure in Central and South America for the last ten years.  They had the opportunity to attend an "all-hands" meeting and hear agency director Dr. Thomas Frieden give a “state of the agency” address, they met one-on-one with the Agency’s Deputy Director and Assistant Surgeon General Dr. Anne Schuchat, and they participated in several “Tuesday morning seminars,” training seminars for Epidemic Intelligence Service Officers.

Barzilay said, “I know that I speak for our entire team when I say that we were delighted to have had Alon Slutzky and Chrissy Goldbaum intern with us this summer. Alon and Chrissy had an opportunity to present their work at our staff meeting - their contributions were valued and appreciated by all members of the team and in fact our director asked to be given a printed copy of the entire collection of M&E narratives to take with him and read on the plane to China, following their presentation. Their creativity, professionalism and ability to work independently were a testament to the caliber of students that the IGL cultivates. I had to remind my colleagues on several occasions that Alon and Chrissy were still undergraduates and that if they perform at this level now, the potential for what they will accomplish as they proceed into their graduate studies is unbounded.

“I am certain we left questions unanswered and public health topics unexplored - six weeks is in fact a very short amount of time - but I'm excited about this coming year: there are opportunities for continued engagement (as a direct result of Alon and Chrissy's internship) for both Alon and Chrissy as well as for other IGL students that we should explore in Global Health Security (e.g. a meta-analysis of capacity building assessments performed in central Asia by different groups at CDC, in preparation for a unified approach to public health development in the region) as well as in Haiti.”

Slutzky’s reaction to the experience was:

"As a premed student interested in global health, the internship was a tremendous opportunity for me to gain firsthand experience in my field of interest. Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the primary charge of the Health Systems Reconstruction Office (HSRO) was to rebuild the Haitian public health infrastructure from the ground up, needless to say, a formidable task. After being granted security clearance, we began delving into documents and proposals dealing with nearly every aspect of the reconstruction project. By the end of the internship, we had become involved in projects covering topics such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, maternal and child health, malaria, water and sanitation, malnutrition, lymphatic filariasis, and vaccine preventable diseases just to name a few. In addition to these projects, we regularly sat in on high-level meetings involving agency directors and international partners. Every week we would also schedule a number of private meetings with various CDC employees, including the Assistant Surgeon General.  The internship was a resounding success for a number of reasons. Most importantly it allowed me to work beside some of the most innovative and successful practitioners working in international health. The internship also exposed me to the various career paths available for those interested in medicine, public health, and humanitarian work. Furthermore, the internship showed me how much planning, cooperation, and dedication is needed to pull off a multi-agency, multi-national, global health intervention. The hardworking and optimistic people that I met during my time at the CDC reaffirmed my desire to pursue a career working in international health and introduced me to numerous mentors. Working at the CDC headquarters as an undergraduate was an unforgettable experience.”

Slutzky is enrolled in the EPIIC 2012-13 colloquium on “Global Health and Security.”

Goldbaum wrote:

“When inquiring about the academic interests of a young intern at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you might expect to hear biology, chemistry or public health. As a political science major, my response to that inquiry was often met with a confused brow wrinkle or wide-eyed curious interest. Going to CDC with a background in development and an academic title of political scientist is certainly not the norm. Though in the multidisciplinary world in which we live, perhaps the intersection of the hard and social sciences is becoming increasingly necessary.

“The Centers for Disease Control is a scientific entity. Its legacy of preventing public health crises and using groundbreaking scientific research to protect the lives of Americans has earned it one of the highest public approval ratings of all federal agencies.  The hard science it represents has an aura of benevolence, and has earned it a place on a pedestal isolated from the political and economic squabbles of the federal system.

“This air of ethical purity is what sparked my interest in the field of public health and brought me to CDC, even as a political science major with a background not in health but in development. I entered the public health realm looking for moral certainty, an often sought but ever-illusive animal that seemed nearly extinct in the development aid world. In an attempted escape from that Western Christian culture whose commitment to service has possibly done more harm than good, I sought the moral clarity described by Paul Farmer: “you’re in front of someone who’s suffering and you have the tools at your disposal to alleviate that suffering or even eradicate it, and you act.” Enter CDC.

“What I learned from my many conversations with CDC professionals is that public health is a complicated, ethically ambiguous field. It is one in which the purity of alleviating a life-and-death need can unwittingly become a tool of 21st century colonialism, a means of further entrenching the mentality of external dependence and learned helplessness instilled when Africa and Latin America first encountered the Western World. It is a field that attempts to introduce, or perhaps to impose (depending on your outlook), data-centric systems of organization and analysis in places where functional informal arrangements have dominated for centuries. Depending on how it is executed, it can debilitate a government’s capacity to act as an independent, effective entity, or it can buttress an existing governmental framework that has begun to decay under increasing external stress. It resides in a place far from moral clarity.

“The reason behind these ethnically muddy waters is what made the political scientist in me a bit more at ease: in the field of public health, you cannot divorce the hard science from the social, political, and economic context in which it operates. The field of public health itself is intimately partnered with politics, engages in an earnest romance with economics, and has begun to flirt with the development-oriented frameworks of aid delivery. Whether carried out in a sterile laboratory or in an internally displaced persons camp in Haiti, no research, no project, no policy is immune.”