Learn By Doing

Cape Town is one of Africa’s wealthiest cities, yet it is also home to extreme poverty. Three students from the School of Public Health focus their research on this area, analyzing public health issues.

Global health issues are at the forefront of public health discourse. Today, despite the many advances in global health medicine, policy, and intervention, countries around the world are suffering from numerous health problems. The HIV/AIDS epidemic, the health impact of global warming, the threat of global pandemic disease, women’s health, obesity, and malnutrition are just a few of many public health challenges that policy makers and public health officials are working to improve.

Many students at the Brown University School of Public Health look to develop transformative solutions to public health issues on a global scale. The Global Health Track in the Masters of Public Health program focuses on targeting health inequalities that exist within communities and across global populations. The curriculum, like other public health tracks at Brown, combines classroom experience with an internship tailored to the student’s area of interest. Students studying global health have traveled around the world to places such as the Philippines, American Samoa, and South Africa to fulfill this requirement.  Stephanie Pons, Marie Sullivan, and Janine O’Donnell, recent MPH graduates, conducted their research in Cape Town, South Africa and worked to combat three different global health issues.

Inspired early on by their professors and previous global health experiences, each student had an idea of the type of internship she was looking for. The School of Public Health’s strong partnership with the University of Cape Town allowed the students to pursue the research topics of their choosing.

“Cape Town is one of Africa’s wealthiest cities, yet it is also home to extreme poverty,” Sullivan said. “Migrants who are attracted to the city for work live in informal settlements surrounding Cape Town that pose extreme health risks. There are countless inequities in South Africa’s health care system. For example, 55% to 60% of health expenditure is spent on the private sector to which only 15% of the country has access.”

Although the three students focused their research on the same area of Cape Town, they were analyzing public health issues associated with different population groups. Pons researched child and adolescent health, Sullivan examined women’s health, and O’Donnell investigated men’s health. Being able to work with and support each other proved to be both educational and enjoyable for the students. “A very positive part of my experience was living with my fellow MPH students,” Sullivan said. “Doing global health with other people, whom I already knew, created a positive community environment and support system. This social support also doubled as academic support.”

Stephanie Pons

Stephanie Pons received her BA in International Studies from Middlebury College. After graduation, Pons spent three months setting up public health programs in Cape Town, South Africa at an orphanage and a kindergarten.

She had the opportunity to work directly with children, teaching them about different health topics such as tooth brushing and nutrition. This experience motivated Pons to get her MPH and conduct research. Everything came full circle for her this summer when she was given the opportunity to go back to South Africa with a strong sense of direction and passion for the research she was pursuing.

While in South Africa, Pons worked with the South African Medical Research Council, where she worked on two related projects: the Strengthening School HIV-related Health Services Implementation for Children and Adolescents in South Africa (SHICASA) project and the Promoting sexual and reproductive health among adolescents in southern and eastern Africa (PREPARE) project. Both projects examined school health services and focused on the sexual and reproductive health of adolescents and children in Sub-Saharan Africa. “Working on these two projects was a unique opportunity that allowed me to gain experience in both the initial planning and designing of an intervention, as well as the subsequent data analysis that occurs once the intervention has been implemented and data has been collected,” Pons said.

Specifically, as part of the SHICASA project, Pons contributed to a systematic review focused on examining community involvement within school health services. This work will help inform the interventions used in the SHICASA project. Additionally, while in South Africa, Pons was also given access to the data collected through the PREPARE study, which was conducted between 2010 and 2014. Pons subsequently  analyzed this data for her MPH thesis, which focused on school violence.

Marie Sullivan

Marie Sullivan learned her BA in Psychology at Georgetown University. She came to Brown University to pursue her interest in reproductive health in a global setting. Early on in the first year of her MPH she connected with Abigail Harrison, a Brown professor whose area of study corresponded with her interests. It was this connection that motivated her to travel to South Africa to perform her research.

Sullivan’s research focused on how empowerment—or lack of empowerment—aids or impedes women’s health status. More specifically, Sullivan looked at women’s control over their own health.  Working in a clinical setting, she conducted qualitative open-ended interviews with women waiting for reproductive health appointments. “Women’s empowerment has become a central focus in global development, with the specific topic of women’s reproductive health and decision-making an area of ongoing research and programming,” Sullivan said.

She was able to use this opportunity to immerse herself in the culture of South Africa and form meaningful relationships with other students. She worked closely with a local MPH student at the University of Cape Town who helped provide her with cultural context on many of the themes they were encountering in their work. “She would provide me with background on local issues and explain different language barriers, which allowed me to connect better with the participants in the study,” Sullivan said.

Janie O’Donnell

Janie O’Donnell graduated from Aquinas College in 2013 with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology. Originally O’Donnell thought she wanted to go into medicine but her interests shifted after conducting health research in the Dominican Republic during her junior year of college.  

O’Donnell found herself in a mobile medical clinic with one physician, one nurse, and fifty patients all in dire need of care. She saw how the lack of resources was impacting the health and wellbeing of this population and decided that getting an MPH was the best way to help tackle global health issues and conduct meaningful research.

My time in Cape Town was defined by the passion of the people…it was truly humbling to see the lived experiences of this group

Janie O’Donnell

O’Donnell worked closely with the staff at Sonke, a gender justice organization that works across Africa to promote gender equality, prevent domestic and sexual violence, and reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS. She worked in the Men’s Wellness Centre in Gugulethu where she observed the clinic and gained a comprehensive understanding of the services offered there and the barriers and facilitators men face in accessing these services. O’Donnell joined Sonke trainers as they performed community outreach and observed how they taught various groups about gender-based violence, HIV/AIDS, and gender equality. “We performed trainings in schools, prisons, and at various NGOs, such as SWEAT, an organization working exclusively with sex workers,” O’Donnell said. “My time in Cape Town was defined by the passion of the people I worked with at Sonke. They were so earnest in their attempts to diminish the impact HIV/AIDS is having in their community and to promote gender equality, even in the face of constant adversity. It was truly humbling to see the lived experiences of this group.”