Global Health Careers: Starting Out

We talk to two young scientists spending their summer in rural Africa in the name of global health.

Zambia 2013

By Catherine de Lange

August 01, 2013

Also published by Nature

Jay Bala (L) and Keane McCullum

Naturejobs/Catherine de Lange

Keane McCullum is a senior biochemistry major at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania, who is currently applying to medical school. Jay Bala is a second year Masters of Public Health student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville Tennessee, having studied chemistry at undergraduate level. Naturejobs bumped into them at the Macha Research Trust laboratories, in rural Zambia, and asked them what they were both doing there…

Keane McCullum: My school offers a course on healthcare in the developing world which is taught here in Macha. Whilst applying for the course, I had the idea that maybe I could continue to do research over the summer. I’d paid for my tickets already so why not just extend my flight dates?

Jay Bala: The reason I chose this public health masters is because they say: go make yourself useful in the world. So I’m spending a little over three months in country working on public health projects and actually understanding how things work with the view of doing this when I graduate.

For the practicum portion of my course, I am  splitting my time between projects in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, and here in Macha. In Lusaka, I’m working as a chemist on a public health project monitoring nutrition in children who are on antiretroviral therapy. Here in Macha, I am seeing different aspects of how public health works – everything from planning and evaluation to how projects are carried out, so I spend time in the hospital, time in the villages, lots of time with data – a little bit of everything,which is nice.

What’s the long term plan for both of you? Keane, you’re planning to go to medial school…

KM: My time here has shown me that general practice is so versatile in any setting – whether you’re working in America or abroad, in rural, urban, or low income settings. I think it’s just emphasized to me that I want to go into general practice.

JB: I want to work for a few years either in southern Africa or Asia. I really love Zambia at this point – I would love to stay here. I’d love to do some real public health, maybe epidemiological research, but incorporate the basic sciences, which I feel sometimes get overlooked. I really want to find that niche where I can marry my basic science with public health.

Do either of you get put off by the idea of traveling for work for long periods, especially to really remote places?

KM: I have realized that if you’re going to raise a family somewhere like Zambia, it’s probably better than any place I’ve seen in the US. Everybody is always welcome and it’s super safe, but it’s a very unique place. So depending on where an opportunity opened up, that’s part of the adventure. And where a door opens, if you take it you are bound to find some things you like and some things you don’t like. A lot of thought would go in to it, but I think I’d jump at the chance to be almost anywhere.

JB: I agree – there are very few places I wouldn’t go. Life is an adventure, and two years ago I was in an air-conditioned lab in a winery trying a hundred different kinds of wine a day.

That sounds nice- why did you leave?

JB: I was doing research chemistry at Gallo winery in California, one of the largest wineries in the world. I think I left the dream job to go help people…and I wonder why every time because now I have to pay for wine.

What’s been the best thing about your time here at Macha?

KM: I’m not doing a thesis here like Jay, I’m just here to volunteer, so that gives me a lot of freedom. I enjoy the research and I find it challenging, but I’ve also really enjoyed being in the clinic and in the surgical suite, being able to shadow the doctors and seeing how they are able to go about diagnosis and management with minimal resources. That’s been the most exciting thing for me as I prepare for that next chapter.

JB: I am used to spending time in lab and have spent eight years either volunteering or being a clinical scribe in hospitals, so the really interesting thing that I take away from it is to see all the different elements of  public health research actually being implemented, even the small things. It’s really nice to see that actually happen and to cement the theory, so I know what to look for.

Will you be sad to leave?

JB: It’s going to be incredibly tough to leave but I plan on coming back – I don’t think this is my last trip to Africa.

KM: I’ve definitely developed a lot of really meaningful relationships with the guys and girls in the lab, silly things like sitting around and making jokes all the time. I’m going to miss them, and I’m definitely going to miss just being able to walk to peoples’ houses and always feel welcome.  Being a hot-climate culture, you’re always welcome and you’re always part of the community. It’s a really special place.

Do you have any advice for others considering going down a global health career path?

JB: Have pure intentions. You need to know exactly why you’re doing something like this. We’re lucky here, but a lot of our colleagues are hauling water and heating it up so they can wash themselves like a car – when you’re doing something like that, you’ve got to remember why you’re doing it. And if you’re not doing it for the right reasons, you’re going to miserable, and misery spreads here- it’s a disease.

KM: My advice to other undergraduates would be ask a lot of questions and be on the lookout for opportunities. Also, be asking yourself what your intentions are. If you’re just going for the purpose of traveling or seeing a new place, you can do that on your own time and probably stay in a hotel with clean water! A simple question I’ve often asked myself is, would I do the same project in the States? And if the answer is no, or I don’t really care that much, then it doesn’t make sense for me to use all those resources to go and make myself feel that much better in a different setting, because in that case it’s all about me and the feeling I get out of it. So ask yourself that question, and if its something you’re passionate about for the sake of it, then that’s where you should be.

Naturejobs has been travelling in Zambia with the International Reporting Project, speaking to people working in global health, in particular those studying malaria, HIV/AIDS and TB.

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