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EP03 Interning at the UN Medical Services Division with Sonakshee Shree
Deborah Onakomaiya: Hey guys and welcome to another episode of I AM GPH. I am your host, Deborah Onakomaiya. On the show today we have Sonakshee Shree. She's a second year MPH student in the Global Health concentration at NYU. She interns at the United Nations in the Medical Services Division. Her interests are in maternal and child health using policy and management to tackle issues that affect mothers and children. Sonakshee is currently working towards a publication that is related to gender differences in risky alcohol behavior among homeless adults. In her free time she loves to paint and she is an artist. Thank you so much Sonakshee for being on our show today. We're glad to have you.
Sonakshee Shree: Thank you for having me on the show, Deborah. This is kind of my first podcast. So I'm a little nervous.
Deborah Onakomaiya: I heard about your work at the UN. Could you tell us a little about that experience thus far?
Sonakshee Shree: Sure. So I started the UN over a month ago. First week of September and it's been a very great experience so far. I think all good things. I was warned by many people that I would be just carrying coffee for my supervisors or just stapling paperwork and making folders. But that's not the case in my department. I'm an intern in the Medical Services Department and we do a lot of global health stuff. Any outbreaks that occur around the world, we work with WHO and UNDP and to basically assess the situation. And make sure that UN staff members that are on ground and the locals are basically safe so that an endemic or anything doesn't break out, like Ebola or Zika. That's our main job right now basically to have security clearances for UN employees. Looking at insurance for UN employees and stuff like that. What I'm working on, when I first started was the GA, the General Assembly. That was for a whole week and it was a very eye opening experience. We were paired with the media liaison unit, which is called the MALU unit. And my job was to escort media personnel to security council, trusteeship council and ECOSOC council. I was designated on the security.
Deborah Onakomaiya: You were kind of like an usher.
Sonakshee Shree: Yeah, basically. But also being, escorting people like I was also conversating with them and also organizing the media because there's a lot of media. Leaders who come from their country. They have their own media.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Oh. So like dignitaries and their media.
Sonakshee Shree: Yeah. Dignitaries and their media, plus the United States media, and the White House media to coordinate all that is such a huge task. At first, I was like, ah, it's going to be an easy task. But on days that were very... Like when Donald Trump was there it was chaos because everybody wanted to take a picture of him and Antonio Guterres, our Secretary-General. And some people didn't get the time because sometimes world leaders just leave after 10 minutes and we think that it's going to go on for an hour. Just coordinating that and also attending meetings, high level meetings. And I saw Malala, I saw Macron and his wife, and then Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump obviously. All these messengers of peace and just hearing them talk was a great privilege to have during that whole week. And then after everything was done, then I kind of went back to my office and I started working on Honduras. I was working with health risk assessments. So looking at specific risk events that could cause harm to UN employees on ground in Honduras. I worked on that for a week and then I had to create a report for my supervisor because she was leaving for Albania. Just looking at what type of risks there are and what type of hospitals are UN connected within that area.
Deborah Onakomaiya: That's actually very interesting. And as you do these health assessments, what type of databases are you using and where are you getting the most current information? Cause I'm assuming they need that information while they're on the ground. So it has to be current.
Sonakshee Shree: For sure. That's a good question. So I usually, well we usually get our information from the WHO and also the US State Department. The US State Department I was reading on Albania had a typo. I actually emailed them and that was fixed very quickly.
Deborah Onakomaiya: And is this data...cause I don't know. I find that as we do research sometimes when it comes to statistical data and whatnot, you have it from two years ago. So is this current data?
Sonakshee Shree: It is current data. There's another website, I think it's called ReliefWeb. Basically what this website does is it compiles all the reports, recent reports from all different agencies and puts them in a website and updates it every day. So you get the most recent report that you can ever get. Yesterday I was pulled into a meeting because there was a plague outbreak in Madagascar. It's back, the plague is back. There's one doctor and one nurse currently on the ground, which is not enough personnel to be honest.
Deborah Onakomaiya: So there's...This hasn't gotten out to the media, well we're the media, but.
Sonakshee Shree: No it hasn't.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Guys, we just found out there is plague in Madagascar.
Sonakshee Shree: Yeah.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Thanks for leaking that information. It seems like you guys are getting the most important information. Does the WHO know? Or was that reported to the WHO and then back to you guys? Or how does that chain of command work?
Sonakshee Shree: The doctors on the ground usually request for assistance. If they really need personnel and stuff like that and resources, they usually ask the WHO and then the WHO will reach out to us. And it's not yet leaking out information because it's out there now. The WHO is taking precautions towards that plague and Madagascar and just assessing that situation. We don't know much about it actually.
Deborah Onakomaiya: So in that meeting as an intern, you said you were pulled into it. In that meeting, what is your function there? Is it a learning experience or what exactly is your function?
Sonakshee Shree: Right. So I usually, when these meetings happen, I take notes and I actually discussed afterwards with my supervisor on what steps will be taken next. And I'm also working on insurance cases for UN employees around the world. Because sometimes people in the field get all types of diseases, you can't help it and then insurance can cover so much. And then that's when the whole circle of who's going to pay for the money? Or is the UN going to pay? Is an insurance company going to pay? Are you going to pay? That's what my other project is. Last but not least, I'm working on a breastfeeding handbook for UN employees around the world. So there's not really a set handbook for new mothers who are UN employees. Just to list kind of resources. And what are the benefits of breastfeeding really after childbirth. That's what I'm working on since maternal and child health is very dear and close to my heart.
Deborah Onakomaiya: This particular handbook is specific just for UN employees or for like actual population?
Sonakshee Shree: So it's just for UN employees around the world.
Deborah Onakomaiya: For them to engage more in breastfeeding?
Sonakshee Shree: Right.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Is there a gap in between? Are UN employees specifically not breastfeeding?
Sonakshee Shree: So there is maternal leave for them, but after a year or two they can't really go out of the UN. They only get like two hours to go back home including commute time and report back to their work. So we have rooms for like breastfeeding pump. But then they can't bring their babies to work.
Deborah Onakomaiya: So like how did they transport that milk?
Sonakshee Shree: Yeah, that's the main question right now. Right? So either a caretaker will come to the UN and they will meet them outside and they will transport the milk to the baby.
Deborah Onakomaiya: There are no way for mothers at the UN to advocate for there to be some type of daycare?
Sonakshee Shree: There is, I think there's some type of daycare at the UN, but it's actually outside of the Secretariat Building. There's no daycare inside the Secretariat Building obviously. These children are probably very newborn, probably two, three years old it kind of doesn't make sense to leave them at daycare. But that's what I'm working on. I think there's a huge gap. And most people don't know even that the lactation rooms exist for breastfeeding.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Like I'm just star struck. Cause this is like insider information that our listeners could have never gotten. How were you able to get this opportunity? Cause I mean this is an amazing opportunity. You've seen several presidents already. You've seen Malala, the Holy Trinity Malala. You've had such great experiences. The research you're doing is pertinent to your global health concentration at NYU. How were you able to get this opportunity?
Sonakshee Shree: Okay. I am a total freak out when it comes to applying to things. I apply really early to things. And I applied to this internship, I remember November of last year. Yes. November of last year.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Of 2016?
Sonakshee Shree: 2016 and I applied to five UN agencies. I got two interviews. One was from MSD, which is my department and also...
Deborah Onakomaiya: What does MSD mean?
Sonakshee Shree: Medical Services Division. I had two interviews and then I had to turn OSHA down because I already took the internship from MSD. So anybody who's listening, I would recommend that apply early, as early as possible.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Are you telling me, cause you said you started a month ago, are you telling me it took a year before you were accepted into the UN?
Sonakshee Shree: Basically, so they reached out to me in 2017 of March and then we had an interview and since I was going to Houston for my research, I couldn't take in the summer months at the UN. I requested to be taken in by September, just after Labor Day. So I started then. And they're very flexible when it comes to that. Especially in my department, they are very lenient if you're at school and if you have to do things, like run errands and stuff, they're very lenient. You can take time off of work to do your schoolwork as well. The supervisors are super nice and they're... It's a very professional environment, but people also know that we're getting not paid at all and they understand the importance of like schoolwork.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Throughout the interview process and your experience thus far, what qualities do you feel like the UN looks for in students like you?
Sonakshee Shree: That's a great question. The UN usually likes NYU students.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Interesting so we are lucky guys.
Sonakshee Shree: So they take students from all around the world. People actually stop their education to be in the UN. They take a gap year, just so they can do this internship. I have made friends in Germany, Australia, Bulgaria, people all around the world basically, China. I think they look for somebody who is very well-rounded in many ways. It's not just one particular thing you'll be working on. Even though my focus was maternal and child health, they will find work for you that's very related to you, but you won't be specifically working on let's say maternal and child health. You'll be working with several different things to make you grow as an individual and working with different departments, different teams, even different agencies and people will help you develop you as a professional for your career. I don't think I can get this experience ever again.
Deborah Onakomaiya: I don't...it's an amazing experience. I don't think there's anywhere else you could have gotten that type of experience.
Sonakshee Shree: Right. I would say to anybody listening, I think you have to be persistent about when you're applying. Don't get dejected if you don't hear back from them. Just keep trying, keep applying, apply early and do everything that they list to say on your cover letter. It doesn't matter if you go above one page, I know the one page is the golden rule...
Deborah Onakomaiya: For cover letters.
Sonakshee Shree: For cover letters, but mine was like a page and a little bit over because they tell you to list all the courses that you have taken. So list all the courses you have taken and you don't need to list professors and stuff, but list the course name. So you apply through something called Inspira and that's where the internships and UN jobs are usually posted. What you do is go through there and basically when you're writing your cover letter, list everything that they tell you.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Every single thing guys. Yes. Wow, that's very, very interesting. And I think my final question is, you've had a lot of different experiences. You're interested in maternal child health. If 10 years from now I hit you up again and be like, Hey, Sonakeshee, what would you be doing in terms of public health? Where would I find you and what would you be doing?
Sonakshee Shree: That's a very good question. I think my final goal is to go to med school, but first I need to pay off my loans to NYU.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Don't we all.
Sonakshee Shree: And then after that, after I settled down in my life a little bit, I really want to take that next step as becoming a physician and kind of want to travel around the world. And, actually, one of my dreams is to travel with Dr. Shirazian and to see patients.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Who is Dr. Shirazian, for our listeners?
Sonakshee Shree: My Capstone advisor.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Do you want to tell us a little bit about that? You want to be traveling with your Capstone advisor?
Sonakshee Shree: Oh well, she is an OB-GYN at NYU Langone and she's also a professor there, for their department as well. And she teaches a class here, which I highly recommend, no biases or anything. If you're interested in maternal health and like program planning, I think that's a great class to take and that's how I came to the conclusion that I wanted to do my Capstone with her.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Thank you so much Sonakshee for being on our show. I have learned so much. I feel like I need to go apply to the UN right now cause this is October. But I mean, I think this is a great podcast for our prospective students. For people that might want to be part of the UN and we got the insider scope of what the UN is looking for, what type of things you're doing. You're not just getting coffee, you're doing really cool things. Thank you so much, Sonakshee.
Sonakshee Shree: Thank you Deborah.
Deborah Onakomaiya: I hope we have you on our show and you've become a doctor.
Sonakshee Shree: Thank you.