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EP06 The Applied Global Public Health Initiative Lab with Kiera Bloch & Pratik Sourav
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 Kiera Bloch, who's a second year MPH student here at NYU. She is also the lab coordinator for the Applied Global Public Health Initiative Lab. Kiera works at the New York Academy of Medicine in conjunction with the International Society of Urban Health. Her main public health interests are in bottleneck analysis, in order to understand roadblocks to access and effective coverage. Also on our show today is Pratik Sourav, who is a second year MPH student here at NYU. He's here to talk about his experience at the Applied Global Public Health Initiative Lab. And just like Kiera, he is interested in bottleneck analysis and health system strengthening, in order to reduce under-five mortality. Thank you so much for being on our show today. It's awesome to have you guys on. So please, can you just tell us a little bit about the Applied Global Health Initiative?
Kiera Bloch: Sure. The Applied Global Public Health Initiative is one of the labs here at CGPH. It was started by Dr. Chris Dickey, and so he is the faculty mentor and advisor for the lab. It's meant to run a little bit more like a think-tank, or like an incubator, rather than a traditional research lab, which makes it really interesting and makes it stand out from other labs and initiatives on campus. Dr. Dickey has an entrepreneurial background, so we like to keep that entrepreneurial spirit within the lab, and work on projects that tie together entrepreneurship public health as well. So we work a lot with outside organizations, so we've worked with UNICEF, WFP, we're working with this new startup called Check with Ellie, which is a lactation consultant business, which is really interesting. That's the brief overview of the Applied Global Public Health Initiative.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Yeah. Wow, that sounds interesting. And what do you think attracted you to the lab?
Pratik Sourav: The reason why I joined the lab, because when we first started, even before we started our class, we have a Facebook page. On the Facebook page, all the labs publish what they do as a lab and what their activities are. And what I saw about the Applied Global Public Health Initiative, is they work in international settings, they work for UN agencies. The process that take place in these labs are for organizations such as UNICEP, WP, and that's exactly what I want to do in my future, I mean, in my career, why I want to work for UNICEF, and that's the reason why. That's the only lab I've applied for in this campus, and because of that reason, because it works with UN agencies.
Deborah Onakomaiya: I mean, I could ask you the same question, like, really what attracted you, like he said, very international and stuff like that. How about for you?
Kiera Bloch: So for me, the lab is actually the reason why I came to NYU. I had my deposit down at Columbia, and NYU offered me some scholarship money, so I decided to come check it out. And admissions put me in touch with Dr. Dickey, because he had spent a lot of time teaching up at Columbia as well. He responded right away and was like, "Why don't you just come sit in on my lab, and we'll talk and see how it runs, and see what you think?" Said great, fine. So I went into lab, and it was just the spirit was so good and how it was really student-run and, just everyone was working on such cool projects. Like Pratik said, all internationally, we had a presenter from another school come in about her startup and project, and the students here gave really amazing feedback. And so, just the kind of dedication and drive that all the students in the lab had, and it just really stood out to me.
Deborah Onakomaiya: That's really interesting. I mean, you mentioned that it's a student run lab. I'm sure that might vary across a lot of labs that are at the Global Public Health College. How are you guys able to coordinate in a student-run lab in, terms of sustaining quality of work? How do you run a student-run lab?
Kiera Bloch: It's not always that easy, but I mean, I think if you have the right group of dedicated people, and also good mentors who are in that whatever outside organization we're working with, that if you have good collaboration between the two, it works pretty well. I think too, just making sure there are some guidelines and expectations that we do want to develop a product, something useful for the organization and for ourselves as well. But it really is just is what you put into it, is what you get out of it. That doesn't work for everyone. If you have a really good dedicated group of students, it runs pretty smoothly.
Deborah Onakomaiya: In terms of, you mentioned Dr. Chris Dickey started this lab, and it is a student-run lab, so in what capacity does he serve?
Pratik Sourav: Correct, so sometimes he comes up with projects and, for example, if we're working on a certain project, and if we have a certain roadblock, or if we're having a certain problem with our project, he's always there. You can ask him for solutions. He chips in by himself sometimes, and sometimes he's just there to make us make connections for us. Working for a project at the same time, making sure that a connection that takes place between the agencies that we're working for could go a long way, even after the lab. Yeah.
Deborah Onakomaiya: What projects have been successful at the lab?
Kiera Bloch: The one thing, too, about Dr. Dickey, is that I think he's one of the only professors, kind of what you hinted at, that has no ulterior motive to working with students. He really just wants them to be successful. He's not in it for his own gain or his own research. I think that also sets it apart. Other labs have just research assistants who are working on projects to help the principal investigator of that project. His role is really different and unique, and it's something that I certainly appreciate, and I think Pratik can say the same.
Pratik Sourav: I mean, we've been in the lab for the last one year, but the lab has been around for over three years, I believe, for now. In our last one-year experience, one of the projects that was successful, it's called Narrowing the Gap. Narrowing the Gap, it's actually based on hypothesis that the most cost-effective way to reduce under-five mortality is by reducing the coverage gap between the rich and poor in the country. They proved that by collecting data and performing data analyses on 52 countries. It's already published as a policy brief. It's called Narrowing the Gap, and Kiera and I work on that on a country analysis. So there are two different parts of that project. I mean the Narrowing the Gap project. The first was the 52 country analyses, showed proving that actually that makes sense, that reducing under-five mortality, and that's cost-effective. What we did from the lab is a country analysis in a form of a case study. We showed examples of a few countries where that approach was successful in reducing under-five mortality. For example, I worked in Bangladesh. I prepared the case study for Bangladesh, and Kiera prepared the case study for Sierra Leone.
Deborah Onakomaiya: What international organization did you guys work with on this? Is this UNICEF?
Pratik Sourav: That's UNICEF, correct. That's a UNICEF project, yeah.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Wow, that's really, really interesting. It sounds like a lot is going on at the lab. You hinted at sustainability is key to the lab, in terms of finding people who are dedicated, people who are passionate. Who do you look for when you're trying to build an awesome team at this lab?
Kiera Bloch: This year we went about applications for the lab in a more formal way than ever has been done. I think, I applied to the lab over the summer with a cover letter and a resume, but I think a lot of times people were getting into labs, they had friends in the lab, or Dr. Dickey would invite them in, and all those people have been really strong. But to make it more fair for everyone this year, we had a more formal application process that was just based on a little bit what we're looking for, and so we can get a little bit more background on students before they come into the lab. Also, to be as fair as possible to everyone, we interviewed every applicant. That ended up being, I think, over 30 people that we interviewed.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Wow.
Pratik Sourav: Yeah.
Kiera Bloch: Just because it's hard to get a sense of what people are like on paper, and I think for me, I didn't really have that much public health experience coming into the program. I think a lot of people are in that same boat, so I don't want to judge people based on experience, because some people don't have it, even though they'll be a really good asset to the lab. This year what we did was, we had projects already. So, over the summer, we talked about projects. Dr. Dickey brought projects into the lab, and then based off of those projects, we kind of knew what type of skills we were looking for, so that we would build really strong teams to work on each project. We looked for some basic skills like grant writing, people having experience in publications, outside experience, which is interesting, so mapping and urban health, GIS, coding. We have a really interesting, kind of, eclectic group of people, because I think that's what makes us successful, is that we're not just looking for one specific type of person.
Pratik Sourav: Plus data analysis and Excel.
Kiera Bloch: Yeah.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Yeah. I mean, those are very, very technical skills in terms, and I mean, like you said, not a lot of people, or prospective students, are coming in with, I mean, you might be coming from say a music background. I know someone in our cohort that came in as a dancer, and now she's doing great things at the Department of Health. But in general, what qualities do you look for apart from those technical skills?
Kiera Bloch: Right. It's really interesting. We actually have someone in the lab now who has an MFA background in interior design. That was, kind of, out of left field, and her interest in public health came after having a career in a completely different area. We definitely like that and don't hold that against anybody, obviously. But I think, which is part of the reason why we have these face-to-face interviews, is because we do want to get a sense of what they're like in person, and if they're open to the kind of environment that we have in lab, and some people aren't comfortable with it, so we want to let people know what it's like right off the bat, so that they're not surprised at how student-run it is and how it's a very organic kind of way the lab is run. We try to look for team players, people who just seem really open and enthusiastic about being a part of something like that.
Pratik Sourav: No, that's exactly it. I mean, if a person is genuinely interested in doing the work that we're doing currently, if we get that sense from that person, then yeah, that's what we look for.
Deborah Onakomaiya: What is a lab day for you guys? I know you said it's a student-run lab. You guys have projects going. Is it a type of lab where you have to come in every day, or what's a typical day at the lab?
Kiera Bloch: Unlike some labs that have an hour minimum, hourly commitment, per week, so we don't have a lab space where people come in and are required to put in a certain amount of time, in a specific location on campus, to work on their projects. We have two-hour meetings every Friday that the whole lab comes together. During those meetings, they kind of vary from week to week, but they always include update from each team, to kind of see where they're at, where they're struggling, so that the rest of the lab can pitch in and try to troubleshoot with them on how to make their project move forward. So, that kind of collaborative spirit is what we aim for during our meetings. We also, for the past two or three meetings, have had guest presenters. So, potential projects come in and pitch their... and the past two cases have been business models, and what they need from us, and so then we're able to ask them questions, have a back and forth, kind of understand what they want from us, and then proceed with a project as we see is agreed upon between both parties.
And our hope this year, too, is to get more guest speakers, whether it be people from outside NYU, professors in the college that not everyone is going to be able to have contact with, that have different areas of expertise. Last year, Dr. Dickey pulled in really interesting visitors. There is one woman who is a lawyer in India who's doing advocacy for women's rights in India. She came in and talked to us a little bit. The people we worked with at UNICEF would come in sometimes and give feedback on things. So, it depends. We're also trying to teach some skills and tools that people aren't going to learn in class, at least not in their first year, so they're good skills to have in the lab specifically. Rather than expecting them to know things, we're trying to ease everyone into it a little bit this year.
It depends every week, but it's the collaboration. Then each team, depending on their project, meets outside of that time, so you're expected to put in work outside of that time. For Narrowing the Gaps, we met every week outside of lab for a couple hours. Sometimes I was at UNICEF. Often it was just here, kind of working through what was needed. It depends on the project, and that'll also be in conjunction with the outside organization that you're working with and what they expect.
Deborah Onakomaiya: That sounds really interesting, and just to go a little bit further, what current projects are you working on? Are you guys on the same team, or what's down the pipeline for you guys in particular at the lab?
Pratik Sourav: We are, actually. On Narrowing the Gap, Kiera and I work together, and currently in this year, we have multiple projects running in the lab. One of the projects that I'm working on, and Kiera's in that project too, it's a bottleneck analysis of the health systems of Bangladesh. It's basically a four-step study, and it's going to be quite a long one as well. It's going to take quite some time, because it involves a lot of data collection and data analysis. The first step for that study is a bottleneck analysis of entire health systems of Bangladesh. The step two is going to be reducing the bottlenecks and the impact of that reduction. That means that how many lives that will save if we reduce, or remove, that bottleneck.
The step three part is the calculation of the cost, how much it costs to reduce that bottleneck. And the step four is the cost-effectiveness study. How much does it cost to save one life if we reduce those bottlenecks? While we are estimating that it's probably going to take us a year to get everything done, and Dr. Dickey and Dr. Knippenberg, they both, as a matter of fact, are our advisor for that project. Even though Dr. Knippenberg is not part of the lab, but he felt like this project is interesting enough for him to be part of it too, so, yeah.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Wow. And this is also going to be working through UNICEF?
Pratik Sourav: That's all ours. That's all the lab, and as a matter of fact, no other study have ever done an entire bottleneck analysis for an entire country. It has been done on a subdistrict level, or a regional level. This is the first time ever a bottleneck analysis study is being done on an entire country's health system.
Deborah Onakomaiya: I mean, you guys have talked about the projects that you've had, the new projects in. I mean, it's very, very exciting. How do you guys balance it out? I mean, you're in your second years, you have your capstones, projects, some of you guys are working. How are you guys able to balance it all out in this NYU environment?
Kiera Bloch: It's busy. There's no beating around the bush on that. It's super busy. We're both working. We're both in class full time, we're both in the lab, so we both have a lot going on, but I think they're interesting. It's not a waste of our time. So for me, I'm totally willing to put in the time and put in the work in these projects, and in the lab, kind of, make projects happen, because rewarding to me, and we got something out of it with our Narrowing the Gaps, and so that was really rewarding. Dr. Dickey connected me with my current boss. Just putting in the effort, you do reap the rewards afterwards. I think I've certainly had that experience, and it makes the busyness worth it. But it is, it's busy, and we try to make that clear to new members too, that they're, you know...
Pratik Sourav: For me, a PH degree is a professional degree. Right after MPH, for me, I mean, that's my point of view. Right after MPH, you're supposed to know what exactly you're doing in your life. And so from that...
Deborah Onakomaiya: Not for everyone, Pratik.
Pratik Sourav: Again, that's the reason why I'm saying it's my point of view.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Yeah.
Pratik Sourav: That's the reason why I feel like while you're doing MPH, make the best use of your time, and you're supposed to be busy. We both have full-time jobs. Both of us are full-time students. At the same time, we're working on the lab too. It's tough. It's tough. Time management is tough, but that's what is expected. That's my point of view.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Wow. I've been very inspired by today. What are your public health inspirations? What inspires you every... I mean, because you guys are super busy. What inspires you every day to continue working, to continue to push forward, to continue to work hard on these projects where you're not getting paid? What inspires you? What motivates you guys?
Kiera Bloch: I think the other people working on the projects, and the professors that are involved, like Dr. Dickey and Dr. Knippenberg, are so full of zest in their careers, which are in later stages, obviously, than ours, and the fact that they have as much passion at that point, is really inspiring to me. It's a worthwhile pursuit. And for me too, it's like I want to go on, get my doctorate. This is something that I want to be as involved in things now as possible. And public health is a huge and emerging field, and there are endless issues to be tackled, and I think it's important work.
Deborah Onakomaiya: How about for you, Pratik?
Pratik Sourav: Right. Inspiration, for example, I'll bring back Narrowing the Gap again, because that was a big deal for me, because it works with under-five mortality, and that's under-five mortality, and maternal mortality, is something that I want to work on in the future. The paper, the policy brief that came out, eventually that will end up being a strategy for some of the countries, because that's what NSF does. They provide recommendation and the countries adopt them, and that end up being their country's strategy, or policy, on that specific sector. In one sense, what we've been doing so far, is making an impact of an entire country's policy and strategy. If you think of it like that, that what we have been doing in the last past one year, working in the lab, is going to make a change. For example, in Bangladesh and saving more under-five life, that's quite inspiration for me. That's all it takes.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Thank you guys so much for being here.
Kiera Bloch: Thank you.
Deborah Onakomaiya: Yeah.