EP133 Climate Change and Disease Elimination with Hyacinth Burrows

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EP133 Climate Change and Disease Elimination with Hyacinth Burrows

Aman: Folks, welcome back to another episode of the I AM GPH podcast. Today we have a fantastic guest with us, Hyacinth Burrows, a true advocate for public health. Hyacinth is currently pursuing her masters at NYU GPH, specializing in environmental public health sciences, where she's also a William N. Rom climate fellow, actively working on projects related to climate change and global health. Besides all her academic pursuit, Hyacinth volunteers for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network as a Vice State Lead Ambassador. We'll dive into this entire journey and discover her valuable insights on disease elimination strategies and building strong, better communities. Hyacinth, we're so happy to have you here on I AM GPH Podcast. Welcome.

Hyacinth: Thank you for having me.

Aman: So let me start with the most basic question. What made you even choose NYU?

Hyacinth: Ooh. So actually, my younger sibling graduated from NYU Shanghai campus, and they did their study abroad at NYU Washington Square Park. So just seeing their richness of their academic experience really made me want to apply, to NYU specifically, for my master's in public health. And I wanted to focus on MPH that had the environmental health aspect, but also, provided experiences for me to apply those public health skills globally. So NYU was just like a no-brainer choice.

Aman: So how did you identify that? Where this place helps me apply those public health skills globally? There was a sister connection to get in. How did it enhance that, okay, this is the right environment in terms of global connectivity. Was it because they had multiple campuses? What stood out to you?

Hyacinth: Yeah, it's the multiple campuses that are global. Also, the research labs and initiatives that have interactions with other global organizations. I think those were the two main things.

Aman: So what I'm really curious about as well. I've spoken to a lot of people on this podcast, you're one of the first climate fellows, or a fellow of something that I've interacted with. So how does someone even become a fellow? What's an entire journey of someone becoming a fellow for whatever it is in their own field? What was the journey like for you?

Hyacinth: So for the William N. Rom climate fellowship specifically, you have to apply. The applications, I think for 2023, 2024 are actually about to open, I think it's September 1st or something like that. But it's an application with your CV, a bio, and a personal statement of what you want to research or why this research is important to you. Which is pretty standard for most fellowship applications. And I'm particularly interested in that intersection of environmental health and public policies, so this was a fellowship that was perfect for me. Yeah, and I was selected in October, and then in November, we went to COP, the Conference of the Parties, which is the United Nations Climate Change Conference, and the past year was in Egypt.

Aman: Oh, wow.

Hyacinth: Yeah.

Aman: So, let's go back to the moment when you were applying for a fellowship. What's that entire process like? You look at an application, you say this is for you. What are materials? You said that there is the work you do and you have to share all of that with the people that are selecting the fellows. What do you think stood out for you or what do you think worked for you?

Hyacinth: What worked for me in order to actually get the fellowship? I think there's kind of an art to writing fellowship applications, job cover letters, things like that. And knowing your audience and knowing which opportunities are worth your time to apply to, you know? And like I said, I think my interest really perfectly aligns to the mission of this particular fellowship, and so it was easy for me to write about it to show that in the letter, and for them to also see that as the reviewers of the application.

Aman: So you identified a niche that was unique to you and that works.

Hyacinth: Yeah.

Aman: That resonated with you more and you could serve in it and then apply for it simply. It's more for others that apply and they... What should they look for in a fellowship? So it's essentially find your niche, find your own interest, and go all in on that to some degree?

Hyacinth: Exactly. Yeah. Be authentic. And if you don't really know what you want to do, that's okay to kind of explore and say that you want to take this opportunity to learn more about X, Y, and Z. But just show that you've done your research and show a general curiosity and that will translate well.

Aman: We're probably gonna clip that, honestly. That's very, very good feedback. Find your niche, find the curiosity, follow it, and something will open up for you over here.

Hyacinth: Yeah.

Aman: How lovely. Tell me more about Egypt and the other events that you got to go through because of this. There's so many interesting stories in there, I'm sure.

Hyacinth: Oh man. Yeah. So the conference was a part of the fellowship, and like I said, it was based in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, which is a lovely resort town, so it's nice to have to go to an academic conference for that. And NYU has a delegation. So we went as a part of the NYU delegation. There was another fellow, Dia Beggs, who worked alongside with for the whole entire fellowship with the United Nations Development Program. And we went to a lot of panel discussions while we were there. We went to presentations on any topic that really focused on the nexus of climate change and health. So obviously, World Health Organization was a leader in that conversation. We were at their workshops a lot. But yeah, as a whole, it was just kind of like a crash course and specific climate health priorities for the countries that were present. And we got sit in on negotiations, which was really cool. And then for the fellowship throughout the year, we worked at United Nations Headquarters up in northern Manhattan, so that was really great.

Aman: I'm curious to know. I would consider you someone that was very interested or well versed with the space of climate change. What was something that your view changed when you went to these conferences and got to meet and work with different kinds of people? Was there a view you had and you were like, "Oh, that was completely wrong," or, "I did not know that." Was there something that you learned in those processes?

Hyacinth: Hmm. Yeah, I think maybe two things that stick out when you ask that question. One of them being, I think... I think of myself as an optimist, but there's a general sense of pragmatism when it comes to climate change. You think in the terms of what your country is doing for climate change or what your neighborhood is doing. If you see recycling in your community, then you kind of have this fallacy to extrapolate that to the rest of the globe. But being at the Climate Change Conference and seeing what all these other countries are doing in climate change and to mitigate the health effects of climate change was really inspiring to shift my focus to be a little bit more optimistic, which I appreciated. There's also, since I'm focusing on the health effects of climate change and that nexus, there was a focus on clean cooking that I didn't really have on my radar before. I think it's one in five premature deaths are caused by pollution. And I think... What is the number? I'm not gonna misquote, but a lot of individuals around the world do not have access to clean, safe cooking fuels. They're cooking indoors with charcoal or wood and that black soot is getting into their lungs. And it's a major problem that wasn't on my radar because here in the States, we're cooking with electric or gas stoves. So those would be, I think, my takeaways from the conference.

Aman: That's so insightful. You know, being so involved in this space and then still expanding, it shows that there's never-ending things to learn over here and keep evolving.

Hyacinth: Yeah, absolutely.

Aman: So, you know, I'm very excited to talk to you about this thing called the GLIDE program. I'm sure a lot of people watching your specific episode are also interested in what the GLIDE program is, but can you tell me a little bit more about that? And from someone who doesn't know anyone, doesn't know anyone or anything in the GLIDE program, about the GLIDE program, what is the GLIDE program? Explain it to us.

Hyacinth: Hmm. Okay. So GLIDE is actually an organization. It's the Global Institute of Disease Elimination. They have a base in Abu Dhabi, and they work with global partners to advance progress for disease elimination and eradication in endemic countries all over the world. Their work focuses on a lot of neglected tropical diseases like lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis, schistosomiasis, and also malaria and polio. They actually have a project in Hispaniola that is focusing on eliminating malaria. With my alma mater, University of South Florida that I did my undergrad in. They're doing a lot of cool projects.

Aman: There's a lot of diseases you mentioned that I have no idea about. So what makes this organization focus on all these areas? What stemmed this organization to form? What are they specifically focusing on in terms of that?

Hyacinth: Yeah, so they're focusing on diseases that have a likelihood to be eliminated or eradicated. So if they've been eliminated in other parts of the world, or if the disease itself has all of the conditions to be eradicated, then they fund research or they help strategize to move along that eradication/elimination process. And so GLIDE partnered with the Carter Center and with NYU to put on a workshop in Abu Dhabi that was I think around 10 days. And I think NYU MPH students, DRPH students, and then global public health professionals gathered together, they're placed on teams kind of based on a region or a disease topic. And then you strategize to come up with a strategy to eliminate the disease. And it's kind of like, if you think of a codathon. You know, you're working to for this project and then they choose a team at the end that wins and has the best project.

Aman: Yeah, that was a great example for all the engineers watching right now.

Hyacinth: Yeah, exactly.

Aman: Disease elimination and diseases that can be eliminated. So, you went to Abu Dhabi for this 10 day thing that you were talking about right now?

Hyacinth: I did, yeah.

Aman: What was that like? So was it similar to when you attended in Egypt? It was kind of like a codathon you mentioned. What was interesting about it? What did you learn or something that changed your interest when you went to this thing?

Hyacinth: Mm. Yeah. Wow, so much. So it's very different from the COP Climate Change Conference because that's massive. This was a way more intimate experience. Just, I wanna say something like, 30 attendees or so. But you get a really intimate knowledge and experience of developing public health strategies. My team in particular was focused on eliminating the transmission of soil-transmitted helminths in Rubavu in Rwanda. It's a region that has very high prevalence of STH.

Aman: What is STH?

Hyacinth: Soil-transmitted helminths. Sorry.

Aman: Oh. Gotcha.

Hyacinth: Yeah, so doing that and working on that specific project, I learned a lot about Rwanda, the culture. But just being with an international kind of cohort of public health professionals, it clicked for me that I would like to pursue my PhD abroad because of that applied behavioral theory of the international interaction. I've been looking at PhD programs already, but I think just being in that really truly diverse cohort and having the experience of just like, hands-on codathon-type strategy building, it's addictive. You're like, "I can't go back."

Aman: It's so interesting that a short 10-day trip made you consider doing your PhD internationally as well. Which is such a great insight to gain from something like this.

Hyacinth: Yeah. You can't quantify those kind of experiences where like, "Whoa, I wasn't even thinking. This is a blind spot for me." 'Cause you're... Yeah, I don't wanna go down a pittage hole about PhD programs and the differences in the academic institutions, but there's a lot, there's a lot of differences.

Aman: Tell me more about the trip. So was it your first time going to Abu Dhabi? What was it like representing and going to these new places for you?

Hyacinth: It was good. Abu Dhabi is very hot. Even at night. We were by the pool one day at like, 9:00 PM and I think it was still 101 degrees. But absolutely beautiful, amazing culture, amazing mosque. I ate my weight in dates. Yeah. Very beautiful.

Aman: And then you had a very international cohort of people that you were interacting with there on a regular basis. I'd like to hop back into this one thing. How do people identify diseases that can be removed? So you said they've eradicated them in different countries. Does it vary from country to country? How do these diseases even come to life to begin with? Is that a long answer or is there an easy way to understand that for anyone who's not well versed in the field?

Hyacinth: Hmm. So, for a disease to be eliminated, it has to have one vector. That's one of the requirements. Well, not necessarily one vector, I apologize. Let's nix that sentence. For the disease to be eliminated, it needs to have just a human host. It makes it really difficult to eliminate a disease if it has multiple reservoirs. That's one of the main requirements, I would say.

Aman: Multiple reservoir reservoirs means different versions of it in different areas?

Hyacinth: Oh no, sorry. Like if... What's an example? If the disease can also infect humans and it infects pigs as well-

Aman: Ah.

Hyacinth: You know? Then the pigs serve as a reservoir. While the humans are eliminating that disease, there's still the capability for that disease to be transmitted. I know I'm not giving you a specific example.

Aman: No, that's a good example.

Hyacinth: Yeah.

Aman: Man, there's so much to learn in that entire world of the GLIDE program for you and what that's done and the direction it's taken you into, so let's perhaps transition into your NYC experience. You have been a part of the, as a climate fellow, you have gone to the GLIDE program and now, what are you doing at GPH that's expanding your understanding when it comes to this environmental public health area that you're involved in?

Hyacinth: Expanding my experiences. Yeah, I mean, I stay pretty active in the NYU community. So I'm currently the incoming co-director of the Applied Global Public Health Initiative Lab. There, we do a lot of research projects with global partners. Concentrating on... Ooh, a lot of things. Neglected tropical diseases, climate change, decolonizing, public health. Yeah, a lot of stuff. But NYU in general has just definitely given me kind of an applied global health perspective to environmental health, I would say. Just going back to that blind spot of not knowing the things that you don't know until you have that experience. I knew that I wanted to look at the health effects of climate change and environmental health, but it wasn't until I went to COP that I learned about very specific problems in environmental health. Like I was saying earlier, it's one in three people-- I remember now-- one in three people in the world that don't have access to clean, safe fuels for cooking. There's a massive need to improve access to clean cooking. That's something that a lot of environmental health students could work on right now and is a priority. But yeah, Applied Public Health Initiative Lab.

Aman: Applied Public Health Initiative Lab. You know, I'm hearing your journey right now on this short podcast that we have. And could you have imagined five to six years ago that you would be in this area of public health, how has your journey has evolved, or is this how you always envisioned yourself?

Hyacinth: That's a tricky question. I would say yes and no. Yes, in some ways, no in some ways. I was very intentional with going to grad school. I'm a non-traditional student. So five years ago, I was not in school, I had not finished my bachelor's degree. There was a lot of things going on in life, I would say, but I think the main catalyst was my older brother was diagnosed with glioblastoma brain cancer five years ago. He's completed treatment now. In two months, it'll be five years. Has two beautiful boys, everything's good. But that lived experience was really scary and a motivator for me to realize the gaps in research. There's so much we don't know about the brain. There's so much that we still have to learn in public health. And so it was a pivotal life moment for me to realize like, okay, there's still a lot to be done and you can do it. There's the education. Just go after it. I finished my bachelor's degree, got a job in clinical research to kind of just make sure it's something that I wanted to pursue, pursued my certification in clinical research coordination, and then went for my master's degree. So five years ago, yes, I knew that I was gonna be in a master's program, but did I know that it would be as rich of the experience that I've had at NYU? No.

Aman: Thank you for sharing that story. That's so powerful and that you are taking that path forward and moving into your own journey. What's next now? So what's next? I know there's that international PhD that's lingering around on the side. What else is going on for you?

Hyacinth: Yeah, I think the next year is gonna be a lot of doing work in the Applied Global Public Health Initiative Lab, like I said. Applying to PhD programs. Yeah. A lot of research on the horizon.

Aman: Awesome. Well, we might probably hear from you in a future podcast in a few years down the line when we can see all these things that you're achieving and striding forward into.

Hyacinth: Yeah, I would like that. That'd be awesome.

Aman: Awesome. Well, unfortunately folks, Hyacinth also has a hard stop today because of all the awesome work that she's doing. And we'll end the podcast here. Hyacinth, it was a pleasure having you on the short but sweet podcast today.

Hyacinth: Thank you for having me.