Students Gain a World of Experience


To help train the next generation of researchers and leaders in global public health, the School’s
Center for Global Public Health sends students out into the field in countries around the world through its Summer Fellowship Program. The program offers selected students an award of up to $5,000 to support international travel and research activities for two to three months at an approved faculty project research site. Since its establishment two years ago, the center has already funded summer travel for 15 master’s and doctoral students: seven in 2008 and eight in 2009.

Women planing seeds

Women plant seeds in Oaxaca, Mexico, where MPH student Naya Vanwoekom spent her summer studying food traditions.

Students unfailingly cited the firsthand international experience—in countries including Japan, Nicaragua, Uganda, India, Mexico, and Brazil—as the best part of the fellowships. (“Thirty-plus hours of travel time to Tanzania,” “hot, humid weather!” and “finding internet access and office space” were all contenders for the “worst parts” of their summers.) School and community researchers also gain lasting benefits from the experiences of these motivated, intelligent students.

Lead poisoning from Monterey to Oaxaca

A high incidence of lead poisoning in Monterey County led Naya Vanwoerkom, a master’s student in health and social behavior, to spend her summer studying food traditions in the Zimatlán area of Oaxaca, Mexico. When a public health team investigated the lead problem in Monterey, they found two major risk factors for lead poisoning outbreaks: eating food imported from the Zimatlán region of Oaxaca, and having emigrated from there.

Vanwoerkom, who grew up in Oaxaca, was very interested in studying the Zimatlán community members’ traditional food and health concerns and applying her findings to the ongoing investigations in Monterey County. She hopes her gathered information will illuminate the cultural relevance of a nutrition program targeting a migrant population with ties to Monterey and Oaxaca.

“The best part of this experience was learning about people’s every day life as it related to their diet,” says Vanwoerkom. “Oaxaca’s regions are very diverse and some food traditions can be traced back to pre-Hispanic times. Documenting the food ties between the past and present was fascinating, especially since I lived in Oaxaca for fifteen years and I am familiar with many of the traditional plants used for food.”

For her research, Vanwoerkom worked with binational community health experts Xóchitl Castañeda, director of the Health Initiative of the Americas at the School of Public Health, and Margaret Handley, an assistant adjunct professor of family and community medicine at UCSF.

Before coming to Berkeley to pursue her master’s in public health, Vanwoerkom worked as a nurse in a hospital. The desire to work binationally with indigenous communities brought her to the field of public health, and in the future she hopes to work in Oaxaca. “This fellowship definitely helped me become better prepared,” she says. “I was able to contact researchers working in Oaxaca with indigenous communities and learn about their projects.”

lab workers

Joint Medical Program student Diana Umene works with Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

Battling bacteria in Japan

Meanwhile on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Diana Umene, a student in the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program, was spending her summer studying infectious disease in Japan. She worked closely with Professor Lee Riley, who chairs the School’s Division of Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology, and with several researchers with Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases. At an outpatient clinic in Nagano, Japan, Umene researched the prevalence of drug-resistant E. coli found in patients with uncomplicated urinary tract infections (UTIs).

“The increase of multi-drug resistant pathogens in hospitals and communities is a growing problem and a major public health concern,” says Umene, whose area of concentration is molecular epidemiology. “Globalization of the food trade may act as a new mechanism for the global spread of these drug-resistant organisms.”

Finely identifying different strains of E. coli can lead to a better understanding of the molecular epidemiology of the E.coli that cause community-acquired UTIs. In addition to analyzing the clonal composition of the E. coli strains, Umene also investigated the risk factors associated with contracting UTIs.

“It was a valuable experience getting exposure to both clinical and laboratory settings in Japan and contrasting their health care to the U.S. health care system,” says Umene. “Working with Dr. Riley has been both challenging and fulfilling.”

Nesting HIV studies in Africa

Laura Packel, a PhD student in health services and policy analysis, traveled to Ifakara, Tanzania, in order to discover whether cash incentives can motivate people to change their sexual behavior and avoid unsafe sex. Her qualitative study capitalizes on a large HIV-prevention study already in progress in Tanzania and led by Professor of Health Economics William H. Dow.


“I conducted in-depth interviews with study participants to find out what they think of the study, what they are or aren’t doing to change their behaviors, and why the cash incentive may or may not be effective in bringing about behavior change,” says Packel.

Packel enjoyed the opportunity to talk face to face with the study participants about their experiences with the study and also their lives in general. She recruited two community members to help her with her interviews. “I trained them in preparation for the interviews,” she says, “but every day out in the villages I was learning from them.”

Packel believes the experience of working with people on the ground was an essential preparation for her continuing work in public health. “This is a must,” she says, “if you want to really understand, from the perspective of those you are trying to help, the problems they face on a daily basis, how they handle these problems, and how these problems could potentially be solved using methods that are feasible and acceptable to them.” end of line