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Berkeley Public Health undergrad finds renewed purpose in Mysore, India

Samhita Bhat and an Anganwadi (AWW) worker.

Newfound independence, research experience, and a fresh perspective. These lessons weren’t necessarily on UC Berkeley student Samhita Bhat’s to-do list before she left for a summer 2022 internship in India. And yet, when her time was up at  Public Health Research Institute of India (PHRII), Bhat—a fourth-year undergrad majoring in molecular & cell biology and public health— took home a series of revelations, along with a renewed commitment to a career in public health.

PHRII was founded by Berkeley Public Health alum Purnima Madhivanan ‘07—now associate professor at the University of Arizona—in 2005 to deliver affordable healthcare to women and children in India’s rural communities. The institute educates women and provides them with reproductive services  at its Prerana Reproductive Health Clinic and Mobile Medical Clinic, located in Mysore, India. Inspired by and familiar with Madhivanan’s work, Bhat connected with her over the phone and was shortly offered the internship.

While working at PHRII, Bhat measured the impact of a cervical cancer screening program on community members.

For Bhat, the experience was a welcome change from previous internships, at which she spent most of her time behind a lab bench rather than out in the field. In India, her research consisted of interviewing community health workers, also known as ashas, about the effectiveness of the mobile clinic’s cervical cancer screening program. She developed a questionnaire that evaluated provider, participant, and community attributes using smiley faces to represent satisfaction. In total, Bhat interviewed workers in 17 rural communities and three urban centers.

Analyzing survey results, Bhat and her research team, made up of other UC Berkeley undergrads, found that social stigma and disinformation about sexual health were significant barriers against community awareness of HPV, a viral infection transmitted through sex or skin-to-skin contact that can cause cervical cancer.

The researcher team would go on to present their findings at the American College of Epidemiology conference and publish their abstract in the peer-reviewed journal Annals of Epidemiology.

When she visited India in the past, Bhat had always been accompanied by her family and welcomed by relatives with a warm cup of coffee in their home town of JP Nagar. But traveling alone for the first time meant curating her own itinerary.

“In some ways, it was a challenge,” she said. In between navigating new situations like buying groceries, meeting new roommates, and figuring out public transportation, a lot of growth happened. “It helped me gain a lot of independence.”

Bhat chronicled her time abroad through weekly blog posts, providing both reflection and insight on everything from adventures with roommates to conducting research interviews.

Bhat always knew she wanted to do a summer internship in India and to carve a path in public health doing nonprofit work. Now, after interviewing tens of women to assess Mysore’s community needs for cervical cancer and HPV screening, Bhat’s postgraduate trajectory is clearer than ever. “Hearing these stories helped me understand why this career path was the one I want to take.”