Many UVM students have left Burlington to plunge into summer undergraduate research opportunities or internships across the country and around the world. As the first recipient of the University of Global Health Equity (UGHE) Summer Internship offered by the UVM Career Center and the College of Arts and Sciences, Siera Carusone ’18 is studying in Kigali, Rwanda.
A rising senior with a major in anthropology specializing in global health, Carusone is spending the summer working alongside interns from Harvard University assisting UGHE faculty with curriculum delivery. She is interviewing patients in rural clinics to assess how public health programs are working in local communities and addressing any gaps between program services and needs.
“I always wanted to be a doctor, but I decided the pre-med track didn’t offer enough of what I wanted to do in a clinical practice,” Carusone explains. “At the end of my sophomore year, anthropology opened up a new focus in global health, which really spoke to my interest in using systematic approaches to improve health outcomes abroad.”
The new internship is sponsored by Partners in Health, the renowned non-profit health care organization dedicated to bringing modern medical practices to the poorest areas of developing countries. One of its founders, Paul Farmer, a medical anthropologist and professor of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, came to speak at UVM in the fall of 2017 in association with the George D. Aiken Lecture Series.
Carusone’s experience represents UVM’s expanding commitment to cross-college collaboration through developing new majors and minors that explore public health through an interdisciplinary lens. Her advisor, associate professor of anthropology Jeanne Shea, has been involved for many years in working with colleagues to lay the groundwork for these fresh curricular approaches to health and wellness in CAS.
“There’s long been a demand from UVM students seeking out self-designed majors in interdisciplinary areas like global health, public health, alternative healing, healthcare policy, or environmental health,” Shea says. “That can be difficult to do administratively, without a curricular framework to support these interests.”
Undergrads Lead the Way
In 2007 Shea invited students to attend the Global Health and Innovation Conference at Yale University and Cynthia McCormack ‘11, now a lecturer and clinical instructor at Norwich University, took her up on it.
“It’s an interdisciplinary conference that was started 14 years ago by a Yale undergraduate student,” Shea explains. “The conference brings together health care practitioners, researchers, aid workers, teachers, students, and social entrepreneurs—a whole range of people with different perspectives on global health and how to approach its improvement.”
Shea was impressed with the non-hierarchical spirit of the conference, which puts all participants on an equal playing field, leading to innovative problem-solving.
“Everyone talks with everyone, because you never know who, like the undergraduate founder of what is now the largest annual global health and innovation conference in the world, may make the next key contribution. Cynthia was so inspired by the conference that she started the UVM chapter of the national student global health club MedLife.”
Now called MedVida, the organization provides informal global health peer-to-peer education to its members, performs community service for underserved populations in Vermont, and sends UVM students to volunteer in MedLife projects in developing countries where access to care is extremely limited. Shea serves as the club’s faculty advisor.
Another ambitious UVM undergrad, microbiology major Gabriela Sarriera '17, helped pave the way for the UGHE Summer Internship and build momentum for a multi-disciplinary focus on health.
Attending the same Yale conference in 2015, Sarriera heard Rwandan Minister of Health Dr. Agnes Binagwaho deliver the keynote address. Sarriera was so moved by the talk that she approached Binagwaho and asked how she could help, promising the Minister that if she accepted, she’d find a way to get to Rwanda. The conversation led to an internship where Sarriera learned about the troubling limits the colonial-influenced legal system puts on citizen access to healthcare in Rwanda.
After the experience, Sarriera approached Shea about how to help other UVM students follow in her footsteps. One result was a new partnership between UGHE and UVM, with a summer internship spot reserved for a UVM undergraduate. The other result: a scholarship to make that internship possible, supported by the Office Undergraduate Research and the College of Arts and Sciences. Carusone was chosen as the first recipient this April.
“Gabby worked so hard and did such a good job that Partners in Health agreed to offer a yearly internship slot for a UVM student,” Shea said. “Up until now, internships were only awarded to Harvard students, given Paul Farmer’s affiliation there. This is an honor and a privilege for our students to be able to get involved in these efforts.”
Following an interdisciplinary Honors College Faculty Seminar on Global Health led by Shea and Burt Wilcke (associate professor of medical laboratory and radiation science in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences) in 2015, momentum for a cross-college interdisciplinary major and minor related to public health began to build. In fall of 2015 an ad hoc committee began meeting to discuss ways to build on UVM’s existing strengths in health and wellness, and develop new programs that draw on resources and perspectives from across the university.
Emerging from those conversations are two new options for students to study health. The first, a new B.S. degree in health sciences offered by the College of Nursing and Health Sciences, is aimed at students interested building on foundational knowledge in the sciences. The second, a proposed new College of Arts and Sciences major and minor in health and society, will emphasize social and cultural studies of health; these will be considered by the curriculum committee in the fall.
“Students pursuing either degree option can take many of the same core courses and electives, so there’s a great deal of cross-pollination between the colleges,” explained Abby McGowan, associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences. “We’re convinced this will lead to richer learning while opening multiple career paths.”
As a double major in theatre and anthropology, Siera Carusone is already sold on the idea of learning from multiple perspectives.
“I think you can take the interpersonal and performance skills you learn in theatre pretty much anywhere. The majors are mutually self-supporting in ways that are really unexpected. I’m expecting to use a lot of what I learned in both disciplines when I get to Rwanda.”