It’s no secret that SPHTM is a staunch advocate for global health, embracing the premise that global is local and local is also definitely global. Our students are living proof that global health can be practiced down the street or half-way around the world.
On these pages, take a look into the lives of three students who are applying what they learn as they learn it and recognizing that, whether they are working in New Orleans or on another continent, communities and individuals all care about having safe, healthy places to live.
Creativity and Adaptability Key to Peace Corps Service
Global environmental health sciences student Herre Echsner has a self-proclaimed “love affair with the Gulf Coast.” He was brought up in Gulf Breeze, Fla., a community situated on a peninsula in Pensacola Bay about five minutes from the Gulf of Mexico.
Proximity to the Gulf was one factor that led him to Tulane. The Master’s International (MI) program was another.
Tulane SPHTM boasts the largest MI program at a school of public health and the second largest overall. MI students complete their classroom experience toward an MPH or MSPH, then apply what they’ve learned in the Peace Corps.
Echsner’s Peace Corps experience took him to Paraguay, more than 4,000 miles away and, significantly, away from the Gulf Coast. Or any coast for that matter, since Paraguay is a land-locked country in the middle of South America.
“After being near the coast nearly all my life, it was very different,” says Echsner.
Although Echsner was taken on as a rural health and sanitation extensionist, he soon found himself working on a lot of different projects, not all of them directly related to the health sector. “Peace Corps requires you to be creative and innovative, adaptable when serving in the assigned community,” says Echsner. After conducting a community study and spending some time in his community, he looked beyond his main tasks and found there were other needs.
As a result, his Peace Corps experience incorporated a wide variety of roles. He worked in an elementary school promoting dental health and hygiene and in a high school teaching life skills and sexual health education. He even developed a creative writing class that encouraged self-expression through writing, the arts, and photography.
Echsner also worked with a community group on the “Modern Kitchen Project,” an effort to found 12 modern kitchens. The kitchens, funded through community fundraising and a Peace Corps Partnership grant, included a sink, an area to clean fruit and vegetables, and storage space, with the ultimate goal of promoting proper food preparation and reducing contamination and foodborne illness. Once the kitchens were awarded, Echsner presented
a workshop on safe working practices in the kitchen, stressing that hygiene was the responsibility of everyone in the family.
Finally, he introduced his community to pigeon peas, a legume that can be cultivated in tropical and semitropical regions. While men typically work in the fields in Paraguay, he was able to show women how they could invest their time and effort in a small garden and cultivate a sustainable and easily grown secondary protein source for the family.
Echsner says that his Peace Corps experience gave him confidence to apply public health theory in unconventional, creative ways. “It was the most valuable aspect of my degree,” he reports.
For now Echsner is studying for the medical college admission (MCAT) test, with aspirations of becoming a physician working with minority populations conducting community-based health outreach. While waiting to take the test, however, he plans to earn money driving a pedicab in the French Quarter and remaining close to the Gulf Coast that he loves so much.
Taisy Conk is Makin’ Groceries
If you spend any length of time around local New Orleanians, you are going to hear someone talk about “makin’ groceries,” which is the local lingo for grocery shopping.
For global community health and behavioral sciences student Taisy Conk, it’s more than a phrase; it’s been a student job and a way for her to apply her professional skills to nutrition research.
“It’s been nice to work with the Prevention Research Center because they do a lot of work in New Orleans,” says Conk. Makin’ Groceries is a project of the Prevention Research Center (PRC) and an effort to show how having a nearby grocery store can influence resident shopping and eating habits.
The PRC was one factor that drew Conk, who is from New York City, to the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. “I really liked that I could study nutrition but within community health and also take maternal and child health courses.” The focus here is very applied, she says. “Tulane has such a strong research-to-practice orientation instead of being exclusively academic like many other schools.”
She was also drawn to the truly global perspective at the school, which looks at problems through multiple lenses. “The U.S. is exporting a lot of the negative aspects of our culture. There will be a need internationally for these community-based approaches to
nutrition and obesity,” she says.
Conk’s work with the Makin’ Groceries project consists of door-to-door surveys of residents in two neighborhoods. Most people have been receptive to the survey, she says, especially because having a local grocery story is very relevant to them and would
have a direct impact on their daily life.
She sees the program as a unique opportunity. “New Orleans is an easier place to do a study [of this type] because there aren’t that many grocery stores.”
After graduation, Conk hopes to put her experience to work to develop more community-based nutrition and physical activity policies and practices to impact the built environment. Having spent time abroad, she appreciates the global approach she has experienced in her education and could envision herself in a South American city where, she says, a community approach would work well.
A Local Global Perspective
The SPHTM’s strong focus on international health was one of the elements that drew Chris Gunther to the school, but it’s not what kept him here.
Originally from a rural community in the Shenandoah Valley, Gunther knew that he was drawn to cities and always knew that that an MPH was in his future. He anticipated that he would earn a degree, then go abroad to work.
A series of opportunities and a fair amount of luck changed all that.
To figure out how he got from a career abroad to one in the Crescent City, you have to go back to when Gunther graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. By that point, he had attended open house at SPHTM and both the city and the school had really drawn him in. He knew he definitely wanted to come to New Orleans, so while waiting to hear about his acceptance to SPHTM he applied to TeachNOLA, a nonprofit organization that preps mid-career professionals and recent college graduates to teach in the classroom. One way or another, Gunther was coming to New Orleans.
When he was accepted into both programs, he had to make a choice. Gunther deferred his admission to SPHTM and began a 5-week training program designed to ready him to begin teaching in the fall. In July 2010, Gunther began teaching middle school science at SciTech Academy in New Orleans’ Garden District.
“My first year teaching was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Gunther admits. Although he felt that TeachNOLA did a good job preparing him, many of his students faced much greater challenges outside of the classroom than he was prepared to deal with. Poverty,
crime, and a lack of family or other support impacted many of his students. “As a teacher, it’s difficult to deal with these things. Sometimes science seemed like the least important thing in the lives of these kids.”
Still, the experience taught Gunther a lot and he’s glad the program initially brought him to New Orleans. It gave him the opportunity to uncover some of the deep-rooted challenges the city faces. And it inspired him.
After one year teaching, Gunther was a student again, although he continued to teach part-time as a literacy instructor. Instead of joining the Department of Global Health Systems and Development, however, he switched to epidemiology where he could learn population-level analysis skills. Since he was no longer working, he had to find a job and quickly landed a graduate assistant position working for Associate Dean for Research Geetha Bansal.
Bansal hired Gunther and two other students to develop the research resources web pages housed on the school’s website. Although most of the resources already existed, they were scattered across the site or housed locally in the departments. A key component of Gunther’s task was to develop the Research Portfolio Directory, which cross referenced faculty research into categories and subcategories, making it available for prospective students, funders, potential grant partners, and anyone interested in learning more
about the school’s research.
By the close of his first year, Gunther began considering practicum placements. Out of the blue, he emailed SPHTM alumna Karen DeSalvo to see if she had any opportunities at the New Orleans Health Department. DeSalvo is the city’s health commissioner.
DeSalvo was looking for a student, someone who could analyze a new program to look at instances of domestic violence among WIC clinic clients. Gunther’s practicum project would draw on his epidemiology skills to analyze the data to make it useful.
Or at least it would have. On day one, Gunther learned that the program wasn’t working out as they had planned. So instead of analyzing the data, Gunther was suddenly in
charge of designing and implementing the program.
“It was probably a better experience than had I been just crunching data for the summer,” he said. In this new role, Gunther partnered with the New Orleans Family Justice Center, learning the ins and outs of family and domestic violence and figuring out how to add that into a WIC program.
Although the practicum started as just a summer program, the health department’s efforts were not done by the end of the summer. “It was a much bigger program than I had
understood,” Gunther says and he continued working on it through March of this year.
By then, Gunther was sold on the approach of addressing violence from the city’s health department and he lobbied to stay on. “I was in the right place at the right time,” he says. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu was becoming more focused, himself, on addressing violence from a public health perspective. “He speaks about it as an epidemic,” says Gunther, which he finds encouraging. All of these elements came together and a new position was created in response the mayor’s push to end violence. Gunther now serves as
the Violence & Behavioral Health Program Lead overseeing the family violence prevention program.
He considers himself lucky to have his SPHTM connections because he has been able to work with Katherine Theall and Cathy Taylor, both associate professors of global community health and behavioral sciences who work on violence prevention for women
Looking back over the past three years, Gunther is amazed at the unanticipated direction his life has taken. “My career track has really changed,” he said. “When I came here, I was really interested in international health. My thinking about my career has changed entirely.”
“I also wouldn’t have thought about violence as a public health issue. But then I read a Times-Picayune article about violence in the city over the past 10-15 years and thought about all I had seen as a teacher.”
Gunther graduated in May but has no plans to leave the city. It’s obvious listening to him that he now sees himself as a New Orleanian. “It’s really important for us as a city to think about violence as a public health issue,” he says. He’s also proud of the progress the city has made in improving public health in New Orleans, which has been recognized nationally. In February, New Orleans was one of six communities to be awarded a Roadmaps to Health Prize from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, recognizing community partnerships that are helping people live healthier lives.
He credits DeSalvo for the dramatic changes to the city’s health department, with designs on turning it into a model for the nation. “We are getting there, for sure,” says Gunther. For the immediate future, Gunther is set to be a big part of that change.