Elizabeth Chen, MPH, and Cristina Leos, MSPH, health behavior doctoral students at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, have won a $325,000 award from Innovation Next, a program of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
The award is the largest ever made to a student or a student group at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
MyHealthEd’s proposal to Innovation Next, called “RealTalk,” is to create a phone-based app for middle-school students in rural North Carolina and Texas.
How does it feel to be winners in a national competition like this one?
Chen: First, I am humbled. All of the teams had incredible experience and were committed to improving adolescent sexual health outcomes. I am also looking forward to receiving additional support from The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy as we prepare to launch our product. We are both excited to join this cohort of teen pregnancy prevention innovators.
Leos: It is incredible. We committed ourselves to working hard and learning as much as we could from the middle school students we worked with, so it’s exciting to see that we will get to continue this work for the next eighteen months and turn our idea into reality.
What is the award?
Chen: Of the ten Innovation Next finalist teams selected in March, five were chosen on Aug. 19 based on scores from the business plan they submitted and an in-person ten-minute pitch. Our team was one of the five teams awarded $325,000 for the next 18 months. We will use the funding to develop our mobile app, “Real Talk.”
Could you describe your project?
Chen and Leos; Our Real Talk mobile app will deliver sexual health information through stories written by real teens. We are confident that our approach will make sex education engaging and more effective than traditional approaches. After our team was named as one of ten finalists in March, we spent four months following the design-thinking process to come up with this idea that resonates with our priority population, middle school students.
What happens next?
Chen and Leos: In the immediate future, we will continue to work with middle school students in North Carolina and Texas to refine our design and to prototype different versions of specific features. We will also start a social media campaign in order to engage with users, middle school students, who will submit stories to our team. We will use the stories as the basis for all the content delivered through the app. We will also start to work with nonprofit organizations and schools to connect with users and develop our brand.
What do you think gave you the edge over other finalists?
Chen: I think that our team is incredibly well rounded. Among our team members, we have training in education, public health business, and engineering. We were able to think broadly about the issue we were trying to address. We also engaged extensively with our priority population in this short timeframe, working alongside more than 150 students to co-create the product. Our final product was strongly grounded in the students’ needs and desires, and this grounding ultimately led to a unique compelling idea. I also think that since we are graduate students, we had time to deeply immerse ourselves in the design thinking process and apply it to intervention development.
Were there one or two aspects of your health behavior training that were applicable to this award?
Chen: I think that the qualitative research training that we received in the Masters in Public Health program was incredibly helpful. Part of the inspiration-gathering phase in design thinking’s research process is to conduct in-depth interviews with users. Dr. Suzanne Maman’s class HBEH 753 trained us very well, and this led to strong interview guides, helpful probes and very rich data.
Leos: Many aspects of our project were driven by health equity principles. We were very intentional in choosing our priority population and critically examined the potential consequences of our idea as it evolved throughout the past few months. Understanding and addressing health disparities has been an important part of our training and we made sure to keep that at the forefront of all we have done with this project.
Meet the Team
Liz Chen is a native of Westwood, Massachusetts and graduated from Princeton University in 2010 with degrees in anthropology and global health and health policy. Upon graduating, she joined Teach For America and taught high school science in a rural area of eastern North Carolina for two years before coming to the Gillings School as a master’s student. Chen graduated with a Master of Public Health degree in health behavior in 2014 and immediately started the doctoral program in the same department. She is starting her third year in the doctoral program and looks forward to serving as a Teaching Assistant for HBEH 746 and HBEH 811, putting together her dissertation proposal, and working on Real Talk in the coming months.
Cristina Leos is from El Paso, Texas and graduated from Stanford University in 2013 with a degree in human biology. She has completed the Masters of Science in Public Health degree in health behavior and is a third-year doctoral student in the same department. Cristina’s work focuses on using innovative approaches to improve Latino adolescent health. She is excited to continue using design thinking and bring Real Talk to middle school students across the country.
Vichi Jagannathan is an MBA candidate at the Yale School of Management.
Chen, Leos and Jagannathan are the co-founders of MyHealthEd, a new nonprofit organization that focuses on improving health education for youth through the use of technology.