Public Health in Action: The Practicum
The practicum is a staple of the MPH degree at UNC Gillings and enables students to use the skills and knowledge that they have gained from their coursework. This experience also allows students to explore possible career paths prior to graduating from the program. The practicum is especially pertinent to the Public Health Leadership Program because leadership is a concept that is most effectively learned out in the field. We would like to take the time to highlight the following students: Caitlin Dooley, Anshula Nathan, Aninda Sen, and Karen Todd. In addition to celebrating these students’ great success through their practicum, the following information is also meant to serve as a resource to current and prospective students as they think about their own experience.
Where did you complete your practicum? I completed my practicum at the North Carolina Department of Health and Humans Services Office of Rural Health (ORH), which is based in Raleigh.
Tell me about the planning process for your practicum. Within my leadership MPH, I have a special focus in Epidemiology. I wanted a practicum that would allow me to work with data, while also giving me creative freedom. I initially intended on working with the Data Team at ORH, but ended up being asked to work for Recruitment and Placement Services to help recruit primary care providers to safety net sites and rural areas of North Carolina.
What tasks did you complete during your practicum? I assisted with the recruitment process for all health care providers, who were mostly in primary care. Recruitment was a particularly daunting task because there are only three recruiters throughout the state; I was happy to help out with that process and take on the challenge. I also collected and examined salary data for rural health care providers to ensure that they were competitive with other nearby locations, as well as found ways that we could make salaries more competitive to attract physicians to rural areas of the state. I also worked closely with team to organize, streamline, and effectively demonstrate team workflow. This task included creating documents outlining team responsibilities, programs, activities and data collection.
What skills did you develop through your experience? I developed team leadership skills. By working at the state level, I was able to learn more about organizational systems and how our team impacts the entire workforce in the state. I also learned how to better communicate information at the state level. Additionally, I learned how to work within a bureaucracy and how to deal with the resistance that sometimes comes from this type of environment where there are specific procedures to follow. My experience made me think back to Vaughn Upshaw’s Public Health Leadership course and how to navigate organizational challenges to meet team goals.
What is your favorite moment from the practicum? My favorite moment was using a data visualization software program called Tableau. I learned about the tool through lunch and learns offered monthly through the Epidemiology Section of the Department of Public Health . Through the sessions, I taught myself how to use Tableau and used it to map out the different open health care providers throughout North Carolina. These maps were ultimately used to pinpoint the areas of highest need and helped us to focus in on our recruitment efforts. It feels really good to have created a tool that continues to be beneficial even after I have completed my practicum.
What advice would you give to students as they prepare for their practicum? I would recommend students step out of their comfort zone and explore interests that they may not be as familiar with. I came from a background in non-profit work, so I had little experience working within a governmental agency. The practicum was a way for me to explore that particular sector of public health implementation. The beauty of the practicum experience is that it is short term, so I’d advise taking advantage of the opportunity to dive into something new.
You recently presented a poster at Practicum Day. How was your experience? It was a good professional development experience. Talking about my practicum experience made me realize how much work I completed and all of skills that I gained through my practicum. I also had the opportunity to speak with some medical students who stopped by my poster, so I was able to discuss the high need for physicians in rural parts of the state. Perhaps these future doctors will consider working in these areas once they complete their training.
Where did you complete your practicum? I did my practicum at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH) through the Health Research Training Program (HRTP).
Tell me about the planning process for your practicum. I tried to be as proactive as possible when I began planning for my practicum. I knew that I wanted to work in New York City and that I wanted to work on a project related to HIV. That was a good starting point for me. I also reached out to different faculty members to ask for advice on where to look. I applied for the Health Research and Training Program through New York City’s Health Department in January and went through a series of interviews to match with a project.
What tasks did you complete during your practicum? I worked specifically with the New York Knows testing initiative in the Bureau of HIV/AIDS in the Prevention and Control Unit. The goal of the initiative was to encourage everyone in the five boroughs of the city to get tested for HIV so that everyone knows their status. I worked primarily on two projects. I completed a mid-initiative report for the organization. I also managed the testing survey which was sent out to 200 partners to gauge efforts to promote testing and connect community members to services.
What skills did you develop through your experience? I learned a lot! Some of the hard skills that I developed was how to use Salesforce and Survey Gismo. I brushed up on my HTML and CSS coding. My practicum also helped me develop the skills to work, engage, and mobilize others to one aligned goal. For instance, I learned the key components of community engagement, working across disciplines and sectors, and how to meet community members where they are. My team also provided me with autonomy, so I was able to learn how to work and think on my own. I learned how to take the initiative with confidence, but be adaptive to programmatic changes when presented. Additionally, because I decided to do my practicum experience through HRTP, we were required to attend seminars that exhibited other priority initiatives across the NYC DOHMH, and had the option to attend workshops to learn and improve on different skills. For example, we had a seminar about the Center for Health Equality and our cohort was exposed to the systems-based work that the NYC DOHMH does in efforts to eliminate health inequities.
What is your favorite moment from the practicum? I have so many favorite moments from my practicum, so it’s hard for me to pick just one. During Pride Month in June, there were several community events, meetings, and projects. One of my favorite moments was working on the National HIV Testing Day in June, which was planned by the NYC DOHMH. I had the opportunity to see community engagement in action. We had 18 testing units and 70 agencies tabling for the event. Over 14,000 people passed through Union Square where the event took place. During the three-hour testing event, we had 320 people tested for the virus. It was really amazing to see the community to come together for a case!
What advice would you give to students as they prepare for their practicum? One of my biggest advice is to start early! Some of the application processes for practicum can take a while so it would be wise to apply early so that you are not pressed for time. I also recommend applying broadly but within your scope. For instance, it was feasible for me to apply to programs in New York City financially because I have family in the area. Also, although it’s tempting, don’t automatically take the first practicum that you’re offered! Make sure that your practicum meets your expectations for your professional goals and the types of skills that you would like to gain.
Where did you complete your practicum? For my summer practicum, I travelled to Malawi where I worked as part of the UNC Water Institute research team that partnered with World Vision Malawi on their mechanized solar powered water project.
Tell me about the planning process for your practicum. I was interested in pursuing a global practicum. My friend who is also a PHLP student is a member of the Student Global Health committee at Gillings. She forwarded internship openings to me on a weekly basis. I came across the UNC Water Institute’s Malawi research opportunity in one of her emails in April, so I applied for it, and after a 2-week interview process, I was contacted by one of their lead researchers for the practicum. Before going to Malawi, my team and I underwent a week-long training camp at UNC. The training focused on field research methods, communication skills, travelling dos and don’ts, cultural differences, and if we have time, places to visit in Malawi.
What tasks did you complete during your practicum? My team members and I travelled together to six villages, where we conducted electronic surveys in order to evaluate the effectiveness and sustainability potential of mechanized water systems in a rural setting. We conducted water quality tests in order to check for safety standards of drinking water collected from water pumps and household storage containers. We also interviewed local businesses to understand the impact of World Vision solar pumps on the economic development of the local communities we had visited.
What skills did you develop through your experience? I was able to develop my qualitative and quantitative data collection skills, data storage methods, and communication skills. I understood the importance of collecting good quality data if one is to influence any form of improvements in public health, no matter what the setting. I also got to observe how a world-renowned NGO such as World Vision operates their WASH projects.
What is your favorite moment from the practicum? My favorite moment was when we visited the village of Josephat Mvula in the North of Malawi, and we came across the only fully functional water system among all the villages we had visited. We learnt a great deal about how they run operations such as fee collection, maintenance and systems management. The community was thriving because of the availability of safe drinking water, which was confirmed by the interviews we conducted with business owners in the village, and that was a very rewarding experience for all of us.
What advice would you give to students as they prepare for their practicum? I would advise all students to go into their experience with an open mind and a lot of patience. Sometimes, it will seem that the theories and strategies we learn in the classroom are not helping us in real life, and I personally found that it helps to keep from getting frustrated at one’s lack of experience in dealing with new, unfamiliar situations. I also felt that sometimes, the practicum experience was not quite what I had expected it to be on paper. What I would tell myself constantly is that this is a learning experience, and as long as I use this new knowledge to better my overall skill set, I can always use that to advance my future prospects. The one thing I would advise future students when it comes to their practicum search is that it is always a good idea to get started early on. Sakai usually has a lot of resources to help out with that. It is also important to stay connected with other students and sign up for weekly listservs because you may stumble upon opportunities that you may not have seen otherwise.
Where did you complete your practicum? I completed my practicum with the Department of Health Behavior right here at Gillings. I worked specifically with Noel Brewer and Melissa Gilkey who are both leading a project focused on effective messaging for HPV immunization. The goal of the project is to see how parents would respond to specific physician messages about getting their teens vaccinated for HPV.
Tell me about the planning process for your practicum. I connected with a PHLP alum that I knew. She shared my CV and interests with people in the SPH and elsewhere, just in case there was someone who was working on a project of interest. I also emailed to labs and professionals myself to see if anyone needed a student to work on a research project. Eventually, I found the HPV vaccination project with Dr. Brewer and Dr. Gilkey, which was perfect since it is related to my background as a pediatrician.
What tasks did you complete during your practicum? Through previous research, the team that I was working with identified 28 messages that are commonly used by physicians to promote HPV vaccination. In addition, the researchers identified seven concerns that parents have regarding the HPV vaccination. The goal was to find the “best” messages to address these seven concerns. Together, we created a survey of approximately 100 questions, which was sent nationally through a survey corporation, to parents of adolescents. We included different platforms of messages in written form and embedded video messages (which I was filmed delivering!) within the survey so that parents could rate each one on perceived effectiveness.
What skills did you develop through your experience? I definitely developed the art of culling through information, helping design the questions for the survey, and “wordsmithing” with my lab team. I also gained skills related to project management. This particular area was a big learning experience for me because I am pediatrician coming from private practice. In the practice setting, I am independent, so I don’t have many opportunities to work in a large team. I was able to work in a more team-oriented environment to meet a common goal through my practicum. This work helped me to enhance my presentation skills. Although I am used to teaching medical students, I am not used to speaking in front of a camera. For me, this was a completely different experience and a very challenging one!
What is your favorite moment from the practicum? Even though I was extremely nervous about speaking in front of a camera, I would have to say that my favorite moment from my practicum was filming the videos to be embedded in the survey. Staff from the Odum Institute filmed me and were really encouraging throughout the process. The film crew said, “you’re a natural,” which really made me feel good! I was able to step out of my comfort zone and grow through that experience. Participating in this practicum also opened up new opportunities for me professionally. After my practicum was completed, I was employed by the project team to conduct live webinars for physicians and other healthcare staff on how to effectively communicate about the HPV vaccination, based on the results from our survey.
What advice would you give to students as they prepare for their practicum? Something that was really helpful for me was to make a long list of what I would like to learn through my practicum experience. This list could involve both skills and specific content areas. This process really helped me hone in on my professional goals and also helped with my search for a project. I would also recommend that students look up people within public health especially in their area of interest. Don’t be afraid to contact them and ask if they have any relevant projects that you’d be able to join. Lastly, I would encourage students to try something new and go out of their comfort zone. I learned that from my own practicum experience.