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How STEM Backgrounds Can Help Build the Global Health Pipeline

November 17, 2016 | Katy Magill, Global Health Fellows Program II | This blog post originally appears on the GHFP-II blog.

Recently, I boarded a flight to attend the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) in sunny Tampa, Florida. As I stood in line to board, I found myself surrounded by a group of students from Howard University, carrying posters on their various research interests for presentation at the conference. Before even stepping onto the plane, I was already swept up in their excitement and enthusiasm for this event.

ABRCMS is one of the nation’s largest professional conferences specifically dedicated to minority students, veterans, and persons with disabilities, studying and working in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), all of whom are historically underrepresented in the field of global health. Conference attendees also span a wide range of experience levels, from university undergraduates to professionals who have been in the workforce for over 20 years. This conference is a great opportunity for us at GHFP-II to connect with these diverse audiences, which forms a cornerstone of our organizational diversity strategy, as well as a key workforce priority for USAID.

As one of the relatively few global health organizations in attendance, we had a lot of very excited visitors to our booth, many of whom were passionate about global public health issues, but wanted more information about how their various STEM-related skills and backgrounds might translate into a successful career in global health.

Pictured: Katy Magill (left), GHFP-II Recruitment Specialist, goes over the scope a work for an open Fellowship position with a recent Masters-program graduate

One such student was Samantha, a current college senior majoring in biology, who approached our booth with some trepidation. “Since I was a little girl, I thought I wanted to go to medical school to become a doctor,” she told us, “but recently, I’ve taken a few courses on global health and feel that it’s a better career path for me. Will my background in biology stop me from making this career shift?” Absolutely not! Participants in our internship and fellowship programs come from a wide array of academic and professional backgrounds, from English literature majors, to engineers, and, yes, biologists.

Samantha and I spoke about the importance of transferable skills - competencies gained in a domestic setting that prepare candidates to work in the international domain of global health – such as cross-cultural abilities, and working in a resource constrained environment. Samantha had no idea that her experience volunteering in a women’s health clinic near her college campus could actually be highly valuable in a global health career. We also spoke at length about our internship program, which is designed to give students their first crucial experience in the field of global health. Samantha’s eyes lit up as she told how excited who was to hear that there are opportunities out there for young professionals who are new to the field, and, after taking one of our USB wristbands pre-loaded with resources to help strengthen her resume and internship application, she left the booth with a spring in her step.

We spent the next three days answering many similar questions from students and professionals who are passionate about the field of global health, but until now might not have realized that their unique STEM skillsets would be highly valued. Traveling to Tampa and meeting students like Samantha is just one more way that GHFP-II and USAID seek to make the global health workforce not only more diverse, but more effective, and better able to respond to the increasingly complex health challenges of an interconnected world.

Katy Magill is the Recruitment Specialist at PHI's Global Health Fellowship Program II.