Social Impact Internships: Following Up with Melody Wu (’22)
We’re so excited to check in with Melody on her work with the CDC Foundation over summer 2020. Read Melody’s first blog post here to learn even more about her work!
How can we strengthen our public health efforts when it matters the most?
If there’s anything I learned from my internship, it’s how much there is a disconnect between public health and technology— both information technology and biotechnology. You would think that biotechnologyー a booming industry aimed at solving problems particularly for people’s healthー would be connected with public health. But the reality, at least through my internship experience with the CDC Foundation, is that it’s not. And you have got to wonder: why, exactly, is that the case?
The Challenges of Decentralized Public Health Policies
Public health is public health. In the biotech industry, the fastest-growing companies are private companies, which often invest in profitable diseases like cancer therapeutics, rare diseases, and, at the least niche, innovative foundational technologies that allow for a wide variety of applications (i.e. RNA therapeutics, high-throughput DNA/genomic sequencing, and so forth). Things are typically public when we expect the government to step in as the institution that meets public needs, centralizes the power of the states, and unifies all available information. But when the federal government can’t do that, state and local health departments basically must scramble to find viable solutions to complex challenges with limited resources.
While it was easy for me to become dissociated from what was going on while living at home and staying safe with family, hearing the stories from the public health field, especially local public health, spoke to me a lot. I’m grateful I got to attend the various CDC Foundation calls about the COVID-19 response by health departments across the country. It’s frightening to know that health officials are receiving death threats over recent policies and safety measures related to COVID-19— and it isn’t a joke, no matter how dystopian it may sound. We must come to terms with the fact that when we have the privilege of relative safety in times of crisis, we can tune out the world around us. There are people who hold no regard for the overall public health, who complain, claiming that wearing masks infringes on their rights, even while they are still free to walk around.
We must acknowledge that while public health is not always profitable, it’s a necessary field and it’s a necessary part of our lives as this pandemic has certainly shown. In fact, I believe that its necessity serves as a basis for its economic value as well.
Investing in Public Health
And that gets to my next point— investment (I’m not the only one who says this by the way!). As stated before, people don’t normally invest in technologies, fields, and organizations that don’t return a monetary profit, even if the resources might actually be necessary for the public. Money is what we in human society essentially equate to value, but life can’t always be quantified by money. Public health underfunding has been a chronic issue for the past decade (TFAH). Investment should be a long-term and sustained action, not a one-time deal. This clashes with the mindset we have as a reactionary society. As people with privilege, most of us are able to live this way without worrying about the next crisis. For many Americans before the pandemic, we did not have to worry about our next meal, or whether or not we had shelter and a roof over our head, or whether or not we had enough money to live on. But the pandemic has shown that we can’t live on monetary values alone; we have to care about social values and public values to ensure the health and safety of all.
Lack of sustained investment results in broken and outdated infrastructure, including the way we organize and communicate public health information. That became particularly clear to me when working as part of the CDC Foundation’s “Clearinghouse” Strike Team, trying to envision an information platform for public health by collecting emerging practices from state and local health departments (i.e. everything from using mobile contact tracing units to ways in which higher education can reopen). Even thinking about the ways in which the immense amount of information arising can be quickly gathered and organized for public health use is quite a feat. Actually, I should note that I think the news is pretty great at this, particularly The New York Times, who launched a COVID-19 data team, and STAT News, which is able to concisely summarize data and information presented by the healthcare and biotech industries (i.e. this article on hydroxychloroquine).
There’s so much potential in how much different fields and practices are connected and can really actually learn from one another. I find it super intriguing, for example, how the NYT has made the investment to make pretty graphs like this. We do need graphs and data visualization to communicate all sorts of information. The NYT does well in communicating data to the wider public, while public health organizations like NAACHO, ASTHO, and NASHP collect data targeted towards public health. It’s curious how much communication among many of the public health organizations must occur to get data across— and while that’s where technology could come in and help with communication of shared practices it also is where things get tricky in making sure the nuances are captured depending on the context in which practices are employed.
The Value of Clear Communication in Public Health Crises
Communication is something I believe may actually be the weak link between bioengineering (as we know it here at MIT) and the wider public and other fields. Despite the fact that we live in an age where technology is at the tips of our fingers, we often don’t actually use it to the fullest extent possible, even in the simplest ways.
Dr. Anthony Fauci recommends boiling down information to as simple and few words as possible so that the American public can comprehend health information more easily. But it’s easier said than done. Making language accessible and informative is a huge challenge in the public health sector, where people often need to know the complex why’s and how’s, and where oversimplification may lead to assumptions instead of understanding. People need and want to know why and how.
For example, for my Experiential Ethics Final Project Presentation on coronavirus models: the White House used only one singular model (the IHME) to communicate information about the projected number of cases by the end of August. They predicted 82K deaths by the end of March; but we are now at >160K, double the amount. Other proposed models also take into account assumptions and implementation of interventions which can skew our predictions.
The COVID-19 Forecast Hub combines 32 models to predict only four weeks out because they claim that it’s inaccurate to predict further out otherwise (Analysis | The Health 202: Why individual models of coronavirus deaths are often wrong – Washington Post). But how much of the public actually recognizes the inaccurate use of this data? If we can’t trust the White House and the government to communicate the assumptions that guide our model, and to implement policies as widely as possible and as clearly—what do we do? We end up breaking necessary public health measures, and we don’t know who to listen to. That’s especially clear when college students decide to dumbfoundedly hold “coronavirus” parties. When the severity of the situation is not conveyed, the public response cannot effectively adhere to necessary public safety measures.
Communication is something that’s often undervalued in the scientific community. But in public health, it’s essential to understand collective human behavior in order to guide decision making and policy implementation as that is ultimately what impacts cases the most. Working on the CDC Foundation’s Community COVID Coalition project in partnership with Facebook, ASTHO, and NGA, this became especially clear.
Learning from This Experience
Through this internship, I realized the larger role that biotechnologies and other technology could play in the public health sphere, and I was able to play a part in bridging those communication gaps. In fact, I had read and listened to a talk by BioBot Analytics, an MIT biotech company, on their work with wastewater epidemiology, and asked my supervisor if we could invite them to give a talk. That was definitely one of the highlights of my summer. I hope the CDCF senior advisors enjoyed the talk but it was super exciting to see and hear what was going on.
One senior advisor, Dr. Carol Petrowki, who works with California, talked about how it was recently in the news because of the testing they did in Yosemite. I’m excited to see where this one contact goes because I think BioBot Analytics has a technology that could really help with efforts modeling the spread in communities and save time, cost, and potentially lives. Did you know that they have shown that viral shedding in your waste can actually be a pre-symptom for COVID-19 (like you might shed it before cases actually start to pop up or be confirmed)?
A lot of people at MIT have the skillset to help, but don’t always know how to apply their skills. The PKG Public Service Center was a great resource to find the amazing work and opportunities being offered. For a lot of MIT students, the PKG Center’s internships may come as an afterthought and not an internship with actual social impact and value. I believe that the PKG Center is one of the best places to find not only public service opportunities, but also a place where I can put my skills to work in ways I never thought of for social good but also for my own growth.
The point of social impact internships is not just to bring social impact to an organization; it’s also about looking inwards about what impact it has had on me and given me, the intern, another perspective that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
A conceptual visual framework for understanding these reflections and conflicting ideas of individual vs. society. System and society influences individuals heavily — that’s something we typically agree on. But individuals also influence society heavily maintaining this balance. The arrows are my addition, but you can imagine that after starting with something simple like this, things get more and more complex and complicated if you think about the many possible what ifs. This model isn’t perfect and it will probably change with time.
Final Takeaways from Summer 2020
To conclude, I’d like to emphasize that these are my own honest reflections and thoughts from this summer’s full experience that will change with time. People may have a different perspective I’d actually be really excited to hear and critically think about. But I think what particularly intrigues me about public health is the fact that it is not the most glorious field— you aren’t creating some new technology or necessarily doing something new, but what you are doing is creating synergy and synthesizing those technologies in the context of communities who are impacted by them and the world around us. And that’s amazing, and I’m super excited to see what the CDC Foundation does with all these projects I’ve participated in!
As someone only somewhat interested in public health prior to this internship, I can now say I really see it at the intersection of my own interests in biological engineering, design, and communications thinking. I think it’s at these intersections we’ll find new innovations and new potential for collaborations and that through that we become more resilient as a global human society.
Overall, this summer has been a whirlwind, but even while at home and remote and perhaps only taking notes during CDC Foundation meetings, processing data and the news, and so forth, I’ve learned a lot about myself and humanity. We are resilient, and we’ll get through this, but let’s make sure to keep our ears open, wear that mask, and question the information presented before us.
Looking to fulfill your fall Experiential Learning Opportunity (ELO)? Check out PKG Social Impact Internships page to learn more about where to find opportunities and how to apply!
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