Social Impact Internships: Lucy Zhao (’24)

Lucy Zhao (’24)

Hello! My name is Lucy, and I am a freshman at MIT majoring in biological engineering and economics. It is an incredible honor to share my experiences as a two-term COVID-19 Vaccine Strike Team intern at the CDC Foundation. The CDC Foundation is a non-profit organization uniquely created and authorized by Congress to catalyze the CDC’s public health efforts by mobilizing a wide variety of resources from philanthropies and the private sector as well as supporting community-based organizations. The Vaccine Strike Team was organized to analyze data in various forms from governmental and private groups and synthesize this information in support of making recommendations for vaccine-related federal decisions and promoting efficiency and equity in the vaccine rollout process. As the Vaccine Strike Team’s funding term has recently ended, it is a privilege to be able to reflect on what the team has achieved – from before the rollout began to the current day in which more than 100 million US residents have been vaccinated. 

When I first joined the Vaccine Strike Team, states were just beginning to submit their interim vaccine rollout plans to the CDC for review. I pored through plans from states in different geographical areas and with different socioeconomic compositions to identify points of similarities and differences. Logistical challenges and barriers to equity were widely varied both between regions and within different communities in the same states. It was clear that all such difficulties could only be resolved through effective communications systems as well as strong partnerships and collaborations between the government, public health agencies, community-based organizations, private companies, and philanthropies – among many others. Yet, by identifying these obstacles to widespread and equitable access to vaccines, the team was able to focus its energy on the importance of developing a network of organizations and people dedicated to vaccine distribution.

Another primary goal was and continues to be battling against vaccine hesitancy. Hearing conversations from my home community of central New Jersey as well organizations in the Midwest clearly harboring a sense of fear – whether around the science of vaccines or the uncomfortable history of vaccine inequity – made it clear that communication would be essential. In the process of developing various communicative tools in different genres and formats, I learned how essential it is to thoroughly and deeply understand the target audience of interest before trying to convey an idea. Though communication may seem objective, especially when sharing facts, any aspect of the process can be heavily influenced by cultural factors, past experiences, and dreams or hopes for the future. This is a challenging skill that I seek to continue to develop in my personal relationships with others at MIT and beyond.

Shortly thereafter, the vaccine rollout began. Listening in on the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) meetings for decision-making around vaccines opened my eyes to how high-level scientists consider social, political, legal, and economic factors in their decisions. In the world of public health, everything is truly interconnected and inseparable, explaining both the challenge and the beauty of this critical field. I hoped to bring this interdisciplinary perspective to my own work at the CDC Foundation. In helping develop the CDC Foundation’s framework to support community-based organizations and local health jurisdictions in the distribution process, I helped focus our goals on working with many partner organizations to achieve health equity, aid frontline workers, and promote long-term health protection campaigns. As 2020 and 2021 progressed, the team increasingly collaborated with the CDC Foundation’s communications and health equity teams to develop powerful projects that continue to work strongly to reduce vaccine hesitancy and develop trusted messages for specific communities and groups of people. Examples of these include the Business Roundtable, a diverse group of cross-sector leaders dedicated to promoting health and vaccine acceptance in businesses, workplaces, and the economy overall as well as a partnership with the NFL to encourage a broad range of people to follow public health recommendations during these challenging times.

Of course, the vaccine distribution is still ongoing, so we meet new and old obstacles every day in our efforts to get the entire nation vaccinated. How do we engage new technology, from biochemical techniques to drone delivery systems, to overcome the logistical hurdles of getting vaccines to remote areas? What are the best ways for us to communicate sensitively with and bring the elderly into direct access to the vaccines? What are the criteria for rhetoric around the vaccine to be culturally competent and linguistically informed? These questions continue to drive the CDC Foundation’s work. As the Foundation has created a series of webinars for leaders in academia, community-based work, and local health jurisdictions to discuss points of difficulty and success in their individual approaches to different vaccine challenges, I look forward to better understanding what innovations exist to address these hurdles and how we can harness the power of collective action to combat this pandemic.

Thanks to this internship, I have not only grown as a scientist but as a community member. Seeing the incredible dedication of the senior advisors on our team to this enormous challenge has been humbling, to say the least. The depth of kindness, care, and consideration they show to each individual community under discussion is something that will forever be imprinted on my heart. In the future, I hope to bring that same attitude of understanding to all of my work. I seek to put human faces on everything I do, regardless of how faceless and distant the task may seem.

This amazing experience would not have been possible without the wonderful team at the PKG Center. Thank you to all of the phenomenal mentors at the Center who have patiently and generously guided me and their other mentees through various challenges and enthusiastically celebrated our successes with us. I have always been inspired by the selflessness and generosity of Priscilla King Gray, former First Lady of MIT and co-founder of the Public Service Center, and I am so heartened to see her legacy living through the current staff and students at MIT. Thank you for demonstrating such kindness and care for the MIT community during these challenging times – we are so incredibly grateful!

Interested in a Summer Social Impact Internship? Learn more about how to apply here!

Tags: COVID Relief, Health, Health & Medicine, Social Impact Internships, Social Impact Internships Spring 2021

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