By Lakshmi Krishna Menon (MSc Global Health Student)

I’m Indian; born in Kuwait, raised in Canada, and currently pursuing my Master of Science in Global Health at the University of Geneva, Switzerland. 

It’s my first time studying abroad and living away from my parents. 

This is a note to my younger self from five months ago; a list of things I learned, sometimes painfully, in my first semester of grad school.

1. You don’t need more genius; you need more articulation.

I studied Biomedical Sciences in undergrad., where we used specific words to describe technical concepts and processes. The term “glycolysis” meant the conversion of glucose into pyruvate molecules, and “Boyle’s Law” referred to how at a constant temperature, the volume of a gas is inversely proportional to its pressure.

In grad. school, the vocabulary changed. Ideas were often dressed up with words such as “capacity building” or “driver of innovation”. I was presented with a dilemma: do I emulate the jargon of the global health landscape?

I decided to ask this question in class, and that conversation went something like this:

Me: Professor, what exactly do you mean when you say, ‘systems thinking’?!

Professor: Improving access to healthcare requires collaborative efforts from the government for funding, pharmaceutical companies for medicines, academic institutions for well-trained physicians, urban planners for infrastructure design, policymakers for culturally-sensitive health interventions, etc.

You need to design solutions at every level, in each of those mini-systems. Therefore, “systems-thinking”.

Me: Oh. *silence*

I realized that successful global health leaders (like my professor!) were excellent communicators; they used global health jargon to help condense big ideas, but not at the expense of being able to articulate those complexities in their writing, thinking, and speaking. This allowed them to examine multiple perspectives of an issue and defend ideas when challenged.

2. Capitalize on your unfair advantages and pay them forward.

Your unfair advantage is what gives you a competitive edge; a trait that is your unique selling proposition.

Each of the 40 students in my graduate cohort capitalizes on their unique academic and socio-cultural backgrounds to open fresh, unexplored avenues of thought in global health. The medical doctors were able to understand infectious diseases, while those who studied international relations thrived in health diplomacy-related activities. Students of the natural sciences easily grasped epidemiological concepts, while those who came from a social sciences background effortlessly designed culturally sensitive health promotion interventions. 

These are their unfair advantages.

The academic model of the lone genius in classes that were quietly interlaced with an air of competition is outdated. I’m learning that the root of global health is a collaborative network of professionals across disciplines. The most successful ideas are often birthed by a group of individuals, an ecology of unfair advantages. Our cohort WhatsApp group is a great example of this: we post lecture notes, answer questions, and discuss current events.

Once we learn something, we teach others.

By opening ourselves and sharing our unfair advantages with the team, we begin to (a) generate interest in our work, (b) get feedback to make changes or improvements along the way, and (c) find our voice by creating it.

3. Listen to different perspectives for real-world learning.

We understand “One Health” as the added value of collaborative efforts of multiple disciplines, with the goal of improving health at the human-animal-ecosystem interface. Put simply, this could mean involving physicians, policymakers, entomologists, climatologists, etc. to tackle malaria.

I mean, duh.

Isn’t it blindingly obvious that we consult insect scientists and those that study the climate, to understand the nature of the mosquito-borne disease?

It wasn’t until a guest lecturer from WHO mentioned that it took three long months to allow veterinarian laboratories assist overwhelmed public health laboratories to conduct COVID-19 tests, that I realized some things are easier said than done. Go figure.

Application of theory from the classroom to a real-world setting requires that we listen to experts who have “been there” or “done that”. Having a vested interest in their experiences in the field will help you think critically and come up with novel insights to take Global Health (or whatever you’re studying!) forward. 

So, here is the oversimplified version for those that skimmed through this article: 

I travelled 6,390 km (YYZ → GVA) to learn to articulate, contribute to a community of talent, and listen to experts. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s in store for next semester!

Tune into Lakshmi’s journey on LinkedIn/Instagram/Twitter, @lmenon01.