Monday, May 14, 2012

Alumni Profile: Crystal Shen, MD Candidate, Mayo Medical School and Former UVP Intern

Crystal Shen is a medical student at the Mayo Medical School and is a Fogarty International Clinical Research Scholar with the National Institutes of Health in Nanjing, China. She interned with UVP in 2009. 

Uganda Village Project (UVP): What are you doing today, and what do you aspire to do?

Crystal Shen (CS): I am currently wrapping up a year in Nanjing, China as a NIH Fogarty International Clinical Research Scholar. I have been working on STD/HIV research in high risk populations, including female sex workers, through a collaboration between UNC and the China CDC’s National Center for STD Control.  I am also a medical student at Mayo Medical School in Rochester, MN. I finished my first three years of medical school before heading to China and have one year left. Prior to my medical school days, I attended the University of Michigan, where I studied biomedical engineering, and then I worked on the HPV vaccine as an engineer in Merck’s Global Vaccine Technology & Engineering organization.

I will be heading to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health next year to pursue my Master in Public Health degree as a Sommer Scholar. Afterwards, I will head back to Mayo to finish medical school and then see where residency takes me. 

UVP: Tell me about your experience with Uganda Village Project.

CS: I worked as a UVP Healthy Village intern during the summer of 2009, where I was privileged to be a part of the Bugabula B village community.  My team’s efforts focused primarily on community health work. We presented health education outreaches, developed a mosquito net & water treatment supply chain, coordinated the construction of a shallow well, planned HIV testing days with the local government health center, facilitated development of a HIV/AIDs education club at a nearby school, and developed a Village Health Team, among other things.  A key goal was to be as much a part of the village community while we were there. Building trust with village members was important for creating a foundation for future health interventions within that community.  Our day to day schedule varied, but often consisted of spending the morning on various chores (including getting water from the borehole, handwashing our laundry, etc) and then working on outreaches or other goals in the afternoon and evening.  

UVP: What was your biggest challenge working in Iganga? How did you deal with it?

CS: Upon arrival in the village, there were various challenging aspects we had to adapt to. We quickly adapted to such environmental changes as living with no electricity or running water. What we found more challenging was modifying our expectations and approaches to “getting things done.” My team members and I were idealistic and eager to accomplish much during our months in the village. Forging forth enthusiastically, we worked hard to prepare for our first educational outreach. To our dismay, only a few people showed up at the time we planned to start. Concerned about the poor turnout, we began going around from home to home with a local village leader to mobilize people to attend the outreach. 

Although it took a couple of hours, we eventually had a sizeable crowd gathered to hear our health presentation. As the summer progressed, we learned to focus less on adhering to schedules and more on slowly building relationships in the community. Rather than being distractions from our work, our morning conversations with the village women while pumping water at the borehole and the hours we spent playing with children in the yard helped us learn and become more integrated into the local culture and community. We were also extremely fortunate that the leaders in the village were motivated to do all they could to help the community, and were therefore willing to aid us in our efforts. These relationships were essential to our progress in various endeavors. These leaders also became part of the Healthy Villages Team that continued, even after our departure, to promote beneficial health practices through working year-round with UVP staff.

UVP: What is your favorite memory about your time in Uganda?

CS: Peaceful evenings in the village spent playing with kids in the yard were definitely the highlight of my summer. I remember lots of fun times when the kids would draw pictures of common things to teach us words in Lusoga, or when we demonstrated our repertoire of animal sounds to learn the Lusoga names of various animals.  Also, the baby goats and magenta-dyed chickens living near our house were quite memorable as well!

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to return to Uganda a year later in 2010 when I spent a few months in Kampala working on pediatric cerebral malaria research at Mulago Hospital. I met up with UVP staff & alumni (including one memorably festive get-together in Mabira Forest) and also re-visited Bugabula. It was interesting seeing how much had changed over a year as well as what had stayed the same. Some of the children had grown quite a lot and our former house had been repainted in bright colors, but the many familiar aspects of the village still made it seem a bit like home.

UVP: What advice do you have for future interns/volunteers?

CS: Be open and adaptable. Every village is different and it is useful to find out what they need and tailor your efforts accordingly. There will always be surprises, but sometimes that turns out to be for the better. Most of all, enjoy this opportunity to “be on the ground” working with people. It comes with multiple associated hassles, but also can have many wonderful moments.

UVP: How has UVP shaped your career today and what you aspire to do in the future? 

CS: The positive experiences I had working with UVP  helped strengthen and confirm my interest in future work in developing countries, despite the challenges Having the opportunity to work on the ground and live within the community was immensely valuable. 

In the future, I envision working in academic medicine as a pediatric infectious disease specialist combining clinical care, research, and health systems improvement centered around infectious disease issues, particularly in developing country settings.

UVP:  Tell us about a time you used something you learned/experienced at UVP in your more recent jobs/volunteer experiences.

CS: Living in rural Uganda was particularly useful for further developing my ability to adapt to change, to be resourceful, to be patient, and to stay calm in the face of unexpected challenges. Another key lesson from my UVP summer was realizing that investing in people can ultimately be more worthwhile than solely focusing on meeting objectives. These lessons have proved valuable in other areas of my life, including during my third year medical school rotations.  Sometimes it can be easy to get caught up in all of the things that need to be done, but it’s important to focus on the people at the center of it all whether they’re village members in Uganda or patients in the hospital.

1 comment:

Alison said...

The photo with the "U - V - P" hands remains one of my favorite photos from Uganda of all. Gets me every time - I just want to reach into it and hug you all.