Moments of impact in my journey to public health

Walking along a cherry blossom road in South Korea

From my childhood readings, I remember the story of a doctor who “prescribes” a wooden box to a woman seeking remedy for her chronically ill husband. Opening the box upon arriving home, she finds money and a hand-written note from the doctor: “Use this money to feed him well. His malnourishment will be cured with good food.”

More recently, this story came closer to the heart as I became convinced that the public service ethics and social science-oriented approach to human well-being are central to solving modern diseases. This was clearly demonstrated to me in seminar courses like medical ethics and history of global health, where I wrote research reports on health issues like infantile diarrhea in Brazil, high elderly suicide in South Korea, and environmental health problems in developing China due to garbage management failures. The common message I took away is that the battle against “poor health” today, in the presence of promising treatments and cures, is no longer really about a battle against germs.

Rather, it’s a battle against socio-economic forces that limit remedy’s access to a select population; against failure to recognize systemic patterns of poverty and the severity of disease consequences; against the “every man for himself” philosophy that encourages individuals or nations to shy away from addressing a health concern to escape stigma or duty.

In Pathologies of Power, Dr. Paul Farmer writes: “social determinants of health outcomes are…often enough, the social determinants of the distribution of assaults on human dignity.” Through volunteer opportunities in college, I experienced a particular need for a “preferential fight” for the poor’s health in both medical and education settings.

While working at a community clinic for low-income families, I saw Farmer’s statement come alive in the case of one patient who, after months of waiting for dental plaque removal, was told to wait longer because of a doctor’s unexplained leave. This lack of timely, guaranteed attention to one’s medical needs is an inconvenient reality that represents far too many broken promises to those who can’t afford medical interventions otherwise. As a teaching assistant at an adult literacy center, I also witnessed how sickness was permitted to impinge on education. Missing GED classes due to unforeseen and untreated sickness meant a difficult journey for a second chance.

As an aspiring student in public health, I want to study disparities in psycho-physiological health as both a cause and an outcome of socioeconomic and educational status. For one, I would like to explore the health experiences of aging or aging immigrant populations. This is largely due to my personal experience watching my parents’ struggle in the U.S., with an uprooting transition and changed roles against the backdrop of financial and social cut-offs. And they are not unique in such experience — that despite will and despite the need for strengthening the workforce in an aging society, the elderly face limited opportunities to rebuild work-life in the mainstream, cultural and communication barriers hard to break, and consequently a sense of social isolation. Thus, career-wise, I envision myself being an advocate and entrepreneur committed to bettering health informatics and professional social networks that help older and immigrant populations take better care of their health. This may be in the form of advancing the integration of primary care and health literacy specifically for this target group and creating opportunities for active social engagement.

While I am now stepping away from the biomedical science track to pursue a professional degree in public health, I cherish the lessons I learned in research labs that have led me to who I am now. My time in the microbiology lab at Smith College critically exposed me to the world of infection control and the broader concept of “public health”. While researching for my honors thesis, which began as a biological investigation of enteropathogenic E. coli and the mechanism of its pathogenesis leading to infant diarrhea, I came to realize startling facts about the disease: 1) that it is a highly preventable disease and yet 2) it costs a devastating number of lives every year as the second highest cause of infant mortality worldwide; 3) its burden is heaviest, if not concentrated, in underserved countries where hygiene and sanitation infrastructure, medical supplies and facilities, and maternal/community health education are lacking.

This led me to research and write on the burden of infant diarrhea in Brazil as part of a history seminar in college, which opened my eyes to health and disease as having basis in not simply biology but politics, education, wealth, and prioritization. I grew more and more interested in studying the discipline of “public health”, more specifically in the programs focusing on analyzing socioeconomic determinants of health and health disparities worldwide.

Moreover, the immersive experience in cancer research at the MIT Koch Institute was a humbling experience for me. It was humbling because the more I learned about cancer, the more I understood it as a complicated, heterogeneous disease that requires not only a special commitment to its study for hope of better treatments but also an emphasis on prevention and early detection. The experience was humbling also because I came to question seriously about what aspect of health or disease investigation I wanted to be a part of in the long run. This has been an important question I needed to answer to determine my course to Ph.D. in science versus Master’s (professional degree) in public health. Cancer, for me and for a lot of us, reminds us of being mortal, teaches us the power of the will to survive as well as the courage of letting go, raises not only biological but philosophical questions.

There is so much a society learns from the common and familiar pain, and as a public health practitioner, I desire to be steps closer to the people I am serving and feel a “human” touch to what I am investigating, which as a laboratory scientist I missed on many occasions.

Still, it is thanks to the six years of experience in biomedical research that I relate with the values of dedicating long-term to a cause with perseverance. These experiences have refined my research and interpersonal skills, in the areas of independent experimental design and analysis as well as collaboration with other researchers. I look forward to contributing my strengths in perseverance, critical thinking and team-building to the creative and collaborative arena of public health pursuits.

The doctor from my childhood readings shows that the best remedy to human health is empathy and a correct understanding of patients’ need. Above all, I hope to emulate this direction of thought and action as I walk in the path of public service ethics and open-minded understanding of human health.

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Learning in progress. Creating value from experience in the worlds of biomedical benchwork, clinical research, global healthcare business development, and more.

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Da-Yae Lee

Da-Yae Lee

Learning in progress. Creating value from experience in the worlds of biomedical benchwork, clinical research, global healthcare business development, and more.

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