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Future of Public Health: Q&A with Stephanie Lucas, MPH Candidate at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

Jun 12, 2014, 1:40 PM


Future of Public Health is an ongoing series focused on the emerging faces in the world of public health. We spoke with Stephanie Lucas, a Masters of Public Health candidate in epidemiology and global health at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Lucas spoke about what helped lead her to the field of public health; her work in migrant health and reproductive health in the Philippines; and where she hopes to go from here.

NewPublicHealth: What encouraged you to pursue a degree and a career in public health?

Stephanie Lucas: I came from a wide variety of backgrounds. I taught English for a while and I did lab work because I was a biology major in my undergraduate studies. I also came from a small college that was really oriented in social justice and there were a number of study and volunteer abroad programs. One year, I decided to go to Belize for spring break and help teach a class. I also went abroad to South Africa and worked with an NGO there that helped street children. I think that’s where my interest in public health began because it was so blatant to see what needed to be done. When I was teaching English and doing lab work, I didn’t feel like I was connected to that enough. I felt like public health allowed me to take all of my background information—like biology and education—and intertwine them in a way that I can put them to good use to improve population health.

NPH: Is there a field within public health that’s of primary interest to you?

Lucas: I actually want to take on a broad range of public health topics. When I went to the Philippines, I did two practica there; one in the field of reproductive health and another in the field of migrant health. I didn’t know anything about migrant health, but that was OK because I just wanted to learn about the spectrum of the different issues in an effort to understand that all of those issues are interrelated.

NPH: Do you want to talk about your work with the International Organization for Migration in the Philippines in greater detail?

Lucas: The International Organization for Migration (IOM), based in Manila, works on the issues that migrants face in general. IOM’s interest lies in how the migration process affects health. During my practicum, I helped them prepare for the World Tuberculosis Conference. The IOM believes migrants in general are vulnerable populations just because their access to and continuity of care is very limited. So, I was there to help them with presentations and make sure that we got that point across during the conference.

When the typhoon hit the Philippines, the organization’s priorities switched because forced displacement was so prevalent and many people had to move. That kind of movement affects health in so many ways. So the IOM’s primary responsibility was sheltering those who had been displaced. As a result, I was asked to attend the health cluster meetings, which was a very interesting experience.

NPH: Tell us a little bit about your other practicum in the Philippines.

Lucas: My other practicum was with a very small NGO called Roots of Health located in a rural province of the Philippines. The issues that we were dealing with were primarily in the field of reproductive health, which is an important topic there. Right before I left, the reproductive health bill—which essentially ensured that all women had access to contraceptives and sex education would be taught in schools—was passed. But, because the Philippines is approximately 80 percent Roman Catholic and there was large opposition from the Catholic Church, the implementation of that bill was stalled indefinitely.

As a result, our work was to give women in this rural area access to contraceptives, antenatal care, delivery with a midwife and other reproductive services that were stalled on a national level. I worked with a clinical team to collect data in six communities of the province and help them create a database to track the people that they were serving and to see who needed contraceptive services, who didn’t and why. This service allowed their programming to be more informed by data.

NPH: What was the most surprising lesson that you’ve learned either in your studies or from your work in the Philippines that you will take with you throughout your career?

Lucas: The biggest thing that my schooling and going abroad definitely reinforced for me was this idea that everything comes together. Every part of public health goes together in some way. For example, I was working in the Philippines in reproductive health on this small island in Palawan. When I moved to Manila to work on migrant health, one of my coworkers explained that IOM did a lot of work in Palawan because many Vietnamese people escaped the Vietnam War and settled there. Likewise, when I was in Manila and we were working with the typhoon aftermath, the health cluster within IOM had a whole section devoted to maternal health and reproductive health. Both experiences, even though they’re in different subsectors of public health, fed off of each other. Everything that we do in public health is so intertwined.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.