Kevin Xu: Future of Public Health

Aug 20, 2012, 2:30 PM

Former Young Epidemiology Scholar (YES) Kevin Xu, 20, a junior majoring in biology and sociology with Columbia College at Columbia University in New York City, recently became the editor in chief of the Journal of Global Health,a journal he helped found last yearXu says he sees the journal becoming “an indispensable medium that features the work of student researchers and activists from across the globe, each examining public health problems in his or her own community.” Adds Xu: “We hope to harness the untapped power of students, build upon each other’s contri­butions, and synergize solutions that are local in approach but redefine ‘global’ in their impact.”

YES was launched in 2003 by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the College Board to encourage high school students nationwide to apply epidemiological methods to the investigation of public health issues and inspire the brightest young minds to enter the field of public health. Over the course of eight years, nearly 5,000 students from all 50 states participated in the competition, which awarded $3.7 million in college scholarships to 976 students before the final competition in 2011.

As part of a new series exploring the future of public health in conversations with public health students and emerging leadersNewPublicHealth spoke with Kevin Xu about the journal and about the potential impact of today’s undergraduate and graduate students in improving population health in the United States and around the globe.

NewPublicHealth: How was the Journal of Global Health started?

Kevin Xu: The journal was started by me and another student, Ryan Gallagher, who recently graduated Columbia. But a lot of our recent growth and initiatives have been fueled by me and several other alumni of the Young Epidemiology Scholars Program.

NPH: Why is this journal needed?

Kevin Xu: There’s been a tremendous rise in the popularity of public health, global health and epidemiology as fields of study for undergraduates and high school students, and this has contributed to a huge amount of research and field work and activism that’s largely driven by undergraduates in colleges not only in the U.S. but also worldwide. The challenge for any student who is doing research or activist work or field work in public health, global health or epidemiology is translating their research or their work into social change and into policy change. We feel that it’s really important to provide a boom box of sorts for students who are doing work in public health to provide a medium to spur productive exchange among undergraduates and to amplify the voices of undergraduates who are interested in public health. We also want to show the very practical side of public health research and show how accessible it is. We think public health is something that students really can access and use as a tool to make a difference to their communities.

NPH: You started as a print journal but have expanded the project in just a short time.

Kevin Xu: Yes, we’re actually much broader than a journal now. We describe ourselves more as a media organization now. We have quite a few online columns and an online room for debate called the Global Think Forum. And we also do quite a few interviews and podcasts with various leading public health professionals in the field.

NPH: How do you think the Journal of Global Health is different from other journals?

Kevin Xu: Our journal occupies a very unique niche because it caters to students. We believe we are the only student-driven media organization that focuses on public health and science research in an interdisciplinary sense and caters to an audience of students worldwide. We’re interested in work that sort of bridges the divide between natural science, social science and the humanities. We believe it’s a testament to how interdisciplinary not only public health research but all research has become in an increasingly interconnected world.

NPH: Where does your funding come from?

Kevin Xu: After our second semester in operation, in which we really fueled a lot of grassroots energy from student groups in public health, we were able to become recognized by Columbia University and become an official Columbia University publication. This, of course, is something that a lot of our editors debated about. Some of our editors actually were a little bit reluctant to become an official Columbia publication, that by putting ourselves into the Columbia infrastructure, we’d limit it our ability to reach out to students worldwide. But fortunately, this past semester we made a very deliberate and strong effort to make sure that although we are supported by Columbia, we don’t limit ourselves to the audience of Columbia students and we’ve had the opportunity to reach out through our non-profit partners in health as well as international medical student associations to help access and get in touch with students all over the world. So if anything, having the opportunity to be a Columbia publication has provided us with much needed financial support while maintaining our global lens.

NPH: Who are some critical people you’ve interviewed recently?

Kevin Xu: Harvey Fineberg, PhD, the President of the Institute of Medicine and J. Michael McGinnis, MD, who’s a Senior Scholar at the Institute of Medicine and a former undersecretary at the Department of Health and Human Services. Both spoke about the role of high school research programs in public health and the challenge of inspiring the next generation of American students to pursue epidemiology and pursue public health as a career.

And we’ve done quite a few podcasts for our “What is Global Health?” section including one recently with Steven Shapin, who is the winner of the 2005 Erasmus Prize on contributions to European culture, and is a professor of the history of science at Harvard. Shapin talked to us about what makes a game changer and how do paradigm shifts occur in the sphere of science research and public health research?

We created the podcast series because during almost all of our interviews we ask the person who’s being interviewed for their definition of global health. This is significant because we’ve noticed that almost every person we interview has a different definition of global health and correspondingly a different definition of public health. It illustrates how the field of public health is not only very cross-curricular, but also every single person’s conception of public health, every single person’s inspiration for pursuing public health, is largely motivated by different life experiences, different academic interests, different perspectives on what it means to live and what it means for a human being to thrive. We think that’s really cool about the field in not only how interdisciplinary it is in such a globalized and interconnected world, but also how people can really pull in all these different experiences that they see from their own eyes and their own communities and provide inspiration for the impetus to pursue public health. And that’s really what the journal is very largely about.

NPH: What’s the feedback you’ve gotten on the journal so far?


Kevin Xu: The feedback has really been terrific. Let me just give you a few of our sort of hard numbers that detail our spread. We started off as an unrecognized sort of grassroots publication in January 2011, but to date the number of institutions represented by our submissions for just the print journal is currently at around 70 institutions spanning 15 countries and five continents. We’ve also taken advantage of social media, including Facebook, as a tool to get the word out and increase the publicity. At the moment I think the number of likes on our Facebook page has exceeded three thousand, and is still growing. [Editor’s Note: At publication, Facebook page likes for the Journal are now at more than 4,700.]

NPH: Do you think you’ll keep the journal going even when you graduate college?

Kevin Xu: I’m working on building sustainability for upcoming semesters and upcoming years. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how we can really build a strong community of editors in our team so that when the founding generation graduates and moves on to bigger and greater things in public health, we will always have a very stable, critical publication.

We work with a lot of really inspirational student global health groups including GlobeMed and Unite for Sight, two of our closest partners that have really helped us in terms of providing us with this burst of energy among undergraduates who are really inspired about public health and global health. They provided us with many people who have been interested serving as editors, submitting content, writing essays about public health problems within the communities and sort of tackling epidemiology from a humanities standpoint. That’s what I think I’m the proudest about when it comes to JGH in the sense that we’ve taken public health from something that a lot of students may think is for scientists and science majors or people interested in health sciences and made it accessible for all students regardless of whether they’re a biology major, a neuroscience major or an English major. And as the project progresses, I would hope to see more and more of people with such different backgrounds and such different interests and such different personal experiences all coming together and being unified by their awareness of the public health issues in their communities.

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