The JeffX Global Health Conference, including the COVID-focused session in 2022, is the tie that binds Jefferson’s seven global centers.
The University’s global centers each boast a unique mission in their respective international locations, a notion that we will explore in the “Around the World in 80 Days” Nexus series that this post kicks off.
For the past five years, one important tie has consistently brought together students from different disciplines: the annual, student-led JeffX Global Health Conference.
Launched in 2019, the conference was established to promote collaboration and communication among students of various academic backgrounds, while fostering broad interest in an array of global-health topics.
Covering all of our global centers, the JeffX Conference offers a broad perspective on the issues. –Dr. Andres Fernandez
The conference themes – including “Planetary Health,” “The Impact of Crises on Vulnerable Populations” and “Health in Wartimes: Understanding the Impact of Conflict and Crisis on Health and Healthy Delivery” – are chosen by the Global Health Student Consortium (GHSC).
The GHSC invites students to develop knowledge, skills and attitudes that will enable them to be collaborative, empathetic and globally minded citizens – a mission that its members and advisors say is a compelling draw.
“What makes this so special is that it is a student organization with a mission of global engagement,” says Dr. Andres Fernandez, a GHSC faculty advisor and director of the Jefferson Latin America Center, of a group focused on addressing global-health issues and education while expanding opportunities for interprofessional global-health education. “Covering all of our global centers, the JeffX Conference offers a broad perspective on the issues.”
Last month marked the third anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic’s full-fledged arrival in America, and GHSC’s 2022 conference stood as stark validation of the event’s importance.
Even before I started medical school, I knew I wanted to be part of a group that works in a global-health space. –Lauren Kelsey
“Living with the Pandemic: The Global Response” featured panels that explored different aspects of innovation, policy and life amidst COVID. Participants and speakers examined inequity as well as highlighted successes in this daunting pandemic, with panels focused on vaccines and both grassroots and large-scale response efforts.
Experts from Malawi, Rwanda, Israel, India, Japan, Panama and the United States remotely reflected on how nations across the globe have dealt with seemingly insurmountable challenges. (Jefferson Drs. Morgan Hutchinson and Mattias Schnell focused on grassroots responses and the vaccine, respectively.) Dr. Fernandez says that deep student involvement is a point of pride for the University, and he has been consistently impressed with the events that the team has been able to organize.
Chris Harnish, an associate professor of architecture and director of the University’s Malawi Health and Design Collaborative, serves as the chair of Global Health Initiatives Council, which advises the GHSC. In speaking about the conferences, he notes that the pandemic ironically had a positive impact as far as strengthening the virtual meetings.
“The best example of this was a panel featuring Dr. John Phuka – who was head of Malawi’s Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 – alongside Dr. Ignazio Marino from Jefferson’s Italy Center and Dr. Jumpei Tskupada from Jefferson’s Japan Center talking about large-scale responses,” Harnish says. “That was not only beneficial to students, but by having the conference in that platform, it brought about a really compelling global dialogue.”
Lauren Kelsey and Marah Sakkal – both students on the design track at Sidney Kimmel Medical College – ran point on organizing the conference. Both said an interest in global-health initiatives inspired them to get involved with GHSC, which is open to all Jefferson students. With pandemic-related restrictions limiting study abroad opportunities, the virtual conference was a natural fit.
This was a beautiful opportunity to bring so many diverse figures and voices from people working in the pandemic together. –Marah Sakkal
Sakkal – who grew up in Bensalem, Bucks County – notes that her Syrian background led her to learn about Doctors with Borders, where she hopes to explore how health and medicine work in low-resource communities around the world. Kelsey makes a similar point.
“I have always had an interest in learning more about global health. As I am part Korean, I knew what health care was like there, and I wanted to gain a deeper understanding of how health care is different all around the world, based on the culture,” says Kelsey. “Even before I started medical school, I knew I wanted to be part of a group that works in a global-health space. Though I am in America attending an American medical school, it is very important for medical students to remember that we are not the center of everything.”
While they had hoped to present the conference in hybrid form, there was too much uncertainty to do so. That did not hinder the impact of the event, though, which Kelsey – originally from Chicago – noted was important to inform how society can move forward, and what lessons were learned from the pandemic.
“This was a beautiful opportunity to bring so many diverse figures and voices from people working in the pandemic together,” says Sakkal, noting the inherent difficulties of balancing medical school with the responsibilities of organizing a conference. “More than 100 people logged on from all over the world, all different time zones. It was really incredible.”
Students now will be the future of global health and the earlier we are able to get involved, the greater impact we will have. –Teeto Ezeuno
Each noted that organizing the conference was rewarding insofar as helping them raise awareness about global-health issues, particularly at a time when people across the world were experiencing a unique and particularly isolating battle.
“When I think back to the conference, it’s amazing that we were able to have experts talk about how strict the regulations were in Japan, and how responses were different in Malawi, the U.S. and all across the globe,” says Kelsey. “Where else can you get such a wide-ranging discussion?”
Wide-ranging discussions are a common thread established in the five annual conferences held to date. Teeto Ezeonu and Anika Valery were among the GHSC executive board members who, this February, organized the JeffX Global Health Conference. They chose “Health in Wartimes” as a theme, inspired by numerous world events including Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Having everyone understand a little more about what is happening globally so we can be better advocates, that is the real goal for us as future doctors. –Anika Valery
Both Ezeonu and Valery say that when they came to Jefferson, they’d already focused on global-health matters at previous points along their educational path. Ezeonu, from Piscataway, NJ, earned a certificate in global health and health policy during undergraduate studies, and hopes to become an orthopedic surgeon. She says it is important for medical students to understand how health care is delivered not just in their corner of the world, but globally.
“Since COVID, there has been a large pause in everything that was global health at Jefferson. Now, we are slowly reintegrating these important initiatives overseas that may not have been reaching its intended audience,” says Ezeonu, spurred onto involvement due to her familial ties to Nigeria. “That is why it is important for us to start paving that path: ‘Hey, if you’re interested, this is here, and we’d love to have your help.’ Students now will be the future of global health and the earlier we are able to get involved, the greater impact we will have.”
She and Valery – who is from Orlando, Florida and is studying to become an OBGYN – had already worked on a project together related to global-health interests in Malawi prior to applying for GHSC board positions.
“My hope is that students will have a more global understanding of health care and healthcare delivery so they can understand not just the context that their patients who are immigrants might be coming to them, but also what’s happening around the world,” says Valery, who has familial ties to Haiti, where she observed healthcare delivery.
“It’s so easy in medicine to have a narrow focus, whether that’s your specialty or just what’s happening in your country,” she continues. “We are very fortunate to live in the United States, but many people do not know what is happening around the world. Having everyone understand a little more about what is happening globally so we can be better advocates, that is the real goal for us as future doctors.”