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Global health competition provides hands-on learning experience

Haiti has the highest maternal mortality rate in the Western hemisphere, according to data from the United Nations Children’s Fund. Life-saving interventions are needed to address this public health crisis. But, the question is how?

Working together, Penn State students Deepa Kadidahl, Laraib Mazhar, Belle Peterson, Seth Wilkinson, Noah Yeagley and Andrew Yeich developed a strategy to reduce maternal deaths as part of the 2023 Emory Morningside Global Health Case Competition, which was held in Atlanta on March 18.

“I was told this program would be one of the highlights of medical school, and it absolutely lived up to expectations,” said Andrew Yeich, team captain and Penn State medical student. “I have a new appreciation for the intense research and planning it takes to implement similar health intervention programs in the real world.”

The interdisciplinary team of graduate and undergraduate students from Penn State College of Medicine, Dickinson Law, World Campus and University Park presented a comprehensive plan that reimagines obstetric care and aimed to improve outcomes for expectant mothers in low- and middle-income countries. The students identified existing problems in Haiti and offered an evidence-based solution that addresses provider shortages, medical mistrust and barriers to care.

“This is such great training in global health,” said N. Benjamin Fredrick, MD, professor and director of the Global Health Center. “The competition requires students to work as a team to solve problems that require cultural sensitivity, political attentiveness, and innovation and creativity.”

The team outlined how training midwives would help improve trust within the community. To expand access to care, the plan incorporated using residential facilities — called maternal waiting homes — near medical facilities. Expectant mothers from rural locations would stay at these homes before giving birth. This way, pregnant women could be transferred quickly to a hospital, if complications arise. The plan would improve maternal outcomes by increasing hospital usage and reducing the number of hemorrhages, emergency referrals and deaths.

“Our multidisciplinary team was the right mix for a competition like this, and there was so much to learn from each other,” said Mazhar, a Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) student focusing on epidemiology and biostatistics. “The judges appreciated our intervention ideas in the auditorium filled with students, faculty and public health professionals from around the world, which was a truly rewarding moment for all of us.”

Ultimately, the judges awarded Uniformed Services University first place in this year’s international competition.

“Even though we did not make it to the final round, the experience of working in a group, developing multifaceted solutions to real world problems and presenting those solutions was enriching and rewarding,” said Kadidahl, who is enrolled in Penn State’s accelerated Master of Public Health (MPH) program. “I feel very proud of the result.”

“No, we didn’t win, but, the journey was far more memorable than the destination,” said Wilkinson, a World Campus Master of Professional Studies (iMPS) in homeland security student, who is pursuing the public health preparedness program. “I had an amazing time competing in Atlanta.”

Each year, the competition poses a hypothetical, yet realistic global health challenge, and teams have a week to develop a 12-minute presentation outlining their solution. This year’s competition brought together students from all over the world, and marked the first time the event was held in-person since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are immensely proud of our students,” said Kristin Sznajder, PhD, associate director of international initiatives. “They worked well together as an interprofessional team and created an excellent presentation on their idea for an intervention to reduce maternal mortality in Haiti.”

Annually, the Department of Public Health Sciences coordinates the application process and assembles the team, who begins working together on mock exercises in January. For the last three months, team members worked together virtually to complete weekly projects designed to grow their understanding of global health and prepare them for the competition.

“As an undergrad, I was originally concerned that I might not be able to contribute as much as more experienced team members, but I realized that I was incredibly well-prepared to participate and contribute to our solution,” said Peterson, a Biobehavioral Health undergraduate student. “This competition made me very grateful for both the undergraduate and graduate global health programming that we have at Penn State.”

Each team presented their presentation before a panel of public health experts, followed by eight minutes of Q&A with first-round judges. Next, teams were narrowed down into finalists. For round two, judges introduced an additional “curveball” scenario, and the finalists needed to tweak their presentations to address the new problem. Finalists presented their revised plans and answered eight minutes of questions from judges.

In the end, the top four teams were awarded cash prizes totaling $12,000. In addition to Uniformed Services University earning top honors, other winners included the University of Melbourne, Emory University and University of Minnesota. Judges also recognized two of those winning groups with a “Participants’ Choice” and “Honorable Mention” award.

 “It is a rare opportunity to participate in such highly competitive events with high-caliber teams from all over the country and abroad,” said Wenke Hwang, PhD, Director of Penn State’s MPH Program. “Our students enjoy this annual event and the kind of camaraderie that is only possible with intense, hard work.”

“The trial by fire nature of the final competition week really helped develop my public speaking and leadership skills,” said Yeich.

“It’s one thing to learn about issues like maternal and neonatal morality in class, and another thing entirely to address them in a realistic case,” said Peterson. “Now, I feel capable of contributing to real change in the global health space as I progress through my education and career.”

“We are honored to compete in this prestigious competition,” said Julie Lentes, manager of the Public Health Sciences Global Health Program and the team’s mentor. “Our Penn State students showed such dedication to the event and to their teammates as they worked collaboratively to design solutions for complex global health problems. We are very proud of their accomplishments and look forward to seeing what they will achieve throughout their careers.”

Not only did the hands-on learning experience provide students the opportunity to hone their skills, but it also led to building friendships that extend beyond the classroom.

“As a World Campus student, it can sometimes be hard to truly feel like a core member of Penn State,” Wilkinson adds. “The case competition was a great way for me to connect with the school and interact with fellow students.”

“Being a member of the Penn State Team has given me the opportunity to broaden my understanding of the issues facing global health and create new friendships and connections with individuals from different disciplines,” said Yeagley, a Dickinson Law student.

“I would encourage anyone who is interested in global health to strongly consider participating in this incredible interdisciplinary experience.”

“Of course, we wanted to win, but being able to compete against this caliber of competition was worth the experience alone. It’s not often you can go head-to-head with some of the top schools in the world,” said Wilkinson. “I would highly recommend this competition to anyone that asks. The case competition tested me at a level I had yet to reach.”

This marks the sixth consecutive year time a Penn State team competed in the event. In 2021, the team placed fourth. Last year, students earned an honorable mention.

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