Ramya Kumar, MPH

Lusaka, Zambia

What inspired you to apply for an ASPPH fellowship program?

In 2004, an Indian Ocean tsunami ravaged fishing villages along the coast of Chennai, India. I spent the summer volunteering as a relief worker helping to rebuild sanitation infrastructure for hundreds of homeless victims in coastal fishing communities.

I was proud of what I accomplished as a well-intentioned teenager, however, I looked back at that experience and realized that many reactionary solutions are typically short-lived. Many villagers fell victim to preventable acute respiratory diseases resulting from inadequate vaccination coverage and displaced healthcare infrastructure.

I applied for the Allan Rosenfield Global Epidemiology Fellowship to learn the skills necessary to have a more meaningful, and more enduring impact on the health of communities through surveillance and prevention, instead of reactionary work after an epidemic has already occurred.

What major project have you had an opportunity to work on during your ASPPH fellowship?

I have had a unique opportunity to work with the very first cohort of the Field Epidemiology Training Program (FETP) in Zambia—a health system strengthening program that gives Ministry of Health employees the skills they need to become future leaders in public health.

Working with the FETP program, I have had so many opportunities to be involved in practical public health work, such as providing technical support for outbreak investigations, analyzing national surveillance data, developing new skills in EpiInfo and GIS, writing manuscripts for publication with multi-disciplinary teams, and lecturing on epidemiologic principles in collaboration with Zambian Ministry of Health and University of Zambia.

What has been the most rewarding experience during your ASPPH fellowship so far?

At the end of April 2015, I joined 2 of my FETP residents, along with my own mentor, Dr. Kip Baggett, and a multidisciplinary team made up of district medical office employees, national infectious disease specialists, and WHO officials to investigate an outbreak of bubonic plague in the Eastern Province of Zambia.

I was so proud to see my own residents that I mentored and lectured for the past couple of months, administering and analyzing questionnaires to characterize the epidemiology of the outbreak, facilitate specimen testing, and provide advice on prevention measures to control the disease spread.

I love helping my residents gain technical skills in epidemiology and biostatistics that they can actually use in the field. I am excited to see this program 5-10 years from now after several cohorts have graduated and my mentees become new mentors. Hopefully Zambia will see many more highly capable, dedicated, leaders in global public in health make significant contributions to the health of the nation.

What is the one piece of advice you wish someone had given you when you were starting out in public health?

I was fortunate enough to receive the best piece of advice early in my career from my mentor at graduate school. He told me, “Gain as many technical skills as you can to widen your epidemiology toolbox,” ie: GIS mapping, statistical analysis software, mathematical modelling.

If I could give piece of advice: take a humble approach to global health, and don’t just assume you know what the best solution is. Get in the field as much as you can, meet the communities you serve, understand the barriers your community health workers face, and work with them to come up with creative solutions according to their needs.  You are unlikely to gain respect and credibility in the field by sitting in an air conditioned office in the country capital.

What do you think is the biggest challenge that the public health field should be focusing on?

The biggest challenge the public health field should focus on is weak or absent surveillance systems and workforce capacity for disease detection and surveillance in low and middle income countries. Strengthening both is critical to detect and control disease, especially in a world with emerging infections, easy international travel links, and increased potential for pandemic spread.