A lesson in collaboration

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I entered USC’s Master of Public Health program with the dream of promoting health equity through the development of innovative, low-cost solutions.  I was excited by the opportunity to use creativity as a tool for uncovering low-tech mechanisms to bring about positive change at a community level. As a student, it is so hard to apply everything we have been learning in the classroom, while continuing to study and take classes. That said, the Emory International Global Health Case Competition served as an incredible taste of what is involved in real-world project planning and development.

Working across disciplines isn’t always easy

Throughout the project, the piece which posed the most difficulty—but also, ultimately, the greatest benefit— was our cooperation across the many disciplines represented by our team members: engineering, human biology, public health and public policy.

With six students coming from four different schools on campus, we each had a different idea of how to approach the issue and what faces of the problem were most important to tackle first.

While it was difficult to seamlessly represent all our respective fields within our incredibly short 15-minute presentation in order to form a cohesive argument, I see in hindsight that this was our greatest strength. Our diverse backgrounds together produced a strong, multi-dimensional plan—based in everything we had learned within our respective schools (i.e., Dornsife, Keck, Viterbi, and Price).

Every individual donated a different skillset.

In this endeavor, we each served as advocates for our individual fields, promoting the benefits our unique approaches may offer towards the common end goal. So many times, I remember conversations started with, “Well, as an engineer,” or, “From a policy standpoint,” or, “Based on public health principles.” While these dialogues often brought about an immediate sense of frustration—as they led us to reel in circles over each minute detail of the presentation—it was this constant reeling which drove us to think over every detail of our program carefully.

The value of compromise

As we continued to circle from idea to idea, we felt the weight of the 15-minute presentation time limit. So many ideas were surfacing, without a means of presenting them all in our presentation period.  As public health scientists, how could we not include multiple slides on our behavior change model, our SWOT analysis, our needs assessment process, our monitoring and evaluation and our education program implementation plan?  How were we going to cut 40 slides down to 12?

We had to compromise. It was so hard for the MPH students to admit—but public health could not dominate.

Public health was only one piece in the larger puzzle.

Ultimately, in looking at our 15-minute presentation—which could easily have been extended to several hours based on the immense amount of content we could have included—no single discipline overpowered the argument. Everything fit together and highlighted the importance of inter-collaboration.

This is largely thanks to our faculty advisors – including Drs. Heather Wipfli, Shubha Kumar, Kathleen West, and Melissa Withers, just to name a few, who not only helped us to focus our ideas, but also recognize how our dream-like solutions fit into reality. As students, we were so excited to jump in and present low-cost interventions stemming from our coursework. We were basing everything on public health principles and online research, without having ever visited the country of Liberia, where our project was based.  Working with professional mentors from the Keck School of Medicine who had experience working in Liberia or resource-similar settings, helped to bring us back to earth and realize that cultural norms specific to Liberia must be considered in program development. While many norms in Liberia will not be openly advertised and accessible online, we were able to begin to understand the culture we were catering to through work with these professors, who had been there and experienced the culture firsthand.

Looking back on the experience today, I value, above all else, this experience as a trial in teamwork. I could not have asked for a better group of students or staff members to compose our group. While it was difficult and stressful and exhausting, these negative components were many times over outweighed by all that we gained from the experience.


Cristina Gago is a student in USC’s Master of Public Health program. Learn more about her experiences with USC’s and Emory’s case competitions at https://globalhealth.usc.edu/2017casecompetition

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