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Alumni Day 2018: Yale as a Lab for Social Impact

June 08, 2018

Yale School of Public Health alumni returned to New Haven this month to reconnect with classmates and friends and to learn about a growing network of social entrepreneurship on campus that is being used to promote change locally and globally.

Dean Sten H. Vermund welcomed the large alumni gathering to the New Haven Lawn Club on Whitney Avenue on June 1, thanking them for all that they do for the school in the way of mentorships for existing students, recruitment of graduates as well as donations to scholarship funds and other programs.  

He described the network of more than 5,400 alumni as “vital” to the school and its future success.

This year’s Alumni Day focused on the power of social entrepreneurship to affect social change and how Yale and the Yale School of Public Health have become incubators for this student-driven approach.

Martin Klein, M.P.H. ‘86, Ph.D., senior advisor to the dean, told the gathering that social entrepreneurship needs to be purposeful, innovative, sustainable, scalable and impactful if it is going to succeed in reducing health or other disparities.

He described a real-world scenario involving drones. Retail giant Amazon is exploring the use of drones to deliver everyday goods to people in the United States and elsewhere soon after a purchase is made. Meanwhile, when Ebola broke out simultaneously in Liberia several years ago, health care workers and others could not get supplies of surgical gloves as they worked to stop the spread of the disease. Social entrepreneurs are now exploring the use of drone technology to quickly deliver crucial medical supplies to hard-to-reach areas in times of crisis.

Klein founded InnovateHealth Yale (IHY), a program at the Yale School of Public Health that promotes student-led ventures addressing health and educational problems. Created five years ago, IHY sponsors the Thorne Prize, which awards $25,000 to the best student-led project each year, as well as the two-year-old Aetna Prize, which also awards $25,000 to a student team. 

A panel discussion on Yale as a laboratory for social change drilled deeper, exploring some of the challenges faced by start ups, as well as how to maneuver in diverse and resource-poor settings.

The four-member panel featured Duncan Maru, Ph.D. ’08, M.D. ‘09, co-founder of Possible, a non-profit health care provider in Nepal; Aly Moore, BA ’14, founder of Eat Bugs Events; Cass Walker-Harvey, program director for Yale TSAI CITY and Center for Business and the Environment; and Preethi Venkat, M.P.H. ’16, chief research officer for Khushi Baby. Onyeka “Ony” Obiocha, director of innovation at Yale’s Dwight Hall, moderated.

Walker-Harvey described how Yale TSAI CITY, which launched less than a year ago, is trying to make Yale into a hub for entrepreneurship and collaboration for undergraduate and graduate students. It is doing this by encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration, diversity, risk taking and resilience and, finally, by urging students to take action.

Moore’s start-up promotes the human consumption of insects—mealworms, ants, crickets and scorpions, among others—to lessen environmental impact and improve sustainability.

Moore told the gathering that she was exposed to ideas of unity and collaboration during her time at Yale, a mindset that prepared her for life as a social entrepreneur. She now uses advertising, marketing and the power of narrative to introduce new ideas to people at large. She compared the reaction that people have today to eating insects to the way sushi was viewed decades ago. Attitudes have shifted and today, sushi is trendy. Many people have a negative response to the idea of eating scorpions, but Moore describes them as “little lobsters,” delicious with a dash of salt and olive oil.

“It’s about getting people comfortable with change,” Moore said. 

Venkat described the lengths to which Khushi Baby has gone to ensure that their device, a necklace with a digital chip that is worn by expecting mothers and newborns to store their vaccination and health records, was well received. They test marketed bracelets, anklets and necklaces and considered the color scheme and other factors. They also interviewed potential users and received their direct feedback. Cultural sensitivity is essential in the process. 

As to what advice they would give to a new start-up, Moore said she would urge people to look at things from multiple perspectives, to travel and to talk with people with varying viewpoints and backgrounds. 

Harvey-Walker urged social entrepreneurs to listen and be empathetic. “We are in a really divided time in our world right now,” she said.

Two groups of Yale students with their own start-ups outlined their nascent programs for alumni, generating a host of questions and many offers of direct and indirect assistance.

One group, RAMP (Resource Access Mapping Project), is creating an app that will connect New Haven residents with the array of resources and social services that are available, whether it is medical care, shelter, food or transportation. The idea was born after a refugee family arrived in the city and could not find the medical care it needed. 

The other, Penta, is developing affordable prosthetic devices that it will make available in Vietnam and eventually to markets in other countries. They are working with directly with the Ministry of Health in Vietnam. 

Alumni then tried their hand at addressing complex health problems, breaking into groups for intense discussions on issues ranging from women’s health to the health challenges faced by large numbers of Syrian refugees living in neighboring Lebanon. 

Attention then turned to three alumni who were recognized for outstanding professional achievements and contributions to public health. They include:

  • Duncan Maru received the Award for Excellence for his ongoing work to improve health outcomes in some of the most remote areas of Nepal.  
  • Khadija Gurnah, M.P.H. ’09, received the EMAC Special Award in Health Disparities for her work to improve health outcomes among immigrant and underserved communities. 
  • Marna Borgstrom, M.P.H. ’79, received the Distinguished Alumni Award for her 37-year career at Yale-New Haven Hospital. Borgstrom is now CEO of both the hospital and Yale-New Haven Health. 

Borgstrom said great mentors at the School of Public Health, along with numerous opportunities at the school and a network of peers that she met as a student and who continue to be an important resource, have helped make her career possible.  

“The Yale School of Public Health is a constant presence in my career,” she said. “I got here with a public health background.” 

Borgstrom said that while there have been many successes in improving health outcomes, Connecticut continues to struggle with poverty and the health care needs in the state’s bigger cities are particularly acute.

“The communities that we serve are also the communities that we live in,” she said. 

Dean Vermund briefly updated alumni on some of the initiatives underway at the school, including a curriculum rebuild, the first in 22 years; the creation of a research committee to help the best projects get funding; and new partnerships that are being forged between the School of Public Health and Yale’s other professional schools. 

Efforts to further increase diversity school wide are also underway, and there has been a surge in the number of students entering the school, setting new enrollment records for the 103-year-old institution. Additionally, the school is moving into online education with an 18-week certificate program in climate change and health that debuts this fall. 

The day closed with interactive displays from Khushi Baby and PremieBreathe, a low-cost respirator for prematurely born babies, and a bug tasting hosted by Moore, complete with locusts, ants, grubs, grasshoppers and Thai waterbugs. Dean Vermund and others sampled the insect buffet

“Eating bugs is not the only solution we have to feed our growing population with sustainable, nutritious food. But it certainly is the most provocative,” said Moore. “And it opens up a larger dialogue about how what we eat impacts our bodies and the environment.”

Submitted by Elisabeth Reitman on June 08, 2018