A gap year becomes a deep dive into COVID-19

As someone who has always been interested in infectious diseases and outbreak response, the stars ironically aligned for me in 2020. I spent a lot of time as an undergraduate at UCLA working in an infectious disease diagnostics lab, and after that experience I knew I wanted to take a gap year to get an MPH with a focus on infectious disease before applying to medical school: I knew it would be years before I chose a specialty in medicine, and I wanted hands-on experience with these diseases before making that academic commitment.

When I was researching MPH programs, I discovered the Institute for Global Health Sciences at UCSF. The MS in Global Health Sciences had the curricula I was looking for in an MPH program, as well as a capstone thesis for which I could travel and do research abroad – all in a one-year program! When I heard from former students that the faculty were engaged and actively involved in student development and success, I was sold. It was exactly how I wanted to spend my gap year: transitioning from the bench into public and community health.

I struggled a lot with the decision to pay for graduate school with the likely reality that the program would be online and the capstone project remote (which ended up being true). At the last minute, I decided to commit and move to San Francisco. Now is the time to learn from professors who are actively trying to fight the pandemic in real time. And what better way to apply what I’ve learned than through a research thesis on COVID-19?

I moved to San Francisco because I wanted to be more involved in the pandemic response and to conduct research in the field, which involved significant exposure that I did not want to bring home to my family. It was especially difficult to make this transition in the middle of a pandemic, but I have done my best to integrate myself into the community. In addition to attending classes from my apartment, I am a virtual high school tutor and a reviewer for the IGHS COVID-19 Research Watch team; I have volunteered at pop-up COVID-19 testing sites in Oakland, and I administer COVID-19 tests as an EMT at a clinic in San Francisco. It is important to me that I use the skills that I have to do my part to help the community where I live address the pandemic.

The emphasis that IGHS places on health equity and community-oriented practice is extremely valuable to me. I think this mindset is critical for anyone who plans to practice medicine (or any form of healthcare) in a community whose culture and values are not their own. Even though I won’t be traveling to South America for my capstone project, as was my initial plan, this program has taught me you don’t have to leave the country to find global health problems. You don’t even have to leave your city.

Although it was strange to start this program without meeting my classmates in person, we have developed a virtual community. We all recognize the difficulties of remote learning, and we have done our best to connect despite our physical distance from one another. We have Zoom trivia nights and happy hours, and sometimes even our professors and course assistants will drop in to say “hi.” It is clear that while the pandemic has disrupted the way we planned to spend our master’s year, we also recognize how unique we are to be in graduate school in this moment. My cohort will never forget this experience, and we can use it to motivate our global health practices for the rest of our lives.