Studying global health in a global health crisis

By Alyssa Bercasio, MS Candidate in Global Health Sciences

Earlier this week, Facebook reminded me of an event that took place exactly a year ago: a picture of my mother and I standing in our graduation regalia. I was wearing my UC Santa Cruz stole, and she was in her UCSF gown and hood. I still tear up when I see that post because she was one of the reasons I decided to pursue a master’s in global health. She pushed me to challenge myself like she challenged herself to go back to school to get a master’s in dental hygiene. Now, I am in the very place she was then, getting ready to graduate from UCSF.

I’ll have to complete my capstone project first.

My data analysis on e-cigarette or vaping-related lung injury (EVALI) has proven challenging and mentally stimulating. Back in my undergraduate days, watching my peers take ceaseless puffs of their e-cigarettes always worried me, and this led to my interest in tobacco control and e-cigarettes. Moving from my initial understanding of vaping to being immersed in research and data analysis on the topic has been an exciting journey for me. Reading interview transcripts and drawing connections between our participants’ narratives calls to mind a game of connect-the-dots where you think the end result will be a simple cat, but it turns out to be an elephant riding a bicycle, juggling various fruits. Navigating this process is getting easier with the help of my mentors. I feel blessed to have mentors and a research team so willing to answer my questions and help me develop good qualitative research skills.

EVALI can gravely impact the health of people who use e-cigarettes, but reading through the transcripts I am noticing that it impacts so much more. Our respondents talked about EVALI-related topics ranging from their perceptions of recent tobacco control policies and the tobacco industry to the influence EVALI had on their vaping behaviors, demonstrating how effects of EVALI go beyond the physiological symptoms.

Because I’m a global health master’s student, my family often turns to me for updates on the COVID-19 pandemic, and I feel obligated to provide them with the most up-to-date and accurate information. When I am not working on my capstone, I have found myself deeply involved in the COVID-19 response. Recently, I have been involved in training contact tracers, and I am constantly in awe that I am able to be part of something so critical to protecting the health of many people. Seeing Governor Gavin Newsom in the news talk about implementing contact tracing and being part of this movement is certainly amazing. I also spend time working with the COVID-19 Research Watch, reading and summarizing scientific papers. The student-run clinic I volunteer with also has had to refocus a lot of our work to accommodate social distancing, and it’s been fun to come up with innovative ways to reach our patients remotely.

Working from home and away from the UCSF community has been strange and, at times, I have felt disconnected. When I heard the news that my cohort would no longer be coming back together for graduation, I was heartbroken. We had all grown so much together over the past eight months, and I was excited to see everyone’s projects come to life. I am so deeply proud of what we have accomplished and what we will continue to achieve throughout this time and into the future. Although our graduation will not happen in person this year, I am looking forward to the day that my cohort can be together to celebrate what we have achieved and what we had to overcome.