West Virginia University School of Public Health students recently had the opportunity to join their peers and health experts from across the country to share ideas and solutions for our nation’s most pressing health issues.

The Future of Health Summit 2018, held in Washington, D.C., last month, is one in a series of national and global events hosted by the Milken Institute’s Center for Public Health, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank dedicated to finding solutions to complex public health challenges. The students attended the summit and presented their work as participants in the Institute’s Future Health Leaders Pilot Program.

Ksheeraja Sriram
Ksheeraja Sriram

As part of the program, WVU students Ksheeraja Sriram, Carly Jansure and Kathleen Cranmer – along with their peers from Brown University, University of Pittsburgh and George Washington University – have been focused on designing interventions and effective solutions to complex issues, including mental health and opioid abuse.

Jansure said the entire experience is providing realistic professional experience.

“Collaboration, new ideas and constant communication are very prevalent within public health, she said. “Being able to take part in that communication and collaboration really gives you an idea of how this career path can look. I was able to gain invaluable real-world experience.”

The student teams were assigned two organizations with whom they partnered on specific community-impact projects: the Born This Way Foundation and Drug Enforcement Administration.

“For the Born This Way Foundation, our objective was to design an intervention concept that would generate a kinder environment for youth within high schools,” Jansure said.

The Born This Way Foundation, founded in 2012 by singer Lady Gaga and her mother Cynthia Germanotta, is committed to supporting the wellness of young people and empowering them to effect change.

“The WVU team developed the idea of a mental health resource toolkit containing low-cost, user-friendly strategies, trainings and activities designed for implementation in high schools,” Sriram said. “We also outlined a mixed methods study design which could be used to assess the impact of our toolkit in local high schools.”

For the second project, the students focused on the DEA 360 Strategy, a holistic approach to combating the opioid epidemic that targets specific cities and generates collaborative efforts between the community, law enforcement and diversion partnerships to reduce drug trafficking.

The students were asked to review impact reports from previous pilot cities and provide recommendations for new programs and initiatives to improve youth and community engagement in future years.

“Some of the ideas [we] proposed included creation of a youth mentorship program, partnerships with school-based extracurricular activities to provide drug education, and development of a longitudinal study to assess the long-term impacts of drug awareness education,” Sriram said.

In a private, invitation-only session, the Future Health Leaders from all four universities presented their project recommendations to the CEO of the Born This Way Foundation and the DEA’s Chief of Community Outreach, among others.

Sriram said one of the biggest benefits of the program has been “the forum for exchanging ideas.”

“One thing that really stood out to me when we were working on our community impact projects…was the degree of variation in approaches to both our assigned projects and public health in general,” she said. “I was able to hear a lot of ideas that I would never have considered on my own, and the experience really highlighted the diversity of perspectives in the public health community.”

While at the Summit, the students also attended presentations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United Nations Foundation and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“I have found the Milken Institute’s Future of Health Summit affirming,” said Dr. Linda Alexander, senior associate dean at the WVU School of Public Health. “Our strategic focus as a School of Public Health has a core foundation built upon many of the key messages delivered at this meeting. Not only did our students participate through their critiques and recommendations to the partner organizations, but they also had a front row seat to discussions about the needs of the 21st century public health workforce.”